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Last Updated:8/8/05
Backgrounder: Uribe Visit to Bush Ranch
By CIP Fellow Winifred Tate, August 1, 2005

On Thursday, August 4, Colombia President Alvaro Uribe becomes one of the few world leaders to meet with President Bush on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. This meeting comes at a historic juncture, as the US prepares to embark upon phase two of “Plan Colombia,” the major aid package begun five years ago under President Clinton. Since then, approximately $4 billion has been sent to Colombia, making it the largest recipient of US aid outside of the Middle East.

The Current Aid Package

The House of Representatives passed the foreign operations bill on June 28, giving the Bush administration their requested total of $742 million to essentially continue current US policy in Colombia. The Senate version, which passed on July 20, had a slight improvement in the balance between military and economic aid, from 80% military and 20% economic aid to 75% military and 25% economic aid, and a stringent set of conditions that must be met before any U.S. funds go to support paramilitary demobilizations. Among the conditions are that the Colombian government may not prohibit extraditions; the legal framework for the process must provide for effective investigation, prosecution and punishment of paramilitary leaders guilty of criminal acts; paramilitary leaders must confess, cease illegal activity and hand over assets; and an inter-agency working group must report to Congress about compliance with these conditions. The final aid amount and any conditions will be settled through the conference of the two bill versions, which will happen sometime in September when Congress returns to session.

CIP Statement

“One of the most critical issues on the table is the role the US will play in the demobilization of paramilitary groups,” said CIP Fellow Winifred Tate. “This meeting is a historic opportunity for President Bush to make clear that the U.S. will not simply write a blank check for a process that will grant impunity to paramilitary leaders responsible for massive human rights violations and drug trafficking, and fails to dismantle these outlaw power structures still controlling much of the Colombian countryside.”

Issues on the Table:

Balance and Additional Military Assistance

Mr. Uribe is expected to request more military aid from the U.S. despite existing imbalances in US funding for Colombia; to date, eighty percent of US assistance has gone to Colombia’s military and police. While Mr. Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy has succeeded in reducing several measures of violence, including homicide rates in Colombia’s major cities, there are growing concerns about problems with the policy. Recent months have seen a spike in guerrilla attacks, including large combat operations and an extended guerrilla blockade in Putumayo, the priority area of Plan Colombia’s largest targeted military package in the “Push into Southern Colombia.” Forced displacement in Colombia, already the highest in the hemisphere and among the highest in the world, is increasing. Colombian non-governmental organization CODHES reports that 287,581 people were displaced in 2004, an increase of 38.52% from the previous year. The United Nations has documented an increase in human rights violations by military personnel.

Fumigation

Mr. Uribe is expected to request greater support for aerial eradication, spraying coca (the raw material for cocaine) with herbicides by low flying aircraft. While this tactic remains a linchpin of U.S. counternarcotics efforts, aerial eradication has been controversial. Drift of the toxic chemicals has led to claims that watersheds, human settlements and legal foodcrops have been contaminated or destroyed. Fumigation has also not resulted in a reduction of coca cultivation in Colombia. Attempted coca production in Colombia – defined as eradicated plus uneradicated coca – has surged 36 percent since 2000. After fumigating 1.4 million acres of coca cultivations — an area roughly half the size of Connecticut — the program has left Colombia with only 21,003 acres less coca today than it had in 1999. This means that for every 67 acres sprayed, coca was reduced by one hectare. Last year, despite a record-setting fumigation campaign, Colombian coca production actually increased.

This policy has also not had the expected results in reducing the availability of drugs in the U.S. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy most recent figures (released in February 2005, charting changes in price and quality from 2000 through mid-2003), street prices in the US for cocaine and heroin are at historic lows, with purity at or near historic highs. The Justice Department’s February 2005 National Domestic Threat Assessment reported that cocaine availability stable or on the rise, with heroin availability stable in urban areas and on the rise in rural areas.

Paramilitary Demobilization and the Justice and Peace Law

The government of President Álvaro Uribe is asking for help to demobilize up to 20,000 fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a powerful umbrella organization of private militias that is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department. The demobilization process could carry a price tag of at least $160 million; Mr. Uribe could ask for up to $80 million in support from the U.S.

The role of the AUC in drug trafficking is among concerns of U.S. lawmakers with the current negotiations. At least eleven of its leaders, many of whom are sitting down with Colombian government representatives in a demilitarized zone, face indictments for shipping drugs to the United States, and the AUC continues to play an active role in drug trafficking to the United States.

The legal framework for the process, known as the “Justice and Peace Law,” was passed on June 22, 2005, despite serious concerns about lax sentencing guidelines and provisions that permit impunity for serious crimes. Demobilizing individuals can only receive a maximum sentence of between five and eight years; further reductions for good behavior and “time served” during the negotiations can reduce the sentence further to less than three years. Confessions are not required to receive these and other benefits, and there is no penalty for lying to prosecutors, who have only 60 days to complete their investigations. A total of 20 prosecutors will be responsible for thousands of cases.

The Peace and Justice Law considers membership in paramilitary groups a political crime and thus not eligible for extradition; drug trafficking to fund paramilitary activity could be considered a related crime and thus shielded from extradition.

One of the most serious challenges to the demobilization process is ensuring that the process does not simply channel individuals through demobilization programs but dismantles the underlying structures of paramilitary power. The latter does not appear to be happening. Despite the declaration of a “unilateral” ceasefire in December 2002 by AUC leaders, paramilitary violence, including massacres and assassinations, has continued, and paramilitary groups appear to be consolidating and expanding their political and military control in many areas of the country.

Human rights certification

Another issue on the table is the State Department’s certification of the Colombian government’s progress on specific human rights issues, including suspending officials credibly alleged to have committed human rights violations, the investigation and prosecution of such officers, and taking steps to break ties between security forces and paramilitary groups. This certification must be issued for the release of 12.5% of funds for assistance for the Colombian Armed Forces, and is currently long overdue – the failure to be able to certify has held up 12.5 percent of aid from 2004. The four priority cases for certification include the February 2005 massacre in San José de Apartadó, the 1997 massacre in Mapiripán, the April 2004 massacre of five peasants in Cajamarca and the August 2004 massacre of three union leaders in Arauca. While the Colombian government has announced the arrest of several low-ranking soldiers in the Cajamarca case, there has been little progress in the others. Twenty-two Senators sent a letter on July 1 to Secretary of State Rice asking her not to certify in light of the failure to advance in these and other cases.

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