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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The FARC's "Manuals"

We are pleased to reproduce this commentary from Colombian human rights defender and security expert Nancy Sánchez, who has worked for 20 years in the department of Putumayo, the zone along the Ecuadorian border where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began in 2000. The guerrilla “manual” to which her article refers is here.

The FARC’s Manuals

Nancy Sánchez

In August 1998, along the main highway between Putumayo’s largest city (Puerto Asís) and its capital (Mocoa), I came across this poster at a gas station. Made by the FARC’s 32nd Front, it described “the rules for living in an honest and dignified community: punishments and fines.”

During this time, the 32nd Front, part of the FARC’s Southern Bloc, implemented some interesting regulations. It exerted control over many functions that should have been the state’s responsibility, such as environmental protection, avoiding deforestation and riverine pollution, and limiting residues of chemicals from coca paste production. Similarly, it set in place various regulations to control individual behavior in the community, such as curtailing “gossip,” maintaining cleanliness, and even avoiding fistfights at parties.

Beyond social and community regulation, however, it was evident that behavior that would risk the FARC’s territorial control carried stricter punishments and fines. For example, inviting the entry of unknown individuals (resulting in a fine of US$1,000), buying and selling properties to individuals without FARC authorization, transporting people and vehicles outside of certain hours, or bringing in prostitutes.

In this context, “the entry of prostitutes” referred to “new” prostitutes: women who had not previously lived in the area. This group of women, who were co-opted through this war, were used and regulated not only by the guerrillas but later on by the paramilitaries and the military to fulfill their “sexual needs.” Occasionally, they acted as sources of information about the enemy.

With the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, amid the paramilitaries’ actions and the FARC’s response, thousands of innocent civilians were assassinated, disappeared, or forcibly displaced in Putumayo. About half of the population—150,000 people from a population of 350,000—was forcibly displaced.

After 13 years of various stages of Plan Colombia, most recently the “Territorial Consolidation Plan,” the situation remains basically the same, or even worse. There have been cruel humanitarian consequences as the rural population continues to be subjected to strict social control by illegal armed actors.

The most recent “FARC Rule Book” (Manual de Convivencia de los FARC) was published at the end of 2013, as reported by the Catholic Church of Putumayo, after the FARC prohibited the performance of Mass in rural zones. This warning and threat was the most notable of the 46 points making up the current “Manual for Coexistence for the good functioning of communities” that now is not a poster, but an actual three-page bulletin that was distributed to rural communities.

I found the physical document this month, in Puerto Asís municipality, amid the anguish of some women who told me that they had to abandon their farms and villages because their sons had been forced into obligatory military service. Their children were recruited by the armed forces in surprise raids that military members carried out every year, and the young people had to comply.

Other people did not know what to do before the FARC’s strict order to “establish themselves” either in the rural zone or the town center. The thing is, this manual—unlike the last one—dedicates the majority of its points to carefully regulating all sorts of situations of transit and mobility between town centers and the rural zones, where they have control.

A few examples. If you are a farmer and have children studying in town, you can only bring them home during their vacations. This creates a dilemma for the parents: whether to take them out of school or pay for their room and board, because the school does not provide it. (It is worth noting that the majority of schools offering education up to 11th grade are located in town centers.) If you are new in the area and decide to settle there, you may not leave the zone for a year--the time period it supposedly takes to gain the FARC’s trust—at which time the FARC will decide whether you may stay or not. If you live in town and have a farm in the rural zone, which is very common in these regions, you have to choose to live in one or the other, or pay someone else whom you trust to take care of the land for life, while paying all community taxes.

Several points, like the fines, did not change much between one manual and the next. For example, the prohibitions on state-run social assistance programs and on the unauthorized entry of unknown individuals remain the same. Transit continues to be regulated, for both people and animals, at permitted hours that change along with the context: when combat is happening, it is stricter. No matter what, one may not move or leave without permission, not even for health reasons (the hospitals are in the town centers). Property rights are also strictly controlled in the new manual. Now even a cow cannot be sold without prior authorization, requested in person.

The rest of the points are similar to what was found in the earlier manual, except for one ordering better control of dogs in towns, and two new ones. The first refers to the population’s food security and the other regulates communications.

Under penalty of forced “social labor” and expulsion, the planting of yucca, plantain, corn, and home-grown vegetables is ordered. This reminds me of the year 1994, when the guerrillas ordered that the massive planting of coca crops be combined with subsistence crops, in a four-to-one ratio (if I recall correctly) because the region lacked food and even chickens had to be imported from Ecuador. This issue is taken up again in a commentary that I found in Puerto Guzmán, referring to the manual. “This time, the coca is going to go away, because the guerrillas are making us plant food,” some residents told me. Actually, there is not much coca in the area today, compared with the 1990s. The problem is that it is still the only crop from which the people make a living. Are the guerrillas really going to be able to do away with this crop if their manuals order them to do so? That’s a point for Havana.

The entry of mobile phones brings their regulation: the right to private communications is lost in these war territories. With the excuse of security, cell phones’ use is limited to two per person per family—these must be noted in a census—and they must not have cameras.

Finally, despite some interesting items about environmental protection, controlling common crime, regulation of parties and flea markets, this manual raises three concerns in particular:

1. Immediately, what is now being experienced: forced displacement or silent confinement of farmer populations, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. People who live in rural areas but require services in the town centers. To travel “to town” is not just entertainment. It means going to a hospital, to study, to pick up basic foods like grains or salt, to buy gasoline for electric generators, or to get in a long line to speak with the mayor, meet with a judge, communicate with relatives elsewhere, pay back loans from the Banco Agrario, to buy medicines for livestock,etc.

2. Meanwhile, this manual exposes members of the Community Action Boards [Juntas de Acción Comunal, legally established local advisory commissions] to a serious security threat. According to the manual, it is these leaders who are charged with monitoring and guaranteeing compliance with its 46 points. They must do so in a context in which, on one hand, the paramilitary groups—under new names—dominate Puerto Asís and the town centers of Bajo Putumayo, and on the other hand, the “Territorial Consolidation Plan” gives U.S. resources to the Colombian military to carry out public works projects in these zones (medical brigades, bridge construction, etc.). Projects that—again—require the coordination and collaboration of Community Action Boards. So between the “FARC Manual” and the “Consolidation Plan,” the civilian population has few options. It can be the object of armed or judicial repression from one side or the other. A point for Havana: if there is no hope for a cease-fire during talks, at least it would be important to consider a cessation of these strategies of territorial control that involve the civilian population. That way, finally, the people might truly feel the sensation that something is changing as a result of the peace talks.

3. In the long term, the manual gives us strong doubts about the model of life that the FARC are proposing for us in an eventual post-conflict.

