Archive for January, 2009


New president!! New policy!??!?

January 23, 2009

In what is an all-too-common occurrence here, DAS federal police raided a Left cultural center (Span.) a week ago today. It wasn’t the raid itself that was so common, but the character of it – police accusing activists of terrorism, using an order approved by a judge – and what happened next. The next day the highest profile of the activists involved in maintaining the space, Yuri Neira, whose son was assassinated two years ago, was visited at the space by two armed men looking for him, but who were momentarily confused and were unsure if they had the right guy. He was able to escape what is presumed to have been a paramilitary hit squad, and is currently in hiding. Here’s video of the raid, and denuncias in Spanish.

Whether or not this story continues to be mundane may depend in part on the attitude of our new mandatorio, Barack H. Obama, and relevant congresspeople. This post is to continue our catch-up, summarizing his comments on Colombia so far. Next up I’ll post US and Colombian hopes for policy change, and later on paramilitaries and their impact on social movements.

Just in the last three days here, people are naming their babies Barack Obama, black communities are celebrating and bands are recording celebratory anthems.

Obama has in the past made statements denouncing (Span.) impunity towards paramilitaries (more on that soon), and here’s some background from CIP on his Colombia involvement as a senator. But what would be the new admin’s first move in ’09? President Álvaro Uribe Vélez was just given the US’ highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by Bush II. WWOD?

Well, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó had requested that paramilitary victims be present at the confirmation hearing of Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, arguing that his support for Chiquita can be connected to the killings of campesinos in Urabá. They have not received a response. Lots and lots of folks have denounced the specter of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement being passed by the House, including one Senator Obama, but recently the Democrats have said it’ll pass after all.

Next up: Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing, in which she was asked to comment on Colombia.

Here’s some key quotes from her testimony, followed by Al Giordano’s thoughts. The highlights are his.

“The President-Elect has supported the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and believes that it must be updated to meet evolving challenges. The security situation in Colombia has improved, but very significant quantities of illicit narcotics continue to flow from Colombia to the United States. I look forward to working with Congress and our friends and partners in Colombia to ensure that future investments help staunch the flow of illegal drugs and help consolidate security gains to contribute to a durable peace in Colombia. To do so, we must learn from the successes and failures of the past. We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC, and work with the government to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries.

As we continue our struggle against the scourge of illegal drugs in our society and throughout the Americas, we must ensure that we are doing what is necessary here at home to reduce demand, enforce our laws through effective policing, and disrupt the southbound flow of money and weapons that are an essential element of the transnational illicit networks that operate in Colombia and elsewhere in the Americas. It is important that we work together with countries throughout the region to find the best practices that work across the hemisphere and to tailor approaches to fit each country.”

On US-Colombia policy, the incoming administration is thus ceding part of the steering wheel to Congress (in effect saying, FDR style, “go out and push us to change it”). This is very different from the previous stances by Presidents Clinton and Bush that merely railroaded Congress’ concerns about human rights and other matters through pressure built up through media campaigns. String the bold-typed words together, and here’s the “new language” with which to push the next administration: Plan Colombia “must be updated,” that should be done by “Congress,” to correct the “failures of the past,” and when it comes to Plan Mexico, “tailor the approach” to make it different from Plan Colombia.

That’s hardly the embracing of a bold new or better policy, but it cracks the door for Civil Society to push through and open wider. (And to those doing the good work of that pushing, the wording of Kerry’s question ought to provoke an obvious light to go on above our heads: That Kerry, if given the language and the hard information to do it, might be persuaded to become the spear for a more concrete change in direction when it comes to the failed Plan Colombia, and, in time, perhaps the larger failure of US drug policy that molded it.)

