A vote for peace not Santos

President Santos has tried all the tricks in the book to make this election about war and peace.

He, his friends in the media, and virtually the entire political class, have told us to vote for the incumbent’s re-election or to face all out war with the FARC.

Mr Santos’ thesis is that only he is capable of delivering peace accords with the Marxist guerrillas; that each of the other four candidates would take Colombians “back to war”. Read more…

Keep FARC leader Timochenko alive for peace?

Colombia has a loose-tongued president.

Yesterday, Juan Manuel Santos told us he knew where FARC commander alias Timochenko is hiding, but claimed he’d “think twice” before ordering a shoot-to-kill.

Mr Santos believes Timochenko is essential to the peace talks in Havana and that removing him would spell an end to the dialogues.

Read more…

Restoring faith in Colombia`s military

How can we rebuild trust in Colombia`s military?

How to repair a reputation trashed by corruption, illegal espionage, and extra-judiciary civilian killings?

Two major scandals in less than a week have forced Santos to sack his military top brass and promise a purge of the bad apples in the lower ranks.

But this is unlikely to arrest the decline in the institution`s standing. Read more…

Colombia`s year of peace

At Christmas next year there will be extra cause for goodwill in Colombia. In 2014 the FARC guerrillas will sign an end to their self-proclaimed war against the state, silencing the guns that have taken over 220,000 lives in 50 years of bloodshed.

Two generations of Colombians, the majority of the nation, have only known conflict. Officially there are 6 million victims; but the truth is, the entire nation has been scarred by decades of brutal and degrading violence. Read more…

Genocide of Bojayá: 11 years of impunity


Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá in Chocó, Colombia. Anywhere from 79 people, the majority of whom were minors, were killed when the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the Marxist guerrillas, launched an explosive into a church in the community of Bellavista where 300 people were seeking protection from a battle between the revolutionaries and the paramilitaries.

Every year, chocoano communities commemorate the massacre, and use it as a space to advocate for their rights facing current challenges of poverty and marginalization. For the tenth anniversary of the massacre, it was all over the media, yet this year, there is scant word from any of the nation’s major newspapers including El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana, etc.

This massacre had huge implications in national politics, Colombia’s image abroad, its relationship with the United States, and most importantly, it evidences the huge gap between ‘The Two Colombias’, and how one promises reparation, and the other is still waiting for it 11 years after one of the country’s worst tragedies.

The massacre bears not only memorializing, but also understanding as it is a microcosm for state abandonment, and the interests and dynamics of how paramilitarism and the guerrillas work within peripheral, marginalized, underdeveloped, and overexploited regions of Colombia like Chocó.

bojaya2The FARC shot the cylinder-bomb which exploded in the church, allegedly, because the counter-revolutionary paramilitaries were using the church as a human shield during the combat. Many of the civilians fled into the church given that it was the only concrete structure in the town where people could be protected during the armed confrontations between different armed groups. Apparently, the order to shoot the cylinder-bomb came from as high as members of the Secretariat (who some analysts now say they would like to see in Congress instead of continuing in the armed struggle), and the decision to use this illegal and non-conventional weapon was made despite the fact that the weapon is made for static objects, and the paramilitaries were moving.

In other words, it was quite clear to many powerful leaders within the FARC the tremendous danger that using this weapon posed for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Despite many early warnings by the UN, and a variety of NGOs, it seems that the Colombian Army was complicit in allowing the incursion of paramilitaries in the territory that set off a several day long armed confrontation in the Middle Atrato region of Chocó which eventually culminated in the massacre.

The Colombian government refused to acknowledge its responsibility. The FARC-EP say that it was an “unfortunate accident” and it blamed the paras for using the civilian population as a human shield. The government and the paras said that this proves the ‘barbarity’ of the ‘narcoterrorists’.

The use of the improvised explosive, or pipeta in Spanish, constitutes the use of irregular weapons by the FARC and is therefore a war crime and potentially a crime against humanity. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international NGOs as well as Colombian ones have condemned the FARC’s use of the weapon as such.

The massacre, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries which had begun in late April of that year, are part of a much larger trend in which Chocó has become a focal point for the armed conflict since 1997.

