The following section will be utilized to make critical updates regarding developments in Colombia, but should in no way be depended upon as a thorough or timely source of new information.  It is being maintained more as a potential than active location by this web site.  Those who wish to remain informed about what is going on in Colombia are referred to Colombian newspapers such as El Tiempo and El Espectador, Colombian magazines such as Semana, international news services such as Reuters and the Associated Press, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  For corrections and amendments to the original text of "A Biography of Colombia Embattled", please see "Colombia Corrections", below.



The following update section contains news stories and analysis dating from MAY 2006-JUNE 2008.  For subsequent entries, see other COLOMBIA UPDATES sections.

Colombia Updates 2 (Beginning July 2008)



















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MAY 2006: URIBE ELECTED FOR SECOND TERM: On May 28, 2006, President Alvaro Uribe Velez was reelected President of Colombia. His second term will last from 2006-2010. Supporters of Uribe consider the "landslide" vote in his favor to be politically decisive, and view it as a clear indication of his popularity: as a signal that the people of Colombia are solidly behind his policies. The conclusions which may be drawn from the election are somewhat more complex.

Regarding the results, Uribe’s victory was, without a doubt, statistically decisive. Uribe, running at the head of a political movement known as "Primero Colombia", sometimes called the "U Party", garnered 62% of the vote, followed by Carlos Gaviria Diaz of the "Polo Democratico Alternativo", who won 22% of the vote. In third place came the Liberal Party, represented by Horacio Serpa Uribe, who captured 11.8% of the vote, and after that, a variety of smaller parties and movements trickled in with insubstantial numbers. Foremost among them was the "Alianza Social Indigena", led by Antanas Mockus, which won 1.24 % of the vote.

Uribe is best known for his commitment to neoliberal economic policies which interface neatly with US strategies for globalization, and for his commitment to the concept of "democratic security", which is a vision for pacifying Colombia within the context of a democratic society, as well as for his supposedly high level of cooperation with the US in the war on drugs. At a time when much of Latin America is in a process of strident reaction against US-directed neoliberalism - at a time when Hugo Chavez reigns in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Alan Garcia and the Apristas have returned to power in Peru (closely trailed by the populist candidate Ollanta Humala) - Uribe represents a desperately-needed ally for Washington in a region that some say has been taken for granted and driven by neglect into a new era of confrontation with the US. Pliable no more, its spirit has come back from the dead, with echoes of past rebellions. Strangely enough, in this context, Colombia, which was once considered a major potential source of instability in the region, has now become, for the US, a precious bulwark of stability, a bastion of North American interests in an area of increasing distrust and tension. Its internal stability (build atop the rumblings of enormous instability) is, for that reason, more coveted than ever by US policy-makers, who are likely to continue pouring resources into Colombia to help combat the guerrillas which threaten it.

Although Uribe’s victory is a huge triumph for the Bush administration, it would be a great mistake to discount the considerable level of support which he enjoys in Colombia. Even with his degree in Administration and Management from Harvard University, and his close ties to Washington, he cannot be simplistically dismissed as the "made in the US" candidate. Many Colombians support him because they are fed up with the guerrillas, who were always feared and hated by the Right, but who are now intensely disliked by major swaths of the political Center and Left, as well. The guerrillas’ image has been tarnished by their involvement in the drug trade (in the case of the FARC), by their overuse of kidnapping as a source of funding and achieving a political impact, by their escalating use of violence as a response to the paramilitaries, and by various political maneuvers and deals which have undercut or even shattered the ideals which once engendered sympathy. Although many Colombians still do feel an affinity for the guerrillas, or see them as a necessary defender against the abuses of the wealthy and the self-centered, who have traditionally wielded laws and weapons against the weak, for many others the guerrillas have lost their legitimacy as "saviors of the people" and degenerated into mere thugs. They agree with Uribe that safety and security are the crucial issues in Colombia today, and have sided with him in his strategy of seeking to save Colombia by defeating the guerrillas - by smashing them so badly that they will come to the negotiating table ready, as they have not yet been, to accept the government’s terms for peace. These citizens are grateful for Uribe’s attention to the improvement of security on roads, for his efforts to reduce kidnapping, and for his successes against the guerrillas who, even if they have not been broken by his intensification of military operations (supported by US aid), have, nonetheless, seemed to lose ground in the face of his campaign.

Critics of Uribe charge that his government, in its first four years, threw the vast majority of its resources into the war effort and into other security measures, while neglecting important issues of social justice and economic programs that could have benefited the poor. They disagreed with Uribe’s philosophy that peace must come first, in order to free the resources needed to help the poor; on the contrary, they believed that social and economic justice were necessary foundations for peace ("no justice, no peace"), and that a military solution, by itself, would fail to achieve lasting results. You could not just shoot the enemy into submission, you must soothe the pain that drove him to fight. Critics also charged that Uribe’s concept of "democratic security" was actually a cover for the subversion of democracy through increased militarization, enhanced government authority relative to individuals, and widespread human rights violations. In particular, they dismissed his efforts to demobilize right-wing paramilitaries and death squads as pure theater meant to create the perception of balance in his policies. In reality, they said, he tolerated and even facilitated the continuation of right-wing paramilitary violence, which he and others saw as an integral component of the counterinsurgency. Critics pointed to his former links with groups known to be favorable to the paramilitaries, and to the open support which various paramilitary organizations had given to his candidacy, as well as to the persistence of paramilitary violence even after the muchly-touted "demobilization process" had begun. They also were quick to point out the failure of Uribe’s war on drugs, which was based on (1) fighting the guerrillas, who were designated as "narcoguerrillas" or "narcoterrorists"; and (2), supporting massive fumigation campaigns directed against cultivations of coca and amapola, as well as raids against labs and other illegal facilities carried out by specially trained anti-narcotics police. Colombia’s drug output, and the amount of drugs reaching the US from Colombia, were said to have not declined (and possibly even to have increased) in spite of these measures, which is not surprising, considering the involvement of right-wing paramilitaries, corrupt elements of the military, and independent drug traffickers in the drug trade, which is hardly monopolized by the guerrillas. Some critics have gone so far as to point out the questionable relationship which Uribe has had with drug dealers in the past, as when, for example, he appeared to cooperate with projects sponsored by Pablo Escobar while he was Mayor of Medellin. This is not the man who will defeat drugs, they say, although most Colombians continue to place the bulk of responsibility for their country’s drug problem on US consumption, which generates the demand which is behind supply’s infinite resilience. (Uribe’s supporters point to a significant increase in the number of drug dealers who have been extradited to the United States during his presidency, but critics consider these to be PR successes of limited long-range impact, which do not seriously alter the dynamics of the trade.)

Obviously, in terms of the 2006 vote, these criticisms did not translate into rejection for Uribe, whose victory was undeniably resounding. And yet, critics do point to the interesting fact that, in spite of winning the election with 62% of the vote, Uribe failed to win over the majority of the Colombian electorate. The majority was actually won by a well-known if highly regrettable candidate, known as abstention, who was supported by 54.8% of the electorate. In Colombia, abstention has long been a means of protest, or else a simple expression of apathy, a vote for the idea that voting makes no difference, that those who want to rule already have the game locked up and the odds irrevocably stacked in their favor. Who wants to give legitimacy to their farce, by pretending there’s a real competition? Isn’t one’s vote, even for a losing candidate, like giving one’s personal stamp of approval to the winner of a corrupt process? Of course, it would be unfair to impute a single motive or political orientation to this massive voter non-turnout. Who can say how many Uribe supporters failed to go to the polls because they thought that their candidate already had it wrapped up, or because they had legitimate security concerns, even though the FARC had promised not to interfere with voting on election day? (Anti-government advocates, for their part, also had security concerns in the face of paramilitary intimidation and threats.) On the other hand, even though some of the non-voters of May 28 are sure to have been Uribe supporters, the existence of such a gigantic pool of abstention very likely also harbors within it a great deal of coolness towards Uribe. At the very least, as analysts have pointed out, it means that Uribe, in spite of his "landslide victory", will actually be governing Colombia with the support of only 27.5% of the nation’s eligible voters. That should serve to put into perspective the "overwhelming mandate" which he believes the Colombian people have given him to "stay the course", and humble the pride of a regime which could easily fall victim to hubris.

In addition to these considerations, this election is of particular interest to analysts due to some possibly long-term, major shifts in the tendencies of Colombian politics which it may point to. Since the mid-19th Century, Colombian politics has been dominated by two traditional parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, which have had all the longevity and stability of our own Democratic and Republican parties. In this election, some important changes may have occurred. First of all, Uribe, who began his career as a Liberal, ran for president in 2002 as an "independent Liberal", and eventually succeeded in consolidating his own political movement, "Primero Colombia", a coalition of various political parties and groups which coalesced around his ideas and personal presence. He, in some ways, became bigger than the parties, which could not absorb him, and were forced to either react to him or to follow him and be absorbed by his movement. Colombia had had charismatic and forceful leaders before, but this level of "personalist dynamics" was something new, in the view of some analysts, and less a result of Uribe’s ability to fascinate than of the historical conjuncture and forces at work within the country, and acting upon the country from the outside. In the 2006 election, the Conservative Party joined his coalition, throwing its support behind "Primero Colombia", sometimes known as the "Party of the U." Meanwhile the historically powerful Liberal Party took a beating, capturing only 11.8% of the vote for third place, behind the left-wing coalition Democratic Alternative Pole (PDA), which won 22% of the votes. As a result, the stability and future of Colombia’s long-standing two-party system has been called into question.

The stability of certain other Colombian political institutions has also been noted to waver. When Uribe was elected president in 2002, for example, reelection was forbidden by the Colombian Constitution. Uribe’s supporters, not content to act within the confines of the existing law, sought to change the law in order to enable their candidate to remain in personal command of a political process which they deemed vital for the future of Colombia, though many others considered the president’s direction to be repressive and short-sighted. Uribe rallied support for an amendment to the Constitution in the Colombian Congress, and, say some, won votes by offering prime posts and jobs to backers of the amendment (and their relatives), and by also channeling government investments into the home regions of cooperative officials. Uribe’s supporters claim that these charges are exaggerated. Whatever the case, in October 2005 the Colombian Congress passed a law altering the Constitution in order to allow the consecutive reelection of presidents, an amendment which was approved by the Colombian Supreme Court in November 2005, paving the way for Uribe to run again. This new provision in the Colombian Constitution is valid only until 2014, and was clearly made for Uribe, not for the purpose of strengthening the Colombian political system as some supporters maintained. Analysts warn that the tendency to subordinate the basic laws of a nation to the interests of individual political figures is a dangerous sign of institutional weakening, which could in the future lead to personalist rulers who manipulate the law rather than follow it, and even eventually give rise to dictators.

Analysts have also claimed to see evidence of a growing polarization in Colombian society, as Uribe’s "party of the U" is pulling the Conservative Party, which has jumped aboard, further to the right, while the Liberal Party, trying to hold the Center, has been left empty-handed, supplanted as Colombia’s "second party" (in this election) by the leftist PDA. The PDA (Democratic Alternative Pole), which brings together a wide variety of left-wing groups and parties, including the AD-M19 (M19 Democratic Alliance) and PCC (Colombian Communist Party) won 22% of the vote, the most the Left has ever won as a third party in a presidential election. (In 1990, AD-M19 won 12.5% of the vote. In 1991, AD-M19 did win 26.7% of the vote for delegates to the national Constituent Assembly, which was charged with rewriting the Constitution, however; so that it may more accurately be said that the electorally-active Left, as opposed to the armed Left, has finally begun to recuperate something of the stature it attained in the early 1990s.) The strengthening of both the Right and Left, and weakening of the Center, if that is what this election is revealing, is not a good sign for the future, for democracies are rarely capable of surviving the chasms which open up between opposites.  (On the other hand, some observers entertain the hope that if the democratic left is able to increase its political impact, it may one day succeed in discouraging violent revolution by bringing about needed social change through reform.)

Whether these various analysts are right or wrong, is, of course, debatable. Political predictions always are. What is now a fact is that Alvaro Uribe has been reelected President of Colombia, and thereby won the right to lead the nation for one more four-year term (2006 - 2010). In the days, weeks, months, and years to come, the impact of this victory is sure to manifest; and what can now only be guessed will be revealed.


MAY 2006: COLOMBIAN MILITARY UNIT ATTACKS ANTI-NARCOTICS POLICE: On May 24, 2006, Colombian troops belonging to the 3rd Brigade’s Farallones High Mountain Battalion killed ten members of an anti-narcotics unit belonging to the Judicial Police in an attack which took place near the town of Jamundi, south of Cali in the Department of Valle del Cauca. The army claims that the troops believed the policemen were guerrillas, and overcame them with automatic weapons fire and grenades before learning of their tragic mistake. However, their version is doubted by many, due to the fact that the attack took place in broad daylight, in an open (not forested) area, and due to the fact that the policemen were clearly distinguished by their caps and jackets. Some witnesses claim that the policemen called out to the soldiers, informing them of who they were and asking them not to kill them ("we have wives, and families"). But if so, it was to no avail. After thirty minutes, they were all dead. Were the policemen victims of "friendly fire", the kind of accident that sometimes occurs in tension-filled war zones; or were they deliberately rubbed out by an army unit which had chosen to act in support of local drug dealers? (The police were said to have been moving against a criminal safehouse reputed to contain 200 kilos of cocaine.) No one is quite sure, but the government has promised an investigation.

For many, this massacre is reminiscent of an incident which took place in Guaitarilla, Narin~o, on April 20, 2004, in which an army patrol ambushed and wiped out a police unit assigned to a counter-narcotics operation, along with several civilian informants who were accompanying them. Once again, the attack was blamed on confusion, the army claiming that troops had mistaken the police for FARC guerrillas. However, forensic investigators at the scene of the "mistake" discovered that the army had tampered with the evidence after the supposed "battle", moving the bodies of policemen killed at short range inside of their vehicles, outside onto the ground. Some of the belongings of the police were also discovered to be missing. According to one version of the tragedy, the police had been making rounds of the area which contained drug laboratories and other facilities, and collecting payment (in cash or cocaine) from drug dealers in exchange for not interfering with their operations. The army unit was said to have attacked the police with the aim of robbing them of the "protection money" they had just received. An official investigation of the incident did not succeed in significantly clarifying it, and, naturally enough, no embarrassing conclusions were drawn.

These incidents provide substantial but not definitive hints of the complexity of the war on drugs, as it is being experienced on the ground in Colombia, and do much to shatter the myth that the guerrillas are solely responsible for the drug trade as we know it. Elements of the Colombian police and military who we are enriching with our weapons and our aid may be just as much involved.


JUNE 2006: MUSIC FOR PEACE AND RECONCILIATION: This is not really news from June, it is included here only because I just received a tip about an interesting project which aims to use music to promote peace, and the reconciliation of political opposites, in Colombia, a project which has actually been going on for some time. A sharp-witted and concerned musician, Cesar Lopez, has begun a movement to transform weapons into musical instruments, and crusade against the violence, from all sides, that is wrecking his country. See this excellent blog by Kevin Sites:  


AUGUST 2006: IS A "US INVASION" OF COLOMBIA IMMINENT?: "Invasion", of course, is a loaded word; a more neutral alternative might be "intervention" or "major military campaign." I was asked this question recently in light of reports from Colombia that at least some US troops already stationed there are pumped up for an anticipated escalation of events, which may involve them in direct combat with Colombian guerrillas and require a sizable influx of US reinforcements.

My answer to this question is that troops on the ground who are involved in a particular theater of operations are always likely to see the future of their theater from "up close", where its reality is more intensely understood and felt, but its larger context within the overall foreign policy objectives and capabilities of their nations is often not fully perceived. For some US soldiers, at this moment involved in training Colombian troops to fight guerrillas and drug traffickers (and some US forces may be occasionally involved in combat), the conditions on the ground seem to call for more support, and for more direct intervention. But for US foreign policy-makers back in Washington, looking at Colombia from a perspective that is simultaneously less intimate and more expansive, the quagmire of Iraq, the continued instability of Afghanistan, the potential threat of Iran with its nuclear ambitions, and the volatility of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, have already placed overwhelming demands on the US military machine. There simply are not enough resources left to support a major US military campaign in Colombia at this time. Only if conscription were to be re-instituted would such a move be feasible, and there is little support for that from a public which has (again) lost much of its trust in government, and had its enthusiasm for foreign military adventures seriously dampened by the debacle in Iraq: a "cakewalk" that turned into Hell. Most likely, the US will once more retreat to the lesson it learned (and then forgot) from Vietnam, which is that when intervention is deemed necessary, it is more likely to succeed if it is indirect and discreet than if it is brazen and "in your face." Subtle psychological forces and perceptions, which determine whether specific policies are viewed as acts of invasion or liberation, domination or support, or self-aggrandizement or solidarity, generate huge material consequences which translate, quite concretely, into bullets, bombs, and casualties. Foolish leaders who thought that Grenada, Panama and Desert Storm - (very calculated and limited operations in sync with the emotional state of the nation) - invalidated and superseded the misspent blood and tragically-gained wisdom of Vietnam, are now left standing in the debris of a blueprint that was devoid of history. Members of the conservative "American Century" think-tank, whose clarity was undermined by testosterone, have overextended and undermined US military power by being excessively blatant, by being wed to weapons and their own psychological need to prove their manliness, while being oblivious to the might of cultural symbols, and the political weight of appearances. I believe that the eyes of these policy-makers have finally opened to the obvious, and that the fact that they have already "bitten off more than they can chew" in the Middle East without yet "taking on" Colombia via the "direct approach", will forestall any possible "invasion" at this time. At the time I began writing my article on Colombia, I was not so sure of this; but now I feel confident that my assessment, at least for the near future, is likely to be accurate.

