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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Where does the Venezuelan military stand?

President Hugo Chávez said that if he can't govern, he wants Vice-President Nicolás Maduro (left) to succeed him. But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello (right), a former army officer, may have more support from the military. (Photo source: Associated Press)

On January 10, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is supposed to be in Caracas, being sworn in for a new term in office. But Chávez continues to convalesce in Havana, his condition “delicate,” in the words of Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, following another cancer operation.

With the country’s political leadership uncertain, and concerns about possible instability growing, eyes are turning to Venezuela’s armed forces. But the military’s current and potential political role is difficult to understand, especially after 14 years of rule by President Chávez.

Some of the most thoughtful analysis of the Venezuelan armed forces in the current crisis is coming from Ewald Scharfenberg, the Caracas correspondent for Spain’s El País newspaper.

Here are some excerpts from Scharfenberg’s recent writing, which I’ve found helpful in trying to understand what is happening. The first two paragraphs are from a January 3 article published in English; the rest are translated excerpts of Spanish pieces published on December 30 and January 2.

Venezuela’s military is constitutionally neutral but Chávez has packed its leadership with loyalists. The military plays an important role in running the country, particularly its oil industry. There are three members of the armed forces in the cabinet, while 11 of the 23 provinces are run by army men. Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters’ choice.

In the run-up to October’s elections, the chairman of Venezuela’s joint chiefs, General Wilmer Barrientos, said on national television that the military would “heed the constitution and respect the will of the people.”

The military’s advantage: not arms, but manpower

In any scenario, the military’s sign-off appears to be indispensable. Not so much because of its firepower, but because of the logistical and administrative control that the armed forces maintain over vital state functions. … Chavismo, as it learned during 14 years of governing, was able to give shape to an institutionality that functions: the misiones [economic assistance projects], the food distribution networks [both of which relied on military participation]. …

If the military sector wants to influence Venezuela’s political drift, it won’t have to do it in a high-profile way, through a classic pronouncement. It would be enough to put that [logistical and administrative] apparatus at the disposal of one of the succession candidates, while denying it to the other. This is the trophy that, along with the mythology of comandante Chávez, [Vice President Nicolás] Maduro and [National Assembly President Diosdado] Cabello are disputing. If at the moment Maduro has an advantage because Chávez specifically named him as his successor, the long term could favor Cabello [a former army officer]. The majority of army officers currently commanding the troops are part of the military academy class of 1987, the same as Cabello.

A possible “Egyptian Scenario”

All that is known of the military sector is that it is an archipelago of groups united by criteria of loyalty to specific leaders, of economic convenience, and of professional and ideological principles.

There is a consensus that all those groups will be united in the event that the transition starting January 10, when Hugo Chávez is expected to be unable to present himself for his 2013-2019 swearing-in, overflows institutional capacities, and that the need to establish public order through dissuasion or force thus demands esprit de corps.

But that would be the nightmare scenario. In general, the officer corps prefers to avoid open interventions. Since February 27, 1989 [a day of violent protests and rioting in Caracas], on the occasions in which it has been obligated to carry out repressive functions, the cost for the institution has been high, in terms of cracks in internal discipline and of judicial cases opened against soldiers who then feel abandoned by the civilian politicians who ordered them. In addition, such exposure would place the military under the scrutiny of the international community, which has enough cases of illicit activities and human rights violations at its disposal to pressure some key officers.

So the role that the armed forces would be expected to play would be a type of “Egyptian scenario,” in which the officers, behind the scenes, would define the “red lines” up to which indefinition and disorder can be tolerated. The armed forces’ watchful tutelage, amid a constitutional transition of power, would require it to reorder itself internally to figure out who among them would be the leading voice for its supervisory role.

Factions within the officer corps

Who are the contenders? It is certain that the factions most likely to represent military opinion during the crisis maintain their loyalty to the Bolivarian [pro-Chávez] process, whether because of political conviction or because of a more abstract loyalty to the letter of the constitution. Nonetheless, nuances can be discerned that set apart three groups, which in a very schematic way can be called “ideologues,” “pragmatists,” and “institutionalists.”

