A Dirtier War: Colombia’s Fake “Peace Process” and US Policy

In response to years of sustained pressure from the Colombia solidarity movement, Congressional Democrats have proposed positive amendments to the Bush administration’s annual foreign aid appropriations request for Colombia.  If the Democrats have their way, overall funding will be cut by 10%, while 45% of the total package will now be devoted to economic and humanitarian assistance, the remainder to the military. (1)  These changes have been hailed as a major step forward by progressive US-based organizations working on reforming US Colombia policy. (2)

During the Clinton administration, Colombia became, outside of Israel and Egypt, the leading recipient of US military aid in the world.  Since 2000, under Plan Colombia, Washington has funded Bogotá to the tune of some $5 billion, (3) about 80% of which has been military aid. (4)  Overall, in the past decade, 2/3rds of all US military and police aid to Latin America has been devoted to Colombia. (5)  This militarized approach to Colombia‘s conflict has rightly elicited constant protest from human rights organizations from across the world. 

The Democratic proposals, then, are a welcome departure from the recent past.  Yet, the victory would be at best a hollow one, as the majority of aid would still be directed at Colombia‘s repressive military, regularly implicated in horrendous human rights abuses.  Moreover, despite the proposed cuts, Colombia is "expected to get an additional $150 million in purely military and police assistance through a separate appropriation in the defense budget bill", as the Houston Chronicle reported. (6)

Nor do the Democratic proposals appear to include any new mechanisms for ensuring that remaining military aid is not used to commit human rights abuses.  The Democrats claim to be devoted to justice for Colombia‘s struggling social movements; yet, as evidence presented in this article amply demonstrates, the military and government they’re funding continues to collaborate with deathsquads in violently suppressing those activists brave enough to speak out.  Democrats claim to be especially concerned about labor rights; yet, the President they’re prepared to hand some $600 million to has presided over the assassination of some 400 trade unionists, almost all of which have been carried out with impunity.  As in the past, the majority of these killings are blamed on deathsquads allied with the Colombian state and, as has become clear recently, Uribe’s political network in the government. (7)

Supporters of Uribe often acknowledge these crimes, but argue that the US should continue to support his regime regardless, as it has allegedly made tremendous strides in combating guerrillas and ‘demobilizing’ paramilitaries.  To turn our backs now would be to undermine years of unprecedented progress on this front, the logic goes.  Yet, the evidence presented in this article – drawn mostly from international human rights organizations and mainstream press reports – demonstrates that the fake ‘peace process’ initiated by Uribe has little impact on these organizations, or the human rights situation in Colombia generally.  Despite the charade of deathsquad ‘demobilization’, paramilitaries are just as strong – if not stronger – and just as alive as they were prior to his tenure. 

If the Democrats – and, for that matter, the Republicans – are serious about winning justice for persecuted social activists in Colombia, as they say they are, they must enact a complete ban on all US military aid to Bogotá until government connections to deathsquads are broken and the ‘security forces’ cease to engage in unwarranted repression.  Reports from international human rights organizations show that there is no legitimate reason to continue funding the Colombian military as long as the status quo persists.

The failure of certification

In the 1990s, in response to growing evidence of connections between the Colombian government and paramilitaries, admirable members of Congress developed a "certification" process for all US aid to the country.  This required the Secretary of State to monitor progress on certain human rights criteria before aid could be released.  The program has been gutted, however, and now only a quarter of all funding is subject to screening. (8)

Regardless of its extent, the certification process has never had a substantial impact on its stated goal of ending US complicity in Colombian atrocities. (9)  Although, in years past,  a coalition of leading non-governmental organizations including – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Washington Office on Latin America – has repeatedly protested the State Department’s authorization of aid, it has been continuously disbursed regardless, with only minimal interruption.  Most recently, on 18 April, these organizations (and others) denounced Condoleezza Rice’s approval of military assistance in the face of ongoing human rights abuses, which they said "shows that the US is not prepared to uphold the law as intended." (10)