Of course, this does not mean that the US will not continue to be deeply involved in counterinsurgency and anti-narcotics operations in Colombia. What I expect is that the strategy and tactics currently in place will continue. High US levels of military and economic support for the Colombian government will remain intact; tacit support for the "dirty war", maintained behind a smoke screen of limited paramilitary demobilizations, will persist; and perhaps the use of "private security contractors", AKA "mercenaries" - combatants and weapons-systems operators not officially deployed by the US government - will be expanded. Well-connected to the government, but technically not a part of it, these private contractors (which recently have included American companies such as DynCorp Aerospace Technology, AirScan, and Military Professional Resources Inc.), may well provide the US government with a means of escalating involvement in Colombia without triggering the massive waves of popular protest which the renewal of the draft would be likely to provoke.

For the time being, barring the unexpected resolution of multiple crises in the Middle East, or the drastic alteration of our political system in ways that close avenues of dissent and facilitate militarism, I foresee no deviation from this basic plan. The war will retain its current form. Not forcing itself into the center of our consciousness, in the manner of Iraq, it will demand greater effort by all of us to remember it, to care for its victims, and to seek constructive means of resolving it.


AUGUST 2006: JOURNALISM IN COLOMBIA: AN ENDANGERED PROFESSION. In past years in Colombia, journalism was a frequently deadly profession. Journalists who worked to expose the political influence or connections of drug dealers, to uncover political corruption, to investigate human rights abuses and links between the paramilitaries and the military, and to expose and challenge guerrilla activities, were all at risk. Frequently threatened, and sometimes assassinated, they paid a high price for their commitment to uncovering the truth, and exercising their right to express their views in a theoretically open society. Ultimately, journalists found themselves caught in the middle of a "war for information." All sides in a deeply divided society in which "political and economic actors" have been conditioned to pursue their goals through violence, fought as fiercely to control information as they did to control territory and "business." Those who profited from obscurity fought to keep their illegal and reprehensible activities concealed from overt public view - undocumented if not unknown - so as not to trigger the corrective social response which showing up on the political radar screen would require. (In many cases, sordid and cruel facts were widely known or suspected, but remained socially inert and not acted upon - lived with by the masses who could not change them, while dismissed by the national and international hierarchy as political folk tales or partisan mythology, until irrefutably "proven" by the "hard research" of judges and journalists.) Whenever a journalist came too close to bringing the underground world to the light, he would therefore find himself and his family threatened. Those who did not heed the threat and pull back would suffer the consequences - often death. In the same way, government, guerrilla, and paramilitary all sought to manage the spin of the war they were fighting, and to ensnare journalists as much as possible to be their mouthpieces, or at least to inhibit them from molding public opinion against them. The battle for "hearts and minds", a crucial component of the war, depended largely on shaping the perceptions of the people, which was partially achieved by attempting to gain control of information through pressure exerted on journalists.

The New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists publishes timely bulletins, yearly reports, and special analyses pertaining to the working environment and safety of journalists throughout the world. It noted an improvement in statistics regarding the murder of journalists in Colombia in 2004 and 2005, but added the following qualification (in its 2004 report, Attacks on the Press in 2004):

For the first time in more than a decade, CPJ documented no case in 2004 in which a journalist was killed for his or her work. While violence against Colombian journalists may have receded - 31 were murdered for their work during the last decade, according to CPJ research - it does not reflect an improvement in conditions for the press. Rather, local journalists say, it reflects a culture of self-censorship, especially in Colombia’s lawless interior. Pressure from armed groups, they say, has caused many journalists to not cover the conflict, or to provide superficial, one-sided coverage.

Juliana Cano of the Fundacion para la Libertad de Prensa was quoted as saying: "Self-censorship is pervasive. Regional journalists are wary of the consequences of what they write or broadcast."

CPJ’s on-line report for 2005, and a special article entitled "Untold Stories", provide some examples of harassment of the press from 2005, which include a car bombing of the RCN television and radio station headquarters in Cali by the FARC guerrillas; reporters forced to flee from Florencia and Buenaventura due to threats by the FARC, and the bombing of the antenna of a local radio station by the FARC; harassment of a local radio station in Arauca by the army, which has accused the staff of working for the ELN guerrillas and pressured it not to cover human rights violations (one reporter was jailed for 20 months without any connection being proven); the disappearance of files of evidence pertaining to the 1991 murder of an El Tiempo correspondent by the army, an act which enhances a pervasive atmosphere of criminal impunity and increases the sense of peril for journalists working in Colombia; government statements urging the press to exercise "self-control" and not to provide the guerrillas with media coverage (which might broaden their political appeal or convey an idea of their military effectiveness) - requests which are essentially asking the media to become a part of the government’s own spin machine (with the vague fear of military or paramilitary reprisals lurking in the background); numerous paramilitary threats, most often dealt with by self-censorship (the lesson of not crossing the paramilitaries has been well- learned by journalists over the years); and the surprising case of Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Semana and director of a news program on Canal Uno, who received a funeral wreath and card inviting him to his own funeral, as the result of his coverage of some of the more unsavory aspects of contemporary Colombian politics. In addition to this threat, he received additional threats by e-mail, warning him that the life of his 6-year-old daughter was at risk. The threatening e-mails were traced to the Bogota mansion of a former congressman and close friend of President Uribe, but a subsequent investigation by the Attorney General led to no concrete conclusions or punishment. In fear for his life, Coronell decided to leave the country with his family.

Once more, on the theme of self-censorship and fear, various quotations are provided by CPJ: Carmen Rosa Pabon who works for a Caracol affiliate says: "We love our profession, but we’re human. Threats and killings make us afraid. To survive, we have to limit ourselves." Blanca Maria Torres Ramirez, Managing Editor of El Calen~o, says: "Sometimes it’s hard to be a good journalist because of the fear." While Adonai Cardenas Castillo of El Pais cites a case in which the paramilitaries killed some youths in Buenaventura, but the newspaper didn’t expose the perpetrators, who were well-known by the locals, because of the danger. "Even if you know who killed someone, you can publish only what the police report."

In this climate, the news from Colombia is in danger of becoming nothing more than a tool of manipulation, molded, by fear, to actively represent the views of one side or another, or else to passively permit the conquest of information by those who would use the threat of violence to replace truth with propaganda. Lies - or what amounts to the same, the muteness of the truth - will come to reign. The less that journalists are killed, and the more that they are broken or silenced by terror, the more intact the democratic form will seem, and the more believable will be the news that deceives. We, who are not in the line of fire, hardly have the right to condemn those Colombian journalists who have chosen prudence over martyrdom. What we do have is the responsibility to protect the exceedingly brave, who continue to try to reach us with information which can help us to understand the reality of their country, so that we may intelligently choose our proper place of intersection with it; and to support all measures and reforms which promise to increase security for journalists in Colombia.

For more information, please see: (archives contain annual reports and timely briefings on the safety of journalists in Colombia); and an interesting article, "Untold Stories", which is located at:

Without security for journalists, we are in danger of never learning the full truth of what is actually happening in Colombia; and, therefore, in danger of basing important future decisions on misinformation and ignorance.


AUGUST 2006: MICHAEL TAUSSIG’S "LAW IN A LAWLESS LAND": BOOK REVIEW. It is just a matter of timing that I am able to post this now. This is not news; in fact, the book, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003. Nor is this really much of a book review, it is more of an exposition of some of the points and innuendoes raised by the work.

Michael Taussig, who is also the author of Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, is an anthropologist at Columbia University, New York. He is a somewhat controversial figure as it turns out, idolized by many who admire his great knowledge, social consciousness, and dexterous writing style, while others find fault with his scholarship (blaming him for "mis-analyzing historical processes" and "preferring drama to accuracy"); they also take offense with his writing style (accusing him of postmodern hyper-writing, or turning social reality into the material of "self-centered literary displays"). Without taking sides in this debate, I take note of his breadth of knowledge and experience, and recommend "Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia" as a valuable resource. Most likely, it requires some prior knowledge of Colombian history on the part of the reader in order to achieve its full effect, because although it is infused with history, it does not present Colombian social history in a deep and structured way. But that is not its intent. Instead, it provides "ground zero" contact with the vibe of violence existing in a Colombian town in the Valle del Cauca, about an hour’s drive from Cali, replete with the fear, confusion, mixed reactions, mourning, indifference, sometimes wild speculations, and political mythologizing that characterize that environment.

Almost between the lines of the accounts of violence, and Taussig’s observations of, and interactions with, the people of the town, and his somewhat postmodern musings on power, violence, and writing, the basic social dilemma emerges. The Valle del Cauca, a lush region of enormous agricultural diversity and multitudes of peasant farmers, was dramatically altered in the 1950s by the expansion of the sugar industry (which was dominated by a relatively small elite), and by the increasing displacement of human labor as a result of technical advances. Many peasants were "bought up" or driven off the land during these days, leading to the expansion of an impoverished class of under-employed laborers, to the rise of ghettos in towns amidst the sugar cane, and to an escalation of crime as a response to economic impotence, and to the broken sense of self-worth produced by destitution. (Crime arose as the new world in which one might assert one’s capability. Gangs arose as the new medium for achieving social validation.) In the 1980s, the town studied by Taussig was further degraded by the construction of a giant paper mill upstream, which polluted the river that ran through it, unraveling its collective life and damaging its sense of community still more (the river had previously served as a place for women to congregate, wash clothes and socialize. It had been a crucial focal point for the creation and maintenance of group identity.) Even more recently, a whole new generation of automated factories had begun to move in to take advantage of a tax-free zone being created in the area in order to attract large-scale companies, including multinationals, to spur development. According to Taussig, however, economic opportunities for locals were not greatly enhanced by these projects. What did occur was that the town in question suddenly became more strategically important to those who had previously neglected and marginalized its population by promoting economic plans that left them out. Now, suddenly, the culture of gangs and crime which had grown up in the hole left behind by others’ economic success, threatened to deter the arrival of the new businesses being courted by the tax-free zone. There was too much unruliness, too much lawlessness, too much crime, too much "attitude", too much danger to risk investment here. It was precisely at this moment that the paramilitaries arrived, allegedly invited in by local business interests.

Right-wing death squads and well-armed irregular military groups, typically financed and supplied by private business and the Colombian military, these paramilitaries have become a notorious feature of the Colombian political landscape. They are used to kill civilian sympathizers of the guerrillas in the "dirty war"; they are used to assassinate labor leaders to enforce the dominance of business, and to intimidate journalists: to help the Right seize control of information, and project the reality which they wish to the nation and international community. They are also used to perform social limpiezas, or "cleansings", to rid society of "undesirables" - social nonconformists such as gays, transvestites, prostitutes, "street characters", and gamines (homeless children). Since the law does not always function well in the broken-down parts of the nation, they also perform limpiezas as a kind of "vigilante action" to defeat crime where it has gotten out of control, without having to struggle through legal channels which they consider to be ineffective. (Even where criminals are caught, prosecuted, and sentenced for their crimes, the paramilitaries sometimes murder prisoners upon their release from jail, because they consider the penal laws in Colombia to be too lenient.)

In the case described by Taussig, the paramilitaries moved into either a local motel, or a hacienda on the edge of the town, converting it into a base of operations, and from there began to track and shoot down "undesirables." Rather than coming in, striking, and getting out - rather than committing the typical paramilitary massacre which takes place in a matter of hours or days - they established a long-term presence, essentially becoming a permanent feature of the town: mysterious and feared, unseen but somehow omnipresent. Many of the townspeople turned out to be in favor of the paramilitary presence; they felt that they had their backs up against the wall because of crime; they couldn’t go out at night, and were afraid that thieves might break down their doors to rob them or kill them. Under these circumstances, they were grateful that someone had arrived, at last, to do something about the gangs that were terrorizing them.

Others rejected the paramilitaries, however, because of their cruelty, their political agenda, and the danger they seemed to represent to anyone who disagreed with them. Taussig quotes one resident as telling him: "Shhh! In this town you can’t say anything!" But he goes on to write: "But I always think the real silence - what people in the villages sometimes call ‘the law of silence’ - is so silent, you don’t know the other person is being silent." (p. 21) Basically, the helplessness felt in the face of runaway crime, was now replaced by the helplessness felt in the face of unrestrained paramilitaries (unopposed by police, army or government), who felt justified in using violence and terror to try to force their own political and social vision of Colombia onto the population. In this environment, conformity, invisibility, and submission - all the outward signs of acquiescence - were the only plausible tools of survival.

Taussig’s work helps to paint a disturbing picture of one possible future for Colombia, in which faulty models of economic development (often mere facades for the self-aggrandizement schemes of the already wealthy) dispossess and impoverish increasing numbers of people, whose poverty drives them to lawlessness and crime; the insecurity produced by crime creates a certain mass level of support for the paramilitaries who move in to "protect the citizenry", and free them of crime, but at the price of allowing the paramilitaries to entrench themselves in society and consolidate their right-wing political agenda, which is all about domination and submission, with no room left for social justice. Are the paramilitaries the necessary product of neoliberalism? Its only logical outcome, and ultimately, the only possible means of making it fly?

Taussig’s book is particularly useful because it contributes to a multi-layered understanding of the paramilitary phenomenon, which forces us, as much as it forces Colombians, to confront the moral consequences of our choices and visions. Synchronistically, perhaps, I came upon the following quotation today, which serves as a perfect ending to this little article: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

Even if we close our eyes, the world is still attached to us: to the umbilical cord of our knowledge and our heart, our action or our inaction. We can’t escape from the world, and the world can’t escape from us. There is no moral choice but to open our eyes, and to accept this terrible and beautiful union which we cannot break.


SEPTEMBER 2006:  CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD - THE RELEVANCE OF A GARCIA MARQUEZ NOVEL. In answer to the question, "Why did you put Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Cronica de una muerte anunciada) on your "Literature of Interest" list when it does not explicitly deal with history or politics?", I reply:  Because it deals with violence; and with cultural elements which permit and facilitate violence.

In this engrossing tale, a man was murdered, even though most everyone in his town knew about the assassination-to-be in advance, and even though the killers themselves seemed eager to fail at the task imposed upon them by their culture (as a matter of "honor"). Why didn’t anyone in the town warn the intended victim? And why didn’t anyone take effective action to stop the culturally-compelled, yet reluctant, killers? Although the novel is not explicitly linked to the political situation in Colombia (and certainly not to the Colombia of today), the theme is, nonetheless, more than relevant. Rumors and death lists today abound, plainly foretelling the identity of the victims of the future, yet civil society seems unable or unwilling to defend the doomed, who live in tragic helplessness amidst the hollow powers commissioned to defend them. This kind of violence rarely comes out of the blue, it has a history and a logic to it far stronger than moral values or institutional guarantees, and stalks the victim relentlessly until at last the dread is consummated. The plot is uncovered beforehand, but the target remains defenseless, as though he were the focal point of a collective ritual sacrifice, a murder that is both active and passive. The difference between Garcia Marquez’s story and today’s reality is that in the story, the victim was the only one who did not know what was about to happen to him, while in contemporary Colombia, the victim knows and cries for help, but no one answers. Death has too many hiding places and too many friends to be apprehended before He strikes. La muerte tiene palanca.

While this strand of the tale seems darkly fatalistic and lends itself to hopelessness, there is another strand, more optimistic: for in Garcia Marquez’s novel, the killers, themselves, seem to regret what they are about to do; almost desperate to be discovered, disarmed, and deterred. More than unstoppable monsters, they are men of feelings, too, imprisoned by the dynamics of their culture, and swept along by it towards a terrible violent act they do not really want to commit, but which they have no choice but to carry out. The hope is thus left that with changes in the perception of duty - with social shifts away from the culture of reaction which obligates revenge - the human heart may one day become free to obey its abhorrence of savagery, and find its way back to mercy and reconciliation.


MARCH 2007: CHIQUITA AND THE PARAMILITARIES: On March 14, Chiquita Brands International Inc. agreed to pay the US Justice Department a fine of 25 million dollars for having paid out a total of 1.7 million dollars, between 1997 and 2004, to finance right-wing paramilitaries operating under the aegis of the AUC. As "Biography of Colombia Embattled" has already delineated in great detail, these paramilitaries engage in violent acts of intimidation and terror against civilians in an effort to break or control labor movements, displace peasants and acquire land, punish sympathy or tolerance for the guerrillas and uproot guerrilla support networks, encourage political compliance with the right-wing agenda and, in cases, engineer social conformity by means of "purification operations" (limpiezas, or "social cleansings"). Chiquita Brands is a US-owned company, the latest incarnation of the United Fruit Company, which later became United Brands, then reorganized as Chiquita. (Chiquita was, in the past, a ground-breaking label designed by the United Fruit Company which, when it was stickered onto banana bunches, pioneered the technique of giving product identity to fruit, thereby enabling brand loyalty to be cultivated where previously a banana was just a banana. Now, it has been embraced as the name of the company, itself.) The paramilitaries hired by Chiquita operated in the banana-growing zones of Uraba and Santa Marta (the original banana zone which was temporarily abandoned due to blight and labor disputes, but has now made a significant comeback).

