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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Still a Dream: Land Restitution on Colombia's Caribbean Coast

As Colombia moves forward with a peace process, the government's ability to deliver on restitution and reparations to victims is crucial for construction of a just and lasting peace. Lutheran World Relief and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, along with our partner Agenda Caribe, toured the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the provinces of Sucre, Bolívar and Córdoba, in June 2012 to investigate whether displaced communities are starting to be able to return to their land and whether the Colombian government's landmark initiative, the Victims' and Land Restitution Law, has gotten off the ground. This law aims to provide reparations to victims of the conflict and land restitution or compensation for some of the more than 5 million people who were displaced by violence. It has generated enthusiasm in the international community and raised hopes among survivors of violence in Colombia's brutal, decades-old conflict. See our full report, Still a Dream: Land Restitution on Colombia's Caribbean Coast [PDF].

Despite the shining promises of the Victims' Law, we found that land restitution has not begun on the Caribbean coast, except for cases in which brave and organized displaced communities decided to return on their own. As of June 2012, a year after the law's passage, no land has yet been restituted via the Victims' Law, according to USAID. Although the Colombian government estimates 360,000 families were forced off their lands, only 15,208 land claims nationwide as of June had been filed under the Victims' Law, and none had yet been ruled upon by a judge.

It is important to recognize that the Colombian government has made some progress in the last year in titling land for campesinos and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that are not currently displaced. As we learned in our investigation, this is a critical step to help prevent further displacement. But the harder task of removing illegal occupiers and supporting returning communities is yet to come.

In interviews with local government officials, human rights groups, displaced communities and campesino associations, we found that land restitution faces enormous obstacles. It was encouraging to see that some local officials view the Victims' Law as a tool for addressing injustices and are grappling with how best to use it for that purpose. However, we found that:

  • local governments are receiving little orientation from the national government regarding how to implement the Victims' Law;
  • local governments are so far receiving few additional resources for implementing the law;
  • the Victims' Law and its implementing institutions are perceived as replacing the existing institutions serving the displaced. A system barely beginning to function is being scrapped and replaced with yet another; and that under-resourced programs for internally displaced persons now have to be broadened to serve additional kinds of victims without necessarily having greater resources;
  • interpretation of "who is a victim" is crucial; there is a risk that some local authorities can stack Transitional Justice Committees and Victims Roundtables to avoid authentic victims' representation and thus fail to address the needs of the full range of victims;
  • there is a temptation for the government and international community to emphasize symbolic acts of reparation in ways that are neither meaningful to victims nor do much to address the broad community of victims; and
  • there is a concerning lack of legal assistance to victims to help them defend their rights and access restitution and reparations.

The most serious obstacle, however, is that victims are not being provided with the protection necessary to be able to reclaim lands. More than 25 land rights leaders have been killed since the Santos Administration took office in August 2010. Without real protection, even the very institutions intended to return land to victims can become generators of new dangers and new displacements. For example, we heard concerns that victims who presented information or requests to Transitional Justice Committees then received new threats.

We also found that displacement is hardly a problem of the past. On the Caribbean Coast, there is still a ferocious reverse land reform that is occurring right now, today: mining, cement, lumber, teak and palm companies, large-scale farmers and ranchers, hotels, and other land purchasers are continuing to buy up or take over land, using means both legal and illegal, including the use of illegal armed groups to threaten, abuse and kill community leaders. This report provides recommendations about how to improve the still very weak implementation of the Victims' Law. However, it is equally urgent for the Colombian government to increase its efforts to provide secure titles and protection to campesinos and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities who are not currently displaced and have lived on land for decades or centuries without title, and to provide protection for communities with title that are still under assault, to prevent the "reverse land reform" that is ripping like a tropical storm through the Caribbean coast—and many other areas of Colombia.

The U.S. government is funding and promoting the Victims' Law. This is a worthy choice. However, it is essential to fund this initiative with open eyes, close monitoring and, especially, careful consultations with victims' associations, humanitarian agencies and human rights groups. Otherwise, U.S. funding can end up financing symbolic actions that are more publicity stunts than real reparations, line the pockets of corrupt officials, or create islands of land restitution while displacement continues to grow.

Recommendations: To the Colombian government:

  • Provide substantial orientations to municipal governments regarding the implementation of the Victims' Law, including how to ensure broad participation of victims' organizations.
  • Provide adequate resources to municipal governments and victims' attention centers to apply the Victims' Law, above and beyond the resources already available to attend to internally displaced persons.
  • Ramp up provision of legal advice to victims for land restitution and reparations via the Ombudsman's Office and local personeros.
  • Pay particular attention to the needs of women in obtaining land restitution, titling, and reparations.
  • Greatly expand the titling of land occupied by campesino families and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, which have been on land for decades, but do not have title.
  • Monitor land restitution units, judges, notaries and Transitional Justice Committees to ensure that they are not being coopted by those who benefitted from stolen land, and sanction corrupt officials. Enforce sanctions on landowners and companies that are using coercive or other illegal means to expand landholdings.
  • Provide protection to communities at risk of displacement, designing local protection plans in close consultation with communities. (For a description of what effective protection looks like, click here.)

