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Friday, January 11, 2013

New WOLA Colombia report: "Consolidating 'Consolidation'"

Consolidating "Consolidation": Colombia's Plan to Govern Neglected Territories Stumbles

Colombia's government is negotiating peace with the country's largest and oldest guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). If the talks succeed—a strong possibility—Colombia faces a big question: what will be different in the vast territories where the guerrillas have been in control, or operated freely, for decades?
 
In these areas, violence, drug trafficking, and warlordism have long been the norm, and the government’s presence has been virtually nonexistent. If the government does not establish itself in these jungles, mountains, plains, coasts, and borderlands, the FARC's negotiated end will make little difference; illegality and violence will continue to fill the vacuum. Colombia must follow a successful negotiation with getting the government into the country's ungoverned zones. And not just military occupiers: a real, civilian state whose members provide basic services, operate without impunity, and thus enjoy the population's support.
 
Will Colombia be able to fill the vacuum and end the cycle of violence? As WOLA’s new report Consolidating “Consolidation” describes, the record of the National Territorial Consolidation Plan—a five-year-old program with that very goal—should worry us that it might not.
 
Backed by at least half a billion dollars in U.S. assistance, this ambitious program seeks to bring the government into several areas of the country with histories of illegal armed groups, violence, drug trafficking, and statelessness. (It is often called the “La Macarena” program, after the southern Colombian zone where the most advanced pilot project has taken place.) Today, while “Consolidation” has brought security improvements and more soldiers and police to a few territories, the governance vacuum remains far from filled.
 
In the Consolidation zones, armed groups remain very active, especially outside of town centers. Soldiers are by far the most commonly seen government representatives, and the civilian parts of the government—such as health services, education, agriculture, road-builders, land-titlers, judges, and prosecutors—are lagging very far behind. 
 
In Consolidating “Consolidation,” WOLA sought to identify the reasons why the Consolidation program's military-to-civilian transfer has stalled. Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy Adam Isacson found that while the U.S. and Colombian governments underestimated the difficulty of achieving security and the cost of “state-building,” much of the blame lies with civilian government agencies themselves, most of which have been very reluctant to set up a presence in Consolidation zones.
 
But we found something even more serious: the entire Consolidation model is losing momentum quickly and may have begun to deteriorate. Based on dozens of interviews and a very close read of available evidence, Consolidating “Consolidation” portrays a program lacking interest and backing at high levels of government. What was once a showcase program stagnated during a year and a half-long “rethinking,” followed by several months of infighting that culminated in the sudden exit of the program's director. Meanwhile, in places like Afghanistan, the United States is edging away from similar missions, which it calls “Stability Operations,” that sought to provide basic services to citizens in ungoverned areas. Instead, U.S. forces are relying more on Special Forces operations and drone strikes.
 
Programs continue in Consolidation zones in Colombia, thanks in great part to US$227 million in USAID contracts awarded since 2010. But Consolidation, which once promised to bring a functioning government to areas that never had one, may be on its way to becoming a politically driven handout program attached to an open-ended military occupation.
 
If Consolidation fades away, the report warns, it is not clear what will replace it in Colombia's neglected territories. As Colombia faces the possibility of peace in zones of historic guerrilla control, it is crucial that a plan be in place to prevent a re-emergence of violence. If the peace talks succeed, for a brief period Colombia will have a window of opportunity to bring the government to areas that have long generated violence, bringing their citizens into national civic and economic life for the first time.
 
The National Territorial Consolidation Plan could offer a way to do this, but only if it returns to its initial vision of a phased, coordinated entry of civilian government. If this scheme, or something like it, is to succeed, it will require political will from the highest levels to ensure that the civilians take over as quickly as security conditions allow. And it will require a renewed—but far more civilian-centered—commitment from the United States.

Please click here to read Consolidating "Consolidation."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

French journalist captured in Colombian town at the center of 2004 U.S-backed offensive

The southern Colombian town where FARC guerrillas captured French journalist Romeo Langlois last weekend has a difficult history. La Unión Peneya is an object lesson in how difficult “counterinsurgency” is, even in a country that has substantially weakened its largest insurgency.

In 2004, Colombia’s armed forces launched one of the biggest offensives in its history. Backed by U.S. advisors and logistics personnel, “Operation JM,” the second and largest phase of what was known as “Plan Patriota,” sent about 18,000 Colombian soldiers deep into a broad swath of the southern departments of Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare that had been a FARC stronghold for decades.

As they launched the offensive from bases in western Caquetá, the first major town the troops hit was La Unión Peneya, a coca boomtown along the Caguán river in the municipality of Montañita. By the end of 2003, Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper writes, the town had “7 pool halls, 20 bars, 2 bordellos, 4 drugstores, 3 gas stations and about 20 stores selling fine clothes and trinkets, as well as 5 apartment buildings and 400 houses.”

In January 2004 the FARC, aware of the coming offensive, told everyone in La Unión Peneya to clear out. The town center’s entire population of 2,500 displaced. According to a different El Tiempo report:

When the troops entered they found a well-cared for guerrilla cemetery and many pieces of the scrip, signed by José Benito Cabrera (Fabián Ramírez, one of the chiefs of the FARC’s Southern Bloc), that were used as money in that part of the country.

Even as the Army established its presence in the town center, la Unión Peneya remained a ghost town for at least three years. As “Plan Patriota” wound down in 2007, authorities announced plans to rebuild the abandoned town and the population began to trickle back. This rebuilding, and provision of other services, has been very slow as the government later decided to dedicate more resources to the “La Macarena” zone just to the northeast.

Today, more than eight years after the U.S.-backed “Plan Patriota” rolled through, the town where it all began still has a very heavy FARC presence, and a lot of coca and cocaine production.

Last Saturday, troops from the Colombian Army’s U.S-backed Counternarcotics Brigade helicoptered into the rural part of La Unión Peneya on a mission to destroy cocaine laboratories. They were accompanied by two embedded journalists: French reporter Romeo Langlois (creator of a documentary about Cauca’s “Indigenous Guard”) and Italian reporter Simone Bruno (creator of the documentary “Falsos Positivos”).

The army column and the reporters came under heavy guerrilla attack. A police officer and three soldiers were killed. Langlois was wounded in the arm and taken by the FARC. In a phone call yesterday, a guerrilla spokeswoman told reporters that Langlois is safe, but that because he was wearing a military helmet and jacket at the time, the FARC is holding him as a “prisoner of war.”

Since Langlois’s status as a journalist for France24 TV is confirmed, the FARC’s claim is invalid according to international humanitarian law. (Meanwhile, Colombian Air Force video seems to show the FARC fighters themselves wearing plainclothes, which also violates IHL.) The FARC must release Langlois immediately.

Last weekend’s tragedy highlights the frustrations of Colombia’s approach to counterinsurgency. With a constant military presence in the town center since 2004, La Unión Peneya today should not be the sort of place where the FARC can carry out this sort of attack, much less maintain cocaine laboratories. But the fatal flaw of “Plan Patriota” was that over the past eight years, the government presence has been almost entirely military. Behind the troops came nothing: the civilian part of the state failed to appear with roads, schools, health care, land titles and other services one would expect from a government.

This lopsided approach did not bring governance, and did not convince the population that it lived under a credible government. And so La Unión Peneya remains ungoverned.