From the US government’s point of view, the payments to the AUC represented a criminal act due to the fact that the AUC is now classified as an FTO (a foreign terrorist organization), even though the Colombian military, which is heavily supported by the US, seems to have a close working relationship with the AUC. Political pressure, however, finally forced the AUC to receive the FTO designation in 2001 (the Colombian guerrillas had already been placed on the list), turning Chiquita’s act into a highly illegal one: it was now guilty of providing financial support to a terrorist organization.

In its moral defense, Chiquita argued that it had been compelled to provide "protection money" to the AUC in order to guarantee the safety of its employees in the banana-growing zones, and it stated that it had, in the past, provided similar payments to the Colombian guerrillas (the FARC and the ELN). It sought to portray its motives not as ruthless (supporting savage human rights violations in order to defend its profits), but as compassionate (bending to the demands of the environment to try to save its workers); simultaneously it sought to disassociate itself from charges of supporting right-wing politics in Colombia via the paramilitaries, by insisting that it had also paid the leftist guerrillas (thereby seeming to back up its argument that it did not have a political agenda, only a sincere desire to protect its employees). However, given a long-standing company history of aggressive interfacing with local politics and rough-handed tactics to keep labor movements under control, some social critics wonder if this explanation is not merely a "spin", the expected exercise in PR damage control.

These critics note the early years of the United Fruit Company, when it swashbuckled its way through the political environments of Central America, bribing officials, fomenting and facilitating coups, bankrupting rivals and competitors, and developing cutting-edge techniques for busting unions and dominating labor. Colombians widely blame the United Fruit Company for the 1928 massacre of banana workers in the Department of Santa Marta, as Guatemalans blame United Fruit for the military coup which overthrew the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and replaced it with a military dictatorship. And these were just the extreme moments in a consistent company pattern of protecting its assets at the expense of social justice, critics claim. Although the company would like to say that this legacy is now behind it, the product of another age - one of freewheeling, barely restrained entrepreneurs interacting with volatile societies plagued by cultures of violence and corruption - the truth of the matter is that charges of United Fruit misconduct have continued into the present. In 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a scathing exposé of the United Fruit company (Chiquita), accusing it of mistreating Central American workers, evading compliance with the laws of foreign countries, bribing foreign officials, contaminating local environments, and even allowing cocaine to be smuggled into the US aboard its banana boats. Chiquita, discovering that some of the material included in this exposé had been illegally obtained by a journalist breaking into its voice-mail system with the help of an inside informant who provided passwords and tips about when to hack into the system, counterattacked the Enquirer with the threat of a massive lawsuit. Its journalistic integrity shattered, the newspaper backed off the story and came to terms with Chiquita, agreeing to publicly apologize for the exposé, to retract the story, and to seal all records, journalistic notes, and materials related to the articles, and to eventually destroy them. The newspaper and journalist who spearheaded the attack were thoroughly discredited, and subsequent coverage of the case dwelled mainly on the failure of the editorial staff of the Enquirer to properly supervise the work and methods of a maverick, crusading journalist; the whole case, in fact, quickly became a classic in the annals of journalistic self-analysis and review. What has been lost in the fall-out of the case is what, exactly, of the writer’s accusations is true? Was important information uncovered by Michael Gallagher (the offending half of the Gallagher/McWhirter team) lost in the rush of the journalistic community to disassociate itself from his gross professional misconduct and embarrassing violations of his profession’s codes; and did the Enquirer’s panicked deal in the face of Chiquita’s formidable legal counterattack doom large quantities of important evidence (not just the voice-mail transcripts), much of it gathered legally, via interviews and research? We may never know the whole truth about what was lost - about what evidence was concrete and what was not - because, in this case, Chiquita won, its good name protected by the shame of those who dared to challenge it, but sabotaged themselves with their zeal.

Some who deplore a newspaper’s blunders and a journalist’s crimes nonetheless feel that there was fire behind this smoke. Perhaps not all the demons that Gallagher shook loose were real, but neither were they all phantoms of his conscience and testosterone. For those who hold this view, the collaboration of Chiquita with Colombian paramilitaries is not hard to fit into a perceived continuation of the company personality; it would, indeed, be the modern expression of a recognizable historical behavior. According to these critics, previous payments made to the guerrillas would have occurred in the context of not feeling in any other way secure from guerrilla interference. In exchange for dishing out the extortion payments (this is a form of guerrilla financing), company property and infrastructure would be spared acts of sabotage, and company personnel would be spared from the danger of kidnapping or attack. Payments to the paramilitaries, on the other hand, would have occurred as the ability of the AUC to defend the company from the guerrillas increased, as a result of its own growing influence and effectiveness in the regions concerned. Payments to the guerrillas would be passive ("here, take this and leave us alone"); while payments to the paramilitaries would be active ("provide us with security"; this, in turn, could include the physical defense of company facilities and personnel, as well as the uprooting of guerrilla sympathizers from the area, and the intimidation and inhibition of guerrilla support networks. It should also be noted that aggressive and effective labor movements rarely flourish in regions which are in the grip of a strong paramilitary presence.) For this reason, critics say, the effort of Chiquita to downplay the political function of its donations to the paramilitaries by "packaging" it together with previous donations to guerrilla forces does not float. The company’s practicality is proven, but not its pretensions of being apolitical, nor its spun image of being a helpless bystander of, rather than an indirect participant in, the dirty war.

What I am providing here is insight into another possible perspective of the Chiquita affair, since the company’s own perspective has already been broadcast with all the power and competence to be expected from a gigantic and experienced multinational. I do not have the in-depth information to definitively condemn this company, which I both admire and detest (I respect its entrepreneurial talent while I am infuriated by its dark history); but I do have the instinct not to accept its explanation at face value. This is news which requires intense scrutiny, and further investigation. A disturbing pattern of support for the paramilitaries by US and British business operations has already been suggested, if not proven to the satisfaction of some, with Coca Cola, TEXACO, and British Petroleum all in the limelight; is Chiquita next to join that club of notoriety?

To conclude the story, the 1997-2004 payments to the paramilitaries were made by BANADEX (C.I. Bananos de Exportacion S.A.), a Chiquita subsidiary in Colombia, which Chiquita sold off in 2004. For some time during its involvement in the Colombian banana industry, the company appeared to have developed an indirect strategy for dominating the trade, withdrawing itself from the direct production of bananas which it left to local planters, who were also left with the difficult task of managing the volatile labor relations in the region which had enmeshed the company in so much unwanted turmoil. The company continued to make money by providing these planters with technical and financial support, and by transporting and marketing their bananas in the US. After a while, rival Colombian marketing and distribution organizations arose to challenge this strategy, and United Fruit seems to have "aggressively returned" to a more direct approach, exposing it once again to the social and political conflict it had previously acted to avoid. This may explain how it became tangled up with the guerrillas and the paramilitaries; and possibly - though I lack the economic information which could counter the following theory - may have contributed to its decision to sell Banadex in 2004.

This is a story which is sure to be more complex than anyone who wants to use it for political purposes is likely to want to know or admit; and yet, we cannot let complexity stop us from reacting to what is highly suggestive. While we must be fair, we must not be paralyzed by our desire to be fair. Rivers of blood pour out from what is not proven. Somehow, we must find a way to stop the bleeding.


March 2008:  COLOMBIA, VENEZUELA, AND ECUADOR:  AN INTERNATIONAL CRISIS AND A DEEPER GLIMPSE INTO THE REGIONAL CONFLICT:  A CAPTURED LATPTOP, THE WAR OF INFORMATION, AND THE CONCEPT OF NUCLEAR GUERRILLAS.  On March 1, 2008, the Colombian military bombed a camp belonging to the FARC guerrillas which was across the border, in Ecuadoran territory; they then landed troops, by helicopter, at the camp site, recovering several bodies, including that of a major FARC commander, Luis Edgar Devia Silva AKA“Raul Reyes, to bring back to Colombia.  They wished to display the body of Reyes as proof of his elimination.  More importantly, perhaps, they brought back captured laptops from the guerrilla base, said to be treasure troves of information with major political implications, as well as enormous benefits for intelligence. 

The operation produced a gigantic international flare-up.  Ecuador denounced the violation of its national sovereignty by Colombian military forces, while Colombia formally apologized, justifying its actions with a rather unbelievable explanation which was later demonstrated to be false.  (The original explanation was that Colombian forces, inside their own territory, had been fired on by FARC guerrillas who retreated into Ecuador, and that they had followed the guerrillas into Ecuadoran territory as part of a “hot pursuit.”  This account was not consistent with the evidence found by Ecuadoran troops when they arrived at the scene of the attack.  Ecuador maintained that the attack into Ecuadoran territory had been planned in advance, and was a calculated and carefully-designed operation launched in total disregard for Ecuadoran sovereignty.)   Colombia countered, condemning Ecuador for allowing the FARC guerrillas to utilize its territory as a safe haven and base from which to operate against the Colombian government.  They said that, on previous occasions, the Ecuadoran government had failed to act on intelligence which was provided to them by the Colombian military regarding the whereabouts of FARC guerrillas; and they pointed out that the guerilla base where Reyes had been killed was not a camp in transit, which the Ecuadoran security establishment might, conceivably, have failed to detect, but had permanent infrastructure and gave every sign of being an ongoing affair.  Additionally, the Colombian government released information to the public and to the international press which was purported to have come from the captured guerrilla computers, and which, if true, would provide strong indications that the guerrillas were receiving significant amounts of support from both Ecuador and Venezuela.  There were also shocking and controversial reports that the FARC guerrillas were involved in the trafficking of uranium and might be headed towards a future of nuclear terrorism; a threat so severe that any action taken to oppose them could not be viewed as extreme.

In response to the violation of its sovereignty, the Ecuadoran government severed its formal diplomatic ties with Colombia.  In solidarity with Ecuador, the Venezuelan government did the same (as did Nicaragua).  Since Venezuela also has been accused of harboring FARC guerrillas, and might, therefore, be susceptible to similar across-the-border operations by the Colombian military, it mobilized a major concentration of troops, tanks and aircraft to defend its border, an act which many saw as “provocative”, and which seemed to push the tension in the region to dangerous new levels.  Although most seasoned analysts saw the Venezuelan mobilization as a symbolic gesture and act of bravado, more than a real threat, not a few dreaded the prospect that, if events continued to escalate, Latin America might see its first war between nations in many years.

The international political significance of the crisis was that it pitted the government of Alvaro Uribe, who has sought to turn Colombia into a bastion of pro-US conservatism, against the leftist/populist governments of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (supported also, in the crisis, by Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega).  Even more than the outrage of Correa, it was the theater of Chavez, who has become the principal “thorn in the side” of conservative US policies in Latin America, which catapulted the conflict to its full dimensions.  The crisis became, in effect, a chance for the rift which is opening up within the ranks of Latin American nations, to express itself.  That rift, it should be noted, is the product of a growing disenchantment, throughout much of Latin America, with US policies and regimens of economic development, which have sought to take advantage of America’s “victory in the Cold War” to cease responding with vigor to the needs of the region.  Without the danger of losing Latin America to the USSR, critics say, the US has put the region on the “back burner”; now, however, the US may be in danger of “losing Latin America to the Latin Americans.”   Longstanding problems of poverty, stemming from internal structural defects, patterns of international trade and economic relations, the influence of multinationals, the debt crisis and terms set by international banks, including development agendas which undervalue the impact of human suffering and social discontent, continue to plague the region, and to provoke it.  In Colombia, Uribe’s political success has depended upon massive military aid from the United States (approximately $600 million a year) to combat the leftist insurgency and drug trafficking, which are both, to some degree, a response to poverty and to longstanding patterns of social neglect.  In the last eight years, the Colombian army has grown from 150,000 men to 270,000, which qualifies it as the second largest army in the region, behind only Brazil.  It has 265 helicopters and propeller-driven aircraft to support it, in addition to 140,000 heavily-armed police.  [Washington Post, March 6, 2008.] Until a more coherent and effective plan for the region is adopted, the future seems to promise either an increase in political regimes attempting to break away from failing US development models, or else an increase in US intervention and support for the military and police machinery needed to suppress expressions of discontent.

To solve the immediate political crisis, the OAS (Organization of American States) – a hemispheric council of nations including the United States – issued a declaration on March 5 stating that Colombia had violated the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ecuador”, but without making a formal “condemnation” of Colombia.  Legally, according to OAS usage of the term, a “condemnation” requires stringent sanctions against the offending country (such as were taken against Cuba beginning in the 1960s), and the United States and some other nations disapproved of the idea of punishing Colombia for its actions, which were undertaken in the context of a complex political situation in which guerrillas at war with the Colombian government are setting up sanctuaries, supply trails and bases on the other side of international borders to further their cause.  The phenomenon is nothing new in the history of guerrilla warfare.  It happened during the French war in Algeria, the American war in Vietnam, the Contra war against the Sandinistas, and the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.  In the case of the FARC operating in Ecuador and Venezuela, the activity could be attributed to the physical ruggedness of the borders, and to the weakness of the State presence in the frontier regions, which makes them difficult to supervise and control, and therefore “porous”, as Ecuadoran officials have described them.  However, Colombia charged that FARC activity behind these borders is not only not being contested by the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela, but that it is being actively supported by these governments.  After noting the Colombian violation and refraining from issuing a condemnation, the OAS appointed a commission to investigate the incident, which was to report back to a meeting of foreign ministers of the OAS member-nations on March 17.

In the meantime, on March 7, another international organization, the Rio Group, met to try to defuse the crisis in advance.  The Rio Group is an organization comprised of Latin American and Caribbean nations, but does not include the United States, whose presence, some feel, tilts the OAS too far in the direction of US interests.  The meeting was presided over by the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, and after some spectacular personal fireworks, in which the president of Ecuador called Uribe a liar (Chavez had previously called Uribe a “mob boss”), a calmer tone was finally set.  Uribe apologized for violating the Ecuadoran border and promised that it would not happen again, so long as Ecuador cooperated in preventing the FARC from using Ecuadoran territory.  President Fernandez asked Correa and Uribe to give each other an abrazo (or “embrace”) as is the Latin custom, and Correa, Uribe, and Chavez ended the meeting by shaking hands, and pledging themselves to back away from confrontation.

On March 17, the OAS held its scheduled meeting on the incident, and passed a resolution “rejecting” the Colombia incursion into Ecuador, without “condemning” it.  The Colombian action was held to be a violation of Articles 19 and 21 of the OAS charter.  (Article 19:  “No state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.”  Article 21:  “The territory of a state is inviolable; it may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of force taken by another state, directly or indirectly, on any grounds whatever.”)  The resolution accepted input from Colombia “to reiterate the firm commitment of all member states to combat threats to security caused by the actions of irregular groups or criminal organizations, especially those associated with drug trafficking”, and stated that concrete means of verifying compliance with the resolution ought to be created.  In other words, Colombian forces should not again launch unauthorized missions into foreign territory; but neighboring nations are also obligated to deny the use of their territory to guerrilla movements and the transnational dynamics of the drug trade.  In resolutions of this sort, very subtle choices of words sometimes say a great deal.  Whereas the Colombian government, the US government, and the European Union have categorized the FARC guerrillas as “terrorists” and “narco-terrorists”, this resolution avoided that language, in the effort to build up a consensus for conflict-resolution which will include the leftist states in the region, which regard the FARC as an armed political movement of stature:  a response to a violent and unjust history, which is not morally inferior to the oligarchies and military apparatuses which spawned it.  Chavez’s moral sympathies for the guerrillas were made quite explicit, when he called on Venezuelans to share a moment of silence for the fallen FARC leader, Raul Reyes, who both he and Correa said had been murdered in cold blood while he slept, by precision-guided bombs provided by the US, and operated with the help of US technical support. (The Ecuadoran military stated that the bombing raid had utilized six 500-lb. GBU-12 bombs.  The guided bomb units were directed by laser guidance, and the system was deemed to be beyond the operating capabilities of the Colombian Air Force.  The Colombian government countered this interpretation, insisting that A-37 attack planes had utilized conventional bombs oriented by means of GPS technology.  [Inter Press Service, March 18.])

Meanwhile, the OAS fact-finding commission discovered many problems with the initial Colombian description of the action.  The idea that Colombian troops, in Colombia, had been fired at by FARC guerrillas from across the Ecuadoran border, was discredited.  The attack was deliberately launched against a target which had been identified inside of Ecuador, without being precipitated by guerrilla fire.

Colombia had claimed that it lost a soldier in the battle against the guerrillas, which it said had started on Colombian territory.  The fact-finding commission discovered that the soldier who lost his life was killed in Ecuador, and that his body was brought back to Colombia in an attempt to conform with the story.  Furthermore, he was not killed in a battle with the guerrillas, but by a falling tree at the guerrilla camp which had just been bombed.  That tree, as many others in the vicinity, had been damaged and made unstable by the bombing, and it fell on him. 

Putting together the testimony of a radical Mexican student who was visiting with the FARC, and who was injured during the attack, with a forensic study of the bodies left behind at the camp after the Colombian army left, it was determined that when the Colombian military arrived shortly after the bombing, the survivors were shot at close range in the back.  The student described it as a “massacre.”  The tale of the bodies left no doubt as to the fact that a series of “extrajudicial executions” had, in fact, taken place.