To the U.S. government:

  • Condition assistance for the Victims' Law on greatly improved actions to protect returned and returning communities and land rights leaders, with protection plans created with full participation of the affected communities.
  • Provide assistance for protection programs for communities and land titling as part of support for the Victims' Law. Provide increased legal accompaniment for victims via the Ombudsman's Office and personeros. Carefully monitor these programs with input from victims' associations and human rights groups to ensure they benefit the intended population. Fund and work with existing campesino and victims' organizations rather than creating new ones, and ensure funding unites, not divides, social movements.
  • Withhold certification on human rights conditions if the Colombian government moves to approve legislation that would result in human rights violations by military members being investigated by the military justice system.
  • Actively monitor the implementation of the Labor Action Plan, pressing for full implementation, particularly elimination of all forms of illegal subcontracting, protection of the right to organize, protection of union leaders, and prosecution of threats and attacks against union members.
  • Urge the Colombian government to take a much more vigorous approach to capturing and dismantling paramilitary successor groups. Urge careful monitoring of the situation on the Caribbean coast as paramilitary leadership is released from jail, including increased protection for victims and human rights defenders.
  • See the complete report, Still a Dream: Land Restitution on Colombia's Caribbean Coast here. Véase el informe, Aún un sueño: Restitución de tierras en la costa Caribe colombiana, aqu?.

    This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund.

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Just the Facts" Conference videos now online

On September 28, 2012, the Center for International Policy (CIP), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) held the first "Just the Facts" conference to discuss security trends in the Americas. The goal of the event, titled "Security, Civil-Military Relations, and U.S. Policy in the Americas Today," was to take the pulse of regional security at a key political moment for the United States.

The conference was made up of three panels. The first panel looked at internal or citizen security threats like organized crime, the debate about whether to confront such threats using military force, and recommendations for U.S. policy. The second panel focused on the United States, considering the Defense Department's assistance programs and coordination with diplomatic priorities in the region. The third panel discussed the state of human rights in the region today, with a focus on justice, accountability, and the efficacy of conditions in U.S. aid.

You can now watch all three panels online. On the same page, you can also find additional resources and powerpoint presentations provided by the panelists.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

CRS: Recent Trends in Arms Transfers

On August 24, 2012, the Congressional Research Service released its annual report (PDF) on conventional arms transfers to the developing world from 2004-2011. This report provides an account of the level of arms transfers by major weapons suppliers to countries in the developing world. Written by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr, this report is often referred to as the "Grimmett Report."

According to this year's report, trends in arms transfer agreements (represent orders for future delivery) with and actual arms deliveries to developing nations were on the rise in 2011. Total arms transfer agreements were valued at $71.5 billion in 2011, a substantial increase from $32.7 billion in 2010, with the United States and Russia dominating the list of suppliers in the world market. The value of all arms deliveries to the developing nations was $28 billion, "the highest total in these deliveries values since 2004."

The current trend in the Latin American market, as noted by the CRS, shows countries seeking strategic modernization of their military. The report attributes the selectivity of these purchases to constraints by financial resources.

A few developing nations in Latin America ... have sought to modernize key sectors of their military forces. In recent years, some nations in these regions have placed large arms orders, by regional standards, to advance that goal. Many countries within these regions are significantly constrained by their financial resources and thus limited to the weapons they can purchase. Given the limited availability of seller-supplied credit and financing for weapons purchases, and their smaller national budgets, most of these countries will be forced to be selective in their military purchases.

Within the region, Brazil and Venezuela continue to dominate as the leading recipients of arms agreements, ranking 4th and 6th in the developing world, respectively, for the period of 2008-2011. This demonstrates a significant change from the previous four years, particularly with Brazil, which did not rank within the top ten from 2004-2007.

In terms of actual deliveries, however, Venezuela is the only Latin American country in the top ten list, ranking eighth with the value of deliveries from 2008 to 2011 totaling $4 billion. When 2011 is pulled out of the four year time frame, Venezuela moves up to fifth place ($1.7 billion in total delivery value), after Saudi Arabia ($2.8 billion), India ($2.7 billion), Pakistan ($1.8 billion) and the United Arab Emirates ($1.7 billion), even though it did not appear in the top ten list for total value of arms transfer agreements made in 2011.

From 2008-2011, France surpassed Russia in the total value of arms transfer agreements signed with Latin American countries. In this time period, 34.69% of the total value of agreements with Latin American countries were signed with France, 31.46% with Russia, and 10.45% with the United States. France's jump to first place indicates a significant increase in the value of their agreements with Latin America, from $500 million between 2004-2007 to $8.6 billion between 2008-2011, more than 17 times the previous four years. (By comparison, Russia's agreements with Latin America totaled $7.8 billion and the United States' agreements totaled $2.59 billion). One more way of looking at it - 49.71% of all arms transfer agreements made by France with countries in the developing world between 2008-2011 were with Latin American countries.