Of the first, the current representative is the minister of defense, Adm. Diego Molero. It is meaningful that Chávez, knowing the health situation he was facing, named him to the post last October. Why trust in Molero at such a delicate moment? Maybe because of his declared socialist convictions. According to some sources, Molero’s appointment met with resistance in the barracks. He is an officer with few professional credentials — he ranked 53rd of 56 students in his military academy graduating class — and without support among the troops. … Chávez’s illness leaves him in a position of weakness. In fact, the President only swore him in on December 10, two months after his designation, and minutes before Chávez left for Havana to be operated. Which left the leader without an opportunity to legitimize himself among his peers, above all in the Army, which resents having a naval officer commanding such a key portfolio.

Molero was an authentic surprise. Those who seemed destined to occupy the ministry were Army Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, the current chief of the Strategic Operational Command (CEO), and Gen. Carlos Alcalá Cordones, the commander of the Army. The two belong to the class of 1983 and were tied at the time to the Revolutionary Bolívarian Movement-200 (MBR-200), the internal clique that surfaced in 1992 with the coup attempt led by Chávez and three other officers. But while Alcalá Cordones is seen as an institutionalist officer, firmly attached to the parameters of military professionalism, Barrientos may be a pragmatist, of the faction more willing to wait to know which way the wind is blowing before taking a side. …

It is also expected that the eleven retired officers recently [in December] elected as state governors will play some role. In addition to the personal influence that each one may have over the rank and file, especially the generals (like ex-Ministers of Defense García Carneiro and Rangel Silva, or the Governor of Bolívar State, Rangel Gómez), they are considered connoisseurs of the ins and outs of politics, a bit of baggage that may be crucial in a scenario where bridges must be built between civilians and officers.

Another possibility that can’t be discarded is that, in the darkness of the military “black box,” another unknown leadership may be germinating, as Chávez himself was until the early hours of February 4, 1992 [when he launched his failed coup attempt].

January 10 and after

The first test of fire for the military has a date. On January 10, the new president must be sworn in. Despite the official secrecy about the president-elect’s health, it is expected that Chávez won’t be there. In political gossip some expect an agreement to declare the president’s temporary absence, which would open a space of 90 days, renewable once, so that Chávez can assume the post or, if he is ultimately absent, so that new elections can be convened.

Some doubts about this procedure remain. … But all must transpire in peace: if uncertainty gives way to disorder in the streets, the military may see itself as obligated to intervene.

This possibility, feared by all, could cause fractures within the military rank and file, as happened in April 2002 during the brief coup that removed Chávez from power for 47 hours. “Among the officers are different groups who aren’t necessarily in contact with each other, or share the same interests,” warns the expert Rocío San Miguel [of the NGO Control Ciudadano.]

The other great unknown is the Bolivarian Militia. With 120,000 members, light weaponry and poor organization, it is not a rival to any professional security force. But it was constituted by mandate of President Chávez, and it sees itself as a praetorian guard of the [Bolivarian] process. Tied to the most extreme Chavistas, it may be able to prevail in a conflict. But these are questions that nobody wants to see answered: the constitutional order is preferred by both civilians and soldiers.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Paraguay, six months later

Site of the June 15 confrontation in Curuguaty, Paraguay (source: CODEHUPY).

December 22, 2012 marked six months since Paraguay’s Congress, acting with remarkable haste, voted to impeach the country’s elected president, Fernando Lugo, who was in his last year in office. The incident that triggered the vote was a violent confrontation between campesino land squatters and police in Curuguaty, which left 17 people dead on June 15th.

Six months later, Paraguay’s neighbors continue to question President Lugo’s rapid expulsion. The country remains suspended from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc, and from the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) economic bloc.

The Curuguaty episode of June 15th, meanwhile, remains unresolved. While both sides — landless peasants and police — acted violently, so far charges have only been filed against the peasants.