Meanwhile, the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo identified a man who was seen in a photo with Raul Reyes, which was recovered from the guerrilla commander’s laptop, as Ecuador’s Minister of External Security Gustavo Larrea.  That was explosive news, indeed.  But later, it was shown that the man in the photograph was not Larrea, after all, but Patricio Atchegary, the Secretary General of Argentina’s Communist Party.  A serious misidentification of potentially huge political consequences had been proffered, then discredited. 

These details, by exposing a pattern of lies and misrepresentations, damaged the credibility of the Colombian government and its supporters during the crisis.  In the wake of these - and in the shadow of the legacy of President Bush’s incredible campaign of distortions and manipulation to foist the Iraq War upon the American people in 2003, which has inculcated in our minds an utter distrust for “official versions” - the evidence which the Colombian government claims to have found on the captured laptops regarding Correa, Chavez, and the FARC, is going to have a hard fight to gain universal acceptance.  It is likely that those who favor Uribe and US security policies will accept the information found on the computers as accurate, whereas those who do not will consider it to be a fabrication.  In an effort to prove the authenticity of the hard drives in its possession, the Colombian government has turned over copies to US experts, and has also asked for the assistance of INTERPOL in proving their legitimacy. 

What the experts decide (a technical assessment is expected to be forthcoming by the end of April 2008) – and how Colombia and the US decide to use the information, if it is validated – could very easily heat things up once again, in spite of the calming effect of the Rio Group and OAS resolutions.  The key issues at stake pertain to the alleged connections of President Correa and Hugo Chavez with the FARC guerrillas, as well as to the FARC’s supposed involvement with uranium.

According to the information said to be found on Raul Reyes’ computer:

1.      The FARC has a long and deep relationship with Hugo Chavez.  It provided Chavez with 100 million pesos in 1992, early in his career, while he was in prison after a failed coup attempt which he launched against the Venezuelan government.


2.      Subsequently (once Chavez had come to power via the electoral process and consolidated his “revolutionary direction”), the founder and principal leader of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, or “Tiro Fijo”, promised him that the Colombian guerrillas would come to his aid should he and his movement ever be subjected to foreign intervention. General Oscar Naranjo, the national police chief of Colombia, stated:  “This implies more than cozying up, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government.”



3.      Chavez had channeled, or was in the process of channeling, payments of $300 million to the FARC for unspecified purposes; it also seemed that he might be providing FARC agents with business opportunities using Venezuelan oil, which could be sold for a profit in Colombia.


4.      The computers also were alleged to indicate that high-level talks between members of Rafael Correa’s government and the FARC had been arranged, and that Ecuador had granted the FARC the right to maintain permanent bases in Ecuador.  More than a policy of non-interference with the FARC - which could be interpreted as a product of the simple desire to avoid becoming entangled in a war “that was not its own” - the information pointed towards a voluntary and well-developed relationship.



5.      The FARC was also said to have made a financial contribution to the electoral campaign of Rafael Correa.


6.       Most dramatically of all, information was allegedly discovered revealing the involvement of the FARC in the attempt to purchase uranium on the black market.  As Francisco Santos, the Vice President of Colombia, told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, uranium is “the primary basis for generating dirty weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.”  General Oscar Naranjo stated:  “When they mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium, this means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor.  We’re not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism.”


As previously stated, for this information to escape from the suspicion of being a political fabrication, the authenticity of the captured computer files must be technically verified.  That process is underway, but not complete, and the results are likely to be disputed whether they are legitimately obtained or concocted.

Secondly, even should the files be proven to be authentic, there is the matter of interpreting them and placing them in their full context.  The temptation to wield them as mere manipulative tools for mobilizing public support against leftist regimes in Latin America will be high, especially in the case of Venezuela.  If Chavez can be shown to have strong links with a rebel organization characterized as “terrorist”, which is implicated in schemes to develop “dirty bombs”, it could create a palatable pretext for “taking him out.”  There will also be a great temptation to utilize the information to increase US military involvement in the war against Colombia’s guerrillas.

Depending on what results and what level of regional confrontation the US and Colombia are seeking, efforts by Ecuador and Venezuela to portray their financial relations with the FARC as part of an effort to make a deal with the guerrillas for the release of hostages could either be accepted or rejected.  Both governments have inserted themselves into the hostage-negotiation process, in an effort to achieve humanitarian objectives and/or gain political capital for themselves.  The FARC, at this time, holds a large number of “economic hostages” (individuals kidnapped in the expectation of collecting a ransom, which is a major means of guerrilla financing), as well as “political hostages” (individuals kidnapped to obtain political leverage, principally to bargain for the release of imprisoned guerillas).  Some of these political hostages, such as Ingrid Betancourt, are very high-profile individuals.  (Ingrid, daughter of Yolanda Pulecio, a former Miss Colombia and social advocate for the poor, and Gabriel Betancourt, a former government minister and diplomat, founded the European-style Green Oxygen Party in 1994, which was especially active in combating corruption, especially during the regime of Ernesto Samper.  While seeking to meet with the guerrillas in order to discuss the disintegrating peace process in 2002, she was kidnapped, and she has been held by the guerrillas ever since.  Many governments, especially France, which is the country in which she grew up, have sought her release, as have the major human rights organizations of the world.  However, the FARC has opted to weather the political damage of holding onto her, in spite of the overwhelming weight of public opinion, in the hope of using her as a bargaining chip in securing the release of its own prisoners.  President Rafael Correa of Ecuador claimed that his government was in the process of attempting to negotiate Ingrid’s release when the Colombian military killed Raul Reyes which, in his opinion, destabilized the process.  Days later, another major guerrilla leader, Ivan Rios, was killed in Colombia by his own bodyguard, who opted to take him out for the $2.6  million reward being offered for him by the Colombian government.  As proof of the assassination, he cut off the right hand of his former boss.  The loss of both these leaders in such a short time was said to have put the negotiations for Ingrid in jeopardy.  However, nothing can undo the fact that the responsibility for Ingrid’s captivity rests wholly with the FARC.)

There is, then, the possibility that the economic links between Ecuador, Venezuela, and the FARC, if real, are associated with the hostage liberation process. 

If the passage of money from governments to the FARC cannot be dismissed as related to the effort to compensate the FARC for the release of hostages, however, then the question must be asked, why are governments such as Correa’s, but more especially, Chavez’s, politically and economically involved with the FARC?  The answer to that question begins with the understanding that the Latin American left perceives the FARC in a different light than does the United States and Alvaro Uribe.  Although large swaths of the Latin American left are disillusioned with the FARC, and deplore many of its tactics, they do not regard it as a “terrorist” organization, as that term is understood in the post-el-Qaeda world.  They recognize the FARC as part of a longstanding Latin American tradition of social revolutions, including the movements of Zapata, Villa, Sandino, Farabundo Marti, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.  They see such movements as violent reactions to political, social, and economic situations which fail to address the needs of large sectors of the population, and which fail to allow genuine alternatives.  In the case of Colombia, the peaceful political participation of the left has been severely compromised, ever since the days of Gaitan (who was assassinated in 1948), due to the prevalence of political killings, which remains a serious threat to this day.  All politicians live in the shadow of the paramilitary apparatus, which, in the 1980s, decimated the FARC’s experiment with the electoral process through a leftist umbrella group, the Patriotic Union (UP), which enabled it to field many candidates.  The UP was devastated by a massive wave of assassinations.  Therefore, members of the Latin American left who have knowledge of this history, do not see the FARC as a rogue narco-terrorist organization, but as a revolutionary group in the classic Latin American tradition (which modern times, especially the advent of the drug culture, have altered, however); they see it as a group which, even if it has strayed from some of its original visions, represents the one element of the Colombian left which is capable of defending itself, and is not, like the others, merely a sitting duck waiting to be decapitated should it ever pose a real challenge to the status quo.  Without this element, they feel that those political forces which favor a major transformation of Colombian society, would lack any form of protection or bargaining power.  Because the FARC exists, they believe, the left has options for the future, either as part of a coalition with the FARC, or as a more moderate alternative. These analysts do not view the current Colombian government as a democracy, but see it as a postmodern form of dictatorship, presenting a democratic image to the world while undermining the essence of democracy by means of paramilitaries (death squads) which maintain a close working relationship with the Colombian military within the fiction of being opposed by the government.  The effect of democracy is also undermined by the astronomical rates of abstention in the Colombian elections.  Therefore, these leftists do not see the FARC as totalitarians fighting against a democratically-elected government, but as militants fighting against an unfree society.  Probably, the most accurate assessment coming from this direction is that all sides in the war have become brutal and pragmatic at the expense of the ideals which can humanize conflict.

Given this interpretation, the relations between Correa, Chavez and the FARC, if they are actual, would assume a very different significance than that being offered by the black-and-white world, informed with sound-bites and catchwords.  The socialist presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador would respect the FARC as a pillar of the Colombian left. Committed to the new Latin American move to the left, they would no doubt feel sympathy towards the Colombian left, which without the FARC, would be naked in the land of the sicarios (assassins) and the paramilitaries.   For these presidents, cultivating relations with the FARC, which controls huge amounts of Colombian territory and is inserted into the midst of various resources, would be akin to developing relations with a foreign nation (in this case, a country within a country).  Not only could the progress of the Colombian left eventually improve the chances of socialist regimes in both Venezuela and Ecuador, by diminishing the potential opposition of a militarized, right-wing nation on their borders, and by increasing the levels of economic cooperation possible between them; in the event of intervention by the United States (a particular concern for Chavez), the likelihood of Colombia serving as a support base for that intervention would be high.  In such a case, an alliance with the FARC could prove very useful to Venezuela, since the Colombian guerrillas could operate against the rear of the interventionist forces, and reduce the effectiveness of the intervention by posing multiple threats inside Colombia.

If the alleged financial connections between Chavez, Correa, and the FARC are validated, then this is likely to be what it is all about.  The FARC may not be ideal, but it is a Colombian reality, and a major player in the future of the region, which cannot merely be swept to the side by the label “terrorist.”

In terms of the allegations involving the FARC and uranium, here we have an obvious dose of hype and monster-creation – we have seen it before with the demonization of Sadaam and Iraq by the Bush administration, which presented fabricated evidence to the American public (in the form of forged documents from Niger) “proving” Iraq’s efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal.  The allegations regarding the FARC ought not to be dismissed, just because we have seen this game played before.  After all, one day a real wolf did appear to the boy who cried wolf.  However, we need to analyze the information which has been presented to us very cautiously, without leaping to conclusions, or succumbing to politically-engineered hysteria.

 Supposing, the e-mail communication mentioning the uranium turns out to be authentic…  What, exactly, does the communication say?  In Spanish, as presented by Semana (March 4, 2008), the relevant text, sent to Raul Reyes from Edgar Tovar, a guerrilla operative, reads:  “Otros de las temas es lo de el Uranio, hay un senor que me surte de material para el explosivo que preparamos y se llama Belisario y vive en Bogota, es amigo de Jon 40, Efren oriental, Caliche de la Jacobo, el me mando el muestrario y las especificaciones y proponen vender cada kilo a dos millones y medio de dolares y que ellos entregan y nosotros miramos a quien le vendemos y que sea el negocio con un gobierno para venderle harto, tienen 50 kilos listos y pueden vender mucho mas, tiene el contacto directo con los que tienen el producto…”  The translation, in English, would be:  “Another of the themes is that of the Uranium, there is a guy who supplies me with material for the explosive which we prepare and his name is Belisario and he lives in Bogota, he’s a friend of ‘Jon 40, Efren oriental, Caliche de la Jacobo’, he sent me the samples and the specifications and they propose to sell each kilo for the price of 2.5 million dollars and they’ll deliver it and we’ll look to see who we can sell it to and it should be a business deal with a government in order to sell a large quantity, they have 50 kilos ready and can sell a lot more, he has direct contact with those who have the product.”

The letter, if authentic, would seem to indicate that the FARC was not interested in acquiring nuclear materials for use in the construction of its own weapons, but that it was seeking to utilize the services of a known contact, who had already provided it with other forms of explosives, in order to purchase uranium from a third party.  The FARC would then sell nuclear material, in bulk, to an interested government.  It would, in other words, traffic the material as a source of generating revenue for its operations. 

Under pressure for his hasty public interpretation of the uranium note as an indication of the FARC’s intention to enter the world of nuclear terrorism – a claim which struck many as reminiscent of the Bush administration’s use of paranoia and hyperbole to engineer the US invasion of Iraq - Colombian Vice President Santos toned down his comments soon afterwards.  “What I said was, ‘Take note.  To put the FARC and the word uranium in the same sentence is to make anyone’s hair stand up.’ Don’t take it lightly,” he insisted, without continuing to speculate that the FARC was in the process of developing a nuclear arsenal. [Neither the FBI nor Colombian intelligence has any information linking the FARC to a nuclear weapons project.  – AP, March 6, 2008.]

However, fears were quickly shifted from the FARC itself towards Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, which many US analysts assumed to be “the government” which the FARC would acquire the uranium for and sell it to. On March 19, a US representative from Florida, Connie Mack, referring to the uranium letter, proposed a resolution which would declare Venezuela a “state sponsor of terrorism.”  At this point in time, Venezuela has already been stigmatized by being certified as “not cooperating fully” with US anti-terrorism efforts, which means that the sale of “defense-related articles and services” to Venezuela by US enterprises is prohibited.  However, a robust economic relationship, centered on Venezuelan oil exports to the US, remains intact.  If Venezuela were to be officially certified, by Congress, to be a “state sponsor of terrorism”, this important and mutually-beneficial economic relationship would be forced to come to an end.  The Florida representatives (Connie Mack and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) who launched this proposal embody America’s leading element against left-wing politics in Latin America.  How the rest of the US political establishment will interpret events and react to the situation remains to be seen.

It needs to be stressed that the opinion of a large number of scientific experts who were consulted with regarding this issue is that the uranium transaction mentioned in Tovar’s communication to Reyes is not credible; it is either bogus (as in fabricated intelligence), or else some kind of scam, in which one or another party is attempting to make big money by selling a hyped-up but basically unsuitable product.  The scientists (Washington Times, March 19) point out that:  1. Ordinary uranium can’t be used in a nuclear weapon and it is a poor choice for a terrorist “dirty bomb.” 2. It is worth only about $100 a pound.  ($ 2.5 million per kilo is nearly 10,000 times that amount.)  3.  To make a nuclear bomb, vastly larger quantities of uranium would need to be acquired than the FARC proposes to buy, and a major industrial operation would then be required to enrich it to the point where it could support a chain reaction and be used as a weapon.  This kind of technical infrastructure is completely beyond the reach of the FARC, and would take years for any local State to develop.  4.  The scientists did not believe that uranium of higher quality was available in either Colombia or Ecuador, and felt that local supplies, as they were, were unsuitable for incorporation in a dirty bomb, due to low radioactivity. 

Although the input of the scientists is useful, it seems that in some ways, they could be missing the boat.  Although Tovar’s cited contact is said to live in Bogota, there is no indication as to where the supplier of the nuclear materials is located.  With contacts around the world, and links to the international black market, who is to say that the FARC could not be intending to purchase uranium from abroad, say from European or Russian dealers?  As for the $2.5 million per kilo value, which to the scientists seems absurdly exaggerated, perhaps the uranium that the FARC is intending to buy is already enriched, which would explain the amped-up price.  It is a known fact that quantities of weapons-grade materials have disappeared from enrichment facilities in various international locations (especially from Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union), and there is speculation that some of this material is floating around on the black market, available for sale to governments and other bidders.  This is not necessarily to disagree with the scientists, merely to note that their criticism is incomplete, because it fails to cover some important possibilities. 

My own view of the situation?  First, let the authenticity of the captured files be verified, by independent and credible technical analysts.  Verifiers who have overt political links to those nations which would benefit most from an infusion of propaganda opportunities to use against the FARC and Chavez, will not do; there must be analysts who are politically neutral, or else unwavering in their integrity. 

If the Tovar communication regarding Uranium is proven to be true, I would offer the following analysis:  Most likely, the proposed deal would be intended to 1. Provide the FARC with a lucrative source of revenue, as the “middle man” in a trafficking operation, 2. Provide political cover for the recipient of the nuclear material, who would not have to take the political risk of acquiring the material directly (the FARC, without an address, would be less vulnerable to typical forms of reprisal, both military and economic), 3. Provide left-wing governments in Latin America with the future possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent against foreign intervention, be it by means of atomic fission bombs or dirty bombs (radioactive materials scattered about by a conventional explosion).  In view of the USA’s stunning adoption of the ideology of aggressive “regime change”, as demonstrated in Iraq (2003), and in view of its longstanding history of intervening against leftist regimes and movements in Latin America (Guatemala 1954, Cuba 1961, Dominican Republic 1965, Chile 1973), the move by left-wing governments in the region to enhance their options for self-defense makes sense. 

What is stated above is pure speculation, and may be far from the reality of what is occurring.  But to me, it seems the most likely take on the Tovar message, if that message is, indeed, proven to be authentic.