The CRS report distinguishes between arms transfer agreements made and actual deliveries. As indicated above, the report shows France as the supplier entering into the highest total value of agreements with countries in Latin America. However, when looking at actual deliveries of arms, Russia maintains the number one spot, $3.1 billion in total arms deliveries from 2008-2011, while France only delivered $500 million during the same time period ($8.1 billion less than the total value of agreements made). The authors of the report indicate that Venezuela is Russia's principal focus in the region. According to the report's authors, "With the strong support of its President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has become Russia's major new arms client in this region."

Perhaps the most striking fact outlined by the CRS was the shift in the categories of weapons delivered between the two time periods. From 2004-2007, tanks and self-propelled guns lead with 140 units being supplied primarily by Major Western Nations (120). During the period of 2008-2011, we see both a change in major supplier and category. While tanks and self-propelled guns retained its importance, surface to air missiles topped the rankings at 3,120 units delivered, (3,070 from Russia), up from 0 in the previous four years. APCs and armored cars also saw a noted increase in deliveries (80 to 509).

The report's authors do make note that care must be taken when looking at the numbers and categories of weapons delivered. According to the authors, while the data on actual transfers of military equipment is useful in showing "relative trends in the delivery of important classes of military equipment and indicate who the leading suppliers are from region to region over time," it is limited as it does not give "detailed information regarding either sophistication or the specific name of the equipment delivered." Nor does the data "provide an indication of the relative capabilities of the recipient nations to use effectively the weapons delivered to them."

This blog was written by Abigail Poe and Aapta Garg.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The 2013 foreign aid request

On February 13, the Obama administration released its 2013 budget request to Congress, which includes its request for State Department and Foreign Operations assistance in FY2013.

Below are a few things we observed in the new foreign assistance budget for Latin America and the Caribbean. You can also download a printer-friendly PDF of this post here.

*** It is important to note, that these observations and graphs do not discuss or include all U.S. aid to Latin America. The U.S. Department of Defense also provides military aid to the region, which could increase the military aid amounts in this post by as much as one-third. Also, smaller economic and social aid programs are not included, as they are not reported by region in the preliminary aid request. As a result, economic aid numbers could be about one-seventh higher than they appear in this post.

  • The 2013 foreign operations aid request includes about $1.74 billion in new aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. This is the lowest amount since 2007 and a 12% reduction from the estimated 2012 budget.
  • The aid "spike" that began with the Mérida Initiative in 2008 crested in 2009 and continues to fall, showing a reduction of 31% from 2009 to 2013. (The large spike in 2010 is aid for Haiti after the earthquake).

  • From 2009 to 2013, military and police aid to the region would fall by 47% through this budget request. This will be the lowest amount of military and police aid ($463 million) from foreign operations assistance to the region since the start of Plan Colombia (the significant drop in military aid in 2001 is a result of the significant spike in 2000, when aid to Colombia was appropriated for a two-year period). Again, these aid amounts do not include assistance from the Department of Defense, which could increase the military aid amounts in this post by as much as one-third.
  • Aid to Colombia's armed forces and police continue to decline to levels last seen before 1999, the year "Plan Colombia" began.
  • Aid to Mexico's security forces, while still higher than pre-Mérida Initiative levels, continues to decline from the 2008-2010 period of large-scale purchases of expensive helicopters and aircraft.
  • While military and police aid to the entire region from this budget request shows a downward trend, military and police assistance to Central America would increase in 2013 by 3.5%. From 2012 to 2013, military and police aid to Honduras, Costa Rica and Belize would more than double, as a result of significant increases in Foreign Military Financing funds to those countries.

  • With Mexico and Colombia--the region's two largest recipients of U.S. military and police aid--removed from the picture, military and police aid to the rest of the region, via the State Department and Foreign Operations budget, actually increases from 2009 to 2013, from $185 million to $212 million.

  • 25.85% ($450.6 million) of the 2013 State/Foreign Operations budget would be military and police aid, while economic and social aid would make up 74.15% ($1.3 billion) of the budget (compared to 2007, when 40% of the State/Foreign Operations budget was military and police aid).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Santos Administration Presses for Step Backwards for Human Rights

This post is an excerpt from a report recently released by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. Written by LAWGEF's executive director, Lisa Haugaard, the brief report provides an update on the human rights situation in Colombia. The update focuses on three topics--military jurisdiction, the Victims' Law, and the human rights defenders' verification mission--and provides recommendations to U.S. policymakers for each human rights concern. Download the full update on human rights in Colombia as a PDF here.

Santos Administration Presses for Step Backwards for Human Rights:
Human Rights Crimes by Soldiers May Return to Military Jurisdiction

by Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

The Santos Administration is pushing through Congress a provision regarding military jurisdiction that threatens to undo much of the progress achieved since early 2007 in ensuring justice for severe human rights crimes committed by members of the military. In particular, it would unravel key reforms instituted to address the "false positive" scandal in which more than 3,000 civilians were allegedly killed by soldiers, often to up their body counts and obtain incentives. Soldiers detained or purchased from criminal "recruiters" live young men whom they believed would not be missed, killed them and dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, in order to claim them as killed in combat.

An article of the justice reform bill (currently article 13) would modify the Colombian Constitution to provide that all acts committed by security force members during military operations would be presumed to be acts of service, and thus would be subject to military jurisdiction. This initial presumption would apply to any crime—including rape, torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions. According to the United Nation's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights' representative in Colombia, this would amount to an "historic step backwards for human rights" in the country.