In its 2007 World Report, Human Rights Watch notes that the certification conditions "have not been consistently enforced."  In a testimony to a recent conference on human rights in Colombia, Amnesty International points out that "[we] have stressed over and over again that the necessary conditions simply do not exist to ensure that US military aid does not contribute towards the committing of human rights abuses.  It is clear that the human rights certification process…has proved totally inadequate in that respect." (11)  Indeed, Amnesty USA has called for an end to US military aid to Bogotá since 1994. (12)

The failure of the certification process, then, shows that the US government cannot be relied on to ensure that its aid is used in a humane way.  Further, the ongoing collaboration between the Colombian government and paramilitaries, explored in the next section, shows that the country’s political system is simply too compromised and corrupt for certification to be effective.  With both governments evidently disinterested in promoting human rights, the only sensible response of the Colombia solidarity movement is to demand a complete end to US military aid.

Undermining the integrity of the state

In a recent Miami Herald op-ed in which he argues for continued military aid to Bogotá, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte credits the Uribe government with "restor[ing] the integrity of the [Colombian] state." (13)  This is held by Negroponte to be a significant achievement worthy of further support.  Although the article in question is littered with deceptions, this particular claim is especially mendacious; Colombian politics are currently dominated by a massive scandal resulting from revealed connections between high-ranking political leaders and paramilitary deathsquads.  The vast majority of those implicated have been allied with or supportive of Uribe. (14) 

In sharp contrast to Negroponte’s enthusiasm, Colombia‘s Attorney General "has publicly stated that [the revelations] are more serious than the most severe political crisis of Colombia‘s recent history". (15)  This sense of urgency was echoed in a recent US Congressional testimony by Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, the Principal Specialist on Colombia at Human Rights Watch, who asserted that "Colombian democracy is now facing a grave threat – perhaps the most serious it has ever faced – in the form of drug running paramilitary groups exercising direct influence at some of the highest levels of government." (16)

What is now often referred to as the "para-political" scandal began in earnest last year, when a computer belonging to the paramilitary commander known as "Jorge 40" was seized by government investigators. (17)  On the computer "were the names of politicians who apparently collaborated with Jorge 40 to intimidate voters, seize land and kidnap or kill trade unionists and political rivals", The Guardian reported in March 2007. (18)  The crisis has steadily widened.  On May 14, five more congressmen were arrested for "for alleged links with illegal paramilitary groups", brining the total number of incarcerated legislators to 14. (19)  A recent Washington Post report says:
  So far, authorities have charged 14 members of Colombia‘s Congress, seven     former lawmakers, the head of the secret police, mayors and former governors     with having collaborated with paramilitary commanders.  A dozen more current     congressmen are under investigation.  Most have been close Uribe allies… (20) 
Given the extensive connections between the President and those implicated in the scandal, it is simply not plausible that such high-level para-political collaboration took place outside of Uribe’s knowledge.  The former head of the Colombia‘s civilian intelligence agency (DAS), mentioned in passing by the Post, is Jorge Noguera.  It appears that, after being appointed by Uribe to lead DAS in 2002, Noguera worked closely with Jorge 40 (who was even allowed to use Uribe’s personal armored vehicle) and other commandos in the prosecution of the dirty war.  Their specific projects seem to have included "an assassination plot against Hugo Chavez, the murder of political opponents, electoral fraud, [and] doctoring police and judicial records to erase paramilitary cases." (21) 

The computer seized from Jorge 40 contained "evidence of over 500 assassinations committed in just one Colombian state between 2003 and 2005", Human Rights Watch reports, invoking the Colombian Attorney General’s office. (22)  Citing reports published in the Colombian media, Amnesty International notes that "the DAS", while under Noguera’s leadership, "provided a list of 24 trade union leaders to the paramilitary group Bloque Norte.  Several individuals named on the list were killed, others were threatened, while some were reportedly the subject of arbitrary judicial proceedings." (23)  

The scandal has, more recently, even reached the head of Colombia‘s US-funded and trained army, Gen. Mario Montoya.  According to CIA documents obtained by The Los Angeles Times, Montoya, during Uribe’s tenure, "collaborated extensively with right-wing militias [i.e., paramilitaries] that Washington considers terrorist organizations, including a militia headed by one of the country’s leading drug traffickers." (24)  Like Noguera, Montoya "has had a long and close association with…Alvaro Uribe", and has also been "a favorite of the Pentagon and an important partner in the US-funded counterinsurgency strategy called Plan Colombia", the Times report continues.  If indicted, Montoya would be the highest-ranking official yet implicated in the scandal.

