The arrest of a high-level Colombian guerrilla commander on January 3 was a major symbolic victory in President Alvaro Uribe’s war against the FARC. Along with the capture of oligarch-turned-insurgent “Simon Trinidad” by Ecuadorian police in Quito, the government has reported a welcome drop in violence. These successes notwithstanding, there are serious concerns about some of Uribe’s tactics and how they may impede further progress. In fact, Uribe’s 18-month U.S.-backed offensive has not significantly debilitated the leftist ELN and FARC guerrillas in their strongholds nor addressed collaboration between his forces and the right-wing AUC paramilitary group.
Progress on either front is less likely since the Bush Administration last week certified Colombia’s compliance with human rights conditions, a dubious assertion that sends a dangerous message to the Colombian armed forces and misses another opportunity to pursue vital military reforms.
Every year the U.S. government and the UN report that segments of the Colombian security forces back the paramilitaries, sometimes providing intelligence, coordinating operations, or looking the other way. In one horrifying case, Colombia’s Internal Affairs agency determined that Admiral Rodrigo Quiñones allowed paramilitaries to travel to the village of Chengue in 2001and massacre 27 civilians with boulders and a sledgehammer. Investigators have linked him to other paramilitary atrocities, but his only punishment is a five-year probation from government employment and the military’s social clubs.
There is an ongoing debate about whether an end to the abhorrent violence of the guerrillas and paramilitaries will be reached through negotiations, military operations or both. What cannot be disputed is that – along with ending the neglect of land reform, economic development, institution building and more effective use of the security forces against all illegal groups – cracking down on the paramilitaries and their supporters is essential.
Rural Colombians continue to witness the security forces commiting abuses and working alongside paramilitary death squads, convincing some that the government is as an enemy and that otherwise unappealing guerrilla recruitment efforts should not be dismissed too quickly. As long as these links are maintained and those responsible are not held accountable, military circuses and other public relations gimicks will fail to win over enough hearts and minds.
Today there are occasional captures of low-level paramilitaries. And President Uribe has deployed the police to towns where they were previously absent, a move that could provoke more violence but appears to be an important step towards eventually retaking territory from the guerrillas and paramilitaries. Yet, Colombia’s prominent Semana news magazine and other observers report that increased military operations so far have not stopped paramilitary groups from consolidating control in many areas, particularly where civil society has been incapacitated. During the first six months of 2003, the paramilitaries killed over 600 civilians despite their declared ceasefire.
Although the U.S. labels the paramilitaries as “terrorists,” breaking their links to the military has not been a priority for Washington or Bogotá:
• Instead of replacing his retiring military commander with a moderate or reformer, in October President Uribe tapped General Carlos Ospina. Government investigators allege that when General Ospina commanded an Army brigade in Medellín in the late 1990s, his troops collaborated with paramilitaries in the El Aro massacre and other paramilitary outrages. General Ospina made a splash in Washington last year by accusing human rights organizations of backing the guerrillas.
• President Uribe could use current U.S.-supported negotiations with the AUC to stand up to the killers and show his countrymen that the government truly has ended its reliance on the paramilitaries. So far, however, skeptics’ views have only been reinforced. While offering concessions in exchange for demobilization is common to peace processes, the first paramilitary disarmament ceremony in Colombia was more theater than progress towards peace. “Don Berna,” an infamous drug lord and head of the AUC’s Cacique Nutibarra Bloc, defiantly declared to a reporter “I will not serve one day in jail,” as some 850 of his men turned in about 200 weapons on November 25.
• U.S. policymakers have also failed to leverage U.S. assistance to send the message that the Colombian military must clean up its act. Amendments offered by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to modestly reduce the amount of military aid to Colombia have fallen short by a handful of votes.
• In order to force an agreement exempting Americans in Colombia from extradition to the International Criminal Court, the Bush Administration temporarily suspended $5 million in aid last year. But rather than holding up $34 million of some $700 million in aid, and showing the Colombians that the U.S. commitment to human rights is more than rhetorical, last week the State Department once again ignored the evidence and certified that Colombia’s military is severing its connections to the paramilitaries. The long delay in announcing the certification evinces State’s private discomfort with Uribe’s human rights record, but no willingness to publicly confront him.
The certification message will reach rural Colombia and the pattern will persist, as families continue to see government security forces stand by while paramilitaries drag away young men, rape teenage girls, and unfortunately, radicalize the next generation. Until President Uribe, under international pressure or of his accord, tries to bring to justice people like Admiral Quiñones, Don Berna and AUC chieftain Carlos Castaño, arresting the Simon Trinidads of Colombia will be of only limited value.
Peter Clark is a Senior Associate at the U.S. Office on Colombia, www.usofficeoncolombia.org.