As the provision would modify the Constitution, it needs to be approved in two congressional sessions. It was approved in one round last year, and is likely to come up again in March for final consideration.

The proposed provision would result in the military justice system opening the initial investigations into all alleged human rights abuses committed by security forces during operations. This will nullify Directive 19, emitted by Juan Manuel Santos as defense minister in 2007, which called for the investigative body (CTI) of the Attorney General's office to be the first to investigate deaths in combat. The agency that first investigates a potential crime scene has the capacity to set the investigation on the right or wrong course. "Even when a case is transferred to civilian jurisdiction, after military jurisdiction has carried out the initial steps, it becomes almost impossible to correct the skewed direction of the investigation," according to a leading Colombian human rights network. This change will not only affect investigations of new crimes, but could also lead to the transfer of hundreds of extrajudicial execution cases—the false positives—from civilian jurisdiction back to military justice authorities, a tremendous step backwards.

While the Colombian government maintains that human rights crimes would be subsequently transferred to civilian authorities, practice has shown that when the military justice system initially investigates, human rights crimes are rarely brought to light or to justice. "This is evidenced by the military courts' glaring lack of results in obtaining convictions against those responsible for cases of false positives," according to Human Rights Watch. Many of the false positive cases were closed by military justice officials, according to the UN. Despite clear jurisprudence (prior to this new proposal) regarding the obligation to investigate and prosecute human rights crimes in civilian jurisdiction, military authorities have a very poor track record when it comes to promptly transferring alleged cases of human rights violations to civilian jurisdiction. According to UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston, "the most significant obstacle to effective prosecution of extrajudicial executions by members of the security forces are the continuing jurisdictional conflicts [between military and civilian justice systems] and the failure of military judges to transfer cases to the civilian justice system." Even without this proposed step backward, too few cases are being transferred to civilian courts. After a brief period in which hundreds of cases of alleged extrajudicial executions were moved to civilian courts, the transfers of cases from military to civilian jurisdiction slowed again in 2010, according to both the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and State Department.

The military justice system's reluctance to investigate human rights crimes, and its lack of independence from the military's retired and active leadership, are qualities far too deeply engrained for some technical fix of the military justice system to resolve. Moreover, unlike in the United States, the Colombian military on a daily basis conducts law enforcement operations within Colombia's national territory and interacts with the civilian population, making it all the more urgent that the military be accountable to Colombia's civilian authorities for human rights crimes. However, there is no objection to efforts to improve the military justice system's handling of appropriate matters, such as violations of military discipline.

Unprecedented efforts were invested to achieve gains since 2007 to ensure justice for human rights crimes committed by the military. The State Department and U.S. Embassy under Republican and Democratic administrations since early 2007 invested political capital in ensuring the transfer of hundreds of extrajudicial executions to civilian courts. The U.S. Senate held up significant portions of Colombia's military aid over the issue of impunity for extrajudicial executions. The United Nations made an intensive effort via the UNHCHR office and the landmark visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions. Colombia's human rights networks and relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions made well-coordinated, heroic efforts to document and expose the "false positives" crimes, even as their allegations were dismissed and they faced constant threats. Semana magazine shone with its investigative journalism on the subject. Then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos chose to embrace reforms. This not only resulted in advances in justice for these cases, but also led to a dramatic drop in new extrajudicial executions. This constellation of Colombian and international effort is unlikely to be resurrected if these gains slip away.

The proposal would make it impossible for the State Department to certify compliance with the human rights conditions provision that, "The Colombian Armed Forces are suspending those members, of whatever rank, who have been credibly alleged to have violated human rights, or to have aided, abetted or benefitted from paramilitary organizations or other illegal armed groups; all such cases are promptly referred to civilian jurisdiction for investigation and prosecution, and the Colombian Armed Forces are not opposing civilian jurisdiction in such cases; and the Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating fully with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities."

In addition, this backward step would make it difficult for the Colombian government to comply with its obligation to "prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence," in cases involving members of the military. Such cases are not just in the past. On January 9, 2012, a member of the Sintrapaz union, Victor Manuel Hilarion Palacios, was traveling to work when he was allegedly killed by Colombian army troops. As noted in a February 1 letter from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to President Obama, "According to reports, the soldiers who later delivered his body to the Technical Investigation Unit (CTI) of the Fiscalia office in the town of Villavicencio stated that he had been killed in crossfire—yet the colleagues and relatives who went to collect his body discovered it bore signs that he had been brutally beaten and tortured."

U.S. policymakers should urge the Colombian government to withdraw this proposal to expand military jurisdiction. If this proposal goes into effect, the State Department cannot in good conscience certify Colombia meets the human rights conditions attached to U.S. security assistance. This proposal would also affect Colombia's ability to meet its commitment under the Labor Action Plan to "prosecute the perpetrators" of violence against trade unionists.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

“It Could Happen to Any of Us”: Deadly Attacks Against Colombian Human Rights Defenders

“It’s hard for us to do human rights work where we are. We have to hide what we are doing so they don’t watch us. Our comings and goings are monitored. Our emails are monitored. Our leaders are in a permanent state of stress, not just for themselves but for their children. It was hard for us to even get out to talk to you.”