To save face amid this political upheaval, Uribe (and his supporters in the US) have tried to take credit for the disclosures, arguing that without the "peace process", the truth would not have come to light.  In fact, the opposite is true, as Sanchez-Moreno pointed out in her Congressional testimony: "None of these revelations emerged from President Uribe’s paramilitary demobilization program; all resulted from independent judicial and press investigations which are not based on information provided by demobilized paramilitaries." (25)  Particularly deserving of credit is the staff of the Colombian newsweekly Semana, which, with extraordinary courage, has pursued many of the investigations.

Uribe – recently lauded by Condoleezza Rice as a "democratic" leader bravely fighting a determined "war against terrorism" (26) – has set about thwarting investigations of government officials implicated in the affair.  A coalition of thirty leading NGOs working on Colombia recently issued a joint statement in which they condemned the President for "actively undermining the Supreme Court and Attorney General’s efforts to prosecute politicians" by "proposing to eliminate jail time for political leaders who divulge their ties" to paramilitaries. (27)  This strengthens the culture of impunity, a major obstacle to the realization of human rights in the nation.  Uribe’s move was also denounced by Human Rights Watch. (28)

It is important to note that the revelations associated with the para-political affair are not exactly groundbreaking; they’ve merely served to confirm, in a dramatic fashion, what most analysts have known for years. (29)  What seems to be less well-known is that, by many indicators, the paramilitaries have actually expanded their political influence under Uribe’s rule.  Through a sordid combination of bribery and coercion, deathsquads are becoming more involved in traditional political institutions.

Writing on the country’s 2006 Congressional elections, author Forrest Hylton notes that "perhaps most revealing of [Colombia‘s] current political conjuncture and its future directions was the extent to which the elections confirmed the paramilitaries’ increasing reach into Colombia‘s official political landscape." (30)  Drawing on "detailed research" by the Colombian NGO Nuevo Arco Iris and Javeriana University in Bogota, Jenny Pearce notes that "at least 30% of the present congress won their seats through illegitimate deals with the paramilitary." (31) 

"Paramilitary commanders have claimed publicly that they control 35% of the Colombian Congress", Sanchez-Moreno of Human Rights Watch says.  "That claim is consistent with the findings of academic studies of voting patterns in the 2002 and 2006 elections as well as the evidence that is now turning up in investigations by the Colombian Supreme Court and Attorney General’s office." (32)  Finally, HRW notes in its 2007 World Report that "paramilitaries have become increasingly involved in large-scale corruption schemes, infiltrating national governmental institutions, controlling local politicians, and diverting funds from state agencies."

Negroponte’s assertion that Uribe has "restored the integrity of the [Colombian] state" could not be less accurate.   Given the apparently seamless connection between the state, military and paramilitaries, it is inevitable that US military aid to the country, despite any certification procedures, will continue to contribute to ongoing human rights abuses against unarmed civilians and social movements.  Therefore, as mentioned, Congress should cut all military aid to the Bogotá regime.

Many proponents of a pro-Uribe US foreign policy argue that, discouraging though these developments are, we should remain supportive of the Colombian government, as Uribe’s "peace process" has greatly reduced the power of paramilitaries, and thus opened the door to future progress on human rights issues.  Among Uribe’s other notable achievements are said to be significant decreases in violence and "demobilization" of the paramilitaries.  The next section of this article addresses these arguments, focusing in particular on the falsehoods surrounding Colombia‘s conflict resolution process.

The ‘demobilization’ deception

In his Miami Herald op-ed, John Negroponte, echoing a familiar pro-Uribe argument, credits the Colombian government with dramatically reducing violence associated with the armed conflict: "In the past five years, the security situation has improved remarkably, with kidnappings reduced by 76 percent, terror attacks down by 61 percent and homicides down by 40 percent."  Thus, Negroponte argues, the US should continue to support Uribe’s regime with military aid and by signing a new free trade accord.

