The Trump administration will be taking $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget this year to pay for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Very little of that money will get spent if he loses in November.) He’s been able to move some of that money into his wall—even though Congress never approved it—by declaring a “national emergency” and outlasting congressional efforts to disapprove that emergency (they need a two-thirds majority and only muster a simple majority).
Much of the Defense fund transfers, though, don’t even require an emergency declaration. The money can be moved under existing law. That’s what’s happening with the $3.8 billion that the Pentagon notified Congress this week would be moved from Defense into wall-building.
Here’s the notification PDF. The Trump administration is taking money out of the Joint Strike Fighter and other aircraft and weapons programs to pay for the wall, something that has even Republicans on the Armed Services Committee unhappy.
How can Trump do this? First, the Defense appropriations law allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year from one account to another. That’s Section 8005 of the annual appropriation. Here, he’s moving money from these weapons programs to the Pentagon’s counter-drug account. This vector was also used in 2019, applied to $2.5 billion in wall-building money. It shows up in yellow on this flowchart.
Second, now that it is “counter-drug” money, Trump can transfer it to the Homeland Security department to build a “counter-drug” wall. This is thanks to the nearly magical flexibility of the Defense Department’s counter-drug account, the product of a 1990 law. Let’s look at this law for a moment.
It was created at the height of the crack plague and the war on drugs. The George H.W. Bush administration and a Democratic-majority Congress had just made the U.S. military the “single lead agency” for interdicting cocaine overseas, and were clarifying what that meant. They agreed to give the Pentagon a bunch of new powers, including the ability to support U.S. law enforcement on U.S. soil if it was for the drug war. (The original law was Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It had to be renewed every few years. But the 2017 NDAA made the law permanent, as Section 284 of Title 10, U.S. Code.)
Ever since, a military component called Joint Task Force-North, operating from Fort Bliss outside El Paso, has been carrying out domestic support missions, mainly for CBP.
It gave the Defense Department the legal authority to spend its giant budget to build border barriers—as long as such barriers can be justified as “counter-drug.”
This same provision also allows the Defense Department to provide several types of counter-drug assistance to “foreign law enforcement agencies.” As a result, for the last 30 years, Latin American militaries and police forces have received billions of dollars in equipment upgrades, base facilities construction, training, and “intelligence analysis” services from the Defense Department.
This Defense Department’s counter-drug account—listed at the Security Assistance Monitor as “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance”—quickly became the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It was a big component of Plan Colombia and of the Mérida Initiative in Mexico.
The Special Forces teams that trained many thousands of Colombian troops at the outset of Plan Colombia? The maritime bases built along Honduras’s northern coast? The drone imagery shared with Mexican forces hunting for drug kingpins? The “Interagency Task Forces” operating along Guatemala’s border with Mexico, with the jeeps famously used to intimidate the CICIG? That’s been largely Defense money, not foreign aid budget money.
It flows independently of the State Department and foreign aid budget, with poor visibility over how it’s spent. We always have a very hard time learning how much Defense counter-drug money went as aid to which countries’ security forces in the previous year.
Now, that same legal provision is authorizing the building of border walls. Money gets taken from weapons systems, transferred to the counter-drug budget, then transferred to the Homeland Security Department budget to be used for wall-building. And there’s little Congress can do about it.
The process is under challenge in the courts. Last July, though, the Supreme Court allowed this “counter-drug” money to keep flowing while lower courts slowly deliberated.
Meanwhile, this move pits the military-industrial complex (all those fighter jets, Osprey aircraft, Humvees and other equipment being cut) against the border security-industrial complex (wall construction and related technology). These are mostly different contracting companies, bringing money and employment to different congressional districts. While I don’t have a dog in this fight at all, it’ll be interesting to watch the wrangling.
Sometime this year, Colombia is likely to reverse 5 years of policy progress and restore a program that sprays herbicides, from aircraft, over many of the more than 119,500 rural households that live in areas so neglected and abandoned that people grow coca to earn a modest living.
This makes me sad and angry, because Colombia’s 2016 peace accord held so much promise of bringing government, for the the first time, into these forgotten territories that I’ve visited—and been moved by—on many visits to the country. Instead of governing, Iván Duque’s government will be sending contract pilots and police helicopter escorts to fly overhead, spraying the highly questioned chemical glyphosate, with the U.S. government footing much of the bill.
Here’s my latest writing about this, based on a contribution I added to documents submitted by Colombian organizations seeking to challenge the policy in the country’s judicial system. It points out that fumigation may bring short-term reductions in coca growing, but does nothing in the long term but bring high costs, environmental and health risks, a high likelihood of social unrest, and danger to the pilots and other personnel.
I wish they wouldn’t do this: there’s no substitute for governing your own territory and serving your own people.
We learned in Monday evening’s Washington Post that our president plans to take another $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget and put it into the border wall that he couldn’t convince Congress to pay for. If he gets his way, more than three out of every four dollars in border-wall money will have gone without congressional approval.
This sort of rule by decree is what we’ve seen in Latin America when democracies start giving way to dictatorship.
A new commentary at WOLA’s website breaks down what’s happening: the amounts involved, the convoluted way Trump is wresting the money from defense and avoiding Congress’s constitutional checks, and the situation in the courts, where our only hope lies.
On December 30 Colombia’s Ministry of Justice issued a draft decree that would allow it to re-start a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones. This program used aircraft to spray more than 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015.