March 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Week in Review

This week the United States reaffirmed its commitment to fighting narcotrafficking in Central America, a majority of U.S. citizens indicated they wanted a change in U.S. policy to Cuba and Venezuelans took to the streets. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, was in Guatemala and Honduras this week with the head of U.S. Southern Command, General Kelly. In Guatemala, Brownfield met with President Otto Perez Mólina, after which he announced
    an additional $5 million dollars for counternarcotics operations in the country. He also met with Prosecutor General Claudia Paz y Paz and Iván Velásquez Gómez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), announcing $4.8 million for that initiative.
  • In Honduras Brownfield reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to supporting counternarcotics initiatives in the country but expressed the State Department’s disapproval of a new law that allows officials to shoot down civilian aircraft suspected of carrying drugs. In a lengthy interview with Honduran newspaper La Prensa, Brownfield said the State Department had found drug flights were down 80 percent in the country and that sea trafficking was on the rise. The visit comes after Honduras’ new president criticized U.S. drug policy in his inauguration speech, calling it a “double standard” and inviting the Obama Administration to have greater cooperation.La Prensa also published a Southcom map showing various illicit trafficking networks across the globe.
  • Mexico's military hosted a competition with cadets and Special Forces from several Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the United States.
  • A new poll released by the Atlantic Council this week found not only that the majority of Americans, but an even higher percentage of Floridians, favor a shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba. This may suggest a shifting tide in relations as a strong anti-Cuba contingent in Florida has been seen as the major political obstacle in thawing relations. Senators Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) published a bi-partisan op-ed on why the United States needs to change its policy towards the island.
  • Human Rights Watch published a report Wednesday on impunity for murders tied to land disputes in Honduras’ contested Bajo Aguán region. U.S. security assistance to Honduras for 2014 has been conditioned on the protection of human rights in this region due to ongoing attacks against activists.
  • The New York Times reported on the links between drug trafficking and deforestation and illegal logging in Honduras. According to the article, “as Honduras has become a central transfer point for drug shipments to the United States, there is more money to pay - and arm - land invaders, who strip the forest and transform the land into businesses like cattle ranching that can be used to launder drug money.”
  • The Associated Press profiled a kidnapping epidemic in Morelos, Mexico and the population’s mistrust of security forces sent to fight it. Locals doubt whether weak government institutions will investigate those responsible and have a long-term impact on the problem.
  • The Christian Science Monitor published a post by Rio Gringa on vigilante justice in Brazil’s biggest cities.
  • Thousands took to the streets in protest of Venezuela Preisdent Nicolás Maduro’s government this week. Student protests in Caracas turned especially violent, leaving three dead: two from the opposition and one government supporter. Each side is blaming the other for the violence. The government is seeking the arrest of opposition leader Leopold Lopez, drawing a wave of criticism, including from the U.S. State Department. Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta posted a video from protests Wednesday night and Venezuela Politics and Human Rights has an excellent analysis and overview. Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reported that the protests have subsided but that citizens were surprised by the heavy military presence. Brazil also experienced some violent protests this week.
  • A California court revoked the U.S. citizenship of a former Guatemalan special forces officer for covering up his role as an army lieutenant in the massacre of 182 villagers in Guatemala. He received the maximum 10 years in prison for deceiving U.S. immigration officials.
  • In an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, Medellín-born author Héctor Abad writes Colombia’s damaging experience with paramilitarism should serve as a warning to Mexico. Abad also notes that the United States has played a significant role in perpetuating a fight against drugs that forces “obedient governments to ignore real solutions.” InSight Crime analyzed the difference in the Mexican government’s approach to these groups in various places, noting its cooperation with the groups in Michoacán but its attempts to halt them in Guerrero.
  • On Thursday the FARC and the Colombian government closed the latest round of the peace talks and said they have made progress towards reaching an agreement on combating the illegal drug trade. The two sides issued a joint statement noting they’ve reached a consensus on several points. More analysis from United States Institute for Peace’s Ginny Bouvier and WOLA.
  • Friday, February 7, 2014

    The Week in Review

    This week Colombia’s military was caught spying on peace negotiations in Havana, Guatemala’s President was unhappy about U.S. conditioning aid to the country, U.S. Southern Command geared up for training exercises in the region and the Knights Templar cartel made money off your Super Bowl guacamole. Below is a roundup of these stories and other highlights from around the region over the past week.

  • The House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing, "Terrorist Groups in Latin America: The Changing Landscape."
  • Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina expressed his discontent with U.S. conditioning security assistance to the country, which place a sizeable portion of aid on hold until Guatemala has shown significant steps towards investigating corruption in its international adoption program and implementing a 2010 reparations plan for victims related to the massacres and displacement that occurred during the construction of the Chixoy dam in the 1980s. “…we are not going to be anyone’s toy, and the laws of Guatemala are going to say how they advance,” he told reporters in a press conference.
  • The Wilson Center released a report this week on violence in Mexico and Colombia. It compiles essays by leading regional exports that compare and contrast the two countries' security situations and looks at what lessons their tactics offer one another.
  • U.S. Southern Command news was active this week. Another frigate (notably the Navy's second-oldest after the USS Constitution which was launched in 1797) was deployed to the Caribbean for "Operation Martillo," the U.S.-led anti-drug surge mission along Central America's coastline, while Joint Combined Exchange Training began with Trinidad and Tobago. Joint Task Force-Bravo, the main Southcom unit in Honduras, started preparing for a joint foreign military exercise in which 1,200 U.S. military members will deploy to Guatemala for training and to provide humanitarian services.

    It was also reported that Air Forces Southern members are in Belize to prepare for an upcoming training exercise and that the USS Pathfinder arrived in Guatemala for a scientific information exchange, a key part of the naval relationship between both countries, according to a representative from the Guatemalan armed forces.

  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS) published a report that found Latin American countries’ military spending grew 15 percent between 2010 ($61.3 billion) and 2013 ($70.9 billion). ISS found Venezuela increased its defense budget more than any other country in the region over the past year, boosting it by just over 12 percent. Here's an infographic of defense spending from the AFP and another from ISS.
  • Fusion reported on Mexican immigrants in California who have been financing self-defense groups in Michoacán while the Wall Street Journal reported on the Knights Templar's control over the avocado industry in the state, the only one in Mexico certified to export avocados to the United States. According to the article, the cartel profits $150 million each year through extortion and keeping their own farms. The New York Times featured an interview with the head of the Knights Templar, Servando Gómez, and noted the group makes more from illegal mining than drug trafficking. InSight Crime translated a piece published by Animal Politico on the risks and benefits of Mexico’s recent decision to legalize the vigilante groups that have sprung up to fight the cartel’s presence.
  • Peru announced plans to launch a major coca eradication initiative in the VRAE region, which is one of the largest coca-producing regions in the world, believed to have an area of cultivation at around 20,500 hectares. The government announced a target of 16,000 hectares.
  • The United Kingdom’s deputy prime minister backed Colombian President Santos’ calls for an alternative to the drug war, saying, "nobody can say the world is winning the war against drugs."
  • Colombian magazine Semana revealed this week that the Colombian Army has been spying on peace negotiators in Havana from both sides of the table and has continued illegal surveillance of human rights defenders and opposition lawmakers. President Santos quickly removed the head of Army intelligence along with another top intelligence official and demanded the military investigate the incident and submit a report by February 15. The government has since stepped back and changed its rhetoric dramatically, asserting the taps were in fact legal, despite the claims of Semana.

    Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) issued a statement voicing his concern and calling on the U.S. government to carry out an investigation, given his worry that "U.S. intelligence or defense agencies might have unwittingly provided support . . . directly or indirectly, through funds, equipment, training, intelligence-sharing or receipt of tainted intelligence." The incident also raises questions about the military's support for the peace talks, which could have negative implications if a peace agreement in Havana is reached, given the military's size and popularity.

  • According to the Sao Paulo state's Public Safety Department, police killed 335 people in 2013, compared to 546 during the previous year. The Associated Press reported the drop has been attributed to a law enacted earlier this year that prohibits officers from offering first aid to shooting victims (including those they themselves have shot) or from removing the body, such as taking the victim to the hospital. It was also reported this week that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's military police killed six alleged gang members who were believed to have carried out an attack on a Police Pacification Unit on Sunday that resulted in the death of one officer.
  • Wednesday, February 5, 2014

    A new wiretapping scandal casts doubt on the Colombian military's support for peace talks

    “It’s a relatively small place, near the Galerías shopping mall in western Bogotá. It now doesn’t have the sign outside that had idenfitied it, hanging over the two windows with glass that blocks the view of the interior. In a small terrace, under a black awning, there are eight tables and 24 chairs. Inside there are seven more tables, and a curved staircase that leads to a second floor, which has a large room with a gigantic television and computer workstations. …”

    “Despite the exotic combination of luncheonette and computer instruction center, a secret is hidden there: behind the facade is a National Army signals interception center.”

    The business described here was registered in Bogotá on September 12, 2012, just a few days after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the launch of talks with the FARC guerrilla group. From this room, reports an investigation published to the website (but not the paper version) of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, soldiers and civilian hackers working for Colombian military intelligence carried out illegal wiretaps and email intercepts.

    Their targets included “the same ones as always”–NGOs and leftist politicians. This is outrageous enough. But the Army unit was also tapping into the emails and text messages of the Colombian government team negotiating with the FARC in Havana, Cuba.

    “Jaramillo (Sergio Jaramillo [a negotiator and the high commissioner for peace]), Éder (Alejandro Éder [director of the presidential demobilization and reintegration office, and an alternate negotiator]) and De la Calle (Humberto de la Calle [the lead negotiator]) were some of those whom I remember. The idea was to try to obtain the largest amount of information about what they were talking about, and how it was going,…” a source told Semana.com.

    One of the most important, and most uncertain, questions about Colombia’s peace process with the FARC is the extent to which the country’s powerful military actually supports it. These new revelations multiply the uncertainty.

    President Juan Manuel Santos has gone to great lengths to keep the generals in the tent: defense and security are off the negotiating agenda, a prominent retired general is one of the negotiators, FARC calls for a bilateral cease-fire–which the military resists–have been flatly refused, and the Santos administration has tried (and so far failed) to give military courts greater jurisdiction over human rights cases, in what some analysts regard to be a quid pro quo.

    The chief of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Leonardo Barrero, insisted in a recent interview that “we feel very well represented in the dialogues.” But there is little doubt that a significant portion of the officer corps, who have all spent their entire career fighting the FARC, would prefer to end the conflict on the battlefield. It is for that reason that support for ex-president Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the negotiations, remains high among the officers. As María Isabel Rueda, a longtime reporter and columnist for Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, recently put it: “Soldiers have hearts too, and some of them still beat more for Uribe than for Santos.”

    If the armed conflict ends in Havana, Colombia’s military will be in for a rough time, institutionally. Officers and soldiers will be expecting gratitude, and there will be parades, medals, and ceremonies. But post-conflict Colombia will also hold the spectacle of officers accused of human rights abuses forced to undergo humiliating confessions as part of a transitional justice process. A truth commission will detail brutal behavior. And the armed forces, faced with a reality in which citizen security threats outrank national security threats, will find it very hard to justify a membership of 286,000 [PDF] soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. Latin America’s second-largest armed forces, and its largest army, could shrink considerably. (Colombia’s 175,000-strong police, however, could grow.)

    If the armed forces choose to resist these post-conflict shifts–starting now, while talks continue–they have some assets to deploy. They are huge and politically popular. They have important allies in Colombia’s political establishment, Álvaro Uribe high among them. And they have a crucial ally in the United States, which has forged a deep and broad military-to-military relationship in the 14 years since “Plan Colombia” emerged. Military sources tell Semana that the Army intelligence unit that oversaw the spying operation gets generous support from the CIA. We do not know, though, whether any of the equipment used in the wiretap/luncheonette came from the United States.

    The U.S. role is very important. The Obama administration, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Southern Command can do much to determine whether Colombia’s civil-military relationship is smooth or friction-filled over the next several years. The key is in the messages that they convey to their allies in the Colombian armed forces–and the central message should be that illegal or undemocratic behavior is counter-productive and will damage the bilateral relationship. And that undermining an elected civilian president’s effort to negotiate peace, or to reconcile the country afterward, counts as “illegal and undemocratic behavior.”

    As criminal investigators try to piece together this new military spying scandal, those messages from the Colombian military’s U.S. “partners” should be louder and clearer than ever.

    Wednesday, February 5, 2014

    Restructuring U.S. aid to Colombia


    The President of Colombia's Congress, Juan Fernando Cristo, was in Washington, DC two weeks ago to promote the idea of a "Plan Colombia II" to lawmakers. This proposed restructuring of aid that would move away from funding security forces, and instead would focus on providing for conflict victims, promoting rural development, ensuring human rights and repairing the justice system. He appeared at WOLA's forum, "Perspectives on Colombia’s Peace Process and Opportunities for U.S. Engagement," which can be viewed here.

    Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported on Senator Cristo’s visit and the increasing debate in Washington about how aid should be restructured in Colombia, should a peace agreement be reached. Some key quotes from Cristo highlighted in the article:

    It is fundamental that once we sign the peace agreement, we have a defined strategy for how the Colombian state, with the cooperation of the international community, will socially, militarily, and territorially deal with the zones where conflict has traditionally existed and where there are illegal activities like coca cultivation.

    It is important that the United States, just as it contributed with Plan Colombia by strengthening the military superiority of the State against the against subversion, also commit politically and economically to the Colombian people to be able to have success in the post-conflict era.

    We achieved positive results [in Plan Colombia], and that’s why we think it’s necessary to continue to strengthen American cooperation, now not for war, but for peace.

    According to WOLA's Adam Isacson, while USAID has begun to rethink its funding in the country, other U.S. government agencies do not yet appear to have begun any deep thinking about how to shift assistance. El Espectador noted that because the State Department will send Congress its budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 in just a few weeks, redirecting aid for a post-conflict Colombia will more likely happen in 2016.

    Given that Colombia is the United States’ main security partner in the region, U.S. support, financial and otherwise, will be needed for a post-conflict transition. As of right now, the U.S. provides Colombia with around $400 million in assistance, 60 percent of which is military and police aid, including anti-drug strategies like fumigation and interdiction as well as intelligence. An agreement with the FARC on drug trafficking would need to be met with reoriented budgets. As Isacson noted, a move away from investing in the costly drug war will free up assets to support any agreements reached in the peace accord.