This is what I heard from one activist when I visited Colombia on an international mission to investigate the status of human rights defenders this past December. Unfortunately, he was not alone in describing this systematic persecution and attacks against those working for justice in Colombia.

In a union hall in Popayán, Cauca, in the southwest of Colombia, dozens of human rights defenders told us about the dangers they face every day. A young woman who was calmly giving us an overview broke down as she was showing us a film on Alex Quintero, a campaigner for justice for the victims of the 2001 Naya River massacre and community organizer who was murdered on May 23, 2010. Alex had brought together the diverse campesino, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in Naya.

“He was our friend. It could happen to any of us,” she said.

We were there as a team of four defenders sent to Popayán, part of a 40-member delegation from around the world in Colombia on this human rights verification mission. We visited Colombia at the invitation of the National and International Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights in Colombia. The mission visited 8 regions, met with hundreds of defenders in addition to local, regional and national authorities and held a press conference in Bogota. Our preliminary report is in English here, in Spanish here. See also the recommendations of the Human Rights Defenders Campaign.

We found that human rights defenders throughout the country continue to face severe threats, harassment, and attacks. Fifty-four defenders were murdered in Colombia from July 2010 to May 2011, according to the Information System on Attacks on Human Rights Defenders of the Somos Defensores program.

Defenders endure constant death threats, which are often signed by paramilitary successor groups like the Black Eagles. Whenever a community objects to the way their territory is being used, especially by mining companies and other extractive industries, then death threats, and worse, follow. “Those who defend the rights of communities to determine their own development are attacked,” said one leader.

Family members of victims, who are courageous human rights defenders themselves, are in grave danger. Whenever a family member seeks justice for the death of their loved one, they face threats and attacks as well. The families of the disappeared, too, are at risk as they search for their loved ones.

Land rights leaders are especially under attack; 22 have been killed since August 2010. You can read their stories here and see our letter calling for protection for them here.

Women human rights defenders are often subjected to sexual violence. Threats against women defenders are also frequently directed at their families. We met with women who found threats against their children the most terrible burden they faced.

We talked with the parents of Sandra Viviana Cuellar, who is described by her friends and family as a “sister, friend, daughter, teacher, environmentalist, dancer, and defender of water, nature, and love.” They had photos of their 26 year-old daughter, with a bright smile and hip glasses, so vibrant, so alive, on their T-shirts. But they had not seen Sandra since she was disappeared in February 2011.

The vast majority of attacks against human rights defenders, including such serious crimes as the murder of Alex Quintero and the forced disappearance of Sandra Viviana Cuellar, remain unpunished. Our team was struck by the way in which many government authorities in Popayán simply denied the existence of the paramilitary groups whose names appeared on the death threats. If the groups “don’t exist,” then the government does not have to take their threats seriously.

It is true that the Colombian government makes some important efforts to protect defenders. Its human rights protection program has undoubtedly saved lives. The Santos Administration appears to be committed to continuing this program, and has been dialoging with defenders about how to improve it. However, protection still arrives too slowly, sometimes after a defender has already been attacked. The program often fails to provide protection in a way that allows defenders to keep doing their important work in the same area.

We heard a number of disturbing cases of defenders who recently had their protective measures withdrawn. Perhaps the most serious drawback is that threats and attacks against defenders are rarely successfully investigated. Attacks, threats, and break-ins to defenders' offices are often treated as isolated incidents and classified as common crimes unrelated to their work in defense of human rights.

For example, on June 13, 2011, two armed men walked into the offices of Taller Abierto, which helps displaced women and works to end violence against women in Cali. “They asked for the director of our organization,” a young lawyer from Taller Abierto told us. “And one of them began to climb the stairs towards the offices. But people upstairs hid and called the police.” The armed men left, but Taller Abierto remains in danger and the perpetrators have not been caught. “In terms of protection, all we have are cell phones assigned to us,” they told us. Protective measures are of little use if attacks routinely go unpunished and threats go uninvestigated.

But it is not just that the government fails to adequately protect defenders and punish those who attack them. Government officials themselves continue to place human rights defenders in jeopardy. Human rights defenders face unfounded criminal investigations, and a number of human rights defenders known for their legitimate human rights work are jailed. We heard about the arrests of defenders who engaged in social protests, such as opposition to large-scale mining and infrastructure projects as well as student protests.

We also heard from defenders concerned that government surveillance persists despite the shutting down of the DAS intelligence agency, infamous for spying on defenders, opposition politicians, journalists and Supreme Court justices. They spoke of tapped phones, of thefts of human rights files from their offices, of security forces confiscating their handouts and filming their public events.

Finally, we found that President Santos's initially welcome change in rhetoric towards human rights defenders is not being adhered to by many regional and local government officials, some of whom continue to stigmatize human rights defenders. Civilian and military authorities label activists who participate in social protests as subversive. The army and police distribute pamphlets and air radio ads that call on specific communities, community organizations and individuals to “demobilize,” thus labeling them insurgents and putting entire communities at risk.