In its year-end report, the National Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay (CODEHUPY), an umbrella group of 26 organizations, discusses what has happened. Here are translated excerpts:

Like a bolt of lightning on a clear day, on the morning of June 15 came the confrontation in Curuguaty — which even today remains confused — that cost the lives of 11 peasants and six policemen. The episode took place on lands in dispute known as Marina Cue. The land had been fraudulently appropriated years before [during the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner] by Blas N. Riquelme, a businessman, ex-congressman and ex-president of the [long-ruling, but opposition in June] Colorado Party, and had been occupied for about a month by peasants who requested that the National Institute of Rural Development and Land designate the property for land reform.

An independent investigation carried out by CODEHUPY revealed that there was no proportional use of force in the repression. In that investigation, credible eyewitnesses said that at least two peasants, Adolfo Castro and Andrés Avelino Riveros, were executed by police agents when they had surrendered with their hands up. The accounts affirm that Adolfo Castro was holding his young son when police shot him in the head.

Other testimonies contend that several peasants wounded during the repression were executed afterward by police agents, after the shots had already ceased and the security forces already controlled the site.

The first accounts of the confrontation caused shock and commotion in public opinion. While there had been a long prior history of violence and repression against peasants fighting for land, never before in recent history had the country seen a situation with so many dead.

The pain was followed by a search for whom to blame. But neither the government — taken by surprise — nor the press had precise information about how and why the Curuguaty massacre had happened, leading to a wide variety of claims about who shot first. At first there were strong rumors about the presence in the zone of snipers from the Army of the Paraguayan People (EPP [a very small group claiming to be leftist guerrillas]), but that version was discarded during initial investigations.

Opposition political parties took advantage of citizens’ confusion and indignation to accuse [then-President] Fernando Lugo, once again, of encouraging violence in the countryside. They were supported in this campaign by much of the written and broadcast media hostile to the government.

The possibility of impeachment began to be mentioned. The country was only nine months away from its next general election, and there was no evidence that the government had encouraged peasant violence.

On June 21 and 22, 2012, the Paraguayan Congress carried out the impeachment, which was questioned in its impartiality, objectivity, as well as in its respect for the principle of due process. Its result was the removal of President Fernando Lugo Méndez, who was democratically elected on April 20, 2008.

Since then, the criminal investigation of what happened at Curuguaty has developed in a most troubling way. At least 13 campesinos were detained at the site of the incident, and held without charge until December. Several of those arrested went on a hunger strike to protest their long imprisonment.

Prosecutors had six months to put together a case. On December 14th, the government’s prosecutor issued charges of land invasion and murder against fourteen campesinos. A judge will review these charges in February.

No police agents are under investigation, much less facing trial, a situation that Amnesty International calls “shocking,” since “according to reports, during the confrontation there were more than 300 officers, many of them with firearms, as opposed to only around 90 peasants.”

In early December, a key possible witness in the campesinos’ defense was killed. Vidal Vega, a local peasant leader who was not present at the Curuguaty massacre, was shot four times by hitmen on a motorcycle. “Vega was expected to be a witness at the criminal trial,” reported the Associated Press, “since he was among the few leaders who weren’t killed in the clash or jailed afterward.”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Latin America "long reads" from 2012

Here is a collection of “long-read” articles I found to be especially noteworthy in 2012. In addition to being engrossing reading, these all met the following criteria.

  • They are about Latin America and the Caribbean, and usually about security.
  • They are at least 3,000 words, thus qualifying them as “long reads” – often requiring more than one sitting to finish them, but not book length.
  • They are written in a clear, journalistic style – not academic prose.
  • As of today, all are available for free online.
  • They are written by authors other than staff of the three organizations that make up the “Just the Facts” project (CIP, LAWG and WOLA). Our organizations’ 2012 “long reads” are listed separately at the end of this post.

This comes from a scan of my database and my own memory. If I missed anything big, let me know in the comments. Happy reading (although some of these articles are quite grim), and best wishes for the holiday.

– Adam Isacson, WOLA

January 2012, Colombia:Las FARC: La guerra que el país no quiere ver (Starts on page 36)”
Ariel Ávila
Arcanos (Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, Colombia)
A look at how the FARC have adapted to the Colombian government’s 10-year-long offensive, arguing that they still remain “lethal to the Armed Forces and the civilian population.”