    The article highlights two issues on drug policy where analysts say the United States would need to be more flexible to support a peace accord: the extradition of FARC members and aerial fumigation, which the U.S. has supported for years with little success, and which could likely be done away with in an agreement.

    To read the article in its entirety in Spanish, read here.

    CIP intern Sebastian Belloni provided the translations for this blog

    Friday, January 17, 2014

    The Year in Review: U.S. Policy in 2013

    In 2013, there were some subtle changes in U.S. policy towards Latin America. However, many events in the region have set the stage for the United States to possibly make some difficult policy choices in 2014, from Uruguay legalizing marijuana, to Colombia’s possible peace accords, to new shifts in the drug trade and increased militarization of law enforcement.

    As we move into the New Year and start to think about U.S.-Latin America relations going forward, we wanted to take a step back and look at some trends and highlights that will guide decisions going forward. Here is a roundup of events that in some way influenced U.S. security policy towards the region in 2013 and will affect U.S. policy in 2014.

    United States’ Security Relationship
    In 2013, the Obama administration engaged more with Latin America than it had in the past four years, with Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama traveling to the region and meeting with various leaders.

    While the United States continued to devote military assistance for the drug war in Latin America, Mexico and Colombia shifted the focus of their conversations with the United States from security to economics. Despite this shift, the two countries held their spot as the top two U.S. military and police aid recipients in the region and will continue to do so, although the big-ticket aid packages to both, Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative, are in decline.

    There were a few developments over the past year to keep an eye on going forward:

  • Although Plan Colombia will be scaled back over the next few years, Colombia's training of foreign forces with U.S. funds will increase. In 2013, there 39 training events in four Central American countries with U.S. funding. (Read more here). In 2014, this cooperation will triple to 152 trainings in six countries, according to the White House. (The total number of trainees is unknown.) This excludes other U.S.-backed trainings within Colombia.
  • Increasing assistance to Central America and Peru. This year the United States continued with Operation Martillo, its counternarcotics surge operation along Central America’s coasts, and funded numerous other military counternarcotics initiatives in Central America, many of which were laid out in our September Just the Facts Military trends report. Although murder rates in Central America were either the same or slightly lower in 2013, heavy violence continued as Mexican cartels spread operations into the region. In the 2014 budget request, funds for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) increased by $26 million over 2013.

    This year, anti-drug assistance to Peru reached $100 million, almost double 2012's $55 million, due to the country’s increase in coca cultivation and the Peruvian government’s stated commitment to eradicating crops and targeting narcotraffickers and Shining Path rebels.

  • Shifts to the Caribbean: Top U.S. officials said over the course of this year that drug traffickers are shifting their routes back to the Caribbean, a trend that is likely to develop further in 2014, due to increased counternarcotics efforts in Central America.
  • Assistance to Honduras: This year activists and several lawmakers questioned the legitimacy of U.S. security assistance to Honduras, following several reports linking military and police officers to extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. The United States had held up several millions over concerns that the (now) former police chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” had been linked to death squads, claiming it did not directly fund Bonilla and would only fund those “two steps below” him. However, the Associated Press later reported that all units, regardless of rank, were under Bonilla’s control and quoted Bonilla saying the United States had been his “best ally and support.”

    In March, the United States stopped funding a failing police reform altogether after reports that hundreds of officers that had failed confidence tests had remained on the force. Since then, the country has only become more militarized as a newly created military police force started patrolling in October and the corruption, massive fiscal troubles and spiraling crime and violence that racked the country going into 2013 has continued into 2014. It was recently announced that Juan Carlos Bonilla has been fired, but the amount of U.S. assistance released to Honduras remains to be seen in light of all other police and military abuse reports.

  • Militarization of law enforcement

  • In 2013, governments throughout the region increased their use of militaries to carry out law enforcement duties. We documented this trend in Brazil, Guatmala, Honduras and Venezuela. However it is also true in Paraguay, Mexico, and even Argentina (which, after years of excluding the military from internal security, has recently sought more U.S. assistance for Army counternarcotics operations.) Although human rights activists and analysts criticized this trend, the pattern appears to be deepening in the first weeks of 2014.

    In most of these countries, much-needed police reform efforts are flailing, due to lack of funding and political will as violence soars. Much of this has happened with tacit U.S. approval.

  • Elections

    In 2013, a few countries in Latin America voted in new leaders that will affect the region’s security landscape.

    New leadership in 2013:

  • Honduras: Conservative ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez won November’s controversial presidential election amid allegations of fraud. In 2014, he will likely take a hardline approach to security as he has said he wanted to put a “soldier on every street corner.” U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern over the country’s militarized security strategy.
  • Venezuela: On March 5, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died. The 10-month rule of Chávez’ successor, Nicolas Maduro, whose election was hotly contested, has been marked by runaway inflation, political gaffes, increasing censorship of the opposition, an uptick in homicides and increasing militarization. Corruption and drug trafficking in the military remain central issues. Like Chávez, Maduro blamed the United States and the opposition for many of the country’s afflictions, despite initial signs of warming relations with Washington.
  • Paraguay: Horacio Cartes, of the country’s Colorado party, was the first elected leader since the country’s “Golpeachment” in June 2012, despite his ties to corruption and the drug trade. Within a week of Cartes taking his oath, the country’s Congress awarded him the power to deploy the military domestically, in response to a renewed push by a small guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People’s Army.
  • Drug Policy

    In 2013, there was a notable push throughout Latin America to move away from U.S.-promoted prohibition and eradication and towards a drug policy based on a public health approach. This momentum to find alternatives to the drug war can be seen in June’s Organization of American States meeting, themed “Alternative Strategies for Combating Drugs.” So far however the United States has said it will not support marijuana legalization at the national level.

  • Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the production and sale of marijuana. The president of neighboring Paraguay, the largest producer of marijuana in the region, claimed it would encourage cross-border trafficking and drive production in his country. In 2014, it will not only be important to see if these predictions come true, but also if violence associated with other drugs drops, which the Uruguayan government claims will happen as police become more available to focus on heavier narcotics.
  • On January 1, 2014 Colorado became the first U.S. state to regulate commercial production and sale of recreational marijuana. Washington State will soon follow. In 2014 it will be interesting to see whether this leads to a drop in Mexican marijuana trafficking and/or violence on the border. As the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica reaffirmed, it will unlikely lead to change in drug policy towards Latin America.
  • Domestic drugs markets in Latin America increased in 2013, most notably in Argentina and Brazil, which are supplied by coca production in Bolivia and Peru, the latter of which overtook Colombia this year as the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
  • Although Colombia made no legal changes in 2013, President Santos has indicated on numerous occasions that he is ready for a change if others go in that direction. It could be that in 2014 the country will undergo some changes to its drug policy as a result of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group. The two are currently discussing the issue of drug trafficking at peace negotiations taking place in Havana..
  • One year for Mexican President Peña Nieto

  • During his campaign, President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed a change in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels. He pledged to focus more on violence against citizens rather than on the militarized, U.S.-backed “kingpin” strategy so aggressively pursued by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, which drew criticism for splintering the cartels and causing violence to spike.