In 2015, a UN World Health Organization literature review found that glyphosate, the herbicide used in the program, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In 2018 and 2019, two California juries gave large awards to three U.S. plaintiffs who claimed a link between heavy use of glyphosate and cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the coca spraying program in late 2015, but took years before replacing it with any other effort, like alternative livelihoods or manual eradication. As a result of this and other factors, coca cultivation increased dramatically in Colombia. By 2017, more than 119,500 families were making a living off of the crop.
Now, the government of Iván Duque is bringing fumigation back. The U.S. Department of State quickly put out a brief statement celebrating Colombia’s decision.
The decree is 20 pages long, and lays out some of the review, consultation, and complaint processes that should apply to a renewed fumigation program. We’d been expecting this document since July 18, 2019, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling, modifying a 2017 decision, softening the requirements that the government would have to fulfill in order to start fumigating again.
What happens next?
The draft decree is now undergoing a 30-day citizen comment period. Then, it will go to Colombia’s National Drug Policy Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes), a grouping of ministers, the police chief, the chief prosecutor, and the inspector-general, which must then vote to re-start the program. That vote probably won’t happen until at least March or April. The Colombian journalism website La Silla Vacíasees the process going on for months more:
Several more steps await: that the final decree be issued; that the Defense Ministry formally present a spray program, adjusting to this decree’s requirements, before the National Drug Policy Council; that this Council approves it; and that the Ministry obtains an environmental license for that program. All of that will take several months, and probably most of the year.
The Court’s requirements
Though it loosened restrictions on a new spray program, the Constitutional Court still requires that:
The regulations governing spraying come from a different agency than the one charged with spraying.
The regulation must be based on an evaluation of health, environmental, and other risks. That evaluation must be “participatory and technically sound,” and must happen continuously.
Newly emerged risks or complaints must receive automatic review.
Scientific evaluations of risk must be rigorous, impartial, and of high quality.
Complaints about health, environmental, or legal crop damage must be processed in a “comprehensive, independent, and impartial” way that is “tied to the risk evaluation.”
“Objective and conclusive” evidence must demonstrate “absence of damage to health and the environment,” though the Court says that absence doesn’t need to be total.
Limits on spraying
The draft decree excludes from aerial spraying “natural parks of Colombia, whether national or regional; strategic ecosystems like páramos, wetlands as defined by the Ramsar convention and mangroves; populated centers; settlements of populations; and bodies of water.” According to Colombia’s Semana magazine, “researchers consulted…calculate that 70 percent of illicit crops are located in territories where aerial fumigations aren’t viable” under the decree’s definitions because “they are protected zones, because prior consultation is required, or because they are out of the planes’ reach for logistical reasons.”
Oversight, evaluation, and complaints
As in the past, Colombia’s National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate, a heavy recipient of U.S. assistance, would manage the new spray program. The draft decree gives crucial oversight and approval responsibilities to three small agencies elsewhere within the Colombian government.
The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), within the Agriculture Ministry, will be charged with processing and adjudicating complaints about the inadvertent spraying of legal crops. It must do so within 15 days, though the decree allows very wide latitude for postponements. (During the past spray program, people whose legal crops suffered damage from fumigation had to go to the Anti-Narcotics Police, which approved only a small single-digit percentage of compensations. Police usually responded that “we didn’t spray there that day,” “there was coca mixed in with the legal crops”—which many farmers denied, or “the zone is too insecure to evaluate the alleged damage.”)
The National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA), an Environment Ministry entity established in 2011, will approve aerial eradication projects, perform initial studies, and monitor their environmental impact, while processing complaints about environmental damage.
The the National Health Institute (INS), an entity within the Health Ministry, will monitor the human health impact of aerial eradication, carrying out continual evaluation of health risks, while processing health complaints.
These agencies seem quite small, with sporadically updated websites. In some cases they will have to depend on the National Police for logistical support necessary to perform their oversight work. Their capacity to handle a large docket of complaints and monitoring requests is far from assured.
Participation and consultation
The decree states that the Anti-Narcotics Police must “announce to local and regional authorities, as well as to the citizenry in general, the initiation of spray activities.” This announcement must explain complaint and evaluation mechanisms, and use local media. After spraying in an area, the Narcotics Police must “guarantee participation spaces with local authorities and with the citizenry in general, in which comments, complaints, and suggestions may be expressed.” Conclusions of these “participation spaces” will be included in the Anti-Narcotics Police’s monthly report to the ANLA.
What the peace accord says
Semananotes that the Constitutional Court had “immovably” required the Colombian government to build a spraying policy “that complies with what was established by the FARC peace accord,” adding that “the expression ‘peace accord’ isn’t mentioned even once in the decree’s text.” The peace accord (section 18.104.22.168) limits aerial spraying only to cases in which communities have not agreed to crop substitution, and where manual eradication is “not possible.”
In cases where there is no agreement with the communities, the Government will proceed to remove the crops used for illicit purposes, prioritising manual removal where possible, bearing in mind respect for human rights, the environment, health and well-being. If substitution is not possible, the Government does not waive the instruments that it believes to be most effective, including aerial spraying to ensure the eradication of crops used for illicit purposes. The FARC-EP consider that in any case of removal this must be effected manually.
My visit to the border last week went well: logistics were flawless, the people we encountered were amazing, and we learned a lot. But I came home feeling disturbed. Even more than after my four visits this year to San Diego/Tijuana and to Mexico’s southern border.