January 2012, Colombia:Fighting the Last War
Elizabeth Dickinson
The Washington Monthly
“As president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe triumphed over a fierce narco-insurgency. Then the U.S. helped to export his strategy to Mexico and throughout Latin America. Here’s why it’s not working.”

January 12, 2012, Guatemala:Breaking the wave: critical steps in the fight against crime in Guatemala
Ivan Briscoe, Marlies Stappers
Clingendael Institute (Netherlands), Impunity Watch
A thorough review and diagnosis of Guatemala’s halting efforts to reform its public security and judicial institutions, including the work of CICIG, the UN anti-impunity body.

January 13, 2012, Ecuador:Reversal of Fortune
Patrick Radden Keefe
The New Yorker
A somewhat critical profile of Steven Donziger, the lead U.S. lawyer in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against oil giant Chevron brought by Ecuadorian communities affected by severe pollution.

January 25, 2012, Peru:The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush
Donovan Webster
Smithsonian
A likely future zone of social conflict is Madre de Dios state in Peru’s Amazon basin, where a bonanza of uncontrolled gold mining is devastating the environment.

April 9, 2012, El Salvador:12 preguntas urgentes acerca del pacto con las pandillas
El Faro (El Salvador)
The online publication that broke the story about a government-brokered pact between El Salvador’s principal gangs asks twelve questions about the secretive deal. Many remain unanswered months later, even as homicide rates plummet.

April 16, 2012, Brazil:Special Report: Brazil’s “gringo” problem: its borders
Brian Winter
Reuters
Reuters looks at Brazil’s changing approach to border security and international drug flows, which increasingly resembles the old-school, military-heavy, U.S. “drug war” model.

April 23, 2012, Mexico:Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart After Top-Level Struggle
David Barstow, Alejandra Xanic Von Bertrab, James C. McKinley
The New York Times
December 18, 2012, Mexico:The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Used Payoffs to Get Its Way in Mexico
David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic Von Bertrab
The New York Times
A remarkable series on Wal-Mart’s shameless activities in Mexico: “Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited.”

May 1, 2012, Colombia:“We are Illegal, but not Illegitimate.” Modes of Policing in Medellin, Colombia
Aldo Civico
Political and Legal Anthropology Review
Medellín as an example of a place where organized crime isn’t filling the vacuums left by the government’s absence – it actually requires the government’s collusion in order to thrive.

May 1, 2012, Mexico:The Deadliest Place in Mexico
Melissa Del Bosque
The Texas Observer
A visit to the Juárez valley, east of Ciudad Juárez, which has been devastated by violent competition between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels.

May 21, 2012, Cuba:The Yankee Comandante
David Grann
The New Yorker
A profile of William Morgan, an American who fought in Fidel Castro’s rebel army in the 1950s, only to be imprisoned and shot by a firing squad in 1961.

May 25, 2012, Guatemala:Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala
Sebastian Rotella, Ana Arana
ProPublica
A man in Massachusetts finds out that, as a small boy, he survived Guatemala’s notorious Dos Erres massacre, from where he was abducted.

June 1, 2012, Mexico:Cronica de la cartelizacion
Natalia Mendoza Rockwell
Nexos (Mexico)
A look at El Altar, Sonora, a staging area for drugs and migrants south of Arizona, where independent smugglers have fallen violently under the control of organized crime.

June 13, 2012, Mexico:A Drug Family in the Winner’s Circle
Ginger Thompson
The New York Times
An investigation of how the Treviño family, part of the leadership of Mexico’s Zetas criminal organization, laundered money through horse-breeding in the United States. This episode, some speculate, may have fostered a violent split within the Zetas when the amount of money involved was revealed.

June 15, 2012, Mexico:Cocaine Incorporated
Patrick Radden Keefe
The New York Times Magazine
An exploration of what we know about the Sinaloa cartel and how it operates, both in Mexico and the United States.

June 25, 2012, Mexico:The Kingpins
William Finnegan
The New Yorker
“‘Heating up the plaza’ is the term of art for what’s happening in Guadalajara, mainly in the poor barrios and in the badlands on the outskirts.”