Much more lasting and serious than the immediate crisis provoked by Colombia’s intrusion into Ecuadoran territory on March 1, are the ramifications of the information extracted from Raul Reyes’ laptop, should their authenticity be confirmed.  Nuances of a political situation which is understood in general terms, but which has never before been glimpsed so deeply, will be brought to light, providing new reserves of ammunition for those who wish to escalate political tensions, and pave the way for intensifying levels of conflict.  Warriors shall be provided with an impetus, peacemakers with a challenge.  What the region, and the world does with its discoveries will depend, as always, on what is already in its heart.


April 2008. US HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES DELAYS VOTE ON COLOMBIA FREE TRADE AGREEMENT. On Tuesday, April 8, the US House of Representatives voted to delay consideration of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement which was sent to it for ratification by President Bush. This controversial action reflects conflicts in substance and style between various political groups in the United States, and also provides another occasion for weighing the advantages and disadvantages of such agreements in the first place, which have already resulted in the creation of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and DR-CAFTA (the Dominican Republic/Central American Free Trade Agreement).

The agreement with Colombia was negotiated with the Colombian government by President Bush who, in an effort to place its approval on a "fast track", sought to carry out the negotiations in "close consultation with Congress"; in return for this degree of cooperation, the Congress was committed to subject the proposed agreement to a timely vote. (In the House, the vote must take place within 60 days of receiving the proposal; in the Senate, within 90 days.) Furthermore, the Congress must vote on the agreement in its submitted form, without amending it.

For many Republicans who support the position of the US President, the House vote to defer consideration of the trade pact until after the November elections (well after the 60-day deadline) was an "unprecedented" violation of their agreement with the President: a broken promise which threatened the stability of an important ally in an increasingly disaffected region: an ally which was sorely counting on the economic benefits which the trade deal could bring to it. The denial was also a serious blow to the credibility of the United States, creating an image of unreliability in the conduct of its foreign relations, which could all too easily be sabotaged by the unsightly phenomenon of partisan bickering. Republican critics of House leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat) blamed her for playing politics in an election year (agreements promoting globalization are unpopular with many Democratic supporters due to the loss of jobs which they entail in some sectors of the US economy). Pelosi has stated: "We certainly should do more for our own economy before passing another trade agreement. We are ready to work with the president on a …stimulus package to get our economy back on track and creating jobs. That must be our first priority." Republican critics also scoffed at the idea that the President had failed to hold up his end of the bargain, by not consulting closely with Congress during the negotiation of the agreement with Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe. They pointed to a large number of meetings which had been sponsored by the executive branch for the benefit of the legislature, and to various fact-finding trips to Colombia for legislators which it had organized.

However, last year, the leadership of the House made it clear that approval of the deal would depend upon whether Colombia demonstrated "concrete evidence of sustained results" in dealing with the issues of paramilitary power in its country, as well as the near-impunity which paramilitary killers have enjoyed in their decades-long campaign of terror against trade unionists. Since 1985, according to Human Rights Watch, over 2,500 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia, with only 68 convictions. Supporters of President Bush note "positive steps" taken in the area of human rights by his Colombian counterpart, including "massive demobilizations" of right-wing paramilitary fighters typically linked to death-squad activity aimed at "guerrilla sympathizers", and ordinary labor organizers who are merely committed to improving wages and conditions for Colombian workers; an increase in funding for the prosecution of such cases; and the creation of a specialized group of prosecutors and judges assigned to reopen some of the many "unsolved" political murder cases: to go back in time, as it were, and do battle with the specter of impunity that has tainted the Colombian justice system for years. However, on the eve of the crucial House vote, Human Rights Watch took the position that: "If Congress ratifies the FTA now, it’s very unlikely the Uribe government will follow through on its promises to tackle these issues." The idea was that approval of the Free Trade Agreement ought to be withheld, and used as a goad to generate genuine human rights progress which goes beyond mere posing. The authenticity of a change of heart can only be verified over a period of time; anyone can push the pause button on his transgressions for a few strategic moments. In other words, according to Human Rights Watch, the US ought not to reward and enhance a regime, via the FTA, which does not respect basic principles of human rights; you don’t get into bed with a killer; and reward should follow achievement, not assume it and precede it. Besides the attitude of "let’s wait and see how your reforms work in practice", there is also the disillusioning report of OAS observers sent to Colombia to verify the progress of Uribe’s much-vaunted campaign to dismantle the paramilitaries (a process which left-wing critics characterize as a sham). These official observers from the Organization of American States have identified a large number of still-intact paramilitary groups "which are actively recruiting new troops and participating in drug trafficking, extortion, selective killings, and the forced displacement of thousands of civilians." Many wonder how effective Uribe can really be in dismantling them, as, according to Human Rights Watch, "more than 50 congressmen from Uribe’s governing coalition, his former intelligence chief, and other officials, have come under investigation for collaborating with paramilitaries. Rather than fully supporting investigations into these links, Uribe has repeatedly lashed out against the Colombian Supreme Court and journalists who are trying to uncover the extent of the paramilitaries’ influence [in his government]."

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (Democratic majority leader) rejected administration criticism of the Democrats for failing to properly support Colombia, an invaluable ally in South America and "counterbalance to the radical influence of Chavez’s Venezuela", by reminding all concerned that the Democrats have sided with the President in supporting Colombia with massive doses of foreign aid. He went on to say that a free trade agreement "is not a foreign-aid package. It is neither a favor for friendly governments, nor a substitute for sensible and sustained foreign-policy engagement in the hemisphere. An FTA is an essentially permanent economic integration agreement. Many Democrats continue to have serious concerns about an agreement that creates the highest level of economic integration with a country where workers and their families are routinely murdered and subjected to violence and intimidation for seeking to exercise their most basic economic rights. And the perpetrators of the violence have near total impunity."

Besides the moral aspect of not wishing to forge so intimate a bond with a nation that is currently saturated with political killings associated with state and military interests, there is also the issue of the effect of anti-labor violence on wages, prices, and international trade. As Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine (Republican) has stated: "An FTA creates a privileged trade relationship between economies that function along the same basic lines, but that is not the situation with Colombia – where violent suppression of labor rights, in addition to the human rights outrage it represents, also puts US workers and businesses at risk from unfair competition by Colombian producers who willfully make use of exploited workers."

Therefore, according to this perspective, the House has not gone back on its deal with President Bush (to hold a timely vote on the FTA); it has, instead, decided that crucial conditions which it had previously set for approving the deal have not yet been met (concrete - meaning visible and substantial - human rights advances). As Senator Snowe said: "Mere progress by the Colombian Government in reducing still unconscionable levels of violence against trade unionists is simply not enough."

At the same time that he has promoted the temporarily delayed FTA as a vital means of assisting Colombia, President Bush has also insisted on its potential economic benefits for Americans. Although he admits that there could be some harmful effects in the US, he believes that the benefits would far outweigh them. Consistent with pre-existing trade preferences meant to favor Colombian (and many Latin American) products as part of the philosophy that promoting economic development in key Latin American countries is crucial in managing their political stability, a great many Colombian products already enter the US free (or nearly free) of duty, including coffee, fruit, oil, clothing, grains, cotton, and soybeans. However, many US exports to Colombia, including agricultural products, automobile parts, medical and scientific equipment, chemicals, plastics, and assorted types of machinery, are still subject to tariffs as they enter Colombia. "I think it makes sense to remedy this situation," President Bush has stated. "It’s time to level the playing field." Looked at in this light, the FTA seems less a package meant to aid Colombia (whose exports to the US are already, in many cases, exempt from tariff barriers), than it does a package designed to aid the US economy, or certain sectors of the US economy (by eliminating Colombian tariffs on US products). Besides breaking down tariff barriers and facilitating the entry of US exports into Colombia, the deal would also allow American companies to have access to the services market in Colombia. For political critics of the proposal, this could enhance "US penetration" of Colombian society, making Colombia more susceptible to outside pressure and control, and severing prices from their social consequences. (Sometimes, in some cases, prices must be kept artificially low relative to market dynamics in order to uphold social justice and serve political stability. Outside companies may not always be sensitive to this need.)

A General Discussion of the FTA Idea

In general terms, "free trade" is a complicated concept which, in practice, is as much a political creature as it is an economic one. In theory, the creation of a larger supranational market in which goods and services are free to move about and be exchanged without the impediment of national trade barriers, which frequently defend inefficiency and therefore constrain the maximum development of wealth, ought to be a good thing. Thus multination agreements such as NAFTA and DR-CAFTA, and bilateral agreements such as the Colombian FTA, ought to be mutually advantageous. However, in practice, there are many impurities which tend to corrupt this economic model, although it should by no means be considered all negative. These impurities include:

1. The different states of economic development which exist between the member nations. (Wealthier countries are better able to support and execute transition strategies which can allow uncompetitive economic sectors, exposed by the dissolution of protective trade barriers, to shift into new areas of activity in which they will enjoy a comparative advantage. For poorer countries, the resources to weather these dislocations, to maneuver their economy in new directions, and to bear the hardships of transition, are far less. Poverty, in these countries, is more lethal, the margin for error far less, and the social consequences, which could even careen into violent revolution, are likely to be more pronounced. As economies become more interdependent, the impact of social turmoil in the poorer nations as a response to the transition pains of the "globalization process" becomes more "personal" to the wealthy nations, whose economies are now more deeply involved with them. The motive to intervene is therefore increased. Besides this, to return to the economic dimension, the developed nations already have a "head-start" over the less-developed nations which they are bonding with. The loss of trade barriers may enable the poorer countries to make significant inroads in areas such as agricultural products and light industries, especially textiles, but the already developed countries will presumably profit to a greater extent in virtue of the higher price brought by the manufacturing and technical products which they are in a position to sell, in virtue of their more advanced starting point. The abolition of tariffs will snuff out incipient industries in the less developed countries, which will not be able to compete with products from the industrial giants. This, in turn, will tend to preserve the inequality of nations based upon the price inequality of the goods they specialize in producing. Although this process should be reversible, due to the factor of cheaper labor being available in the less developed countries [LDCs], which could slowly cause manufacturing to gravitate in their direction, in practice as manufacturing and technical enterprises from the developed countries shift elements of their operation to the LDCs, they continue to maintain substantial control over them and to dominate the profits. The flow of wealth is, therefore, not reversed towards a global equilibrium point – cheaper labor does not promote equality by capturing production, it is, instead, "raided" by preexisting producers linked to the developed nations.)

2. Although the free trade agreements are meant to exist for the mutual benefit of all parties, they are, in fact, competitive arrangements, as Bush’s statement about "leveling the playing field" with Colombia implies. This statement, at the same time, displays an amazing achievement of perception (shared by many economists of the developed nations), and leads some representatives of the LDCs to ask: how can you talk about leveling the playing field when you are already in a position of utter dominance? It is like a giant lecturing a midget about the rules of fair play, just before the two of them step into the ring for a boxing match. Many of these LDCs have been politically, economically, and militarily dominated by one or more of the developed nations for years, and the free trade agreements, rather than representing a liberation from this history, may, in cases, merely be extensions of this process. The treaties and agreements which bring these free trade agreements into being are not negotiated by members of equal power, and are likely to reflect that fact by favoring the interests of the richer and the stronger nations, who often negotiate them into existence by working with pliable ruling elites in the LDCs, who are positioned to profit from them even if the majority of their countrymen are not. Once again, this is not to demonize the idea of free trade agreements, or to deny that there are economic sectors and regions in all participating countries which stand to profit from such agreements, it is merely to indicate a level of impurity and a power dynamic which ought not to be ignored. How has this dynamic manifested? In the case of agricultural goods, as traded within NAFTA and DR-CAFTA, some US farm goods have received an unfair advantage over competition from poorer countries in virtue of the massive US government subsidies which are provided to support them, which the poorer countries are in no way able to duplicate on behalf of their own farmers. (For example, in 2000, the US provided 10.6 billion dollars worth of government subsidies to corn producers in the US, which was ten times more than Mexico’s agricultural budget for that year.) Although many small US farmers have gone out of business as a result of NAFTA and other factors, large-scale agribusinesses backed by US government subsidies have thrived in this environment. This situation of unfairness can only be explained as the result of uneven negotiating power between the trading partners. Other examples would include the "technical trade barriers" provisions of the FTAs, which ban certain behaviors which could have the same effect as imposing a tariff. In this way, local governments cannot, in many cases, impose standards and requirements on goods or services which might impede the free flow of trade. Although it is true that many LDCs (for political reasons and/or lack of resources) have far less stringent environmental codes and labor laws than those found in the US – codes which have, nonetheless, been incorporated into the structure of the FTAs, which accept the validity of deficient local regulations – it is also true that these codes are sometimes locked into place by the FTAs. When a Mexican municipality blocked a multinational from creating a hazardous materials landfill in an area under its jurisdiction, for example, it opened itself up to a lawsuit under the rules of NAFTA for interfering with the company’s operations (the decision of what was a reasonable fear of contamination no longer rested with the community, but with a supranational organization). Also often cited as an example of developed-nation-bias worked into the texture of the FTA is the "test data exclusivity" provision of the DR-CAFTA, which, in a roundabout way, in practice, will trap many Central American countries in the future into a dependence on more expensive name-brand pharmaceuticals in the place of cheaper generic drugs. Once more, all of this is the result of a differential in negotiating power.

3. Human nature and political reality suggests that if the FTA becomes a serious threat to the economic well-being of the developed nation, overall, as opposed to a discomfit to limited sectors of its economy, it will use its superior power to amend the agreement or withdraw from it, and who will stop it?; whereas if the less developed nation attempts to do the same, once important economic elements of the developed nation have been imbedded within it, the likelihood of some form of intervention or retaliation is high. The LDC is therefore likely to become locked into a program that is beneficial for the developed nation, with little chance for escape if it ceases to be beneficial for it.

4. To the detriment of workers in some sectors of the developed countries, they may be forced to compete against workers in the LDCs who are exploited and underpaid (or who simply enjoy a lower cost of living) and against companies which have few environmental restraints placed upon them (all of which translates into lower-priced products). As a consequence, jobs will be lost in some sectors. If the economy does not prioritize the creation of new jobs in other sectors to absorb these workers, but, instead, only focuses on the success of its leading sectors which may be too technical or automated to accommodate an influx of the unemployed, major political reactions against the FTA may be generated within the developed countries, which could drive the political leadership in these countries to utilize its superior power to curtail the benefits of the FTA to the LDCs. In this way the agreements could evolve to become increasingly one-sided. (Hazards to consumers in the developed countries resulting from lower safety standards in the LDCs could also lead to amendments or abolitions of the FTAs. Most likely, the FTAs would continue but some LDC sectors might be eliminated or rendered uncompetitive.)

5. Although it is quite possible that the FTAs will generate an increase in overall wealth through a rationalization and an expansion of the market, it is questionable how fairly the profits of this process will be distributed. There seems to be an assumption, by many of the architects of this concept, that the corporation, with its technical expertise, financial resources, and economy of scale, is the optimal unit for the production of wealth, and many aspects of the FTAs seem to favor its operation (as opposed to the work of the small businessman and small farmer). The belief is that these powerful engines for creating wealth will spearhead the production of tremendous new levels of abundance, and that from the corporations this abundance will "trickle down" to the rest of society. "Trickle down" is neither as absurd as its most ardent critics claim, nor as certain and substantial as its advocates boast. What does seem true is that in countries of extreme poverty, mechanisms for the distribution and redistribution of wealth (which are sometimes considered economically inefficient) are as essential as the generation of wealth (which, without a rapid means of finding its way into the hands of the people who need it most, is socially inefficient). In many cases, the wealth generated by corporations has a tendency to remain massively concentrated at its point of origin, and to only slowly leak out into the larger realms of society where it is desperately needed. For the FTA to produce relevant benefits to the masses, the corporation must either take this into account and act accordingly, or else development strategies must be redirected towards plans that emphasize the viability of households, and learn to sacrifice volume of production for the social efficiency of distribution.

NOTE:  Many of the disadvantages and problems of FTAs which occur in the context of current globalization schemes might not apply to economic integration units or common markets consisting of nations sharing a more equal level of development, in which no one participant was positioned to dominate the arrangement economically, politically or militarily.  Common markets formed of more equal states would also be forced to confront serious obstacles; integration is never easy.  However, by banding together and preserving certain development options which are often taken from them by integration with more powerful states, they might better serve their long-term destiny.  But this is a theory hard to realize in the real world, especially with the political and economic leverage which the powerful nations already possess to prevent this inward-turning of regions.

The 2008 Elections and the Future of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement

The Colombian Free Trade Agreement, in addition to the particulars of the human rights situation and the civil war which give it a unique dimension of its own, can be considered in terms of the general discussion of free trade areas created between powerful and weaker member states which has been provided above. Both countries are sure to receive economic benefits (Colombia less than the US, since many of its products are already exempt from tariffs), and both are also certain to suffer damage in some sectors (growing pains for the rich, disasters for the poor?) It is hard to gauge the economic prospects of the proposed union, which should not automatically be assumed to be either healing or destructive. What is probable is that Colombia will be more firmly locked into a neoliberal model for development by the agreement, with less control over its economic decisions as time goes on. More and more, its destiny will lie in the hands of others.

In 2007, the total value of the legal trade between Colombia and the USA amounted to 18 billion dollars, so it is not a small relationship that is at stake.