    However, this year Peña Nieto’s security strategy showed little departure from years past, sending federal troops to hotbeds of crime and violence and working closely with the U.S. to bring down top traffickers. Unlike Calderón however, he did not publicly promote his war on the cartels, instead choosing to put the spotlight on economy and reform. He also limited U.S. agencies’ access to Mexican security forces, channeling all bilateral law enforcement contact through the Ministry of the Interior, the effects of which remain to be seen.

    Murders did drop slightly in 2013, however the number of kidnappings and extortion skyrocketed and armed citizen self-defense groups surged, citing the government’s inability to protect them from the cartels.

    One year in, Peña Nieto has yet to articulate a clear plan or timeline for his overall security strategy. Heading into 2014, several security problems remain, but two major ones include: ongoing impunity for abuses and corruption committed by security officials, and the rise of vigilante groups that are clashing with the drug cartels and federal troops, particularly in the western part of the country. Many worry the groups will follow the path taken by paramilitary groups in Colombia, widening the criminal landscape.

  • El Salvador gang truce

  • Going into 2013, there was hope the truce between El Salvador’s two rival gangs, the MS-13 and Barrio 18, that had initially caused the murder rate to halve in 2012, would yield even more security gains as neighboring Guatemala and Honduras continued to be plagued by drug trafficking and high homicide rates due to gang violence.

    But going into 2014, the truce is eroding and few believe it will become a viable security solution, no matter the outcome of February’s presidential elections. Although an El Faro report this year revealed the government’s undeniable role in facilitating the truce, the administration of President Mauricio Funes has refused to admit its role, due to an ever-increasing lack of political and public support. The United States did not come out for or against the deal, allotting funding to several other security-focused initiatives over the year, but none specifically aligned with the truce.

    El Salvador ended 2013 with a lower homicide rate than 2012, but disappearances doubled, murders steadily crept up in the last six months of the year – a trend that has continued into 2014 – and mass graves possibly linked to gang violence were found, increasing skepticism about the agreement’s actual gains. If the truce falls apart, El Salvador could see a spike in violence.

  • Colombia peace process

  • In 2013, advances in peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government signaled both sides’ commitment to finding a resolution to end the country’s fifty-year internal conflict. However the talks continue to be met with cautious optimism. The negotiating teams have made more progress than in any previous peace talks, hammering out deals on two of the root causes of the conflict: land reform and the guerrillas’ political participation. The Obama administration expressed strong support for talks throughout the year, which will be crucial in to ensure a post-conflict transition, given Colombia is the U.S.’ main security partner in Latin America.

    Although the talks closed 2013 without much movement on the third agenda point – the drug trade--there remains the sense that both sides are committed to reaching an agreement. President Santos has all but staked his re-election on the negotiations. In 2014, it is likely that the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s smaller—but also nearly 50-year-old—guerrilla group, will begin negotiations with the government.

  • Friday, January 17, 2014

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    U.S. Policy

  • House Committee on Foreign Affairs
    The Houses’ Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing, “NAFTA at Twenty: Accomplishments, Challenges and the Way Forward.” The list of testifying witnesses was a mix of leaders of nonprofit and for profit organizations.
  • Obama to Mexico
    President Obama had a call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Monday, in which he congratulated Peña Nieto for the “important reforms” he pushed through in his first year in office. President Obama will travel to Mexico for a North American summit on February 19.
  • SOUTHCOM in Guatemala
    The head of U.S. Southern Command, General John Kelly, was in Guatemala this week to evaluate the progress of a counternarcotics task force the U.S. helped set up along the country’s northern border with Mexico. The United States and Guatemala are in negotiations to set up a similar task force along the country’s border with Honduras, Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre reported.
  • SOUTHCOM in Honduras
    The United States has offered
    to help Honduras build an international airport at the Soto Cano military airbase, from which U.S. military troops have operated since the early 1980s. Currently Joint Task Force Bravo is stationed there, the main U.S. force used to carry out counternarcotics operations in the country.
  • Help from the Vatican with Cuba
    Secretary of State John Kerry asked the Vatican, which has relatively good relations with the Cuba, to help with the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned on the island since 2009.
  • U.S. policies on sending migrants to Mexico
    Mexicali, Mexico has become the “world’s biggest landing pad for sent-back immigrants,” the Washington Post reported. Larger cities like Tijuana and Juarez used to be the main “drop-off” points but due to shifting U.S. immigration policies and the strong influence of the drug cartels, U.S. officials are now deporting immigrants to smaller border cities.
  • Omnibus spending bill
    The United States Congress passed a $1.012 trillion omnibus spending bill (PDF)for Fiscal Year 2014. Two of the bill’s provisions are the Defense Appropriations and State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations, which fund many of the aid programs tracked by Just the Facts.
  • Mexico

  • Self-defense and army clash in Michoacán
    The biggest story this week was the vigilante movement in Mexico’s western Michoacán state, particularly around the city of Apatzingan, a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug gang. On Monday the Interior Minister Osorio Chong announced the government would be sending more troops to the region. Until now, federal troops had been reluctant to get involved, or had even worked with the groups, but this week ramped up their engagement to disarm them. By Saturday security forces will control all 27 municipalities in the Tierra Caliente region where Michoacán is located. So far Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has remained fairly silent on the issue, but has appointed a special commissioner to oversee the federal government’s response.

    The New York Times deftly explained the Mexican government’s “Catch 22:”

    Should it disarm the loosely organized gunmen who have risen up to fight the drug cartels, risking deadly clashes with some of the very citizens it has been accused of failing to protect in the first place?

    Or should it back down and let these nebulous outfits — with little or no police training, uncertain loyalties and possible ties to another criminal gang — continue to fight against the region’s narcotics rings, possibly leading to a bloody showdown?

    Reporting from the New York Times and other outlets indicated that many residents in fact support the vigilante groups and are disillusioned with security force involvement, particularly after the shooting of three civilians Wednesday. For a list of links to coverage in both English and Spanish, see the Just the Facts Mexico news page and the Pan-American Post.

  • Mexico’s police reform
    In the first six months of 2013, Mexico’s 31 states along with the Federal District did not use 88 percent of the available funds the government slated for vetting police. Initially, states were required to complete the vetting programs by December 29, 2013, but because of the delay, will now have until October 2014. More from Milenio and InSight Crime.
  • Colombia

  • Colombian cocaine labs
    Vocativ featured a video special on shifts in the Colombian cocaine trade that highlighted two of the latest trends to shake security forces’ counternarcotics efforts: the move from using huge processing labs in the jungle to small and disposable urban labs and the rise of trafficking the drug in liquid form, which is less detectable. The video also featured an anonymous trafficker who claimed, “legalization would be devastating, it would end the business.”
  • FARC ceasefire ends
    On Wednesday, the FARC ended its 30-day unilateral ceasefire. Colombian think tank CERAC documented the group’s deviation from the ceasefire and found that while the FARC decreased activity by 65 percent, there were 12 violations. Varying sources place the number of violations between four and twelve. Semana magazine wrote that despite these incidents, many analysts said the guerrilla group was largely able to hold the ceasefire, demonstrating the central Secretariat’s control over (almost) all of its fronts, a point that would be key to implementing any eventual peace deal. More analysis from InSight Crime ’s Jeremy McDermott who says while this is true, it also shows the risk of FARC fragmentation is a real possibility.