June 28, 2012, Mexico:The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal
Katherine Eban
Fortune
If you want to know what really went wrong with “Fast and Furious,” read this. “The ATF never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. How the world came to believe just the opposite is a tale of rivalry, murder, and political bloodlust.”

July 17, 2012, Peru:Sendero Luminoso y el narcotrafico en el VRAE
Romina Mella
IDL Reporteros (Peru)
First of an eight-part series exploring who the “narcos” are in today’s Peru, which appears to be surpassing Colombia as the world’s largest cocaine producer.

July 17, 2012, Venezuela:Tightening the Grip
Human Rights Watch
Documenting the erosion of judicial independence, limits on press freedom, and pressure on human rights defenders in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.

July 30, 2012, Mexico:Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico
Catherine Daly, Kimberly Heinle, and David A. Shirk
Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego
The authors dig through the data about human rights complaints against Mexico’s military, which has been called to help fight crime, highlighting trends and calling for more determined action to bring abuses to justice.

August 1, 2012, Entire Region:Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in the Americas: Major Trends in the Twenty-First Century
Bruce Bagley
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Taking the pulse of anti-drug policies, and their latest unintended consequences, throughout the hemisphere.

August 21, 2012, Colombia:Impunity: Has implementation of the accusatory legal system been an effective response to the fight against impunity in Colombia?
U.S. Office on Colombia
A highly critical view of Colombia’s U.S.-aided shift to an oral, accusatorial justice system, contending that it has harmed “due process and access to justice, particularly for grave human rights violations.”

August 29, 2012, Venezuela:Venezuela’s private media wither under Chavez assault
Monica Campbell
Committee To Protect Journalists
“The Chavez administration has used an array of legislation, threats, and regulatory measures to gradually break down Venezuela’s independent press while building up a state media empire.”

September 25, 2012, Colombia:Colombia: Peace at Last?
International Crisis Group
A thorough overview of why moderate optimism about Colombia’s FARC peace talks is warranted, and what the main actors need to do.

September 30, 2012, Entire Region:The Mafia’s Shadow in the Americas: Modern Slavery and Refugees
InsightCrime.org, Animal Político (Mexico), Plaza Pública (Guatemala), El Faro (El Salvador), Verdad Abierta (Colombia)
A remarkable series about how organized crime groups are, for all intents and purposes, enslaving people throughout the region, whether through forced child recruits, sex trafficking, forced labor and other means.

October 9, 2012, Mexico:Deadly crossing: Death toll rises among those desperate for the American Dream
Hannah Rappleye, Lisa Riordan Seville
NBC News
A report about the alarmingly sharp rise in deaths of migrants passing through rural south Texas.

October 11, 2012, Mexico:El nuevo mapa del narcotrafico en Mexico
BBC Mundo
Animal Político
An overview of “who is who” in Mexico’s principal organized crime groups.

October 12, 2012, Honduras:U.S. Rethinks a Drug War After Deaths in Honduras
Damien Cave and Ginger Thompson
The New York Times
A “series of fatal enforcement actions … quickly turned the antidrug cooperation, often promoted as a model of international teamwork, into a case study of what can go wrong.”

October 22, 2012, Chile:El dominio del narco en las poblaciones más vulnerables de Santiago
Tabatha Guerra y Juan Pablo Figueroa
CIPER Chile
A surprising 83 urban neighborhoods in Chile are beset by gang violence. “Without basic services or police presence, they are at the mercy of small gangs of traffickers.”

October 25, 2012, Colombia:Colombia: Letter to President Santos Criticizing the Expansion of Military Jurisdiction
Jose Miguel Vivanco
Human Rights Watch
Lays out the arguments against the Colombian government’s controversial weakening of its civilian court system’s ability to investigate and punish military human rights abuses. “Colombia’s military justice system is an example of impunity—not accountability—for atrocities.”

November 1, 2012, Mexico, Central America:Transnational Crime in Mexico and Central America: its Evolution and Role in International Migration
Steven Dudley
Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and Migration Policy Institute
“The rise of organized crime in Mexico and the Northern Triangle has dramatically increased the risks that migrants face as they attempt to cross the region.”