Maybe it was the relentlessness of the Trump administration’s non-stop assault on some very weak people. Maybe it was the grinding fatigue that the cities’ activists and service providers exuded. But when I got home late Saturday I was having trouble relating to family and friends. I was only happy with my butt in a chair, typing up my notes and my thoughts about what I’d just seen at this part of the border.
I figured I’d write a memo about my trip. But I typed and typed. There was so much to talk about, as you can see from the table of contents below. I worked a late night Monday night, slept a lot Tuesday night (had to give a talk in Spanish on Wednesday), and last (Wednesday) night, I didn’t sleep at all: I pulled my first true all-nighter, not even a break to lie down, in many, many years.
I just wanted to get it done. So much that I saw and heard was so out of balance and awful, the holidays are nearly here, and the writing became like a form of therapy.
12,000 words, some graphics and several photos later, I posted this memo to WOLA’s website late today. It’s sprawling, and honestly I’m in no condition to judge whether it’s easy to follow. But I feel at least somewhat better for having written it.
I hope it helps you to understand what’s going on at the U.S.-Mexico border after a very trying year, and what is at stake there in the next year, for all of us whether we live at the border or not.
It’s always nice to finish something. Here’s an in-depth account of the situation at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where I joined colleagues for a 400-mile research trip in August. The result is this report, released today.
It’s 15,000 words, is stuffed with photos, and covers the ground outlined below. So pour a beverage and join us on this journey from Tapachula to Tenosique. And here’s the PDF version, which looks nicer.
Contents Introduction Mexico Proposes a New Approach to Migration—Then Reverses Itself under U.S. Pressure * Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border * U.S.-Mexico Agreement to Curb Migration Flows * Apprehension Numbers at Mexico’s Southern Border Mexico’s Security and Migration Deployment in the Border Zone Migration Patterns and Smuggling * Shifts in Apprehension and Deportation Trends * Extra-Continental Migrants * Shifts in Migration Routes * Trends in Corridors The Human Rights Impact of Mexico’s Crackdown * Detention Facilities * Crimes against Migrants * Migrants and the Local Population Asylum and Detention * Why Migrants are Fleeing * Mexico’s Asylum System * COMAR on the Brink * Exit visas * Buses from the Northern Border Official Corruption in the Border Zone U.S. Assistance in the Border Region Conclusions Recommendations
A president—usually one with low approval ratings—announces a politically risky or unpopular move, often a crackdown on social protests or dissent. To give the announcement more weight and menace, the president issues it while surrounded by uniformed military officers. The subtext is “the military is with me on this”—even if the message is a political one that doesn’t fall within the military’s responsibilities.
It’s part of a larger trend of “the pendulum… swinging back, fast, in the militaries’ direction. It probably won’t go so far back that Latin America re-enters an age of military juntas holding total power. It’s hard, though, to see where or how far it will go.”
Latin America may not be headed back to the age of coups. But it might not be democracy, either. This piece looks at five worrying trends, including an unhelpful U.S. role. Read it here.
It’s a waste of time to write something that concludes, “President Trump hasn’t thought this through.” Of course he hasn’t. But still, let’s think through Trump’s declaration this week that he plans to add Mexican criminal groups (“cartels”) to the U.S. government’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Here’s that list, covering the whole world. There are some pretty vicious groups listed on it: ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the ELN.
But there are a lot of vicious groups missing. You don’t see the Russian Mafia, the Hong Kong Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, Italy’s Cosa Nostra, Brazil’s PCC, Central America’s MS-13—or Mexican cartels. There aren’t any criminals or mobsters on the list. Which makes President Trump’s call to add Mexican organized crime groups look bizarre.
But it’s not that bizarre, because U.S. law about terrorism is pretty weird anyway. Just start with the term “terrorism”: the very good Wikipedia entry on “Definitions of Terrorism” finds several different ones in the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, Defense Department guidances, and elsewhere. Those definitions aren’t in sync.
They differ on an important question: whether an act of violence has to be politically motivated to be considered “terrorism,” or whether it’s enough that the violence just seeks to influence a government’s actions. A drug cartel using violence to keep government out if its business fits the second definition, but “keep out of our business” doesn’t really count as a political motivation.
The law governing the State Department’s listing of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Title 22 U.S. Code Section 2656f(d)(2)) uses the first definition, requiring some political motivation in order for a violent group to be considered “terrorist”:
The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
So for the purposes of the “terrorist list,” there has to be a political motivation. Adding Mexican organized crime to that list would stretch the definition of “political motivation” so much that it would open the door to adding potentially dozens of worldwide criminal groups to the list.
It’s not hard to imagine why the State Department, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community would want to avoid doing that. Mixing criminal groups with terrorist groups means losing focus. In the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a broad consensus that the U.S. government needed to concentrate its resources and assets on groups, like Al Qaeda, that had used terrorism to kill civilians for a “cause,” no matter how twisted. There was an assumption (usually borne out) that criminals would not be so radicalized or extremist that, for instance, they’d employ suicide bombers.
So there were no serious proposals to dilute the focus by adding organized crime to the terrorist list. The U.S. government already had—and still has—ample tools for dealing with drug-trafficking organized crime groups, going back to the drug war legislation of the 1980s and 1990s. Kingpin Act designations. Lists of specially designated narcotics traffickers. Decertifications of states that collude with them. And billions of dollars in aid each year under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program and Defense budget authorities.