We were concerned with the increasing trend, including by national government officials, to discredit and insult victims who are seeking justice by branding them as “opportunists.” The Santos Administration has even issued a monetary reward for those who provide information on “false victims,” which could incentivize the manufacture of false evidence to discredit valid human rights cases. Thus, even as the Santos Administration rolls out the Victims Law to compensate victims of violence and return land to some of Colombia’s 5 million internally displaced people, other government words and actions undercut this potentially historic advance.

The loss of a defender not only leaves family and friends bereft. “You lose a whole process,” a collective struggle for change, when a leader who brings people together for justice is jailed, forced to leave the area, killed or disappeared. Those struggling for justice in Colombia need our support now more than ever.

“He was our friend. It could happen to any of us.”

This post was written by Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group. It was cross-posted with the LAWGblog.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Report: Waiting for Consolidation

During 2011, researchers from the Center for International Policy (CIP, Washington), Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA, Washington), Asociación MINGA (Bogotá), and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, Bogotá) carried out a joint project to monitor the Colombian Government's National Territorial Consolidation Plan (PNCT). Also known as "Consolidation" or "Integrated Action," this large-scale U.S. supported military and development aid program -- the successor to "Plan Colombia" -- purports to introduce a functioning government in long-neglected territories.

The Consolidation strategy begins with offensive military operations to establish "security conditions." Then, it aims quickly to bring in the rest of the government to provide basic services in a phased, coordinated way. The desired end state is the military's near-total pullout from the zone, leaving behind a functioning government, greatly reduced violence, the absence of armed groups, and the elimination of drug production.

Though its design indicates that learning has taken place since Plan Colombia's launch in 2000, we have concerns about Consolidation: the role of the military, coordination between government bodies, consultation with communities, effects on land tenure, and several others.

Over the course of 2011, we traveled to three of Colombia's Consolidation zones: the Pacific coast port of Tumaco, the La Macarena zone in south-central Colombia, and the Montes de María zone near the Caribbean. In each zone, we interviewed leaders, community members, military and civilian Consolidation officials, human rights defenders, analysts and others.

We found the desired end-state to be distant in all three zones. In some areas, the security situation was difficult. In all areas, the military's role remained predominant. Getting "buy-in" from the entire government was a frequent challenge, and local governments' performance varied very widely. In general, the pace of progress toward the declared end-state had slowed noticeably since the Consolidation program's initial phase (about 2007-2009).

CIP, WOLA, INDEPAZ and MINGA are proud to present "Waiting for Consolidation: Monitoring Colombia's U.S.-aided counterinsurgency and development program" (PDF). This new publication lays out our organizations' principal findings, concerns and recommendations following our research visits to the three zones.

Download "Waiting for Consolidation" as a printer-friendly PDF. We hope that you find it to be a useful overview of our work over the past year to monitor Colombia's U.S.-backed National Consolidation Plan strategy.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Week's Top Articles on Mexico: Dec. 30, 2011- Jan. 5, 2012

Drug war news this week includes a Mexican newspaper, Reforma, putting the drug war death count for 2011 at 12,000. From Australia comes a thorough, well-written, and appalling look at the horrors of the drug war in Acapulco. A U.S. NGO looks at the spread of violence throughout Mexican civil society and whether, as a Mexican researcher reports, cartels control 70% of the country's municipalities.

Meanwhile, while the federal police are supposed to be the "good" police in Mexico, some are being accused of torturing suspects. And a prison riot, evidently between rival drug cartel members, kills 31.

Immigration and the Border news includes a look at how NAFTA has caused farmers who used to raise pigs in Veracruz to end up butchering pigs for a U.S. company in North Carolina. There is a look at the questionable effectiveness of the border fence. And CIP's TransBorder Project questions whether the Border Patrol's capture of poor Mexicans hauling marijuana across the border on their backs constitutes defeating "transnational crime." 

Meanwhile, the border becomes more and more a fiction for U.S. corporations. One U.S. railroad profits greatly from having its own Mexican rail line to ship products north.

The Articles

Drug War

In Mexico 12,000 killed in drug violence in 2011
Washington Post: Jan. 3, "About 12,000 people were slain last year in Mexico’s surging drug violence, according to grim tallies reported Monday by the country’s leading media outlets. Annual indexes of torture, beheadings and the killing of women all showed increases. More than 50,000 people have been killed during President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed military confrontation with organized crime and drug trafficking, which began in 2006." read more

Days of the dead
Sydney Morning Herald: Dec. 30, "Mexico's drug wars are crippling the country. Chief Correspondent Paul McGeough, reports from Acapulco." read more

Mexico Violence Threatens All Sectors of Civil Society
InSight Crime: Jan. 2,"As the Mexican government continues its crackdown on organized crime, the country’s civil society is finding itself exposed to acts of extreme violence. No sector has been spared: environmentalists, human rights activists, indigenous leaders, journalists, students, and university professors have all been targeted." read more