    On Thursday the government attributed a bombing in western Colombia that wounded 56 people to the FARC. The group said it was “surprised” by the attack and that if one of its fronts had in fact carried it out, it was an error.

  • FARC’s proposed drug reform
    On Tuesday, as the Colombian government and the FARC began their latest round of talks on drug trafficking, the guerrilla group released its proposed drug policy plan to regulate the production and sale of coca, poppy and marijuana. The plan also promoted demilitarization of drug- producing regions and an end to aerial crop fumigations, (See the proposal in its entirety in Spanish here and a summary in here here). Colombian newspaper El Tiempo highlighted various experts saying demilitarizing drug-producing regions is not realistic for the government, given the presence of drug labs and trafficking routes in these same areas.
  • Peru’s “license to kill” law

  • A new law in Peru exempts police officers and soldiers who shoot civilians “in compliance with their duty” from prosecution. The measure drew heavy criticism from civil society organizations who said it was a “license to kill” and will only further existing impunity for abuses. Supporters of the bill said it would allow police to protect civilians more effectively. More from El País.
  • Panama fines North Korea

  • North Korea has agreed to pay Panama a $670,000 fine to reclaim the ship that was found carrying Cuban missile equipment through the Panama Canal last year.
  • Friday, December 20, 2013

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    Note: This will be the last blog post until January 8th. Happy Holidays!

    U.S. Policy

    Aerial fumigation of coca crops in Colombia halted

  • U.S.- funded aerial fumigation of coca in Colombia has been indefinitely suspended after two planes were shot down in late September and early October, allegedly by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which resulted in the death of one U.S. pilot.

    La Silla Vacía reported the United States has begun a security review of the plane crashes and that Colombia has not carried out any fumigation missions since late September. As InSight Crime reported, Colombia is going to miss its coca eradication target considerably this year, which could mean an increase in the reported amount of coca produced.

  • USAID to leave Ecuador

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced last Thursday it would be leaving Ecuador “as a result of the Government of Ecuador’s decision to prohibit approval of new USAID assistance programs.” Although the agency had reportedly allocated $32 million for programs in the country for the coming years, it will close its doors by September 2014. The news comes just six months after Bolivia expelled USAID for allegedly conspiring against the government.
  • Edward Snowden’s open letter to Brazilians

  • On Tuesday, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden wrote an open letter to Brazilians offering to help the Brazilian government investigate U.S. espionage practices in exchange for permanent asylum. Government officials said it had no plans to offer Snowden asylum.
  • Defense Purchases

  • Honduras purchased $30 million worth of radars from Israel, which are set to arrive in January for counternarcotics operations.
  • Brazil announced it awarded Sweden’s Saab (different than the car company) with a $4.5 billion deal for 36 fighter jets, over U.S.- based Boeing or the French company Dassault. The deal will likely be even more valuable for the Swedish company as it will get contracts for future supply, parts and maintenance for the jets.

    Most headlines attributed the Brazilian government’s decision to forgo Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, which had been considered the front runner for the bid earlier this year, to the diplomatic fallout with United States following revelations of the National Security Agency's espionage programs in the country. “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,”according to an anonymous government official. However, the Brazilian government’s official line has been that the decision was based on “performance, the effective transfer of technology and costs, not only of acquisition, but also of maintenance.” As the New York Times noted, the Saab model would be a significantly less-costly investment.

  • Bolivia announced it would be purchasing six Superpuma helicopters for $221.2 million in efforts to ramp up its fight against drug trafficking. This week the government announced that while coca eradication has increased in the country, cocaine seizures are down. More from InSight Crime.
  • Peru has made several defense purchases recently. This week the government announced it would purchase 24 helicopters from Russia intended for anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism missions in the Apurimac and Ene Valley (VRAE) region, which produces more coca than any other region in the world. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the announcement followings the purchase of two Italian-made military transport airplanes for around $122 million and 20 training airplanes from Korea Aerospace Industries.

    On Tuesday Peruvian special forces destroyed 20 clandestine airstrips in the VRAE region. The mission was carried our by 224 security agents, 10 helicopters and five hovercrafts, according to the Associated Press.

  • Uruguay ‘Country of the Year’

  • The Economist named “modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving” Uruguay ‘The Country of the Year,’ lauding the nation’s most recent legislation legalizing the production and sale of marijuana. “If others followed suit, and other narcotics were included, the damage such drugs wreak on the world would be drastically reduced,” praised the publication.
  • Guatemala contemplating legalizing poppy cultivation

  • Guatemala is going to debate legalizing the cultivation of poppy, a principal component in heroin, for medical purposes. According to the country’s interior minister, the government is considering both regulated legal cultivation and alternative development, International Business Times reported. More from La Tercera.
  • Mexico’s list of the top 69 arrested or killed drug traffickers this year

  • The Mexican government released a list of 69 drug cartel capos captured or killed out of the 122 most wanted drug traffickers in the country. A look at the list reveals the Zeta drug gang has been the most affected of the cartels. More from the Associated Press and Animal Politico.
  • Report on the rise of vigilante groups in Mexico

  • On Tuesday Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) released a report on the rise of vigilante groups in the country. The body said the government should not allow the groups to form as they undermine the rule of law and could lead to more violence, noting however that lack of security in several areas was fomenting their growth. As Animal Politico reported, the Guerrero state government has funded some of these groups. In that state alone, CNDH documented 7,000 members of self-defense groups, which have expanded their reach to 56 percent of the state’s territory.
  • New report examining the FARC’s strategy during peace talks

  • A new report (pdf, summary here) by Colombian think tank Fundación Paz y Reconciliación examined how the FARC’s military strategy has changed during the peace talks. According to the report, the FARC have maintained similar levels of activity since 2010, but have been able to adapt their tactics to the rhythm of the peace talks, planning offensives or declaring truces, depending on the status of the negotiations in Havana. Some interesting findings included:
    • The FARC have 11,000 fighters, as opposed to the 8,000 alleged by the Colombian government, and have a presence in 11 regions and 242 municipalities, or about 20 percent of the country.
    • In the last two months the FARC have allied with the National Liberation Army, the country’s second-largest insurgency. This has lead to an increase in attacks on oil, mining and gas infrastructure in the country.
    • The FARC have increased their influence in social movements and protests, including the recent coca growers strike.

    The report reveals a great deal about the guerrilla group’s sustained capacity. More from InSight Crime and Colombia Reports about the report in English and from Semana and El Espectador in Spanish.