It is true that, especially in urban areas, the security situation has improved under Uribe’s rule, and this should be welcomed.  Yet, Negroponte’s line of analysis conceals the ongoing, well-documented human rights abuses committed by paramilitaries and the army (often in concert with one another) against unarmed social movements.  As has been true for years, the overwhelming majority of human rights violations recorded in the country generally are blamed on government-backed deathsquads. (33)  Additionally, Negroponte fails to address the fact that, far from leading to the dismantling of paramilitaries, Uribe’s fake "peace process" has actually ensured their continued existence and participation in the dirty war.  Therefore, this component of Negroponte’s analysis fails to convince. 

An argument similar to Negroponte’s was put to Human Rights Watch by Uribe himself.  In a response letter, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of HRW, recognizes that "the security situation in several major cities and highways has improved."  Yet, "the official homicide rate, which lumps together deaths from common crime as well as killings, committed by all sides in the conflict, is too broad to serve as a useful indicator of human rights abuses.  To focus only on this general number masks several very troubling trends." (34)

Some of the decreases in violence-related statistics may be related to a drop in the number of paramilitary massacres since 2000.  But, Roth points out, "this decline reflect[s] a shift in tactics by paramilitaries, who had already taken over control of vast regions of the country, and were starting to focus on consolidating that power", rather than any progress in the ‘peace process’.  Having gained the upper-hand in many areas, deathsquads increasingly reasoned that "enforcement of their control no longer required large-scale massacres, but rather only selective killings of persons who they considered enemies."  Assassination thus became the prime instrument of terror; the number killed each year has "remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade…despite [the] demobilization program."  Paramilitaries carry out between 800 and 900 "selective killings" annually, Roth says, citing The Colombian Commission of Jurists. (35)

Consistent with a well-established pattern, Colombia remains "the murder capital of the world for trade unionists", Sanchez-Moreno notes; 72 were killed in 2006.  According to Roth, assassination rates of labor activists "are similar to those that were common in 1998 and 1999".  The vast majority of these assassinations have historically been attributed to the paramilitaries. (36)

Despite the ‘demobilization’, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia reports that in 2006 "there was an increase in murders of trade union members and teachers".  At the same time, Colombian governmental bodies "recorded an increase in complaints of human rights violations attributed to members of the security forces…this situation particularly affected" the most vulnerable sectors in society, notably indigenous people, women, children and community activists. (37)  In its 2007 World Report, HRW likewise documents "increasing threats against academics, union leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists" by paramilitaries.  "Investigations of these cases rarely result in prosecutions or convictions", nurturing a destructive climate of impunity. (38)
In its 2007 annual report chapter on Colombia, covering events during 2006, Amnesty International writes: "Paramilitaries continued to commit human rights violations in areas where they had supposedly demobilized.  More than 3,000 killings and enforced disappearances of civilians were attributed to paramilitary groups since they declared a ‘ceasefire’ in 2002." (39)  Reflecting an old pattern, they write that "human rights, social and community activists continued to be targeted, mainly by paramilitary groups and the security forces", who are also killing "a growing number of civilians…every year." (40)

In a separate report based on research conducted between 2002 and 2006 – the years of paramilitary ‘ceasefire’ and ‘demobilization’ – Amnesty documents a "coordinated strategy by the security forces and paramilitary groups to undermine human rights defenders by discrediting the legitimacy of their work and through intimidation and attacks."  (The "vast majority" of all crimes against human rights activists are attributed to "the security forces and their paramilitary allies", it is noted). (41)  These threats, intimidation and killings take place "in an atmosphere of impunity fomented by government inaction". (42)

Advocates of military aid to Colombia might argue that, disappointing though these voluminously-documented atrocities are, they can be expected to decrease in the near future, as the year 2006 marked the conclusion of the ‘demobilization’ process.  Upwards of 32,000 paramilitaries have been stood down, they could say, which suggests that violence will correspondingly drop.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support such an argument.