Meanwhile, perhaps because they lack political motivations, organized crime groups tend to be much more transient and shorter-lived than terrorist groups. They’re slippery. They fragment and change names, they lose and gain relevance, more quickly than the groups on the FTO list. Start adding organized crime groups to the list and get ready to update it constantly.
Look at the organized crime landscape in Mexico. In 2006, it was dominated by the Sinaloa cartel and some smaller ones: Gulf, Zetas, Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes), Tijuana (Arellano Félix), Familia Michoacana, Beltrán Leyva, and not many others. If your terrorist list included those today, it’d be irrelevant. Some of those are functionally defunct, you’d have to add splinter groups of some of them, and you’d have to consider adding groups that weren’t on the radar in 2006, like the Cuinis, the Viagras, Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, Nueva Plaza, Nueva Resistencia, Gente Nueva, Santa Rosa de Lima, Northeast Cartel, and many others—first among them, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, headed by Nemesio Oseguera alias “El Mencho.”
A decade ago, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo said that his country’s authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. When undergoing the thorough, deliberative process of listing a group, it hardly makes sense to keep up with all of these comings, goings, and schisms.
Some Mexican analysts have pointed out since Trump’s announcement that listing Mexican criminal groups as “terrorists” increases the likelihood of military action in Mexican territory. That may technically be true, though it’s still a very slim likelihood. It’s hard to imagine U.S. military personnel carrying out an operation on Mexican soil without Mexican consent just because a Mexican criminal group has been given a new status. Still, there’s always a scenario that goes something like: “President López Obrador, we have the coordinates where ‘El Mencho’ is right now. We have one hour. We don’t care what you say, a drone is on its way.”
Short of military operations, listing Mexican criminal groups would mean a heavier U.S. hand in Mexico because it would cast a wide net across Mexican society. Organized crime survives everywhere through its deep roots in the state and civil society. (Terrorist groups also do, to some extent, but tend to be more “off the grid” because their relations with states are more adversarial.) People who live in legality are quiet “nodes” on the organized-crime network. If Mexican groups end up on the FTO list, the U.S. government’s list of Mexican citizens offering “material support to terrorism” (in the eyes of the law, the same as raising money for Al Qaeda) could explode, and could include officials at all levels of Mexican government. It could also include people who make extortion payments under duress. Mary Beth Sheridan explained it well in the Washington Post:
Mexican organized-crime groups aren’t isolated bands operating at the margins of society. Their members own legitimate-seeming businesses, exert control over communities and routinely pay off politicians and police. If any contact with organized-crime groups was construed as support for terrorism, many Mexicans — including innocent people — could find themselves punished.
This might not be a totally bad consequence, because it would mean more accountability for corruption. But it could gum up travel, trade, and overall relations pretty badly.
But the crackdown wouldn’t just happen in Mexico. Listing Mexican groups as terrorists could also cast a wide net across U.S. society. It’s “possible Trump’s move could see U.S. drug dealers labeled and treated as terrorist supporters,” Alex Ward wrote in Vox. The same, one assumes, would go for U.S. bankers or realtors who facilitate cartels’ money-laundering: no more fines, they’d be looking at jail time for terrorist financing. And it would come down hard on all the U.S. citizen “ant traffickers” who take advantage of America’s lax gun laws by buying a few AR-15s at gun shows and stores, driving them south across the border in their cars’ trunks, and selling them to criminals for robust profits. The banking and gun lobbies will be unhappy with this new counter-terrorist scrutiny.
Another interesting outcome would be that Mexican victims’ asylum claims might get a boost in U.S. immigration courts. Their cases wouldn’t become “slam dunks,” necessarily, but it’d certainly help them. If you’ve been threatened by a group on the FTO list, your claim is going to be stronger than it would be if you were just threatened by a criminal organization.
If a group is seen as so active and threatening that it makes the terrorist list, it’s easier to argue that the group has national reach, so the asylum seeker isn’t safe anywhere in her country’s territory. Also, it’s easier to argue that the asylum-seeker’s government isn’t capable of protecting her. That latter argument is even stronger because of corruption. Several years ago it was nearly impossible to argue that Colombia’s government couldn’t protect people from the FARC because the FARC had corrupted Colombia’s government: the FARC didn’t work that way, they fought the government. But Mexican organized crime does work that way: the victims of the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre—to take one example among very many—were the victims not just of Guerreros Unidos, but of local security forces that had become the criminals’ virtual allies.
Would victims of these groups automatically get asylum? No, not at a time when the Trump administration has raised the bar for asylum to nearly impossible, and certainly illegal, levels. But if asylum-seekers’ lawyers (if they have them) can say their clients are threatened by groups on the State Department’s terrorist list, they will be sure to feature that very prominently in their clients’ applications.
From U.S. bankers being labeled “terrorist supporters” to asylum-seekers having a big new argument, a lot of unintentional outcomes could come from the Trump administration “crossing the streams” and adding Mexican criminal groups to the terrorist list. Clearly, President Trump hasn’t thought them through.
“Wow. It just keeps going,” I said out loud upon leaving Medellín several years ago. Our car was taking us to the airport via the city’s southeast, through El Poblado, its wealthiest sector. And as we drove, the luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, and manicured parks kept passing by my window for what seemed like miles. They didn’t stop. I’d only been to Medellín a few times, but the fancy part of town was much larger than I’d thought.
