Though it hardly constitutes breaking news, Colombian newsweekly Semana’s interview with Luis Jorge Garay makes for sobering reading. Garay has a lot to say about the evolution of the “new” paramilitary armies in Colombia and their links to what he calls the Colombian “narco-state,” none of which is very comforting for American policymakers. Garay’s basic insight is that while the Uribe government has weakened the FARC and other left-wing guerrilla groups, new drug-trafficking paramilitary groups have emerged and infiltrated the Colombian state, particularly at the local and regional level. These paramilitaries keep a low profile, but they are quite busy extending their influence across Colombia and subverting the state to meet their ends. Trials for top paramilitary leaders aside, Uribe has done little to uproot the long-term threat paramilitary groups pose to governance, and instead appears willing to sanction tacit cooperation between government officials and the new narco-paramilitaries.
In the mean time, the killings and violations of human rights just keep happening. Much has been made of the murder of trade unionists in Colombia, but the real scandal is the overbearing persecution of journalists and other defenders of human rights by paramilitaries and the government institutions aligned with them. Consider the chilling remarks by Defense Minister Gabriel de Silva to assembled military officers on August 12th:
“May a colonel not tremble, may he have no fear before the codes [of justice], may a general or a soldier not tremble in the face of a [human rights] complaint, may their will to fight not be stopped by a judicial action by the enemies of the fatherland.”
When a Defense Minister tells his military chiefs that they need have no fear of the justice system, it’s usually considered a Bad Thing. And when he goes on to label those who would have it otherwise “enemies of the fatherland,” donor governments generally start making for the exits as fast as diplomatically possible. Yet the U.S. government went on to certify Colombia's human rights record in September, paving the way for continued military aid to Colombia under Plan Colombia.
This explains a lot about the current uproar over the base agreement signed on October 30th. When the U.S. announces a policy to combat narco-trafficking in Colombia, you expect to see funds go to narco-trafficking operations. When most of the money instead funds the Colombian military, and when that military appears to sanction the narco-trafficking operations of new paramilitary groups, regional powers begin to distrust U.S. intentions. And when the U.S. announces a plan to expand its military presence in Colombia, and then admits that its stated objectives in doing so weren’t entirely true…well, you get a regional backlash.
It’s handy to have a friendly government willing to host bases in the region, sure, but it undermines any potential benefit when policymakers fail to take seriously the conditions for aid stipulated in Plan Colombia. A lot of the sturm und drang over the base agreement could have been avoided if the State Department had stuck to the letter of the law and shown it was serious about human rights in Colombia. Instead, we find ourselves in a regional diplomatic conflagration.
Extra Credit: On Saturday Venezuelan authorities reported capturing Magaly Janeth Moreno Vega, a Colombian ex-prosecutor who confessed to aiding paramilitaries and was convicted as an accomplice to murder several years ago, before she fled while on temporary parole. Further evidence of rampant paramilitarism, or Venezuelan showmanship? Your comments are appreciated.
Research Associate Robert Banick