From the start, the Colombian ‘peace process’ has been riddled with flaws, most notably a lack of transparency and accountability in the ‘demobilization’ program.  Of the more than 30,000 fighters who are alleged to have stepped down, only 2,696 are currently being prosecuted in the Colombian court system.  So far, only 20 lawyers have been assigned to investigate these individuals, further revealing the government’s evident lack of interest in true accountability. (43) The other 29,000 or so, "many of them guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, have already benefited from de facto amnesties", Amnesty International reports. (44)  Little is being done to ensure that these ‘demobilized’ combatants aren’t simply "recycled" (Amnesty’s phrase) into the conflict.

Equally crucial, the ‘demobilization’ process has failed to dismantle the vast criminal networks and financial fortunes – won at the expense of millions of innocent lives – underpinning the paramilitary phenomenon.  "The vast majority" of demobilized fighters have "not been required to confess or turn over illegal assets, and they have never been interrogated in any depth", Sanchez-Moreno argues. Amnesty International, making many of the same arguments as HRW and others, concludes that "by not dealing with the political, military and economic paramilitary infrastructure at both [the] national and international level, the government has ensured that it remains intact". (45)

Just as HRW and Amnesty International do, the UNHCHRC argues that many supposedly ‘demobilized’ paramilitaries continue to engage in criminal activity.  Consequences of this documented by the UNHCHR include "the emergence of new illegal armed groups, the increase in crime rates in many cities, and the continuing pervasiveness of drug trafficking and its structures."  The "emergence and activity of these new groups reflect a failure to fulfill the commitment to demobilize and dismantle their armed structures.  In some regions…situations have arisen that indicate clear links between members of the security forces and the new illegal groups." (46)

After  years of close observation and documentation, Amnesty International has drawn broad conclusions about Uribe’s ‘peace’ program, harshly condemning what they call a "supposed demobilization process that continues to disregard the right of victims to truth, justice and reparation and which has patently failed to effectively dismantle paramilitary groups." (47)  "Paramilitarism is not being dismantled, it has simply been ‘re-engineered’" (48); "the process has resulted in paramilitaries being ‘recycled’ into the conflict, still committing human rights violations with impunity." (49)  Put simply, the process is a sham.

This evidence proves that, as far as US-Colombian sponsorship of human rights atrocities are concerned, nothing’s changed during Uribe’s tenure.  The horrific dirty war, with all its gruesome excesses, continues; the modest decreases in crime and increases in security in some parts of the country are not indicative of any fundamental changes in the attitude of the Colombian government toward reformist movements in civil society.  Despite the fanfare accompanying many stages of the ‘peace process’, paramilitarism is as much of a fact now as it was in 2002.   Therefore, the ‘peace process’ cannot be persuasively cited as an argument for continued military aid to Colombia.

Jake R. Hess, a graduate student at Brown University, welcomes feedback at JakeRHess(at)gmail.com


(1) Washington Office on Latin America, "US Congress Takes Step in the Right Direction on Colombia", 06/06/2007.

(2)  For example, WOLA, the Latin America Working Group and Center for International Policy all enthusiastically backed the measure.

(3)  Bob Davis, "Colombia Goes Full Tilt to Return to Grace", The Wall Street Journal, 06/04/2007.

(4)  Washington Office on Latin America, "WOLA: Bush Must Address Human Rights Situation in Colombia", 03/09/2007.

(5) The Center for International Policy, The Latin American Working Group and The Washington Office on Latin America, "Below the Radar: US military programs with Latin America, 1997-2007", March 2007.

(6)  John Otis and Patty Reinert, "Democrats plan major sift in direction for Colombia aid", Houston Chronicle, 06/07/2007.

(7)  Washington Office on Latin America, "US Congress Takes Step in the Right Direction on Colombia", ibid.

(8)  Amnesty International USA, "US Military Aid to Colombia", March 2007.

(9)  For a thorough treatment of these issues, see Doug Stokes, America’s Other War, (Zed, 2006), chapter 5.

(10)  Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for International Policy and the US Office on Colombia, "Colombia: Congress Should Maintain Hold on Military Aid", 04/18/2007.

(11)  Amnesty International, testimony at the Second International Conference on Human Rights in Colombia (Brussels), 17-18 April 2007

(12)  Amnesty International USA, ibid.