Do Gangs Control 70% of Mexico?
InSight Crime: Jan. 3, "A new report from a renowned Mexican crime analyst says that 71.5 percent of the nation’s municipalities are under criminal control. But the reality of illicit activity can hardly be described through a simple label like “control”. ... While blatant examples of impunity suggest some degree of official collusion, there is a great deal of distance between some corrupt interaction and a gang’s total control of a city. The reality is, of course, much more complicated. read more

Mexican federal police tortured 5 men detained in killings of 2 agents
AP/Washington Post: Jan. 2, "Mexican human rights authorities say five men detained in the killings of two agents and a car-bomb attack in Ciudad Juarez were tortured by federal police to confess their roles in the crimes. The National Human Rights Commission said Sunday the country must investigate six federal officers and a doctor who didn’t report signs of severe beating." read more

31 killed in Mexican prison brawl
AFP: Jan. 5, "Fighting between inmates left at least 31 dead and 13 wounded in a jail holding alleged drug gang members in northeast Mexico. ...Prisoners used makeshift weapons in the clash, which broke out in a jail in the  border state of Tamaulipas. ... It lies in an area where the rival Gulf and Zetas drug gangs have been locked in a bloody turf war." read more

Immigration and the Border

How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration
The Nation: Jan. 5, "Smithfield (a U.S. company) has used NAFTA ... to become the world’s largest packer and processor of hogs and pork. The conditions in Veracruz that helped Smithfield make high profits plunged thousands of rural residents into poverty. Tens of thousands left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines." read more

New fencing doesn’t stop illegal crossings
Washington Post: Dec. 30, "Overall, the United States has added 413 miles of new fencing to its southern boundary since 2006, raising to 649 miles the total length of border that has some form of man-made barrier. ... Now the question is: How much more should be built? ... Border Patrol agents say that smugglers and illegal migrants don't simply go to the place where the fence ends, and walk around it. “Anywhere is a good place to sneak across if we’re not watching.”" read more

Backpacking Transnational Criminals
Border Lines: Jan. 5, "... media releases from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ... (tout) that the Obama administration’s new Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime is working. But most of the reported strikes against TCOs involve Mexican illegal border crossers carrying 50-60 pound burlap bags packed with marijuana. ... this doesn’t mean that these apprehensions “target transnational criminal organizations,” as CBP falsely claims." read more

U.S. Trade Buoys Railroad
Bloomberg: Jan. 5, "Cross-border merchandise trade totaled $341 billion by the end of September, about 18 percent higher than it was at the same point in 2010, according to the most recent data .... The increase will help Kansas City Southern, the only U.S. railroad with a wholly owned Mexican subsidiary, the company seeks to take business away from trucks traversing the border." read more

Cross-posted from the Center for International Policy's Americas Program's Mexicoblog

Friday, December 16, 2011

Week's Top Articles on Mexico: Dec. 9-15, 2011

Human Rights Violations dominated the news from Mexico this week. A major national drama unfolded after two students in a normal school (teacher training college) were shot and killed by police while participating in a demonstration seeking changes in the school in the southern state of Guerrero. At first, state authorities claimed that some of the students were armed and shot first. Students immediately denied this.

Blame is now being exchanged between local, state and federal police, all of whom had forces present at the time. The state governor has fired his chief of police and attorney general. National politicians have called for a thorough investigation. The federal Human Rights Commission and the UN Office on Human Rights in Mexico announced investigations and the federal attorney general has taken over the judicial investigation. Eleven local and state police are being interviewed for possible responsibility in the deaths.

This tragedy is the latest in a two-week long series of attacks, kidnappings and/or murders of eight activists across Mexico. These violent events starkly reveal the fragility of Mexican democracy, the continuing penchant for resorting to government supported as well as clandestine violence, the failure of a public security and justice system that fosters impunity and the resulting destruction of human life and liberties. Reflecting this, at the beginning of the week, the president of Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights, announced his belief that President Calderon does not have enough time, in the one year left in his administration, to reverse the high levels of violence, insecurity and human rights abuses that have pervaded the country.

Drug War news included a denial by the Mexican president's office that it knew of the DEA money laundering operation. The U.S. Dept. of Justice defended itself, saying that money laundering "stings" had been authorized by Congress during the Reagan administration. And Time Magazine recognized and interviewed Javier Sicilia, leader of the Moverment for Peace with Justice and Dignity, as one of leading protesters of the year. He talks movingly of his motives in speaking out and his experiences as the Movement has grown since April.

Immigration news brought the Supreme Court's decision to review Arizona's immigration crackdown law, another poll shows that the majority of Americans, including registered Republican voters, think undocumented immigrants should have a shot at legalizing their status, as long as they meet certain criteria and the Obama administration's Secure Communities program, aimed at identifying undocumented immigrants with criminal records, has erroneously detained a number of U.S. citizens.

Two reports found that the crackdown on immigrants is producing abuse in detention centers and harassment and fear among immigrants. A report by the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights found significant abuse and denial of rights of detainees at three jails in the midwest. A report by Human Rights Watch on the impact of Alabama's crackdown law found that it " fosters a culture of fear and denies basic rights to undocumented residents and their families."

Border news centered on an announcement by the Obama administration that it plans to reduce National Guard presence at the border.