Seems about right. I hope. The Colombian foreign minister is flying to DC in February to lobby Congress to keep spending on Plan Colombia. Time to get out our (nonviolent) policy “spears”…


A post-racist continent

January 20, 2009

“So you have a new president, this Obama.” “Yup,” I said to the brown-skinned cab driver, having just hopped in to make it to the Quito (Ecuador) bus terminal on time. He continued: “I’m happy about that. We’re all happy about that here, no more Bush. But he’s giving all the blacks in the world hope.” “Oh?,” I responded, surprised. This is a negative consequence? African descendants make up a small part of Quito’s population, but are numerous in the outer villages. And like blacks throughout the Andes, are all but invisible in local news coverage and TV programs, official politics, tourism posters and corporate ads that make up a large part of the visual media landscape. “Yes, well, they cause trouble here, you know, and in other places. But this Obama I like.”

I tell this story not to pick on a Quito taxi driver, but because I think it’s a pretty accurate representation of what the election could mean for African-descendant social movements in the region. One step forward, one-and-a-half steps back.

I’ve seen a number of vapid mainstream media stories that go like this: Obama is half Kenyan, lots of African-descendant people are happy about that, especially Africans living in Africa, particularly Kenyans. The end. Sometimes the analysis is a little deeper, as in Reuters’ coverage of black Iraqis claiming inspiration for their runs for office.

Meanwhile, there’s been a ton of good counter-story work going on against the “post-racial America” storyline by media, economic justice and police accountability activists in the US. But I haven’t seen any of that coming from Third World media outlets, even as front-page Obama transition stories (Span.) here make subtle mention of his Muslim schooling, etc. Some news outlets have noted that Reps. Mike Honda and Jim McGovern invited (Span.) Afro-Colombian (Span.) elected officials to the inauguration, but it’s gotten pretty short shrift. No extended op-eds by prominent (white) liberals, who wax profound on anything of even casual significance in both big dailies, that I’ve seen at least.

It’s impossible to make basic comparisons – Colombia hasn’t experienced anything like a Black Freedom Movement. But indigenous groups have through collective struggle carved out some visible space in society, however marginal, and claimed rights to land, for instance, that many white and mestizo Colombians I’ve met have denied are deserving of coastal Afro populations. White racism manifested publically reminds me much of the US – in my experience, whites have a particular resentment, fear of and prejudice towards blacks, particularly African Americans. Both sets of data are anecdotal, but it’s held true here as well.

Which is all to say, not only is Michael Eric Dyson’s “post-racist” vision out of reach, it may be time to watch for the backlash, even here.

THE REST OF THIS POST is dedicated to the kids I’ve met in DC, Dream City/Chocolate City, and not much related to Colombia…

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todos somos Gaza

January 17, 2009

There was another big Palestine solidarity march here in Bogotá yesterday – the first was Jan. 6 – marching up la Septima from the Plaza Bolivar, 30 blocks to the office building housing the Israeli embassy. A few hundred people, maybe a thousand, chanting “Palestina triunfara,” “Con la sangre, con el alma, defendemos Palestina” and “Fuera yanquis de Palestina, de Irak y de America Latina.” As a Washingtonian I was impressed with the turnout, considering it was early on a Friday afternoon and the call went out only 2-3 days ago.

I can’t find any photos or video yet, but here’s an article in English about the last march, including photos and audio of marchers chanting.


Interview: US wants to extradite political prisoners

January 14, 2009

This interview is the product of yet another holiday meetup with an overcommitted, way-too-cheerful organizer. In addition to a look at the dire condition of all Colombian prisoners (as we sat in a cramped office filled with donated toiletries), the conversation with Walter helped me better understand the different takes folks on the Left have on guerrilla/insurgent groups. The mainstream liberal/left opposition are pretty clear about their desire for an end to the practice of kidnapping for financial ransom and political leverage. Beyond that, and occasional references to narcotrafficking connections, the mainstream left save their vitriol for the folks who seem responsible for 90% of all violent and politically-motivated crime in the country – the paramilitaries and their official enablers, the army and the prosecutor general.

First published on Toward Freedom.

The Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) provides ongoing direct support to hundreds of prisoners and their families throughout Colombia. Recently the group launched a campaign against the extradition of political prisoners to the US, collaborating with lawyers’ collectives and other prisoner support groups like the Anarchist Black Cross. The US government continues to play a key role in halting Colombian justice – primarily by extraditing paramilitary leaders, who, when they aren’t returned to Colombia for lack of evidence, are tried only for drug crimes, not for their roles in human rights abuses, assassinations and disappearances.