November 2, 2012, Brazil:Rio: the fight for the favelas
Misha Glenny
The Financial Times (UK)
A balanced look at the present state of Rio de Janeiro’s ambitious “favela pacification program.”

November 14, 2012, Mexico:Mexico: Risking Life for Truth
Alma Guillermoprieto
The New York Review Of Books
Mexican journalists facing threats – and worse – from organized crime, and getting no help from ineffective government institutions.

December 3, 2012, Colombia:Delincuencia en Colombia: bandas desbandadas
Semana (Colombia)
A region-by-region overview of the new landscape of organized crime and narcotrafficking in Colombia, following the demobilization of paramilitaries and the takedowns of many successor groups’ leaders. A hint of what awaits Colombia even if talks with the FARC succeed.

December 3, 2012, Mexico:La estrategia fallida
Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez
Nexos (Mexico)
The security specialist digs through Mexico’s crime statistics and finds four strategic errors committed by the Calderón government (2006-2012).

December 7, 2012, Mexico:The New Border: Illegal Immigration’s Shifting Frontier
Sebastian Rotella
ProPublica
“Although Mexicans remain the largest group, U.S.-bound migrants today are increasingly likely to be young Central Americans fleeing violence as well as poverty, or migrants from remote locales such as India and Africa.”

December 11, 2012, Guatemala:Los huesos que buscan su nombre
Sebastian Escalon
Plaza Pública (Guatemala)
Forensic anthropologists continue to uncover the horrors of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war, in order to provide evidence for the first prosecutions of military personnel.

December 14, 2012, Nicaragua:Security in Nicaragua: Central America’s Exception?
Roberto Cajina
Inter-American Dialogue
A look at why Nicaragua has largely avoided the violent crime wave that has swept over northern Central America. The country’s police force is a big reason, but politicization and Caribbean narco activity pose big threats.

December 16, 2012, Mexico:The Zetas and Monterrey
Steven Dudley
InsightCrime.org
A 3-part series about the bloody battle for Mexico’s third-largest, and wealthiest, city. “How and why the Zetas settled in Monterrey goes a long way toward explaining who they are and how they operate.”

“Long reads” from Just the Facts project participant organizations

Center for International Policy:

Latin America Working Group Education Fund:

Washington Office on Latin America:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Trainee data, charted

Here are the countries of origin of U.S. military and police trainees from Latin America and the Caribbean since 1999, according to the past 13 years’ State-Defense Department Foreign Military Training Reports.

The table for this data is here.

As is evident, Colombia continues to contribute the most trainees. Training appears to have declined somewhat lately; this may be due to reduced U.S. resources, but it may just be the result of incomplete reporting of the training that occurs. The recently released 2011 Foreign Military Training Report, for instance, comprises three volumes, two of which are classified.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: October 8, 2012

The results of Venezuela's elections are in. The U.S. Defense Department publishes a hemisphere policy statement. Pressure mounts to release Alberto Fujimori from prison.

(Note: this podcast has minor sound quality issues, as it was recorded in a hotel room in Uruguay.)

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Colombia moves again to weaken civilian jurisdiction over military human rights crimes

New bill text posted to Colombia's Congressional Record shows human rights crimes that, stricken from the law, could automatically go to the military court system.

Colombia’s Congress is moving quickly this week to weaken the civilian court system’s ability to try and punish human rights violations committed by the country’s armed forces.

A current draft of constitutional reform legislation to reform military justice would send all but the most absolutely severe human rights cases to the military court system, which has a long history of failing to punish such crimes.

The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports today:

The sponsors of the initiative – which has seen few obstacles in its legislative course – propose to eliminate the list of crimes for which military personnel would be judged in the civilian jurisdiction instead of military tribunals.

The only crimes for which uniformed personnel would face civilian justice would be crimes against humanity, genocide and forced disappearances.

The law’s new draft cuts out the following crimes that appeared in earlier versions: “torture, extradjudicial execution, forced displacement, rape and sexual abuse, acts of terror against the civilian population, and recruitment or use of minors.” If the legislation passes in this form, these crimes would now go automatically to the military justice system.