It’s the same in Bogotá. Following the eastern mountains 100 blocks north from the financial district around 72nd street—but actually starting below, in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Chapinero and La Soledad—through El Chicó, El Retiro, Santa Bárbara, Usaquén, and others, there’s a profusion of gleaming shopping malls and condominiums, creative restaurants, arty hotels, brewpubs, espresso bars, armored SUVs, and uniformed security guards. These neighborhoods are mostly affordable if you live on a U.S. wage scale, but even then, many are too pricey. Most of these amenities didn’t exist when I started visiting Colombia in the late 90s. And now, they just keep going.
There is a lot of money in Colombia. Development economists call it an “upper middle income” country.
But there’s even more lack of money in Colombia.
Go to an upper floor of one of Bogota’s condo towers or bank skyscrapers, and you can see vast neighborhoods of self-built brick houses hugging the hillsides, in Usme, Ciudad Bolivar, Bosa, Soacha, Kennedy. The people who live there are Bogotá’s poorest, and they number perhaps three million, maybe more. Many make do in the informal economy, at or below the US$250 monthly minimum wage.
Closer in, you can see thousands of florescent-lit, cramped apartment complexes and housing projects where a similar number of people live. Those are the lower middle class, with enough to eat and their kids in school, probably, but barely making it.
Back on the street, look at all the blue SITP buses and TransMilenio vehicles stuffed with people, packed until they’re pressed up against the windows during rush hour. The sub-compact yellow taxis looking for passengers. The uniformed guards, waiters, maintenance workers, maids, and domestics, just off work and hoping not to have their cash or cellphones robbed during their long journeys home.
The people in those neighborhoods and buses—the “sectores populares”—they see the shopping malls and restaurants, too. (They’re not shopping or eating there, of course.) They see the condos and social clubs. It’s all in plain view, and it just keeps going.
Do they admire and aspire to join those who live there? Or do they tell each other that much of the wealth they see is ill-gotten? Do they believe that most of the “estrato seis” neighborhoods’ inhabitants are simply the most skilled thieves—or those thieves’ descendants? It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion given Colombia’s decades of drug-trafficking wealth, money-laundering wealth, and incessant corruption scandals.
Either way, the majority who ride the bus and make a living rebuscando (barely getting by) probably don’t believe that the people in those well-to-do neighborhoods are paying their fair share. There’s a lot of money in Colombia. If the tax burden were just, and the resources managed cleanly, surely the rest of the city would have better schools, safer conditions, reliable healthcare, fewer potholes, and yes, a modern subway.
Most of the time, the barely-scraping-by majority will tolerate much from the wealthy minority. Especially when a media-savvy populist leader cracks down on petty crime or rallies behind socially conservative causes. Or especially when there’s a commodities boom, and all sectors see their incomes and services improve for a while. Or especially when an armed conflict is raging, and all who complain too loudly get tarred as supporters of radical and unpopular guerrillas—and thus threatened, spied upon, or worse.
But eventually, the populists’ messages wear out, and tepid technocrats take over. The commodities boom ends, and government budgets shrink to what can be collected through taxation. The armed conflict—or at least the worst of it—ends at the negotiating table. What then?
What then, especially, when a belt-tightening government takes measures—or even considers measures—that hit the already-stretched budgets of the poorest and lower-middle? A pensions cut, a fare hike, a regressive sales tax?
What happens is probably what Colombia is seeing now. A labor union confederation calls for a day of work stoppages and protest—something that’s happened, regularly, since pretty much forever. But this time, dozens of other organizations, representing many sectors, join in. This time, word spreads on social media, and within weeks the whole country is bracing for a national event, an inchoate spasm of protests without a unifying demand but with a generalized anger at those who benefit from the status quo.
I’m surely overstating some of this. The protests that began on November 21 in Colombia aren’t quite a “class conflict.” Many of those out on the streets are from the middle class, not the poorest—although the middle also feels financially stretched, uncertain, and unhappy about what they’re getting from government and from Colombia’s economic arrangement. The poorer neighborhoods, though, are also among those ringing with the nightly cacerolazos, where people go out to their windows, roofs, and balconies to bang empty pots and chant slogans.
Still, nobody is marching on the Centro Andino mall or the Zona Gastronómica restaurants, or raiding the mountainside condo complexes of El Chicó. Other than President Iván Duque’s residence, protesters aren’t massed outside the homes of senators or CEOs. People aren’t directing their anger at those neighborhoods that “just keep going.”
At least not yet.
One way to move the anger in that direction is for President Duque and his unpopular ruling party to behave the way that they have during the protests’ first few days. They’ve issued messages conflating peaceful protesters with masked “vandals.” They’ve sent riot police to attack peaceful protests without warning or provocation, blanketing plazas and intersections with tear gas, killing an 18-year-old, and filling social media with shocking cellphone videos. They’ve deigned to meet only with business leaders and elected officials.
The Duque government’s tone may be changing now, and I hope it does. When a government finds itself this out of touch with the mood of the country, its only real hope is dialogue with its opponents. Iván Duque won only 39 percent of the vote in the first round of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election, his party just got trounced in October 2019 local elections, and now his approval rating is in the mid-20s. To pretend he can govern without dialogue, and without some pretty fundamental concessions about the country’s political and economic model, is folly.