The war over the Middle Atrato can be considered as a continuation of the war for Urabá. After the federation of paramilitary groups into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC) in 1997, paramilitary groups tried to take the Atrato region of Chocó as it was a key corridor for moving drugs, arms, and people from the Urabá region and the Caribbean coast (which by the 90s had become a paramilitary stronghold) into the Pacific region of the country.

Previous expansions of the counterinsurgency in the territory such as the Cacarica and Genesis Operations in 1997 have been linked to the expansion of agribusinesses such as the mono-cultivation of African Palm Oil.

At the same time, the strategic corridor and lack of state presence in Chocó also makes it a very coveted territory by the guerrillas.

The massacre can be seen as part of a much larger pattern of the insurgents taking over the territory, then the counterinsurgents, then the insurgents…

This left, and continues to leave, the people of chocoano communities in a state of vulnerability as the presence of one armed group or the army provokes reprisals and suspicions from the other side.

However, the communities in Chocó were anything but passive objects in the crossfire; since 1999, communities such as Bellavista, have declared themselves ‘Peace Communities’ (Comunidades de Paz) and they have rejected the presence of all armed groups, including even at times the Colombian Army itself.

The massacre led to mass displacements of 5,700 people, and consequently a cultural alienation for the predominantly Afro-Colombian communities affected, who had to leave their traditional territory.

Many of the survivors had to flee the town of Bellavista immediately after the bomb exploded. Many have yet to return to the community, some only returned 8-10 years later. Many of the community’s practices of saying farewell to the dead were unable to occur, leaving a lack of spiritual closure.

Survivors of the massacre however, are not victims. 11 years on and that the community continues to wait for the reparations it is entitled to, and justice in terms of recognizing the complicity of ALL armed actors. The community has, though, organized in several civil-society groups and continues to demand this justice, reparation, and memory.

Many members in the community see the massacre as genocide and a continuation of their historical  displacement from Africa; many consider the battles over their territories as ongoing colonialism.

Simon is the owner of the website The Banana Plutocracy

Photos, Mauricio Moreno, and El Tiempo.

General Santoyo and the evil of Pablo Escobar

When General Mauricio Santoyo stood up in a Virginia court room to plead guilty to charges of working with Colombia’s narco-terrorist paramilitaries on Monday, he showed the world that Pablo Escobar’s legacy lives on.

Santoyo’s guilt links him to the Office of Envigado, the criminal organisation of hired guns Escobar established in the 1980s. Although ‘El Patron del Mal’ may have died before his wealth was able to buy him the power he sought, his Medellin Cartel has since transformed into a successful and ruthless political machine.

Inspired by the spirit of Escobar, the paramilitaries that grew out of the Capo’s self-defence militias instinctively understand the message that money buys power; an absolute power that hamstrings the state’s efforts to police their illegal activities.

It is for this reason that the paramilitaries fund political campaigns – the quid pro quo is that once the ‘para-politician’ is in power he will be in the pocket of his generous donors, ready to pass or object to a law as his paymaster wishes. Indeed these forces were alleged to be behind the last-minute amendments to the Justice Reform bill that plunged the country into institutional chaos earlier this summer.

In 2006 investigations into state functionaries accused of links with the ‘paracos’ began. Around 40 congressmen and half a dozen governors have been convicted, while cases remain open for over 140 more former congressmen. Had the Justice Reform bill been passed into law the majority would have walked free.

The fear is that General Santoyo is the tip of a new iceberg that reaches deep into the police and security services, and extends through the upper corridors of power. Colombia’s foreign minister spoke of the alarm bell that the Santoyo case sounds, while others like the commentator Leon Valencia have alluded to a ‘profound impact’ on Colombia’s politics. The US government is unlikely to stop at Santoyo; future cases against government officials are inevitable. And what of those within the police or the army intelligence that might have worked alongside Santoyo? Did he work alone? Many suggest that it seems unlikely.

Who is Santoyo?

