Deception at the Heart of Uribe’s Re-Election
After Four Years in Power, the President’s Purge of “Terrorists” Continues, at a High Cost of Injustice and Corruption
By Matthew Stein
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
June 2, 2006
A Colombian friend of mine told me that trying to make peace in his country is like trying to make a feast in a dirty kitchen—it’s simply not feasible. Consequently, the current president, Alvaro Uribe, has been winning the hearts and minds of the Colombian nation by neglecting peace accords and pursuing a pervasive military strategy instead. The outcomes, on the surface at least, have been positive, and together with the right mix of impassioned rhetoric and increasing repression, blinds the population to the many dangerous concessions that are being pursued simultaneously. “Uribe presents results even with the lies or partial threats that are involved in creating those numbers,” explains analyst and professor Enrique Serrano.
As a result, it’s little surprise that Uribe garnered 62 percent of the vote this past weekend, in order to forge ahead with his ”Democratic Security” strategy. To many Colombians, Uribe represents a change and satiates a hope that has been lingering unfulfilled for years. Important highways are now open for travel, homicides in cities such as Bogotá, Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla have dropped to their lowest levels in two decades, and the risk of being kidnapped has fallen by over 50 percent, “For the first time we’re looking at the possibility of being a normal country” says Serrano. “Colombians see the current Uribe government as a weapon to achieve this goal… he’s the expression of a very popular feeling of re-conquest, and the rebirth of possibilities.”
But, underneath these gains, insidious erosions are steadily spreading into the country’s fabric. In the pursuit of security, and with the help of $700 million annually from the United States, Uribe is turning Colombia into an increasingly militarized state, paying little attention to human rights in the process. Moreover, over the past three years, the country’s leading contributor to human rights violations, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in its Spanish initials) have used Uribe’s contemptible Justice and Peace law to demobilize thousands of militants without consequence. Minimal vigilance is allocated to these dangerous individuals afterwards, allowing them to replace their illegal structures with legal ones and gradually set the stage for a “paramilitirazation” of politics in the country.
Human rights violations are a natural by-product of war. In seek of the enemy, there are always innocent victims that get entangled in the net. Colombia’s military has swelled from 158,000 to 207,000 under this government, not including the networks of civilian informants that Uribe has employed, consequently increasing the likelihood of getting caught. In regions that are sensitive to guerrilla influence, every citizen is looked upon with suspicion. Even “peace communities” such as San José de Apartadó that have declared themselves neutral to the conflict are not immune to military interference. Since Uribe, the number of arbitrary detentions has reached more than twice the amount from the previous six years and has led Michael Fruhling, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia to announce that his office, “has noted with concern that illegal or arbitrary detentions constitute both in number and frequency one of the most worrying violations of human rights reported in the country.”
“Expressing an opinion is always positive,” explains Denise Beaudoin, editorial assistant for the Colombian Commission of Jurists (JCC). “The problem isn’t expressing opposition, it’s the way you express yourself that’s important. The guerrillas manifest their opposition in violent ways, but these people are displaying their displeasure in ways that are legal and peaceful.” Denise adds that once an individual is forcibly taken into the custody, their life is forever altered. There is irrevocable psychological damage; the detained often meet physical brutality in jail and become susceptible targets for the paramilitaries once they are released.
Trade unionist, human rights workers, and journalist have also been victims of Uribe’s repression. In 2006, the number of trade unionist killed increased 27.7 percent with respect to the same period in 2005, and there were at least 58 cases of harassment and attacks on human rights workers in the first five months of this year alone. Uribe’s disdain towards human rights organizations is well known and has manifested itself on a number of occasions. During the inauguration for the commander of the Colombian Air Force in September 2003, for instance, he shared these words: “General, you take command of the Air Force to defeat terrorism. Don’t let the traffickers in human rights hold you back, don’t let them fool you.” Furthermore, in recent weeks he has launched a number of verbal tirades at journalists for revealing that he sent the former head of the DAS, the Colombian equivalent to the CIA, to a consul-general post in Milan, Italy, after the senior DAS official was suspected of providing favors to the paramilitaries and drug traffickers by erasing their criminal records. In response, Uribe publicly denounced the accusations as an insult to the country, and listed by name the journalists that were involved.
Alvaro Uribe Velez, explains Serrano, “is quite different from other Colombian Presidents because of his style and approach to the problems. He has a sort of direct style—a sort of defiant style.” His strong convictions and inspiring tongue have been useful in reconciling both his contentious acts as president and his contentious past.
In 1983, after his own father was assassinated by guerrillas during a time when the senior Uribe was subject to an extradition warrant in the U.S. for drug trafficking, Uribe, reportedly, spent many years in the company of the infamous Ochoa family, known at the time for their powerful drug cartel and later, for founding the first paramilitary unit known as Muerte a Secuestadores (Death to Kidnappers). As a result, since entering politics at the tender age of 26, his political initiatives have constantly been favorable to the paramilitaries. As mayor of Medellin, the second-largest Colombian city, he was removed from office after only three months due to his ties to the drug mafia. Then, as director of the Civil Aviation, he issued pilot licenses to Pablo Escobar’s fleet of light aircraft, which routinely flew cocaine to the United States. When Uribe became governor of the Antioquia department in 1995, his relationship with paramilitary forces expanded even further when he set up a vigilante force called Convivir, parts of which eventually merged with the AUC.