The future of the agreement, effectively postponed by the US House of Representatives until after the November elections, is now almost certainly in the hands of the next administration. Republican candidate John McCain favors its approval, while Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are, for the time being at least, against it. It is therefore quite possible that the 2008 US presidential election will determine not only the next president of the United States, but also the future of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. To be more precise on the matter: without strong presidential advocacy, the agreement is likely to be rejected. With strong presidential advocacy, and depending on the post-election composition of the legislature and the political climate (especially relative to US perceptions of Chavez), the agreement’s prospects for approval are mixed.

SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE INCLUDE: "US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Put On Hold", Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2008; "Bush To Force Vote On Colombia Trade", New York Times, April 7, 2008; "US: Reject Colombia Free Trade Deal", Human Rights Watch, April 7, 2008; general reference works on the WTO, CAFTA and NAFTA.


April 2008. COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT CAPTURES SECRET STASH OF URANIUM ATTRIBUTED TO FARC: WHAT IS THE REAL STORY? On March 26, Colombian security forces uncovered a buried stash of uranium hidden in the rural village of Pasquila in the region of Sumapaz, to the south of Bogota. The total weight of the recovered uranium was 66 lbs. (or 30 kg.) According to the government, the location of the stash was revealed by two "demobilized FARC guerrillas" who brought the army a sample from the stash to prove their claims. Military intelligence sent that sample to Ingeominas (el Instituto Colombiano de Geologia y Mineria), or the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, for analysis, where it was confirmed that the substance in question was, in fact, uranium. On the basis of that information, the military operation to recover the rest of the stash was launched.

After the recovery of the uranium, the Colombian government brandished the find as proof of its charges that the FARC guerrillas were involved in efforts to acquire nuclear materials. That charge was first leveled after the capture of a major FARC commander’s laptop, said to contain a host of incriminating files, during a March 1 raid by the Colombian military into Ecuadoran territory: a raid which precipitated a huge international incident involving Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The subsequent capture of a tangible cache of uranium on March 26 is said to lend concrete evidence to the electronic insinuations unleashed by the disputed computer files, whose authenticity is still under investigation by the INTERPOL. Once more, Colombian government officials used the breaking news story as an opportunity to speculate that the FARC was involved in plans to construct a dirty bomb and boost its status as an international terrorist organization.

According to the Los Angeles Times (March 27), "a Western official, however, expressed skepticism about the ‘dirty bomb’ report, saying there is ‘a bit less than meets the eye here.’" As Ingeominas and members of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency have determined, the uranium in question is "depleted uranium", which is less radioactive than even natural uranium, and vastly less radioactive than weapons-grade "enriched uranium." No one is in disagreement that the captured uranium is unsuitable for use in fission bombs (atomic weapons whose construction also requires technological and industrial capabilities which the FARC lacks), but the question is, is this kind of uranium practical for use in the construction of a dirty bomb? (Once again, a dirty bomb is a weapon which utilizes conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials which are packaged with it in an effort to poison an area which lies within the range of its "spread.") From some quarters of the Colombian government, statements were made which were obviously designed to stimulate that fear and to portray the FARC as aspiring "nuclear terrorists." However, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an interview disseminated via BBC Mundo, the military applications of depleted uranium (uranio empobrecido) are limited to its incorporation in armor-plating for tanks and other hard-bodied vehicles, and in the manufacture of artillery shells capable of piercing armor. The density of uranium makes it especially "hard" relative to steel, and therefore highly suitable for such a purpose. Depleted uranium has already been used extensively in conventional warfare, both by NATO (OTAN) troops in the Balkans, and US forces in the Middle East. Although there has been some concern about the long-term effects of exposure to radiation dislodged from depleted uranium as a result of combat activity (artillery shells impacting depleted-uranium-armor, or depleted-uranium-cased shells exploding as they penetrate enemy vehicles), the IAEA (AIEA) discounts the danger, and judges the substance to be an ineffective choice for use in a dirty bomb. According to the agency, depleted uranium is "only used for its metallic, mechanical properties. The radioactive properties of depleted uranium are unrelated to its use, inasmuch as it’s a material which is far less radioactive than unprocessed uranium and in no way is capable of producing nuclear energy."

Looking at the uranium find from a different angle, another source states that, on the black market, depleted uranium is often used to "swindle potential buyers" – that is, to dupe unsophisticated purchasers into paying high prices for defective, or low-performance, goods. If the uranium stash belonged to the FARC, and if the FARC did not acquire it for its property of hardness, then it is quite possible that the FARC got burned on a black market deal, or else that it was hoping to dupe someone else in order to bag a big profit. One Colombian diplomat has stated, off the record (Reuters, March 26): "No one believes the FARC wants to blow up Bogota to further the revolution. This seems more like a black market action than military action. It shows again how the FARC is behaving more like an organized crime group than a political group."

However, the relation of the uranium to the FARC is far from certain. The so-called ex-FARC members who were the informants who led the army to the stash of uranium could actually, just as easily, be linked to an independent arms dealer, or to military intelligence as part of a plan to build a case against the FARC. In fact, the Colombian government failed to maintain a consistent front in dealing with the find. As the Colombian daily El Tiempo announced in a headline on March 27: "EL EJERCITO COLOMBIANO DESMIENTE QUE EL URANIO HALLADO SEA DE LAS FARC. (THE COLOMBIAN ARMY DENIES THAT THE URANIUM FOUND BELONGS TO THE FARC.)" The paper goes on to report: "The head of the Armed Forces of Colombia, General Freddy Padilla de Leon, contradicted the insinuations of the Colombian government regarding the origin of 30 kilograms of depleted uranium found in the outskirts of Bogota [which were initially made on the basis of] the zone in which it was found, [which has had historic sympathies with the guerrillas], and because of the known intentions of the guerrillas [as allegedly revealed on the captured laptop] to work with this material in the past." In other words, there are serious doubts as to whether this uranium belongs to the FARC at all; and if it does, there appear to be serious misrepresentations involved, on the part of the Colombian government, regarding its intended use in a dirty bomb, since depleted uranium is not considered a viable ingredient for such a bomb in the first place. The impression all this leaves one with is that the Colombian government is not concerned with accurately representing the facts, but is, instead, in search of a means to vastly hype the menace of the FARC and turn it into an international nuclear terrorist pariah, justifying continued massive doses of US military aid to combat it, and diminishing the political impact of the Colombian government’s own links to paramilitary death squads.

Unfortunately, a recurring pattern in international press coverage of the conflict in Colombia - and perhaps it is a pattern for following all news in general - threatens to allow this possible campaign of misinformation to thrive. And this is the fact that the press tends to break a story with great fanfare: to create strong impressions in the minds of the public with a dramatic initial story, which is not (and cannot at the outset be) wholly substantiated, and which is sometimes largely based upon the spin of official sources. Then the story disappears for a while, sometimes forever; sometimes, resurfacing in anticlimactic ways which, given the necessary excitement factor of the media (which is linked to its economic needs), are not assigned the same prominence as the original inaccuracies. The result is that the people are left with a reality that is premature, incomplete, and frequently top-heavy with someone’s agenda (since the percentage of misinformation kneaded into a news story is usually higher in the beginning, before analysis can be deepened, investigation can be pursued, and differing opinions can be collected and put into the balance). Just like the month of March, many stories come in like a lion and leave like a lamb. But the people remember the lion; the lamb, even if he is the one who carries the truth, is barely noted. In the case of a news report like this, "Colombia Seizes Uranium From Leftist Guerrillas", people are likely to remember FARC = nuclear terrorists, without a full understanding of the genesis, complexity, and long-term development of the story. In a democratic society, our decisions are based upon our perceptions. If we do not struggle to form our own perceptions, others will give us theirs, and the whole point of democracy will be negated.

Before concluding this article, I would like to present comments made, in their own defense, by the FARC itself, and by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who the captured laptop has insinuated is a supporter of the FARC. Of course, these comments, like the Colombian government’s, are also political; the "whole truth and nothing but the truth" is rarely to be found in the comments of any one participant in a dispute, since everyone is pursuing his own agenda and attempting to cover up his weak spots; it is best unearthed by a balanced consideration of differing perspectives, viewed from an understanding of the historic context in which the conflict is taking place, and the past behavior of the actors who are involved.

The FARC, regarding its alleged effort to develop nuclear weapons (this charge was made by the government after the capture of Raul Reyes’ laptop), stated (on March 19), that it was not involved in such an effort, citing its lack of the technological means needed to process uranium. It concluded: "Only developed countries, like the United States and others, have the conditions and the technology required to process uranium, and not a guerrilla army which is still fighting for the dignity of its people with rifles and even sticks." Regarding the authenticity of the captured hard drives, the FARC’s official position is that they are fake, and that the Colombian government has created them itself in order to discredit the guerrillas and to justify action against them, and against the socialist regimes of Ecuador and Venezuela which are allegedly supporting them. According to the guerrillas, it is preposterous to believe that the computer hard drives could have survived the aerial bombardment which killed Raul Reyes and a large number of guerrillas in the March 1 raid into Ecuador. The Colombian government has countered that the computers were encased in metal, and it has stated that an LCD screen in the camp also survived the attack without being destroyed: in other words, the destruction from the bombs was not absolute and universal.

As for Chavez, he, too, has dismissed the authenticity of the uranium find, as well as the legitimacy of the files which the Colombia government claims to have captured from Raul Reyes’ computer. He has called that computer "magical", and ridiculed its role in the current political situation, with humor, as is his wont, by saying: "Don’t be alarmed if from that computer they pull a photo of me with Bin Laden and Manuel Marulanda [supreme commander of the FARC]."

For the time being, the Colombian government has ceased making public additional contents of the computer files it has captured, in the interests of calming political tensions in the region; but various analysts say that Colombian president Uribe is keeping a great deal of information "up his sleeve", as "leverage" to promote the "good behavior" of Venezuela’s Chavez and Ecuador’s Correa, and to use in the event of uncooperative or belligerent behavior on their part.

Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the INTERPOL’s assessment of the captured computer files, to determine if they are genuine and have not been tampered with. Are we dealing with a real source of information here, or with a vast political fraud? (My own, non-technical view at this point in time, and subject to change, is: it is hard to believe, at this historical conjuncture, that the Colombian government would attempt to foist such a high-profile, high-stakes fraud on the international public which, if exposed by objective forensic analysis, which the world has demanded of it, could utterly discredit it. My belief, on the basis of this assessment, is that a real cyberfind has, in fact, been made, and that the manipulation which is taking place is not that of creating a false computer record, but that of distorting the significance of information which has been uncovered, via "creative interpretation" – and of utilizing the weapon of transparency, which the Colombian government could not withstand any more than Chavez or the guerrillas, which the capture has armed it with, in order to expose the secret actions and musings of its enemies.)

SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE INCLUDE: Christian Science Monitor (March 28); Reuters (March 26); LA Times (March 27); El Pais (Cali); BBC Mundo; El Tiempo (Bogota: March 27); AFP (March 27).


April 2008. Mario Uribe, Cousin of President Uribe, Arrested For Alleged Paramilitary Links. On April 22, Mario Uribe, a cousin of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, was arrested on charges of having links with right-wing paramilitary forces which have been involved in death-squad activity, massacres of peasants, drug-trafficking, and illegal land grabs (peasants are intimidated into leaving, and the land then becomes available for wealthy landowners and their paramilitary supporters). Mario Uribe was arrested after the Costa Rican Embassy in Colombia refused to grant him political asylum, which he sought as a last-ditch effort to escape justice once he knew that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

Mario Uribe, once a powerful Senator and "confidante" of Alvaro Uribe (Reuters, April 23), came under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court in 2007, when information linking him to land purchases from the paramilitaries was uncovered. Under pressure, he stepped down from his post, after which, the office of the Attorney General assumed jurisdiction over the investigation. M. Uribe has been accused of having negotiated with the paramilitaries in order to gain their support for his political campaign, of having acquired land from them, and of having participated with them in planning a massacre at Aro in which 15 people were killed. He is said to have had significant connections with Salvatore Mancuso, a former military commander of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), the premier coordinating body of the paramilitaries.

Since 2006, Colombia has been embroiled in an ongoing, low-grade political crisis known as the "parapolitics scandal." Over 60 lawmakers have been investigated for links to the paramilitaries, and slightly over 30 have been jailed on the basis of the evidence which the Supreme Court has managed to uncover. The scandal is huge in the moral sense, but "low-grade" in the political sense, because it has not impeded President Uribe from receiving massive amounts of US military aid, and from receiving constant accolades from President Bush for his performance at the helm of Colombia. President Uribe remains enormously popular among US conservatives, and also to large sectors of the Colombian population which feel at risk from guerrilla activity and which approve of the increased security he has been able to bring to some parts of the nation. However, the scandal is finally beginning to take a toll on him. It has played a significant part in the US Congress’ reluctance to approve of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and it is said that it may also be impairing President Uribe’s chances to run for a third term in office. Before Uribe, the Colombian constitution stipulated that a president could only occupy the office of the presidency for one term; Uribe mobilized the public and governmental support necessary to change the Constitution so that he could run again. He did, and he won. It is now surmised that he wishes to go back to the Constitution, and change it once again, so that he can win an unprecedented third consecutive term as president, in order to pursue an uninterrupted agenda. With the parapolitics scandal, some analysts say, this ambition may have been placed in jeopardy. This is especially so now that Mario Uribe has been implicated. As Reuters, quoting Michael Shifter of Washington’s Inter-American Dialogue, states: "So far, the Uribe presidency has been shielded from the scandal, but Mario Uribe’s arrest is too close for comfort."

At this critical moment, both the government and its critics are battling to give the news a spin favorable to their cause. For critics of the government, it is: the intimate relationship of the Colombian government and the right-wing paramilitaries is increasingly coming to light. The Uribe regime is deeply involved with the paramilitary phenomenon; it is thoroughly permeated with corruption and savagery beneath its technocratic veneer, and the civilized face it seeks to present to the world. Little by little, thanks to the courageous efforts of the Colombian justice system, backed by international human rights pressure, the dark truth is being exposed. For supporters of the Uribe government, the spin is: the arrest of Mario Uribe is proof of the commitment of the Colombian government to the eradication of the paramilitary phenomenon and to the rigorous prosecution of those who abet its illegal activities. Even the very cousin of the president is not immune to prosecution. What could better demonstrate the sincerity of the president’s efforts to uproot the paramilitary presence from the political landscape?

How this news impacts Uribe’s political future, the future of Colombia, and the future of US-Colombian relations, may well depend on which spin prevails.

SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE INCLUDE: Human Rights Watch (April 22); Reuters (April 23); AFP.


MAY 2008. INTERPOL Issues Report Regarding Captured Guerrilla Laptops: Findings, Reactions, And Thoughts. On May 15, the International Police Organization (Interpol) issued its long-awaited report evaluating the authenticity of the FARC computer files captured from the camp of guerrilla leader "Raul Reyes" on March 1, 2008. Interpol is a highly respected organization which is dedicated to pooling together the resources and crime-solving capabilities of its 186 member nations, in order to confront the transnational characteristics of many criminal activities in an increasingly porous world. In the case of crimes involving information technology, INTERPOL states that, "Rather than re-inventing the wheel, the Interpol General Secretariat has harnessed the expertise of its members [in this field]" by means of bringing together "experienced members of national computer crime units" to form "working parties" assigned to address specific cases. In the case of Raul Reyes’ captured computer files, which were pregnant with gigantic political implications for the Americas, a working party was put together which included 64 information technology experts from 15 countries, led by forensic specialists from Singapore and Australia. All told, they spent some 5,000 hours examining the computers. On May 15, the results of their investigation were announced in Bogota, Colombia, by INTERPOL’S Secretary General Ronald Noble. According to Mr. Noble, INTERPOL, after its exhaustive, professional study of the evidence presented, has determined that the captured guerrilla files given to it for examination by the Colombian government, ARE, indeed, AUTHENTIC; there is "no evidence" that the Colombian government has tampered with the files in any way, and no evidence that they are anything but what it is claimed they are: actual electronic archives and records created by the FARC.

INTERPOL does note that the Colombian government violated standard forensic protocol in its handling of the electronic evidence, by directly accessing the captured files itself without making copies first, and by holding onto the evidence for several days rather than passing it on expeditiously to a neutral party better positioned (and trusted) to assess its legitimacy. However, for the Colombian government, the priority of immediately plunging into the captured intelligence treasure trove outweighed the political benefits of adhering to accepted information-technology-crime (ITC) protocol. INTERPOL judged that, in spite of this breach of procedure, the files had not been tampered with, and retained their purity as evidence.

Mr. Noble stressed that INTERPOL’S work, in this case, was limited to technically validating the "non-tampered state" of the captured files; the organization made no effort to evaluate their content or to study their implications.

INTERPOL’S findings, as expected, have produced a flurry of reactions of many different types.