Let’s hope the dialogue that may—may—be getting underway soon is genuine. Colombia has just entered a 29-month stretch with no elections, with the past few days’ protests as a major turning point. The next two and a half years could be a time of difficult but necessary conversations, or they could be a time of intense strife between two very different Colombias, as traumatic as—though fundamentally unlike—what the country endured during 40 years of cartel violence and armed conflict.
With a November 21 budget deadline looming, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives and Republican-majority Senate (and the Republican White House) seem far from agreement on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security in 2020. They’re either going to have to seek another extension to keep the government open, or undergo at least a partial government shutdown.
As happened last year, much of the discord surrounds border security, especially Trump’s border wall.
The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, known over the years for excellent investigative reporting, came under fire in May for sitting on a story about the new high command’s demand that military officers produce higher “body counts,” which the New York Times instead picked up as a front-page bombshell. Since then, Semana has come roaring back with a series of alarming revelations—most of them based on information leaked from military officers themselves—about corruption within the armed forces, evasion of accountability for human rights abuse, and a general pullback from promising post-conflict reforms.
Semana’s latest revelation about out-of-control behavior in the Colombian military is a shocker. Part two of a two-part series, published October 27, details the military’s April 22 killing of Dimar Torres, a farmer and former FARC militia member, in the conflictive and strategic Catatumbo region, near the Venezuela border. About 167 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the November 2016 peace accord’s signing, but Torres is the only demobilized fighter known to have been killed by the armed forces.
The killing of Torres, a father-to-be who cared for his elderly parents, was big news in Colombia at the time. Word of the military’s responsibility got out because residents of his village, in the municipality of Convención about 10 minutes from a 40-man army post, had seen soldiers searching a worried-looking Torres at a checkpoint, and later heard shots fired. A contingent of villagers found soldiers digging a large hole near the grounds of the base. Then they found his body on the ground, shot four times. The community members took videos of their search and of their confrontation with the soldiers, which were widely shared on social media. (Thank heaven for smartphones.)
At the time, the Colombian defense sector’s response was contradictory: both hopeful and worrisome. Civilian authorities began investigating Corporal Daniel Eduardo Gómez Robledo, the alleged killer. General Diego Luis Villegas, the commander of the “Vulcan Task Force” charged with securing Catatumbo, went to Torres’s home village and said the right thing. “Not just any civilian was killed, a member of the community was killed, members of the armed forces killed him. That’s why the commander should come and show his face. I regret it in my soul. In the name of the 4,000 men I have the honor to command, I ask your forgiveness.”
(Gen. Villegas, by the way, is a complicated individual. He faces a currently suspended arrest warrant for commanding a unit that committed a “false positive” extrajudicial killing of a mentally disabled man in 2008, which makes it odd that he would have been put in charge of military operations in a high-stakes territory like Catatumbo, which has a strong presence of the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the EPL, a local splinter guerrilla group. In August, Semanarevealed that in a January meeting Gen. Villegas had said, “The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”)
The apology and the prosecutorial moves were good. But other responses were not. Colombia’s independent Noticias Uno network revealed an audio in which a fellow general insulted Villegas for asking forgiveness: “If you’re so upset, then retire and go join the guerrillas, so the military forces can have the honor of chasing you down and getting you out of there.”
Worse, Colombia’s maximum security authority after the president, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero—who has come under much criticism for irresponsible statements in the past—upheld the story offered by Corporal Gómez, the alleged killer of Dimar Torres. “This corporal affirms that he found this person [Torres] and that this person tried to take his gun away.” “I don’t see the motive in causing a homicide of a person whom the corporal doesn’t know, whom he surely hadn’t seen in his life.” “If there was a homicide, then there must have been some motive for it.”
And now this week Semana has reported, with extensive proof from prosecutorial investigations, that this was not a case of a rogue corporal. It goes up to the lieutenant colonel in charge of his entire battalion. And Defense Minister Botero is on the wrong side of the truth.
The armed forces’ Vulcan Task Force, commanded by Gen. Villegas and responsible for security operations in Catatumbo, was established in early 2018. It has eight battalions with about 500 personnel in each. One of these eight, the 11th Land Operations Battalion, was commanded earlier this year by Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita.
At the beginning of April, three weeks before Dimar Torres’s murder, troops in the 11th Battalion were carrying out an operation to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, a frequent target of guerrilla bombings. During this operation, near Torres’s home village, a soldier stepped on a landmine or hidden explosive device, which killed him.
Semana reports that the soldier’s death enraged Lt. Col. Pérez, the battalion commander. The senior officer ordered his subordinates to get revenge, even if it means breaking the law. “I don’t need to report anything. What I need is to get revenge for the death of the soldier, we have to kill,” he allegedly said, based on soldiers’ testimonies to Colombia’s prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía).
Corporal Gómez, the accused killer, told the Lieutenant-Colonel that he believed Dimar Torres was responsible for the landmine. Without any evidence, he reported that Torres, the farmer and demobilized guerrilla, was an explosives expert with the ELN guerrillas.
Lt. Col. Pérez, Corporal Gómez, and other soldiers formed a WhatsApp group called “Dimar Torres” to coordinate their surveillance of the ex-guerrilla and their plans to execute him extrajudicially. “We don’t have to capture this man, we have to kill him so he doesn’t get fat in jail,” Lt. Col. Pérez wrote to this WhatsApp group, whose texts are now in prosecutors’ possession. The group shows that the soldiers were closely tracking Dimar Torres’s movements and routines, posting photos, over the last three weeks of his life. “All this without a judicial order,” Semana notes.