Negative statistics and corrupted histories are rarely addressed by the Uribe administration. Politics, as Hunter S. Thompson use to say, is the art of controlling your environment, and Uribe does all he can to keep the population’s attention fixated on supporting his battle. For both Uribe and the overwhelming majority of Colombians, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) present the greatest impediment to a normalization of conditions in the country, and the president utilizes these emotions to justify his forceful military initiatives. After four decades of war, the FARC’s support is now largely confined to small rural communities and certain marginalized slums. Economic desperation and anger over abuses by the military and paramilitaries insures a steady stream of new recruits, but the group’s stagnant cold war-era ideology, practices such as kidnapping, and the overall violence associated with the insurgency has alienated much sympathy for its struggle, even among the left.
In 2003-04 the FARC suffered a number of impressive defeats; for the first time they were attacked on their own ground in the jungle, and endured a high number of casualties. Uribe often publicized these victories on national television by walking defiantly on the previously occupied territory, mobilizing nationalist sentiments in the process. In 2005, however, the FARC mounted a strong comeback by sharply increasing the number of military deaths, while suffering fewer fatalities simultaneously. This resurgence was hardly addressed by the government, who maintained that the FARC were weakening. But, in reality, despite $3 billion in U.S. military assistance, the FARC are far from defeated. Their leadership structure remains fully intact and its income stream, derived from the drug industry, kidnappings, extortion and cattle rustling, has remained constant. Moreover, many areas that Uribe promotes as “re-taken” from the FARC, are in fact incomplete. In zones like Cundinamarca and eastern Antioquia, despite the increase in security, investment in civilian government has been sparse. Consequently, argues Alfredo Rangel, an analyst with the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá, as the FARC continues to draw the military into more remote regions beyond the reach of Uribe’s security policies, it will cause much of this security to be redeployed leaving these towns open once again to guerrilla influence.
Inasmuch as Uribe likes to present the FARC as an enemy of the state, he tries just as hard to promote the paramilitaries as a partner for peace. Over the past three years elaborate and well publicized demobilization ceremonies have been held, depicting paramilitary commanders waving triumphantly to spectators as their infantries hand over a selection of weapons. Minimal scrutiny, however, is allocated to the process because in Colombia, tacit acceptance of paramilitaries has been lingering for years. “We have seen acceptance of atrocities committed by the paras,” says Serrano. “People see them as a necessary response [to the guerrillas].” Moreover, the fact that the number of paramilitary attacks declined significantly during the first two years of the program only reinforced the government’s initiatives.
The Justice and Peace law that governed these demobilizations was ardently pushed through Congress by Uribe himself, despite the number of international stipulations it clearly violated.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, called it a, “mockery of the basic principles of human rights and accountability,” yet for three years it was responsible for the demobilizations of 31,000 paramilitaries. The law included provisions that dramatically reduced criminal sentences, severely restricted the amount of time prosecutors were allotted to investigate atrocity cases, included no penalties if a paramilitary lied to authorities during interrogation, and put little pressure on paramilitaries to turn over their illegally acquired assets or pay reparation to their victims. Finally, two weeks ago the Colombian Constitutional Court succeeded in amending its most lenient terms, despite Uribe’s opposition, and it will be interesting to see how the paramilitaries respond to its more stringent conditions
According to CERAC, a Colombian conflict analysis organization, paramilitary attacks rose sharply in 2005 and there have already been 2,750 documented cases of paramilitary violations since their ceasefire in 2002. Gains from earlier years have been eroded as demobilized paramilitaries are essentially committing the same illegal acts they did previously, except with greater impunity because they are now camouflaged in civilian clothes instead of outlaw fatigues. As German Espejo, an analyst with the Security and Democracy foundation, noted in March, “The paras played a decisive role in this year’s (parliamentary) election, particularly in the northern parts of the country.” Their new status also permits them to influence state structures through legal channels, with the government paying little heed to whether they are doing so legitimately or through coercion.
Sean Donahue, a journalist with much experience in the region, argues that Uribe’s recent appointment of Mario Montoya to the General of Colombia’s armed forces, boldly illustrates the depth of collusion that exists between both sides. Donahue argues that Montoya’s nomination, with his dark past and significant ties to the paramilitaries, “…was only a matter of time given the extremely close relationship between the officer corps of Colombia’s army and the far right.” And, with another four years in office, it’s unlikely that this will be the last dangerous appointment that the president makes.
Four More Years
For Gloria Gomez, general coordinator for the Association of Families of Detained-Disappeared (ASFADDES), the president’s reelection has been absolutely devastating. The president, she argues, is breeding impunity in the country and leaving the victims with no one to turn to. “Now that Uribe is president the paras have taken more power and have infiltrated many government structures. As a result there are more disappearances and fewer denouncements.” Families of the victims, she claims, are fearful of registering a complaint with the legal authorities because the perception that a grievance could fall into paramilitary hands has increased.
Nevertheless, as Uribe commences his second term in office, it’s likely that the line between the state and the paramilitaries will become increasingly blurred. Uribe’s intentions are clear and as the New York Times reported, “Seventy percent of Congress is allied with the president [and] another four years will likely put government allies in the Constitutional Court, the comptroller’s office and in the inspector general’s agency.” Institutions, essentially, that use to serve as a check on the government, and were the answer to Uribe’s despicable Justice and Peace law, will lose their independence. “President Uribe has all the powers in his hands,” wrote Daniel Coronell, a columnist with the Colombian newsweekly, Semana. “He will own the executive branch like never before, and be proprietor of big chunks of the legislative and judicial branches.” Former paramilitaries will seep slowly into positions of power, working together with Uribe to eradicate the guerrillas and anybody that gets in the way, and it will all be conducted in the name of security.
Matthew Stein is an independent journalist based in Bogotá.
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