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who the files suggest may have an extensive or potentially extensive (expanding) relationship with the FARC, has denounced the INTERPOL report as a "circus show", and dismissed General Secretary Ronald Noble as a "gringo cop" and "vagabond", a former US Treasury Department official who is merely pursuing the US government agenda of undermining his leftist regime, which Chavez portrays as a rallying point of social justice in a region which US imperialism wishes to dominate. If the links between Chavez and the FARC suggested by the files proved to be true, Venezuela could be branded as a "state sponsor of terrorism" and internationally ostracized. (This is because the FARC is currently classified by the United States and European Union as a "terrorist organization" rather than as a legitimate revolutionary group or "belligerent army." Although supporting any organization dedicated to overthrowing a neighboring state would represent a violation of the OAS charter, the "terrorist" label would be far more destructive to Chavez than merely supporting an armed rebellion.) If Venezuela were to be officially declared a "state sponsor of terrorism", and correspondingly castigated, the economic and political effects could be extremely stressful for his regime and set the climate for some form of US military intervention, either via direct invasion (less likely ) or a coup d’etat (more likely. Recall what happened in Allende’s Chile, 1973.) According to Chavez, the computers were planted at the scene of the Colombian raid which killed Reyes, and it is irrelevant that they were not tampered with, because they were fabricated to begin with. Venezuelan media has produced some supposedly independent forensic experts who question INTERPOL’S analysis on technical grounds, and who also argue that the nature of the documents is not consistent with the MO of the FARC or any top-notch clandestine organization (for example, who would use the real name of an operative and his pseudonym in the same document?) One expert claims that INTERPOL stated "there is no evidence of tampering" rather than "there was no tampering", because there are some forms of tampering which, when performed by a highly knowledgeable agent, are essentially undetectable. Therefore, the fact that INTERPOL did not discover evidence of manipulation only means that the manipulation was accomplished by professionals.

Unfortunately, I lack the technical expertise to evaluate claims of this nature, and can only form my opinions based on my evaluation of the credibility, objectivity and motives of the various sources I rely on.

The weight of the evidence seems, to me, to indicate that the INTERPOL report made every effort to be objective, and was technically competent. I believe that the files which it examined (which might not comprise all of the files on the computer drives), represent authentic FARC material. I do not, at this time, believe the computers were planted, though the idea should not be summarily dismissed and is worthy of a follow-up investigation. Therefore, from my point of view, it seems that Chavez is dissimulating in order to protect himself.

Perhaps because he realizes that the idea of the planted computers, though it may go over well with his staunchest supporters, will probably fail to convince a larger and strategically vital swath of international public opinion, Chavez has also defended himself by admitting that his government has had contacts with the FARC, but only in its role of attempting to negotiate for the release of hostages held by the guerrillas. That diplomatic effort was, in fact, begun with the blessing of Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe, and also with the support of France, which has worked vigorously for the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a high-profile captive who grew up in France. Thus, whatever "illegal" links Chavez does have with the FARC may be at least partly masked as contacts generated by his humanitarian effort to build the level of relationship with the FARC needed to secure the release of the hostages. (In a most extreme-case scenario, one could even consider the history of America’s arms-for-hostages efforts during the Reagan years, as embodied by Iran-Contragate.)

As for the government of Rafael Correa of Ecuador, which has also been implicated as a supporter of the FARC by the captured computer files, the official response has focused on the illegitimacy of the evidence, due to Colombia’s breach of protocol in handling the files. "The chain of custody has been broken," Correa’s spokespeople insist, which means that the evidence is no longer pure, and cannot be trusted. To this, Chavez’s government adds that the files have no legal standing, because they were acquired illegally (by means of an illegal Colombian raid into Ecuadoran territory).

Rather than denying the technical competence of INTERPOL, or falling back on an inflated conspiracy theory, some defenders of Chavez, or individuals who merely wish to prevent the files from evolving into a justification for aggressive acts of regime-change and heightened international conflict, have focused on the key differences between what the files say, and what the Colombian government says they say. This, indeed, is a legitimate approach to the issue. Since March 1, the Colombian government has shown every sign of grossly exaggerating the content of the files in its possession and creatively interpreting them for the media, for its own political advantage. (To me this is, in fact, an indication of the legitimacy of the files, themselves, since if they were faked, they could have been made much more direct and incriminating than they are.) Whereas the legitimate and relatively objective media outlets have, sooner or later, sifted through the official hype and gravitated back towards reality, more conservative media sources and the hysterical blogs which feed off of them, have clung to the Colombian government’s disinformational statements, and based on their manipulative content, they have extended networks of a false reality across the Internet, as one blog validates and reinforces another’s volatile fantasy. (There are now even some bloggers convinced that Chavez must be removed from power at once, before US cities are blown up. "Damn the liberals who would stop us from protecting ourselves!") One outstanding example of this tendency to exaggerate, is the Colombian government’s extraordinary claim, based on very scant information in a captured document, that the FARC was involved in obtaining uranium to build a dirty bomb for terrorist purposes. This claim, which it was forced to back away from almost instantly, is not given any credence by international experts, and is a blatant example of the Colombian government’s propagandistic efforts to make the documents say things that they do not say. An example of how some of the mainstream media fail to properly weed out political agendas from facts, when reporting on the laptop story, would be the case of one major US newspaper, which continues to write that a stash of 30 kilograms of depleted uranium discovered in a Colombian village in April was located thanks to information from the captured computers. This is not true, as my report from April 2008 on the uranium discovery, "Colombian Government Captures Secret Stash of Uranium", describes, nor is it even clear that the uranium has anything to do with the FARC. (On the other hand, it is widely reported that a large stash of money belonging to the FARC was captured in Costa Rica, thanks to information from one of the computer files. There are, therefore, instances of concrete, good information on the computers, as well as instances of vague or successfully cryptic material which proves nothing, but which, with a little imagination matched by a corresponding dose of gullibility, can be turned into more than it is.)

The bottom line is, just because INTERPOL has proved the authenticity of the captured files (to the satisfaction of most observers), does not mean that everything the highly partial and frequently manipulative Colombian PR apparatus says about those files is accurate. If we let Uribe’s government interpret those files for us, if we allow it to filter and de-contextualize their content, and feed us their supposed meaning on a platter, we will not be being served the truth, but a political agenda. We must therefore exert discipline and learn to see with historical depth if we are not to be led along like blind men, and turned into captives of a myth, fetishists of proofs that are not really proofs.

In anticipation of INTERPOL’s technical validation of the files, and before the results were announced, a group of academics and what would be called "progressive personalities" issued a statement to the media, which I will reproduce here. Some parts of it may or may not hold up to the test of time, but the underlying philosophy is worthwhile and well-expressed:

An Open Letter to the Media:

Interpol Analysis of FARC Laptop Authenticity Will Not "Prove" Links Between Venezuela, Rebels

Colombian interpretation of documents discredited by analysts, OAS Secretary General

Later this month, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) will publicly determine the "authenticity" of laptops recovered from a rebel encampment in Ecuador after a March 1 raid on the camp by the Colombian government. Based on previous press coverage of the incursion and the documents, we are concerned that the media take extreme care in interpreting the Interpol findings. In the first round of media coverage of the event, significant problems of inconsistency surfaced precisely as a result of the gap between Colombia’s exaggerations and what the documents actually say.

Even if the laptops are found to have belonged to members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), there is no evidence that the publicly available documents support any of the extreme claims by the Colombian government that Venezuela and Ecuador had any sort of financial relationship with the rebels. In fact, independent analyses of the documents indicate that the Colombian government has substantially exaggerated their contents, perhaps for political purposes. Any media coverage of the Interpol findings must make clear that many of the Colombian allegations have already been largely discredited.

The Colombian interpretation has already proven so weak that OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs last week, stated unequivocally that there is "no evidence" linking Venezuela to the Colombian rebels, yet Insulza’s statement has gone virtually unreported in the English language press.

Analysts cite three primary flaws in the Colombian government’s charges linking Venezuela and the FARC:

The "Dossier": The notion that the Venezuelan government provided—or intended to provide—$300 million to the FARC is based exclusively on this passage from a letter sent to the FARC secretariat from Raul Reyes:

"With relation to the 300, which from now on we will call 'dossier,' efforts are now going forward at the instructions of the boss to the cripple which I will explain in a separate note"

There is no clear description of what the "300" represents. While the Colombians claim it is a reference to three hundred million dollars, it could just as easily refer to three hundred dollars or even three hundred hostages. Note that this letter was dated December 23, 2007—two weeks before the first wave of FARC hostage releases.

The Contact: To believe that Hugo Chavez was providing material support to the FARC—beyond his role as a hostage negotiator—one must accept the premise that the person referred in the FARC documents under the code name "Angel" is indeed Hugo Chavez. Yet the documents reference both "Angel" and "Chavez"—sometimes in the same paragraph. It appears that the documents are referring to two different people.

The Timing: The most extensive evaluation of the available documents has been done by Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy. In addition to the concerns above, Isascson concluded that the uptick in communication between the Venezuelan government and the FARC coincided almost exclusively with the timeframe in which Chavez had been invited to mediate hostage negotiations.

As Isacson put it, "When considered in chronological order, the guerrilla communications regarding Hugo Chávez and Venezuela appear to reveal a relationship that was cordial but distant until the fall of 2007," exactly the time that negotiations began.

Note too that other laptop-related Colombian allegations have already been proven false or dubious. Notably, claims that the FARC were conspiring to build a "dirty bomb" were publicly dismissed by the U.S. government as well as terrorism experts throughout the region. Also Colombia’s allegations that a photo found in the laptops showed a meeting between FARC leaders and an Ecuadorian cabinet official were also proved to be false.

The discussion here is about state support of terrorism, and in the current political climate the stakes could not be higher. Given the sensitivity and potential implications for peace within the hemisphere, it is crucial that the media exercise a more critical eye in its reporting than has been demonstrated to date. Any fair-minded coverage of the upcoming Interpol announcement would make clear that the authentication of the laptops does not mean the validation of the Colombian interpretation of their contents, and should make note both of the independent analyses of the documents and the statement from the OAS Secretary General.


Charles Bergquist, University of Washington, Seattle
Larry Birns, Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Amy Chazkel, Queens College, City Univerity of New York
Avi Chomsky, Salem State College
Luis Duno Gottberg , Florida Atlantic University
James Early, TransAfrica Forum Board of Directors and Institute for Policy Studies Board of Directors
Samuel Farber, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Sujatha Fernandes, Queens College, City University of New York
Lesley Gill, American University
Greg Grandin, New York University
Daniel Hellinger, Webster University
Forrest Hylton, New York University
Diane Nelson, Duke University
Jocelyn Olcott, Duke University
Diana Paton, University of Newcastle, UK
Fred Rosen, North American Congress on Latin America
T.M Scruggs, University of Iowa
Sinclair Thomson, New York University
Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College
Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research
John Womack, Harvard University

It is interesting to note that not long after this open letter was submitted to the media, El Diario: La Prensa, a well-respected local Spanish-language daily in New York City, came out with the following headline (May 12): "The FARC extends tentacles into the US: Investigation reveals Colombian guerrilla connections with two US institutions." The paper was reporting on an "investigation" by other sources which, essentially, claimed that two US organizations (one environmental NGO and a center of academic studies in North Carolina) were linked to the FARC and serving it by acting as fronts for its POV and putting it in touch with other potential guerrilla supporters. Given the fact that the FARC is now considered a terrorist organization, this revelation, if pursued and found out to be true, could subject US citizens belonging to these organizations to potential terrorist-related charges involving serious repercussions. The investigation seemed well-timed and well-planned to deflate the efforts of these nay-sayers, to discredit their perspective, and perhaps, at the same time, to send a chill rippling through the "solidarity community" in general, whose actions on behalf of human rights in Colombia could be construed as being pro-guerrilla (as Uribe seems to construe such efforts) and whose support for Chavez (should he be linked to "terrorists") could also subject them to anti-terrorist measures. In a similar vein, a major media supporter of the left in Ecuador, Maria Augusta Calle, who is a member of Ecuador’s constitutional assembly and head of the Ecuadoran branch of Venezuela’s Telesur TV network, was said to be implicated as a FARC supporter by the captured laptops, as reported by the Miami Herald (April 27). As contrary perspectives regarding the captured laptops were generated by some academics and media outlets, they were exposed to a powerful counterattack in an apparent effort to guard a more monolithic view of the reality that was unfolding.

Where, after all of this, accusation, denial, insinuation and threat, does the truth lie? Again, as I stated before, I feel that the captured files (the ones examined by INTERPOL) are authentic, that genuine FARC documents have been captured, and that a vast intelligence take has been reeled in by the Colombian government. Although I never automatically dismiss conspiracy theories - in fact, they have sadly proved true in too many cases - I feel that efforts to write this find off as a mere fabrication are not particularly believable. In this case, the charge of "conspiracy and hoax" is more likely to be a politically- motivated effort to get out of a jam than anything else. (Correa and Chavez may well have been caught "red-handed." Why they might have connections with the FARC is explained in detail in a previous news entry, "Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, An International Crisis", March 2008.) However, I also do believe, on the basis of many of the files publicly reproduced and discussed, that the Colombian government is reading a lot into the material in its hands, which may or may not be there; that it is, at times, misrepresenting the information for its own political gain (and hoping that its "spin" will be swallowed without an independent look). Besides this, as Chavez, Correa and the FARC may all seem to be disgraced by information uncovered in the files, it should be remembered: what would the results be were President Uribe’s laptop and hard drives to be made public; or if the laptops of our own civil, military, and intelligence leadership were to be exposed to scrutiny? There is a lot more to world politics than meets the eye: an enormous current of often dark reality flowing underneath the texture of public images, magnanimous speeches, and irreproachable pretenses which we cling to, not wanting to see more. A lot of blood goes into making a golden word. Beneath the almost universal worship of ideas such as "justice", "liberty", and "compassion", there are dynamics of power, allegiances to systems, fears and interests that degrade the things we say we believe in. Let us not make the mistake of thinking we are pure, merely because we can see the enemy’s dirt. [CASE IN POINT: In May of this year, a laptop and a hard drive belonging to two notorious right-wing paramilitaries slated for extradition to the United States on drug-trafficking charges – Salvatore Mancuso and Ramiro "Cuco" Vanoy - vanished from the Colombian prisons in which they were being detained. Although these jefes had previously surrendered to the Colombian government on conditions of cooperating with prosecutors and refraining from further illegal activities, it was believed that these conditions were not being met, which is what justified their extradition to the United States. On their personal laptops (ordenadores or portatiles), analysts believed it might be possible to find information pertaining to the death squad activities which they had directed, and the links which the paramilitaries are known to have with elements of the Colombian government and military. In other words, these laptops might have been the right-wing version of Raul Reyes’ captured computer drives, which have been so widely publicized, and which are generating such enormous political consequences. According to authorities, Mancuso’s computer was removed from the prison where he was being detained in order to be "repaired" – it was allegedly infected with a virus – and from there, it "disappeared." El Cuco’s hard drive vanished, but was later discovered hidden in a prison library, and recovered. However, in the meantime, "unknown figures" have had access to it, and the obvious suspicion is that they may have "cleaned it up." The conclusion of most observers is that agents of the Colombian powers-that-be, who work hand-in-hand with the paramilitaries, have made sure to destroy evidence of their own abuses, so that they will not have to face the same kind of devastating revelations which their enemies are now facing. SOURCE: El Universal, Mexico.)

All this having been said, we come to perhaps the most important consideration of all. What will the reaction of the United States and Colombia be, now that the captured files of the FARC have been decreed to be authentic by INTERPOL?

Colombia, for its part, does not wish to suffer any major disruption in its relations with Venezuela, due to the extremely valuable trade which these two countries share (worth $5.6 billion in the previous year). Uribe seems most likely to want to use international pressure and the tacit threat of sanctions or even intervention to drive a wedge between Chavez and the FARC, and to help keep Chavez "in line." He will want to dangle Chavez’s public exposure as a "terrorist supporter" over the Venezuelan populist’s head, to diminish Chavez’s international appeal and to inhibit him from taking political risks since he is already in the "doghouse": on "international probation", as it were. Uribe will attempt to use the shadow of the computers to ideologically castrate Chavez, and to keep the Venezuelan’s rambunctious social message from going too far. In the same way, Uribe will try to weaken and corner Correa.

Besides the economic factor which argues against aggressive use of the INTERPOL findings, Uribe may be aware of the saying "if you live in a glass house do not throw stones." The more public-image pressure he wields against Chavez, the more aggressively Chavez might be expected to counterattack by highlighting Uribe’s own huge PR disaster which is centered on the involvement of many members of the Colombian government with right-wing paramilitaries, who are involved in death squad activity, labor busting, land grabs, and drug trafficking; these paramilitaries are also, now, officially listed as "terrorists." A PR truce, of sorts, might be in order for these two.

For its part, the US government is being pushed by its more conservative elements to use the vindication of the files to go after Chavez, and begin to squeeze him as a "state sponsor of terror." This would be most convenient, in some ways, as Chavez is a huge thorn in the side of conservative US foreign policy aspirations in Latin America: the most radical and threatening voice of opposition. However, on the more pragmatic side, many political figures note that between 10-15% of the crude oil which the US imports (the figure varies according to one’s sources) comes from Venezuela; given the current problems with our energy supply and the price of fuel, which is shaking the entire economy, these politicians tend to favor moderation in the US response. Quite simply, they don’t want to risk sinking the US economy on behalf of conservative ideals. They also fear that too aggressive a response to Chavez could trigger a backlash in Latin America, which is increasingly left-leaning, and once more open the US to charges of imperialism, worsening our overall position in the region. They, therefore, seem willing to allow Chavez various possible "escapes" from the implications of the files, which insinuate more than they prove, since the internal banter of the FARC does not actually constitute proof of Chavez’s involvement with them, only provide a window into FARC perceptions, and possibly pipe-dreams. These same politicians may also be willing to accept Chavez’s explanation that his FARC-connections were centered mainly on the hostage-release process, and to let it go at that.