(13)  John D. Negroponte, "Helping Colombia is in our national interest", 05/22/2007.

(14)  Juan Forero, "Paramilitary Ties to Elite In Colombia Are Detailed", Washington Post, 05/22/2007.

(15)  See "The crisis of Colombia‘s state" (published on 05/15/2007), an excellent article by longtime Colombia analyst and UK-based scholar Jenny Pearce, available at OpenDemocracy.net. 
(16)  Sanchez-Moreno, "Congressional Testimony on Democracy, Human Rights, and US Policy towards Colombia", Human Rights Watch, 04/27/2007.

(17)  Reuters, "Colombian warlord incriminated by his own laptop", 10/13/2006.

(18)  Isabel Hilton, "A dark underbelly of mass graves and electoral fraud: Congress is questioning a Latin American policy that has left George Bush with a best friend who is a major embarrassment", The Guardian, 03/08/2007.

(19)  Juan Forero, "Colombian Lawmakers Arrested", Washington Post, 03/15/2007.

(20)  Forero, Washington Post,  05/22/2007, ibid. 

(21)  Hilton, The Guardian, ibid.  Hilton’s report also notes, interestingly, that Noguera was Uribe’s campaign manager.

(22)  Human Rights Watch, World Report 2007, ibid.

(23)  Amnesty International, "Report 2007", ibid.

(24)  Paul Richter and Greg Miller, "Colombia army chief linked to outlaw militias", Los Angeles Times, 03/25/2007.  The article also notes that Montoya has been an instructor at the notorious School of the Americas (now WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Georgia.

(25)  Sanchez-Moreno, Human Rights Watch, ibid.

(26)  US State Department, "Rice Praises Uribe of Colombia for Tackling Security Threats; Criticizes  Venezuela’s Chavez or challenging free markets, open economies", USinfo.state.gov, 05/10/2007.

(27)  WOLA et al, "NGO Statement for Second Visit of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe", 04/05/2007.

(28)  Jose Miguel Vivanco, "Letter to President Alvaro Uribe", Human Rights Watch, 06/06/2007.

(29)  See, for example, Human Rights Watch’s landmark report The Sixth Division, 2001.

(30)  Forrest Hylton, "Politics as Organized Crime in Colombia?", NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) Report on the Americas, May/June 2006.

(31)  Pearce, OpenDemocracy, ibid.

(32)  Sanchez-Moreno, Human Rights Watch, ibid.

(33)  The US State Department has attributed eighty-percent of all record human rights abuses in Colombia to paramilitaries for years, as Douglas Stokes points out (see note 9). 

(34)  Kenneth Roth, "Letter to President Alvaro Uribe", Human Rights Watch, 05/02/2007

(35)  Roth, Human Rights Watch, ibid.

(36)  See, for example, the International Confederation of Free Trade Union’s 2002 annual report chapter on Colombia, in which they point out that 89% of trade union killings are attributed to the paramilitaries.

(37)  UN General Assembly, "Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia", 03/05/2007.

(38)  Human Rights Watch, World Report 2007, January 2007.

(39)  Amnesty International, "Report 2007", May 2007.  The UNHCHR (see note 4) also documents ongoing criminal activity by paramilitaries in areas where they were said to have demobilized.

(40)  Amnesty International, Brussels testimony, ibid.

(41)  Amnesty International, "Colombia: Fear and Intimidation: The dangers of human rights work", October 2006.

(42)  Amnesty International, "Government maligns Colombian activists", The Wire, October 2006.

(43)  Sanchez-Moreno, Human Rights Watch, ibid.

(44)  Amnesty International, Brussels testimony, ibid.

(45)  Amnesty International, Brussels testimony, ibid.

(46)  UNHCHR, ibid.

(47)  Amnesty International, "Colombia: Latest killing of human rights defender throws controversial paramilitary demobilization process into further doubt", 02/02/2007.

(48)  Amnesty International, "Colombia‘s paramilitaries ‘recycled’ into conflict", The Wire, October 2005.

(49)  Amnesty International, The Wire, October 2006, ibid.