Human Rights Violations

Two students dead in clash with Mexico police
Read more: Los Angeles

Mexican police claim weapons found at scene of protest clash that killed 2 students
Read more: AP/Washington Post

Guerrero students say they were unarmed and blame the governor
Read more: MexicoBlog,  Spanish original CNN Mexico

The governor of Guerrero fires the Attorney General and the Chief of Police
Read more: MexicoBlog, Spanish original CNN Mexico

Federal and state governments differ on what happened in Guerrero
Read more: MexicoBlog, Spanish original CNN Mexico

Political leaders of Mexico unanimously condemn double murder of students
Read more: MexicoBlog, Spanish original La Jornada

Eleven police officers involved in the death of teachers college students are referred to the federal Attorney General
Read more: MexicoBlog, Spanish original Milenio

Spate of Attacks on Human Rights Defenders and Activists
Read more: Americas Program

No Protection for Activists: Eight Attacked in Two Weeks
Read more: InterPressService

Mexico's Commissioner of Human Rights Says Calderon Has Run Out of Time to Reduce the Violence and Abuses of the Drug War
Read more: MexicoBlog, Spanish original

Drug War

Mexico President's Office Says Mexico Didn't Know of DEA Money Laundering
Read More: MexicoBlog. From Reforma, which only allows subscribers access to its website.

Justice Department says DEA drug-laundering "stings" date back to Reagan presidency
Read more: Houston Chroincle

Why I Protest: Javier Sicilia of Mexico
Read more: Time


Arizona Immigration Law Gets Supreme Court Review
Read more: Bloomberg

On Immigration, Polls Show Most GOP Voters Share Gingrich Stance
Read more: Fox News Latino

Immigration Crackdown Also Snares U.S. Citizens
Read more: New York Times

Detention Centers in Kentucky, Illinois Violate Rights, Report Says
Read more: Fox News Latino

Human Rights Watch criticizes Alabama immigration law
Read more: CNN

The Border

Obama prepares to trim National Guard on U.S.-Mexico border
Read more: Houston Chronicle

Cross-posted from the Center for International Policy's Americas Program's Mexicoblog

Friday, October 28, 2011

Foreign Military Sales in 2010

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists' Arms Sales Monitoring Program, the Just the Facts database now includes information about weapons and equipment that the United States government sold to Latin America and the Caribbean through the Foreign Military Sales program in 2010.

Foreign Military Sales (FMS) is one of two programs through which military equipment is sold from the United States to the rest of the world. FMS is the means through which the U.S. government sells items directly to other governments, with the Department of Defense serving as an intermediary. U.S. corporations can sell directly to other governments as well; those sales are licensed by the Department of State through the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program.

In 2010, the U.S. government delivered over $627 million in military equipment to Latin America and the Caribbean - $495 million more than in 2009. The regional total for deliveries through FMS had been in a decline since its peak in 2006, when Chile received several high-tech F-16 fighter planes. However, 2010 marked a dramatic, 245% increase in sales deliveries to the hemisphere. This significant jump is mainly attributed to Colombia. In 2010 alone, Colombia received over $455 million in military equipment that it purchased through the FMS program - over two-thirds of the region's total in 2010 and more than twice the region's 2009 total ($201 million).

While Colombia is said to be a "post-conflict" country, the Colombian government took its highest-ever number of deliveries in a single year (since 1996) on purchases of military equipment through FMS. The country's major purchases in 2010 included 15 UH-60 (Black Hawk) helicopters, 39 armored cars, 71 "other" weapons and ordnance, and 104 miscellaneous boats/craft. The top 20 items delivered to Colombia through FMS in 2010 were:

  • Helicopter, UH-60: $192,734,000
  • Other Weapons & Ordnance: $57,033,000
  • Car, Armored: $41,394,000
  • Other Communications Eqp: $18,466,000
  • Spare Parts, Aircraft: $18,125,000
  • Boat/Craft, Miscellaneous: $16,811,000
  • Logistics Mgmt Expenses: $15,337,000
  • Aircraft, Observation O-1: $12,992,000
  • Technical Assistance: $12,496,000
  • Spares, Weapon: $10,333,000
  • Support Eqp, Miscellaneous: $9,921,000
  • Other Services: $9,183,000
  • Spares, Vehicle & Support: $5,330,000
  • Repair & Rehabilitation: $4,117,000
  • Aircraft, Miscellaneous: $3,607,000
  • Training Aids/Publications: $3,081,000
  • Cartridge, 37mm to 75mm: $2,838,000
  • Supply Operations: $2,635,000
  • Gun, Machine: $2,582,000
  • Other Supplies: $2,575,000
  • Even with sales to Colombia removed from the equation, FMS deliveries to the rest of the region still increased in 2010, with Brazil, Chile and Mexico leading the pack with significant increases.

    The Just the Facts database also includes information on sales licensed through the State Department's Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program, though it is important to keep in mind that perhaps half of the DCS licenses have not ended up as actual deliveries of equipment. Licenses granted by the State Department are valid for four years, during which sales may be delayed or canceled. And while the State Department records the licenses issued, it does not maintain reliable records of actual DCS deliveries. That said, the graph below shows the trend in all arms sales, from FMS and DCS combined, from 1996 to 2010.