On the afternoon of April 22, Corporal Gómez told 2nd Lieutenant John Javier Blanco, the commander of the small military post near Torres’s village, “I’m going to kill Dimar.” Within hours, he and perhaps others had intercepted Torres’s motorcycle and shot him to death.
Later, Corporal Gómez radioed Lt. Col. Pérez to tell him he had killed Dimar Torres. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered him not to say such things on the radio, but to use WhatsApp instead. “What did the son of a bitch say?” Lt. Col. Pérez asked the group. He went on to order the corporal to keep a close eye on the other members of Dimar Torres’s community, who had confronted the soldiers and found the body: “Check up on them, because they’re next,” he wrote menacingly.
The Lieutenant-Colonel also instructed Corporal Gómez to use radio communications to give a false story about what happened. This false narrative, in which Torres supposedly tried to wrest Corporal Gómez’s weapon from him, was amplified and repeated by Defense Minister Botero’s statements before the press.
Today, Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita stands accused by civilian prosecutors for the crime of homicide of a protected person. But the case is moving slowly: his lawyers’ delaying tactics are working.
Lt. Col. Pérez’s lawyers filed a motion to move his case to the military justice system, which is only supposed to judge “acts of service” and has a terrible record of failing to punish human rights violations. While the civilian and military courts work out their jurisdictional dispute, Lt. Col. Pérez and other soldiers accused of killing Dimar Pérez are at large, out of preventive detention.
Semana’s revelations about the Dimar Torres case could hardly be more alarming, for at least three reasons. First, they show a military that had been making important human rights progress reverting, brutally, to old behaviors. Second, this plan to victimize a former guerrilla will give pause to thousands of other guerrillas who willingly disarmed, many of whom may abandon the peace process if they feel vulnerable to attack from the very armed forces that are supposed to protect them. Third, this episode happened in Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s most violent, ungoverned, and strategic regions, where winning a deeply distrustful population’s confidence should be the government’s number-one mission. Overcoming distrust is why Gen. Villegas’s visit to Torres’s community, where he publicly recognized responsibility for the killing, was so crucially important.
That something as monstrous as the plot against Dimar Torres could take place and remain covered up demands accountability from Colombia’s highest defense authorities. Nonetheless, as Semana reports, “Minister [of Defense] Guillermo Botero remains in his post, and his declarations about Dimar’s case weren’t the object of any disciplinary measure.… The Defense chief hasn’t retracted his statements, nor has he apologized to Dimar’s family for his declarations.” In June, opposition legislators sought to censure Botero for these and other statements, but lacked the votes to do so.
“This isn’t the moment to speak of Minister Botero’s renunciation,” President Iván Duque said after Semana published these revelations. So Colombia’s defense sector, badly adrift at the moment, continues to be led by Guillermo Botero, an archconservative who has called for crackdowns on peaceful protest, downplayed the seriousness of a wave of social leader killings, and absurdly blamed the post-conflict transitional justice system for a failure to arrest recidivist guerrilla leaders.
This week, Botero remains under fire for events in the tumultuous department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. First, community members in Corinto municipality alleged that the Army tortured and killed local campesino leader Flower Jair Trompeta; Botero caused outrage by claiming, before an investigation could take place, that Trompeta died in “a military operation.”
Then, on October 29 in Tacueyó municipality, assailants—probably FARC dissidents—massacred an indigenous leader and her unarmed guards. This incident shone a light on the Defense Ministry’s failure to consult with Cauca’s indigenous communities about their protection. Botero and others in the Duque government have insisted that the military be given free rein to patrol indigenous reserves, but these communities have strong memories of soldiers being accompanied by paramilitaries and want another arrangement. Instead of consulting, Botero’s Defense Ministry has left these communities badly unprotected in a zone where several armed and criminal groups operate.
How can a defense minister hang on for so long after presiding over so many backward steps for Colombia’s armed forces? Guillermo Botero survives, the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacíacontends, because he is “a chess piece” for former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the founder and most prominent member of President Iván Duque’s political party. As long as he has the hard-right former president’s favor, Guillermo Botero appears safe in his office regardless of questions of competence, and apparently President Duque can’t do much about it.
Colombians voted for governors, mayors, town councils, and local legislatures on October 27, and—unlike so many places in the world lately—left and right radicals and populists had a lousy day. Voters especially rejected the ruling rightist party of President Iván Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, who has lost his luster.
In most cities, voters also rejected powerful political machines. Independent candidates with anti-corruption messages—many with ties to social movements—enjoyed unprecedented success. Elsewhere, however, especially in the countryside, it was business as usual: supported by rivers of questionable campaign money, local bosses and candidates of long-reigning, corrupt political clans won easily.
Bogotá’s new mayor will be Claudia López, the first woman, and the first LGBT person, to lead this city of more than 8 million people. This is a remarkable victory because Claudia comes from our sector: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her since the mid-2000s, when she was an investigator at a Colombian think-tank, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. There, she helped blow the lid off of a major political scandal, known as “para-politics,” that saw about a third of the Congress elected in 2006, plus mayors, governors, and other officials, investigated, tried, or jailed for supporting murderous, drug-funded paramilitary groups. A bold and clear public speaker, López became a frequent commentator and columnist in Colombian media, emphatically denouncing examples of corruption. She won a Senate seat in 2014, and led a 2018 effort to pass a series of anti-corruption reforms through a referendum, which failed after voter participation narrowly fell short. She is often described as “center-left,” as a member of Colombia’s Green Party; while socially liberal and a supporter of the 2016 peace accord, López may be tough on common crime, and is unlikely to spend lavishly on social programs, other than for education.