Extradited to the US earlier this year to face charges of narco-trafficking and paramilitary activity, Santoyo was ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s personal security chief between 2002 and 2006. His guilty plea relates to the charges that he accepted bribes from the AUC (the now partially demobilised paramilitary group) in exchange for tip offs about planned US and Colombian government actions against the group. By ‘buying’ Santoyo, the AUC had direct access to the decision-makers, they were able to avoid capture by the authorities and to reduce the effectiveness of the campaigns against them.

The parallels with Escobar’s modus operandi are alarming clear, reminding us of the police chief of Antioquia who he controlled through death threats and bribery.

Santoyo is the highest ranking official to have admitted to working with Colombia’s ‘paras’, and brings shame on the country’s governing class. Senate President Roy Barreras, called it a national disgrace, views that were repeated by his congress colleagues who reacted with indignation. Some have called for Uribe to face the authorities, implying that the ex-president had questions to answer about what he knew Santoyo was up to. For Polo Democrat representative and arch-anti-Uribista, Iván Cepeda, Uribe must respond to accusations about his own links to the ‘paras’. Cepeda claimed that Uribe’s biological as well as his political family ‘is totally permeated by the paramilitaries’.

The ex-president has denied cognisance of Santoyo’s actions. The defence is that he was not in charge of the selection process for his security attachment; he accepted the recommendations put to him. Uribe took to the airwaves throughout Tuesday to express his hurt at the deception and treachery of a man who he trusted implicitly. The ex-head of state repeated the assertion that his inner circle was built on trust; as he would not conduct clandestine investigations into those who were charged with protecting him, there had been no reason to suspect Santoyo.

If there are questions to answer, then the congress must examine its own record. Santoyo’s ascension to the rank of general was approved by this body despite its being aware of the disciplinary trial opened by the nation’s chief prosecutor in 2003 to investigate an alleged 1,499 incidents of wire tapping . The eight senators that formed the group which gave Santoyo’s promotion the green light should expect to face the heat.

Santoyo is part of the rotten core within Colombia’s politics. Since the time of Escobar, blood money has bought political influence at the highest level. The parapolitics scandal of 2006 was merely the start, with every passing day it becomes clearer just how far the tentacles have reached.

Santoyo might be the highest ranking official to have been caught, but there is little to provide us with comfort that he will hold onto this honour. All eyes are on the court rooms in Viriginia. We do not know what will come out and who next will be forced to fall on his sword.

The sad truth is that while the state eventually won its battle against Escobar, killing him in the early 90s, he has spawned a criminality that continues to flood Colombia’s streets with blood. Escobar’s heirs relentlessly pursue power, and continue to corrupt the nation’s political class.

Also published on Redes Colombia

A ‘Colombian Bagdad’? Toribio, the FARC’s front-line

Local indigenous groups attack the army, photo, ColPrensa

Boos and whistles greeted Juan Manuel Santos this morning as his presidential helicopter touched down in Toribio, south-west Colombia. 

Santos lands after nearly a week of intense FARC bombardments that have left thousands displaced, and whole streets reduced to rubble.
Over the last decade the FARC have attacked 500 times. The municipal, known locally as ‘Toribistan’, or as Semana magazine put it, ‘Bagdad’, is at the front-line of a terrorist struggle against the Colombian state. 
Despite the president’s arrival, the situation remains tense with reports this evening that the FARC have shot down a military aeroplane.  At the same time, the area’s large indigenous population, frustrated at the apparent impotence of the state, are threatening to take things into their own hands, taking the fight to both the FARC and the military.The drama should not be over-played, this does not represent a return to Colombia’s past. But Santos knows that he must seize control, and re-assert his policies on national security.  