  • Honduras new police and military leadership

  • On Thursday, Honduran President Porifirio Lobo fired the country’s national police chief, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who had been linked to death squads and forced disappearances as a lower-ranking officer. The move came at the behest of President-elect, Juan Orlando Hernández, who has “expressed skepticism” about police reform efforts. Under Bonilla, Honduras’ police have been accused of abuse and extrajudicial killings. More from the Associated Press.

    As Honduras Culture and Politics also noted, there were other major shake-ups in the high command of the country’s security forces: the military is getting a new commander, Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelayaya, who was fundamental in creating the new military police. The Air Force and Navy will also be under new leadership as will the joint military and police task force. See the post for a full run-down of the new positions. As El Heraldo noted, under Hernández, Honduras’ military will continue to play a key role in domestic security.

  • Chile’s new president

  • As of last Sunday, Michelle Bachelet is set to be Chile’s new president. As several outlets have noted, Bachelet made significant promises during her campaign, with increased taxes and education reform as her hallmark initiatives. Many analysts have noted she will need serious momentum to overcome a slowing economy and congressional opposition to push through major proposed reforms, like changing the Pinochet-era electoral system and constitution. More from the Time, Americas Quarterly, the Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor.
  • Friday, December 6, 2013

    The Week in Review

    The following is a round-up of some of the top security-related articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

    Entire Region

  • The Latin Americanist and Pan American Post had roundups of Latin American leaders' reactions to the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela on Thursday. As both noted, Venezuela and Nicaragua have called for three national days of mourning.
  • Colombia

  • President Santos met with President Obama in the Oval Office for two and a half hours Tuesday morning. After the meeting, Santos described relations between the two countries as “at their best moment ever.” See this Just the Facts post for a summary of news and analysis on the visit.

    Despite the optimistic tones of the meeting with President Obama, President Santos criticized the United States’ Cuba policy while speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Congress. “I think Cuba would be willing to change, and both sides have to give in some way,” saying that the moment is “now” for diplomacy to change. At the Organization of American States, President Santos reiterated his stance on creating alternative policies to the drug war and asked members to promote an open discussion on drug policy.

  • Pablo Escobar

  • Monday December 2nd was the 20th anniversary of Pablo Escobar’s death. There was coverage in both English and Spanish on the infamous drug lord’s divisive legacy including pieces from the BBC, El Tiempo (multimedia feature), and BBC Mundo. Longtime Medellín journalist Jeremy McDermott noted that while Medellín remains the epicenter of narcotrafficking in Colombia, the nature of the drug trade and landscape of the criminal underworld has changed significantly since the downfall of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.
  • Peace Talks

  • On Monday, lead FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo read out a ten-point anti-narcotics plan in Havana. Some of the changes in drug policy listed in the communiqué are not too different from what many leaders in Latin America, including Colombia’s President Santos, have been calling for, which include: demilitarization of drug policy, immediate suspension of (U.S.-backed) coca fumigation programs, and the treatment of psychoactive drug use as a public health problem along with the decriminalization of drug consumption.

    The group also proposed the state recognize the “food, medicinal, therapeutic, industrial and cultural uses of cultivating coca leaves, marijuana and poppy” as part of an illicit crop substitution program. The Colombian government rejected this. As a recommended read from InSight Crime analyzing the obstacles and opportunities in the talks regarding the drug trade noted, “The chance of striking an agreement with such a key member of the drug trafficking underworld offers the Colombian authorities an unprecedented opportunity.” More from the AFP.

  • Colombia's Defense Minister in D.C.

  • On Monday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón spoke at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He discussed Colombia’s currently military strategy as well as defense plans going forward. The transcript can be read here.
  • Mexico

  • December 1st marked Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first year in office. There were several analysis, including from: Alfredo Corchado, James Bosworth, the Washington Office on Latin America, David Agren for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, analyst Alejandro Hope, the Pan-American Post and InSight Crime, which included an overview of Mexico’s current criminal setting.

    Most of the analysis touched on the fact that while President Peña Nieto is distinct from former President Calderón in that fighting the cartels has not been the public focus of his government, the policy of deploying the military and federal police to criminal hotspots has continued. As a result, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch have blasted Peña Nieto for the justice system’s ongoing impunity for murder and abuses committed by security officials. Although homicides have dropped in some areas, kidnapping has skyrocketed. As analyst James Bosworth asserted, “the two key issues, security and economic growth, have not seen the improvements Peña Nieto promised during his campaign.”

  • Fugitive Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero sent President Peña Nieto a letter urging him to resist U.S. “pressure” to capture and extradite him for the 1985 killing of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Quintero had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence when a Mexican court allowed his release, drawing heavy criticism from the United States. Mexico’s Supreme Court has since overturned the ruling and Mexican and U.S. authorities have issued warrants for Quintero’s arrest. More from the Los Angeles Times and Fox News Latino.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America released a new report on security and migration along the United States-Mexico border on Thursday.
  • Transparency International report

  • Transparency International released its 2013 Corruption Index Tuesday and found there has been little improvement in the region’s most corrupt countries. Venezuela, Paraguay and Honduras had the highest indexes of corruption, while Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica ranked as the least corrupt. Central America in general was found to be more corrupt than last year, with an uptick in drug trafficking cited as the main cause. More from InSight Crime and International Business Times.
  • Ecuador

  • In an effort to reduce the size of Ecuador’s armed forces, President Rafael Correa proposed creating financial incentives for officers to retire from the military and law civilian law enforcement bodies.
  • Panama

  • The U.S. Department of Defense said there were no plans for toxin-filled munitions abandoned by the U.S. Army on San Jose Island in 1947 to be returned and destroyed. Despite a statement by Panama’s foreign minister last month that the aging chemical weapons would be returned, the Pentagon has said it would be sending experts to the Central American country. This has been a contentious issue between the two countries for some time.
  • Venezuela

  • On Sunday, Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect 365 mayors and 2,389 municipal representatives. Some analysts have described this vote as a “referendum” on President Maduro’s first eight months in office. As Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reported, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles has campaigned hard for his MUD party, visiting 117 municipalities compared to Maduro’s 21. Americas Society/Council of the Americas has an explainer on the elections and analyst Luis Vincente León looks at possible outcomes from the elections, noting that some of Maduro’s most recent political tricks, such as lowering the prices of electronics and other goods, could tip the scale in his favor. Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog has a useful cheat sheet.
  • El Salvador

  • Most of the firearms in El Salvador come from the United States, according to the country’s national police (PNC). With training from the U.S. Office on Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the PNC has tracked nearly 34,000 weapons, the majority of which came from the United States. While some are left over from Central America’s civil wars, modern weapon discoveries suggest new arms trafficking networks. More from InSight Crime and La Prensa Grafica.
  • Honduras

  • Last week, Honduras’ electoral court announced conservative ruling party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez winner of the country's presidential elections. On Monday, Hernández’s closest competitor and wife of deposed former President Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro of the LIBRE party, filed a formal complaint claiming fraud in the election. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) agreed to count the tally sheets on Wednesday, however officials delayed doing so after claiming members of the LIBRE failed to appear. The LIBRE leadership claimed the TSE's procedures were insufficient and had suggested other mechanisms. As Honduras Culture and Politics blog noted, LIBRE and the TSE had never agreed to specifics in the procedure and therefore had no official start date to begin vote counting. See this Just the Facts post post by Latin America Working group for more on foul play in the electoral process.
  • Tuesday, December 3, 2013

    Five points on President Obama's meeting with Colombia's President Santos

    Today, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with President Obama for two and a half hours at the White House. This was the fourth meeting between the two leaders since President Santos took office in August of 2010.