Now the US is requesting the extradition of three National Liberation Army (ELN) members, for their alleged role in kidnapping a US citizen. I spoke with Walter Agredo with the Cali chapter of the CSPP about the campaign. (Click here to download the campaign flyer in English.)

How did you get involved with the CSPP, and how is the group structured?

I got involved in 2003 as a student of University of the Valle, I studied communication and philosophy. We had a human rights group that was supported by members of the Comite. I came to know how to help prisoners fill out complaint forms and follow-up, how to support them. And then two years ago the two people in charge of the Cali section, including our one paid functionary, had to leave the country after receiving threats. So they asked me to be the functionary here. We have 17 people working as a team, we make decisions by consensus. We rely heavily on students but work with everyone. We just had a three-day retreat in Bogota with all the sections to decide the work for the upcoming year. We meet like that a few times a year and also host workshops given by lawyers on judicial subjects, and meet to fortify our institutional processes.
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Dangerous surveillance. Thanks, State Dept

January 9, 2009
It was a holiday – somehow, the full-time activists here are always most available and willing to talk about the work they do everyday, on holidays – and we were hanging out in a windowless room of the human rights network office, sipping tinto. J. had just returned from giving a workshop in Pasto, and was headed out the next morning to a town in the north of Valle del Cauca. I mentioned that I’d been at the FOR house the day before the news broke about government spying, and asked whether they’ve received threats recently. “Well, my predescessor had to leave town… some of our comrades, mostly university students, get death threats via text message.” Later, leaving the office, my friend D., who works as a doctor in rural refugee communities, confessed that he doesn’t like coming down there. I was puzzled; it’s in the city center, a fairly well-lit neighborhood with lots of people on the street. “They watch the office, monitor who comes and goes. Paracos. And the police.” 
When it’s dangerous to be seen walking into a human rights NGO office in your hometown, more often than not because paramilitaries are watching, it’s hard to imagine how a little extra email surveillance could be so bad. But the more people I talk to the more obvious it is that “official” spying informs illegal groups – just as Uribe’s denouncements of groups like Human Rights Watch have put rights workers at risk.
Late last month rights groups discovered that Colombian police have been monitoring the emails of dozens of HR orgs, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation and their accompaniment project in San Jose de Apartado. Turns out the US government had a hand in this too:
In 2006 the State Department awarded a $5 million contract to provide SIJIN [Colombian police intelligence unit] with ‘internet surveillance software.’ As a result, U.S. taxpayers were apparently paying for Colombian agencies to spy on legitimate U.S. and Colombian humanitarian organizations.”

FOR is asking allies to send an email to Assistant Secretary David J. Kramer.


Our responsibility

January 6, 2009

A mentor of mine here recently told me, “We need more stories. Tell stories.” I emphatically agree with her. And of the stories I could tell about witnessing, surviving and resisting violence, I haven’t yet figured out how to disfigure them enough to be safely released to this blog. So this is a boring, didactic post with lots of numbers and impersonal descriptions of factual reality. I promise to publish stories, but I needed to get this out.

Since I’m here accompanying communities that are experiencing assassinations and forced displacement — in effect, here to reduce the risk of violence, while present — I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibility of the US government/public for the violence in Colombia. Colombia has experienced large-scale violent conflict for at least sixty years, well before cocaine became an issue, but as it stands I think we have a large share of the responsibility for the maintenance of a domestic & foreign “drug war” which in practice in Colombia is more of a counter-insurgency and (neoliberal) war for control of resources. A lot of this will be old news to readers of this blog, but it’s been helpful in pulling my thoughts together.