Last fall, amid officers’ calls for greater “judicial security” against civilian human rights investigations, the government of Juan Manuel Santos proposed a legislative provision that would have sent all alleged abuse cases first to the military justice system. The Santos government withdrew that provision in April, in the face of pressure from human rights defenders and warnings from Washington that, due to requirements in U.S. foreign aid law, sending human rights crimes to the military system could trigger a freeze on some military assistance.

It then introduced new legislation – the current constitutional reform – that until this week was worded to include a list of crimes that would go to civilian jurisdiction. This list, which human rights groups derided as incomplete, has now been cut back drastically.

While less sweeping than last year’s attempt, this bill would still represent a giant step backward in human rights defenders’ 15-year struggle to get abuse cases out of the military court system, where impunity has long been the expected outcome.

It is happening quickly, prodded along by conservative legislators and approved by a majority who do not want to be seen as tying the military’s hands. And it is happening just four weeks after the State Department certified that Colombia is meeting human rights conditions in foreign aid law, thus freeing up aid and reducing U.S. leverage on human rights for as much as a year.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: September 7, 2012

Peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC are now official. Mexico's presidential transition moves ahead, with only modest changes foreseen on security. Honduran media reports indicate friction over shootdowns of suspected drug planes.

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Podcast: The Week Ahead: August 31, 2012

Peace talks with the FARC guerrillas appear to be restarting in Colombia. In a strange incident, Mexican federal police fire on a car carrying CIA employees. 200 U.S. Marines are carrying out a counter-drug operation in Guatemala.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Prospects for renewed peace talks in Colombia

Yesterday in Colombia, news leaked – and then President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed – that the Colombian government has been quietly holding talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), about how to end nearly 50 years of fighting. This would be the first significant attempt at government-guerrilla dialogue in ten years.

What appears to be happening

In statements corroborated by other news reports, journalist Jorge Enrique Botero revealed that since May, Colombian government and FARC representatives have held exploratory talks in Havana, facilitated by Cuba, Venezuela and Norway. The two sides reportedly agreed Monday to begin a more formal negotiation process, which could begin in Oslo, Norway, in October.

No DMZ: With this agreement to hold talks outside of Colombia, the FARC may have dropped a longtime pre-condition that any dialogues take place in Colombian territory, in an area cleared of military and police presence. This demand for a demilitarized zone, which the Colombian government agreed to during a failed 1998–2002 peace process, made that process unpopular inside Colombia and has been a big obstacle to any initiation of new talks.

Negotiating team: According to news reports, the Colombian government has been represented in these talks by President Santos’s national security advisor, Sergio Jaramillo, a former vice-minister of defense; the environment minister, Frank Pearl, a former director of the government’s program for demobilizing ex-combatants; and the President’s brother, Enrique Santos, a former editor-in-chief of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper. According to the same news reports, the FARC’s representatives in the talks are Jaime Alberto Parra, alias Mauricio Jaramillo or “El Médico,” a member of the guerrillas’ seven-person Secretariat; Rodrigo Granda, often referred to as the FARC’s “foreign minister,” Luis Alberto Albán, alias “Marcos Calarcá,” who ran the FARC’s international office in Mexico until its 2002 closure; and Jesús Emilio Carvajalino, alias “Andres París,” the guerrillas’ chief spokesman during the 1998–2002 peace talks. It is encouraging to see both sides represented at such a high level. The ultimate success of more “formal” negotiations, however, would require a more diverse negotiating team. Particularly important are a better gender balance and the participation of a retired military officer.

In the public eye: Yesterday’s news, much of which awaits confirmation and clarification, is encouraging for all who wish to see Colombia’s long conflict come to an end. It may not be positive, though, that the talks’ existence has been made public now. In secret, negotiators can cover a lot of ground and complete badly needed preparatory work before the larger national debate begins. If preparations for more formal dialogues are not yet complete, though, the process is now in greater danger. Would-be spoilers will have much more time to sharpen their knives and derail an immature process. Public expectations, in particular for quick results, will begin to mount. And sensitive, unresolved issues about the talks simply cannot be dealt with on camera and before microphones.