    There was a fair amount of media coverage ahead of the meeting, not only about what the discussion would cover, but also about the meeting’s political context. Here are five points various articles and analyses have discussed and what the White House overview of the meeting said about them:

    1. This visit was different. Both Colombia and the United States stressed the meeting was more about their economic ties than their security relationship

    Much of the media attention ahead of the visit focused on the fact that this visit marked a turning point in U.S.-Colombian relations away from centering on security and towards economic partnership. President Santos told Caracol Radio Monday morning this meeting would be “totally different” as Colombia is no longer “coming with the hat out, asking for money.” Now Colombia wants to be seen as a different kind of partner to the United States. “The relations of our two countries find themselves at their best moment ever,” President Santos said in his remarks after the meeting.

    For the past 20 years, the U.S.-Colombia relationship has been defined by Washington’s support for Colombia’s fight against guerillas, paramilitaries and narcotrafficking. In recent years, there was also the added push to get Congress to approve the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA went into effect last year, increasing trade between the countries by 20 percent. While Colombia is still the top recipient of U.S. assistance to the region, aid is at the lowest levels since before 2000, at less than $300 million per year.

    Moreover, EFE and Colombian newspaper El Tiempo noted this meeting was important for President Obama’s image in the region as President Santos was the first (and really only) leader in Latin America “who offered President Obama a hand to recover,” following revelations of the National Security Archive’s extensive surveillance of citizens, companies and leaders throughout the hemisphere. President Obama’s former Latin America advisor, Dan Restrepo said, “this is an important meeting for the United States as it allows it to focus on a positive agenda… it’s a relationship that has turned the page.”

    2. President Obama supports the peace talks

    The peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were expected to be one of the central topics of the private meeting. Also on the agenda: trade, opportunities for energy, education, technology, and Colombia’s role in training security forces in Central America and the Caribbean.

    As expected, President Obama emphasized his “strong support” for the peace process and praised President Santos’ “bold and brazen efforts” in engaging in discussions with the FARC. The administration has expressed support for the peace talks over the past year, but the backing of the United States is crucial in the negotiations.

    So far the negotiating teams have reached agreements on agrarian development and the FARC’s political participation, but as the talks progress and both sides tackle contentious issues such as drug policy, demobilization and reintegration, transitional justice and extradition, international cooperation will be key. As Colombia is the United States’ main security partner in the region, U.S. support, financial and otherwise, will be needed to ensure a successful post-conflict transition.

    Colombian magazine Semana reported President Santos was expected to request support from the U.S. as Colombia moves towards this transition. A statement released today by Latin American Working Group, the Center for International Policy, the Washington Office on Latin America and U.S. Office on Colombia emphasized this:

    U.S. policymakers should also consider how best to support a peace accord financially once negotiations are finalized, including by reorienting aid away from military assistance and towards peace accord implementation, such as demobilization and reintegration programs, support for victims of violence, and mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations.

    3. The United States’ security relationship with Colombia is changing

    The United States is planning to decrease its role in security operations in Colombia and shift its assistance into economic arenas, according to reports from a phone call between journalists and a White House senior official. The official said U.S. security assistance was “designed to be phased out over time” and because “conditions have been improving on the ground” security assistance is likely to be scaled back.

    As an article in Foreign Policy noted, elite forces from U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Air Force have deployed to Colombia since 2000 to work closely with the Colombians and that U.S. Special Forces will continue to train Colombian security forces. (See here for information of U.S. military training of Colombian forces)

    Speaking at an event yesterday in Washington, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said the Colombian military would continue to train military and police forces in Central America and the Caribbean with U.S. funding. As expected, President Obama and President Santos covered this topic and agreed to triple joint U.S.- Colombian trainings throughout the hemisphere:

    In 2013, this security assistance included 39 capacity-building activities in four Central American countries focused on areas such as asset forfeiture, investigations, polygraphs, and interdiction. The United States and Colombia announced the Action Plan for 2014, which aims to increase assistance through 152 capacity-building activities in six countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

    4. Human rights and Labor issues exist that must be addressed

    The statement mentioned above from the four Washington-baed NGOs called for the meeting to highlight serious labor and human rights problems that persist in the country. Some of the issues discussed during the meeting:

    • Land Restitution and Afro-Colombians
      Colombia passed the historic Victim’s Law in 2011, which aimed to offer reparations to victims and return land to some of the more than five million Colombians displaced because of violence. This process has been extremely slow, and those that have received restitution from the government often cannot return to the land for fear of being threatened or killed by armed actors, particularly paramilitary successor groups. Land titling for Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups in Colombia, who also continue to be marginalized and targeted, has been particularly slow.

      The White House underscored the $68 million slated by USAID in support of this effort and said it intended to “expand the coverage of legal protection of land rights, especially those of small farmers, by strengthening the Colombian government’s land titling efforts.”

    • Labor rights
      Labor rights continue to be a huge issue in Colombia. Since January at least 11 trade unionists have been killed and hundreds more threatened. Impunity for murder cases of unionists runs at about 90% and workers who try to form unions are fired en mass. When the Colombian government signed the FTA, it also signed a “Labor Action Plan,” which obligated lawmakers to take specific steps to protect unionists and increase respect for labor rights. The majority of these steps have yet to be taken.

      Regarding the Labor Action Plan, the White House said the two countries planned to “hold formal meetings through at least 2014 on Action Plan commitments and recognize advances under the Action Plan ad areas where challenges remain.”

    The organizations’ statement also called for greater progress to be made in dismantling paramilitary successor groups, responsible for much of the violence and drug trafficking taking place today. It highlighted the need to investigate and prosecute the politicians, military and police members and large landowners that collude with these groups as well as the need to bring the over 3,000 military members accused of extrajudicial killings to justice.

    5. U.S. political divisions and the peace process

    This point was not discussed at all in English media, but touched on in Colombia. So far support for the peace process has been bipartisan, although some anti-Castro lawmakers have voiced their opposition to Havana hosting the talks. As Restrepo and Georgetown Professor Erick Langer noted, the U.S Congress has elections coming up next November and Colombia must be ready to ensure this bipartisan support continues in light of the uncertain makeup of next year’s Congress.

    “Santos has to ensure that the Republicans feel that they are part of this process and it is not just an Obama issue. Traditionally the United States has maintained strong support for Colombia. But with the degree of polarization that exists currently in Washington creates the worry that this could change,” Langer said.

    During his visit Santos also spoke to the Organization of American States, met with Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, with Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, among others. On Wednesday morning, he will appear on Morning Joe followed by a breakfast with the Washington Post’s editorial board and a lunch at the Chamber of Commerce.

    For a list of links to more articles in Spanish and English, please see our Just the Facts Colombia news page.