The Costs

A big Newsweek article, “Colombia’s Failed Drug War,” is out this week. The article is mostly fluff, but it hinges on the early insertion of a statistic that seems to have flown below the radar since the GAO publicized it a few months back. After spending $6.2 billion on Plan Colombia since 2000, here are the outcomes, for what was billed inside Congress as a drug eradication project: 15% more coca production, 4% more cocaine. The stated goal was to cut overall production by 50%. The GAO doesn’t even go into the many human consequences of government programs funded under Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia funds mostly direct military aid, and there are hundreds of US military “advisers” and contractors currently in the country (more on that later). But the US State and Justice Departments and agencies like USAID are also involved in supporting broad swaths of public institutions and development programs; “non-military aid” is now at $1.3 billion. The director of CODHES recently described that funding as being used “to buy ambulances to attend to the humanitarian crisis created by the military.”

Here are a few of the stats I’ve come across in NGO reports and newspapers, from El Espectador to Polo, since I got here a few weeks ago, that add up some of the costs of supporting the Colombian government’s counter-insurgency and drug eradication programs, and its Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting human rights violations and pursuing assassins.

  • From 2002 to 2007 13,634 Colombians were assassinated by the state, paramilitaries and guerrillas, including 1,477 disappeared. Of those cases, in 75% (8,049) the killers are known – the Colombian armed forces have been ID’d as those responsible for 17.5% (1,411), and the government is complicit for allowing the killers responsible for 58% (4,658 ) of the murders to go unpursued
  • Since 2002 430 union leaders have been assassinated. The banana workers union, SINTRAINAGRO, has lost more members than that to political violence since its founding
  • In the last six years extrajudicial executions have gone up 67%
  • Over four million Colombians have been displaced from their homes and are now refugees, at least half of those since 2002. In the nortwest of the department of Nariño, 70% of the residents have been displaced in the last five years
  • US-funded aerial fumigation of huge swaths of cropland continues despite numerous studies and investigative reports proving its ineffectiveness and harm to campesino families, court orders to stop, even appeals from Ecuador to halt the practice.

The Impact – Two Countries, More Police, Less Justice

But besides Plan Colombia, what does this have to do with the US? I’ve been thinking about the impacts of the internal/external strategy of foreign “eradication” and domestic “enforcement” – using an army to end the cultivation of a tiny plant easily concealed in the jungle/highlands in one country, while using the police and prison system to criminalize the distribution and consumption of its addictive byproduct in another.

The US is the biggest consumer of Colombian cocaine, at approx 330 tons a year, vs. 220 tons that enter Europe. But the US government’s “eradication” strategy is focused on reducing the foreign production of a drug easily synthesized from a plant easily grown all over the Andes, in regions where domestic markets for agricultural goods have collapsed and campesinos, even if they weren’t being displaced from their land, have little hope of competing with major exporters. Rather than, say, eliminating the domestic demand for an illegal drug like cocaine by legalizing it, regulating it, taxing it, even. If coca and its byproducts were legal/regulated, there’d be no battling for territory to grow it, because it wouldn’t cost $100 a gram.

On the domestic side, the “enforcement” strategy has been similarly unable to a. stop US’ers from consuming cocaine – usage rates have held steady, b. reduce the availability of cocaine, beyond occasional blips, or c. provide support for addicts rather than criminalize their behavior. (Studies have shown treatment is more effective at reducing cocaine usage in the US than drug law enforcement.)

The head of the Drug Policy Alliance summarized the impact of “enforcement” in a recent WSJ op-ed, “Let’s End Drug Prohibition

500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.

The parallels are alarming; the Colombian prison population has skyrocketed in the last six or seven years (more on that too), in part because of the Uribe administration’s adoption of an equivalent “war on terror” detention policy after the US setup Guantanamo. Afro-Colombian communities are being forcibly removed from their land in departments like Choco by paramilitary coca growers and palm oil plantations, while in the US African-Americans are disproportionately locked up for drug crimes, suffer both drug-related violence and police harassment, and are displaced by real estate investors and public agencies promoting condo conversion schemes and the “redevelopment” of public housing.

Like I said, a few thoughts. I’ll be using this blog to flesh out a few more thoughts, and to bring attention to some of the issues surrounding the causes and maintenance of violence as an institution in Colombia, particularly as it relates to US policy. But most of all I’m looking forward to amplifying the voices of Colombians experiencing and organizing to resist violence. And telling stories. Hopefully we’ll even have a few guest storytellers on here.