Why now?

Until this week, it was widely rumored that the Santos government had been maintaining quiet contacts with the FARC. A common opinion in Colombia, however, held that President Santos would move slowly while applying military pressure on the guerrillas, with talks unlikely before 2013. There are several reasons, though, why talks could be possible now:

  • Both sides are approaching a “hurting stalemate,” in which neither feels victory is imminent and the cost of continued fighting may be greater than the cost of negotiating. Since the last peace process ended in 2002, the FARC has lost territory, membership and strategic initiative, and lost several top leaders. However, an increase in guerrilla activity since about 2008 has fed perceptions in Colombia that security is deteriorating, and undone optimism about the conflict entering a “home stretch.”

  • In part because of security perceptions, President Santos’s approval ratings have declined recently, making his 2014 re-election less certain and perhaps pushing up his timetable for starting talks.

  • The rise in prices of commodities like oil and minerals has led President Santos to refer to extractive industries as a “locomotive of the economy.” However, many potential natural resource reserves are in remote, historically neglected areas under guerrilla control. The Santos government may be calculating that a negotiation to demobilize the FARC offers the quickest path to access these suddenly valuable areas.

Cease of hostilities?

Early in his term, President Santos made clear his primary pre-condition for any negotiations with armed groups: before formal talks can start, any group must first declare a cessation of hostilities. No more attacks on military, civilian or economic targets; no more kidnappings or extortions; no more sowing of landmines or recruitment of minors.

It is not clear from President Santos’s statement (“Over the next few days the results of discussions with the FARC will be made known”) whether the guerrillas will agree to cease hostilities before talks begin. If they do so – even partially – President Santos will be in a strong position. Colombian public opinion, which has been only tepidly supportive of renewed talks, will be quite favorable if the start of dialogues means a pause in FARC offensive activity.

If “formal” dialogues start with no cessation of hostilities, however, public support will be far weaker. Critics of negotiations, among them ex-President Álvaro Uribe, will relentlessly criticize the idea of negotiating amid fighting, and will send pointed messages to the active-duty officer corps about the effect this has on “military morale.”

If fighting and other hostilities continue during talks, as they did during the 1998–2002 process, success will be far harder to attain. Actions on a hot battlefield, especially attacks on civilians, can do enormous damage at the negotiating table. In addition, the desire to show strength at the table gives both sides a big incentive to escalate on the battlefield.

Whether with or without a cessation of hostilities, though, talks are worth pursuing and we wish for the swiftest possible success. Congratulations are due to the Santos government for seizing this opportunity to end one of the world’s oldest internal conflicts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Freeing up, and redirecting, aid to the Honduran National Police

Honduran National Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla being sworn into office in May.

Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. government had decided to withhold some aid to Honduras’s National Police. The partial freeze owed to concerns about the force’s chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, who stands accused of involvement in death-squad activity during the 1990s.

The U.S. government is withholding funds to Honduran law enforcement units directly supervised by their new national police chief until the U.S. can investigate allegations that he ran a death squad a decade ago, according to a State Department report released this week.

That report is here [PDF]. The State Department produced it in order to comply with a requirement in the 2012 foreign aid budget law. Section 7045(d) of that law freezes 20 percent of aid to Honduras’s military and police until the State Department certifies that its human rights record is improving (more specifically, that it is supporting freedom of expression and prosecuting abuses in civilian courts).

Last week’s report is this certification, which frees up the 20 percent of aid that had been “on hold” all year. Its text makes clear that no aid to the Honduran National Police is in fact being frozen. It is being redirected.

The Department is aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla’s service a decade ago, and has established a working group to examine thoroughly the allegations against him to ensure compliance with the Leahy Law. While this review is ongoing, we are carefully limiting assistance to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Leahy-vetted Honduran personnel who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement, and are not under Bonilla’s direct supervision.

We are not yet clear how police units can be within a National Police commanded by Bonilla without being under his direct supervision, but will post an explanation when we get one.