An impoverished front-line of narco-terrorism

Toribio, nestled in the mountainous countryside of the department of Cauca, is home to a community living through an almost perpetual battle against with the FARC. The first attack took place in 1983 and the guerrillas have returned over 600 times since. This year alone there have been 12 incursions. 
In July 2011 a chiva (traditional Colombian bus) packed full of explosives was activated outside the police station, killing four officers and destroying dozens of homes. Curiously, according to the publication Semana, these same houses were bombed again by the FARC this week.
The locality’s population has grown accustomed to ‘war’; it is not uncommon to see houses fortified with trenches and tunnels as rudimentary protection against the bullets and bombs of the guerrillas.
Toribio is a victim of its geographical location, forming part of the route connecting the centre of the country with the pacific coast, a key pathway for the transport of cocaine (the FARC’s subversive campaigns are funded in large part by the profits of the cocaine trade).
According to Semana, Cauca’s concentrated indigenous population also permits the FARC to move easily across the territory. The indigenous groups are exploited by the FARC to form a strategic barrier, limiting the ability of the military to carry out raids. Indigenous groups have been accused in some cases (by no means all) of actively aiding and abetting the FARC.
Despite the near permanence of the FARC in the area, the scale of the battle that began on Friday has surprised the authorities and has shocked the nation. Videos have emerged of soldiers crouching behind, and peering over, sandbag fortifications, firing towards the rebel mountain hideouts. 

No, this is not a Fallujah nor it is a Bagdad. Nevertheless as Caracol Television and RCN interviewed terrified residents fleeing their homes amid a cacophony of machine-gun fire, it was impossible to avoid the sensation that this was a town at the front-line of a civil conflict.
A failure of Santos’ security policies?
This crisis arrives as the president faces constant attacks from those who oppose his approach to national security. Little doubt remains that the issue is Santos’ Achilles heel; the most recent Gallup poll revealed that as little as 29% of Colombians back Santos’ anti-terrorist measures. 

Worse still for Santos, just days ago Alvaro Uribe officially launched the Puro Centro Democratico (PCD) political movement to fight against the president’s re-election in 2014. The PCD has promised to place the fight against terrorism at the heart of its campaign.

Although the public perception is negative, the Santos regime has delivered major blows against the FARC, taking-out not only the chief military strategist ‘Mono Jojoy’, but also the overall leader of the group ‘Alfonso Cano’.   

Santos argues that the recent upsurge in FARC activity is evidence of the guerrillas’ increased desperation – their blaze of glory. 

The problem for Santos is that because he has not stuck to Uribe’s hard-line Democratic Security doctrine – all out war against the FARC – many Colombians view him as soft. Santos, since coming to power, has adopted a more subtle strategy that looks to build the conditions for a post-conflict Colombia rather than just fighting fire with fire.
Opponents exploit the rumours, circulating with increasing frequency, that Santos is conducting secret peace talks with the FARC. The president denies this but it remains easy for Uribe to cast his old defence minister as a terrorist appeaser. 

Although Santos is right to look to the future, the nation remains concerned about the present.
Playing politics with the blood of soldiers

The Santos camp – as well as the rest of the nation – will be dismayed that his arrival in Cauca today has not calmed the situation. Guerrilla attacks took place before, during and after the visit of president – both in Toribio and in other parts of the department.
The images of indigenous groups threatening vigilantism to force out the military also make for unhappy reminders of the birth of the auto-defence groups in previous decades – groups spawned by the inability of the state to guarantee the safety of their territory in the face of guerrilla and criminal aggression.
Moreover Santos is battling against the public perception that he acted too late. On Sunday, the president announced that the government had the situation under control. Critics pounced, claiming that the ‘business as usual’ message was not one the country wanted to hear. The boos that greeted Santos as he arrived this morning suggest that his critics were right. 

It is hard to understand why Santos did not visit Toribio earlier. Events now appear to be (politically speaking) manna from heaven for Alvaro Uribe. 

Ex-president Ernesto Samper (1994-98) last night warned against playing politics with public order, and Santos himself last week asked for opponents to refrain from politicising ‘the blood of our soldiers’.

Uribe would do well to remain quiet until order is restored in Toribio. After such time it is impossible to see how he will not use the events of the last week, coupled with the evidence of a report published by the University Sergio Arboleda that shows the FARC have returned to 50 municipals from which they had been expelled, to launch repeated attacks against the Santos regime. 

Although the talk of Santos’ loss of control over the country’s security is exaggerated, this is now largely an irrelevance. The first casualty is always the truth…The danger for Santos is that he could end up neither winning the war nor the argument. 

Unfair as it might be, the Cauca of today reminds Colombians of a time when the FARC controlled large swathes of the country. This was a time before Uribe came to power – it was precisely the reason Uribe came to power.