Besides this, an overaggressive exploitation of the INTERPOL findings by the US could also expose it to an unwanted PR counterattack. The US has consistently refused to allow the extradition of terrorist suspect Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile wanted in Venezuela for his alleged role in a 1976 attack on a Cuban jetliner in Caracas, Venezuela, in which 73 people were killed. The US has been harboring Posada Carriles for years and any effort to internationally isolate Chavez as a supporter of terrorists would inevitably lead back to this embarrassing contradiction, or "double-standard", in policy.

In the end, and in spite of all this, the US will almost certainly attempt to "tame" Chavez with the files. It will attempt to frighten him from providing financial and military support to the FARC, and try to influence him to tone down his anti-US rhetoric. It will keep the computer files, and all the political, economic, and military dramas which they are capable of unleashing, on the back burner, as a kind of gun pointed to Chavez’s head, and if circumstances in the future warrant, it will dust off the weapon which it does not use today so that it may attack him with it tomorrow.

It is therefore possible, in the midst of the many momentous possibilities created by the captured laptops, that the hands of all concerned parties are tied, and that those who have, in theory, won the contest would prefer to save their strategic assets for a later date, rather than allowing things to escalate in unpredictable ways in the coming days.

Once again, it is too early to say exactly how this episode which has transfixed us for the past two months will play out. Time will tell. In the meantime, it is best if we redouble our efforts to peer into the complexity which saves men from becoming fools, and struggle with all our power to make up our own minds about what is happening in the world, rather than having others decide history on our behalf…

SOURCES FOR THIS REPORT INCLUDE: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, AFB, Miami Herald, Time Magazine,, El Universal, Semana, INTERPOL Media Release, and more.

POSTSCRIPT: I have been asked to explain more about the potential effects of the captured laptops on internal affairs in Colombia, especially regarding their likely impact on the FARC…

Obviously, for the FARC, the loss of all this information is a tremendous blow. Only a small portion of the captured data has been made public, and it is likely that what is now in the hands of the Colombian government will lead to major disruptions in many of its military and support networks.

Besides this, the selective public exposure of captured documents, accurately represented or fed into the media-manipulation machine, is likely to provide the Colombian government with a powerful tool for dragging the prestige of the guerrillas to a new low. For example, the captured files allegedly prove the involvement of the FARC in the 2003 car-bombing of the El Nogal nightclub in which 36 people lost their lives, and another 160 were injured. Previously, the FARC had denied responsibility for this deadly attack: unlike some other guerrilla atrocities which were the product of the reckless use of inaccurate arms, this one deliberately and indiscriminately targeted civilians and has been almost universally condemned by the Colombian public. The publicly-released excerpt which "proves" FARC involvement in the El Nogal incident does not seem conclusive to me, but there may be more to the document than what was quoted in the newspapers. (As I wrote in the main body of this social history, in my section on the FARC, Part 2 of "A Biography of Colombia Embattled", the FARC has begun to increase its emphasis on developing a capacity to wage urban guerrilla warfare, as a result of the tactical obstacles it faces in wielding large columns against the cities from its bases in the countryside, due to the firepower and maneuverability which air power provides the Colombian military. To build this urban arm, the FARC has had an extensive interchange with members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, who have instructed it in techniques of organization, which must be especially resistant to police work in the cities, as well as urban weapons use, which includes the deployment of bombs, and the use of other favored tactics, such as the deployment of remote-controlled mortars, etc. It is possible that the temptation of these new possibilities may seduce the FARC to "run with what it has" rather than to exercise restraint and subordinate the impressive destructive potential it is acquiring in the urban landscape to political considerations. If the FARC wishes to overcome the label of "terrorist" with which it has been stamped, and to recover the cleaner status of a "belligerent army", it will have to resist the temptations offered by its arsenal, and concentrate on rebuilding the trust of the people it claims to be liberating.)

As the Colombian government is able to use the captured files to discredit the FARC, and to embellish the threat (as in the case of linking the FARC to dirty bombs), it will be able to improve its chances of continuing to receive massive amounts of US military aid, in spite of its own links to the paramilitaries. The evil of the enemy will be perceived to be so huge, that no one will be able to resist the idea that "you must fight fire with fire." The sins of Uribe will be forgiven. The Colombian government will, further, be able to isolate the guerrillas on the international level, and to diminish guerrilla connectivity with the populace inside Colombia. As the paramilitaries refuse to be reeled in, and continue to operate in conjunction with a burgeoning military machine which is receiving undiminished US aid in the context of diminishing popular support for the guerrillas, the FARC will surely face a storm the likes of which it has not seen in many years. Already, the FARC has endured a significant reduction in the amount of territory it controls since the advent of Uribe, and according to the US Southern Command, its front-line fighting force of about 16,000 in 2001 has been reduced to 9,000. (Wall Street Journal, May 9) Note: These figures do not include members of support networks and part-time guerrillas whose activities are more limited. In this year, alone, the FARC has been hit with a string of enormous setbacks, including the death of one of its more talented leaders, Raul Reyes, crucial in working on the guerrillas’ public relations and support. That loss occurred as a result of the controversial March 1 raid by the Colombian military into Ecuadoran territory, and the FARC, which has been facing a PR crisis for years due to the negative perceptions produced by its own actions, can ill afford such a loss. Not long afterwards, another important leader, Ivan Rios, was assassinated by his own bodyguard, who responded to the offer of a reward by the Colombian government. Now, on May 18, 2008, Nelly Avila Moreno, another big guerrilla leader who went by the alias "Karina" gave herself up to the Colombian military, after receiving a promise of safe conduct. (Note: According to her own account, Karina was not currently serving in a major leadership position. However, her prestige/notoriety was substantial.) Karina, a very tough woman of African descent who lost one eye in battle and could show various scars from combat, had a fearsome reputation: a history of actions and decisions (the truth of which is not yet fully sorted out from the legends and the propaganda), which indicates the kind of fighter who will go the distance. Nonetheless, she surrendered, due to a deteriorating physical condition (47 years old, and suffering from cancer), and due to the fact that the inviolability of guerrilla strongholds, which used to be taken for granted, was no longer intact, and she was no longer fit to continue responding to the constant military pressure. This, too, is an indication of increasing levels of difficulty for the FARC which, though it is far from beaten and not likely to be beaten any time soon, is definitely laboring under the strain of Uribe’s strategy, and is apparently trapped in a moment of snowballing setbacks, with its morale in desperate need of lifting and its overall methods in serious need of revision.

On the tactical level, the capture of the files which boxes Chavez into a diplomatic corner, is extremely serious for the FARC. According to the Wall Street Journal’s exposé (May 9), the FARC was hopeful of receiving significant shipments of arms from Chavez, which would come riding "piggyback" with the shipments he is currently receiving from Russia and other nations to bolster the Venezuelan military. Among the hoped-for weapons would be tube-launched "rockets" (RPGs), which are mainly anti-tank weapons and can be used as a sort of light artillery; and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. (In return, the Venezuelan military would receive training from the FARC in guerrilla warfare tactics, to be employed in the event of a US invasion after its conventional army was overcome.) For the FARC, the significance of acquiring anti-aircraft missiles would be huge. Right now, their operations are severely cramped and threatened by the Colombian government’s air power, especially embodied by the firepower and mobility provided by the helicopter. With shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the guerrillas could neutralize many of the effects of this disadvantage, and equalize the struggle to the point where they might not only be able to defend their dwindling territory from military pressure, but to sally out of their rural bases with renewed strength. Military analysts are quick to point out how dramatically the Stinger missile transformed the anti-Soviet rebellion in Afghanistan, and allowed the badly outclassed Islamic guerrillas to hold their own against a mighty empire. Now, however, that Chavez has been implicated in the effort to provide these arms to the FARC, it seems that the acquisition of these weapons by the guerrillas must be put on hold. If they were to appear in the near future in battle in Colombia, Chavez would inevitably be held accountable, and the political cost to him might well be unbearable. Whether this situation will permanently damage the idea of the guerrillas getting their hands on anti-aircraft missiles, or only delay it, remains to be seen.

Thus, although the captured files seem especially to turn the heat on under Chavez, the damage to the FARC is much greater. The difference is that the FARC is already in a state of war and used to being in a state of war, and that it does not have a fixed address. It is, therefore, less easily held accountable for its actions.

On another note, the political benefits to Chavez of improving his damaged image in the international sphere could lead him to increase his efforts to act as a negotiator to free hostages held by the FARC. For helping Chavez to enhance his image when it is at a low point, the FARC would be rewarded by a continuing, if discreet, relationship with Chavez, which would not involve deliveries of any of the high-profile and incriminating weapons which the guerrillas seek from him, but which could include continued border tolerance (masked as Venezuela’s inability to police its border) and shipments of less controversial, but nonetheless important, weapons. If Chavez could be associated with the release of hostages held by the guerrillas, it could help to recast him as a responsible international player rather than a dangerous maverick, as well as "back up" his claims that his contacts with the guerrillas have mainly been for humanitarian purposes. Whether the guerrillas, disorganized in the wake of many setbacks, and feeling increasingly stressed, will feel that they can afford to part with the leverage embodied by their hostages, is another matter. But renewed efforts by Chavez on this front may be expected in the wake of the embarrassment he has been subjected to by the capture of the laptops. Ecuador’s President Correa is also likely to push for movement on this front. For some prisoners of the FARC, this could be welcome news, indeed.

SOURCES FOR THIS SECTION INCLUDE: The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Document "COL41716.E" by the Canadian Research Directorate’s Immigration and Refugee Board (Ottawa), etc.

MAY 2008: Claims That Manuel Marulanda, Legendary Leader of the FARC, Is Dead. Based on intelligence allegedly in its hands, the Colombian military reports that Manuel Marulanda, aka Tiro Fijo (Sure Shot), the legendary commander-in-chief of the FARC has passed away. The passing of the fabled octogenarian, who emerged from obscurity during the violence of the Colombian Civil War of the 1950s which spawned the birth of several independent "peasant republics", and later, after these "republics" were assaulted by the Colombian army, resulted in the genesis of the modern guerrilla movement, is said to have been from natural causes, and to have occurred in March of this year. If this report is true, it may not have a major effect on the daily conduct of guerrilla operations, which are in many ways decentralized and directed by a host of younger leaders, who have stepped up to fill the shoes of the aging chief. However, as a respected and beloved figurehead within rebel circles – as a symbol of strength and perseverance for over 40 years, an anchor of stability in fluid times and a force of cohesion for a movement beset by divisive choices and threatened with unraveling at a time of greatly reduced morale – the loss is a very serious blow, indeed.

The world waits to see if the news is confirmed by the guerrillas, themselves, since it is not impossible that the Colombian military is working a psychological angle with this report, either trying to deliver another blow against guerrilla morale or to lure Marulanda into the open, as he attempts to prove he is still alive.

Note: Marulanda’s age is variously given as 76, 78, and above. His exact year of birth is in dispute.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE:  VERIFICATION: On Sunday, May 25, a spokesman for the guerrillas verified the death of Manuel Marulanda, longtime jefe maximo of the FARC. He represented a living embodiment of Colombia’s violent social history, its conflict over land, its culture of armed response, its inability to find peaceful and just solutions to class differences, and its failure to formulate balanced and fair reactions to the pressures and opportunities of international economic forces. Although a major Colombian official is reported to have said that Marulanda will now be found in Hell, he was only one side of the coin of violence, and given the exploitation and dangers which the peasants of his region faced at the time he took up arms, he was only a natural result of the environment in which he lived, acting from his perspective and position in the discord. Formed by harsh forces, he took on a rough shape. As time went on, and as Colombia became more complex, permeated at all levels by the extending roots of the drug trade which he did not initiate, but which came to nourish his enemies and to offer economic opportunity to his support base, he allowed his organization to become involved as well; he also allowed the FARC to practice the callous rite of el secuestro (the kidnapping). Marulanda was no international ideologue imposed from the outside, he was a product of his native soil, although he took to Marxism as the vehicle for his raw reaction to the experiences of his life. This was, in the 1960s, with the potential support of the Soviet Union and the example of Cuba, the way of the Latin American revolutionary. He could hardly expect aid, in his struggle, from the United States, which sustained the regime which he detested. Universally recognized as a genuine expression of the peasant class, "Tiro Fijo" had both the strengths and limitations of his background – he was courageous, persistent, physically tough, and possessed of a greatly underestimated intelligence which proved itself, over time, to be more than a match for the highly-educated and trained adversaries who confronted him. He was also somewhat isolated from the larger context of his struggle and not socially skillful in his ability to relate to the cities and the international community; he was, in some ways, insular, and awkward at predicting the wider results of actions which made consummate sense to his direct and practical manner of seeing what was happening around him. He didn’t travel, he spent his life living in the mountains and jungles, and it showed. In a struggle that was, at its core, international, he never ceased to be a "local fighter."

Now a new generation of leaders will seek to take the reins of the FARC and to guide it into the future. Besides the peasants who make up its ranks and fill its leadership roles at the local level, there are more polished and socially mobile revolutionaries to try to take Marulanda’s place at the top. Whether they will prove capable of changing the FARC back from a business (as the disillusioned claim it has become) into a genuine revolutionary group; whether they will be able to lead it away from the shadows of its "terrorist" image back onto the path of a tragic but comprehensible rebellion; whether they will be able to extricate it from its huge moral failings, to purify it, restore its name, and find ways of constructively engaging with the political process of the country, and whether they want to, remains to be seen. All is not merely in the FARC’s hands, however, because in Colombia there are enemies of democracy posing as defenders of democracy, who support continued exploitation of the poor, and paramilitary violence, which means that the roots of the civil war remain alive. For peace to come to Colombia, all sectors of society must demonstrate the will to live in harmony, not just one.

According to the announcement which confirmed Marulanda’s death, the guerrilla leader’s place will be taken by Alfonso Cano. The Colombian government claims to have Cano cornered and in danger of imminent capture in southwestern Colombia at this very moment. The FARC denies that he is there.

SOURCES: Reuters, AP, New York Times, Semana.


JUNE 2008. ECUADORAN RESPONSES TO FARC LAPTOP INTERPOL REPORT. President Correa of Ecuador is in the international hot seat as a result of the capture of the FARC laptops which implicate his government in providing support to Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. Only because he, himself, is a less flamboyant and ambitious opponent of US foreign policy in South America than is Hugo Chavez, and because his country is less economically powerful than oil-rich Venezuela (and therefore less dangerous), is his predicament any less than Chavez’s.

In late May 2008, Ecuadoran police arrested Claro Arevalo, a member of Colombia’s ELN guerrillas, who had been operating inside of Ecuadoran territory and was about to board a bus for Peru. The captured guerrilla was originally reported to be of high rank, but it is now known that he is only a minor figure in the organization. The obvious context of this little episode: Ecuador needed to respond to international pressure with some gesture that it is cooperating with regional and international understandings of state responsibility, and not allowing guerrilla forces to use its territory as a base from which to attack the neighboring state of Colombia. (This expectation, in part, is derived from legal frameworks devised by the OAS and UN.) The fact that Colombia violated Ecuadoran sovereignty (and international law) in the raid which procured the laptops in the first place, has now, essentially, been allowed to subside by the international community, and the implications extracted from the illegally-acquired laptops have become the main focus of attention. Ecuador’s effort, on the basis of this arrest, to prove that it is making efforts to prevent guerrilla organizations from using its territory to wage war against the Colombian government, is certainly not going to impress those in the know. The ELN is not the FARC, with whom the Ecuadoran government has been accused of having connections; and the hoopla surrounding the apprehension of this suspect seems out of proportion to the deed. However, Ecuador’s relation with the FARC is, likely, no simple matter, and Correa’s ability and will to vigorously deny his border to the guerrillas is certainly in question. (See "Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador: An International Crisis" for an explanation of why.)

On a more important note, the government of Ecuador has asked the OAS to investigate Colombian claims that Ecuador has links with the FARC. This is because, for much of the international public, INTERPOL’s verification of the non-tampered state of the captured files backs up the Colombian government’s statements regarding their content. However, in actuality, INTERPOL has not officially verified either the accuracy of the content, or the source, of the captured files, although the global intelligence community seems quite sure that they belong to the FARC. However, regarding the content, the Colombian government is frequently issuing decisive pronouncements on the basis of rather cryptic documents, treating its own conjectures as solid facts, and drawing conclusions that may not always be valid, and which sometimes seem politically self-serving. Obviously, by calling for this investigation in a relatively friendly venue (the OAS is hopeful to ease regional tensions, not exacerbate them), the Correa government is gambling that the content of the captured files will not be judged concrete enough to damn him, but will be dismissed as inconclusive or else subject to rival interpretations. The technical expertise of INTERPOL carries with it a powerful mystique which seems to condemn Correa; Correa hopes, by means of the requested investigation, to sidestep that mystique by carrying the controversy out of the realm of forensic science and into the realm of subjective interpretation. How well he fares in this endeavor remains to be seen.  SOURCES:  Reuters, AP.


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Weapons of Depth Contents

A Biography of Colombia Embattled, Part IV