The surprise victor in Medellín was 39-year-old Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate from the center-left. Polls had been showing a likely victory for Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of President Iván Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático party. This is a devastating defeat for the Centro Democrático, as Medellín is the home city of the party’s founder, populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. (Uribe was briefly mayor of Medellín in 1982.) Even in his home region, the ex-president’s coattails were not enough to elect Ramos, who lost by a margin of 303,000 to 235,000 votes.
Many Colombians fondly remember Uribe’s 2002-2010 presidency for his personalistic style and tough policies that reduced several measures of insecurity and weakened leftist guerrilla groups. His star has fallen, though. The ex-president has since become quite extreme, even Trumpian, in his political messaging, leading efforts to sink Colombia’s peace accord and using his Twitter account to attack and intimidate opponents. Uribe is also in legal trouble; Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating credible allegations that he sought to bribe or coerce jailed former paramilitary fighters into testifying falsely against a political opponent.
During his presidency, the bimonthly Gallup poll of Colombian public opinion routinely had Uribe’s favorability rating above 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent; by August 2019, this rating had fallen to 34 percent, with 61 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him. (President Duque’s approval rating was only 29 percent, with 64 percent disapproving.) The Centro Democrático had a bad day nationwide, failing to win major population centers nearly everywhere. Its candidate in Bogotá, Miguel Uribe (no relation), finished fourth, the last of the major candidates.
Cali also elected a progressive candidate as its mayor: Green Party candidate Jorge Iván Ospina, a former mayor and son of a founder of the old M-19 guerrilla group, will return to the job.
In Cartagena, William Dau, a candidate who ran without a party, was the victor over a long-running political machine. The city’s corruption-riven government has gone through 12 mayors in the past 6 years.
In Buenaventura, the impoverished Pacific city that is Colombia’s busiest port, voters electedVíctor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the Paro Cívico (Civic Strike), a social movement that led weeks of protests against corruption and poor government services in 2017. This was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the elite in a city where local government corruption is epic in proportion.
In the Venezuela border city of Cúcuta, normally one of the most conservative corners of Colombia, voters choseJairo Yáñez, a businessman running on the Green Party ticket with an anti-corruption message, claiming his campaign spent only about US$25,000. His victory is an unexpected blow to Ramiro Suarez, a former mayor, imprisoned for para-politics, who remains a major power broker in the city.
In Magdalena, Will Freeman writes at NACLA, a political movement called Fuerza Ciudadana swept the governorship and the mayor’s race in the capital, Santa Marta. This is remarkable since this coastal zone, the home department of author Gabriel García Márquez, has been notorious as a stronghold of paramilitary groups and corrupt “para-politicians.”
In the Caribbean department of Sucre, one of Colombia’s poorest, the gubernatorial candidate of para-politician Álvaro “El Gordo” Garcia’s longstanding political clan, Yahir Acuña, suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of the Liberal Party candidate.
In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, the powerful and para-political Sánchez Montes de Oca clan failed to elect its candidates for governor and mayor of Quibdó, the capital. The winning candidates, however, may not be paragons of integrity.
In Cauca Elías Larrahondo, running in a coalition of centrist parties, has become the department’s first-ever Afro-Colombian governor.
While I haven’t looked at all town council elections, the FARC political party, descended from the guerrilla group that negotiated peace in 2016, did not win mayorships, and only ran candidates for just over a dozen. The FARC ran 308 candidates, mostly for councils and departmental legislatures, and got well under 1 percent of the total vote. One former FARC member, Guillermo Torres alias Julián Conrado—known previously as a guerrilla folksinger—was elected mayor of the Cartagena suburb of Turbaco, Bolívar. Torres, however, did not run as a candidate of the FARC party; he showed up on the ballot under the logos of two other left parties.
On the other end of the populist political spectrum, candidates aligned with leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and number-two presidential candidate in 2018, failed to meet expectations. Petro’s “Colombia Humana” candidates suffered defeat in Bogotá, Medellín, Atlántico, Cesar, Nariño, Santander, and Valle del Cauca, though a few candidates (like Torres, the ex-FARC singer in Turbaco) were elected elsewhere in coalition with other parties.
In much of the rest of Colombia, allegations of vote-buying, dirty campaign money, and candidates with organized crime ties were rife. These areas remain what Bogotá’s Fundación Paz y Reconciliación think tank, referencing the work of Northwestern University scholar Edward L. Gibson, calls“local authoritarianisms,” where candidates independent of traditional political bosses don’t stand a chance. Cities and departments where voters still went out and backed the “machines” include Barranquilla, Bolívar (except Cartagena, the capital), Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, and Valle del Cauca (except Cali, the capital).
Last week, with a 53-36 vote (59.6 percent), the U.S. Senate failed to get the two-thirds necessary to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution reversing his February 15 “national emergency” declaration. That declaration, coming after Trump failed to force Congress to pay billions for his “border wall” demands, would take more than $6 billion from the Defense Department budget and Treasury seized-asset funds, and plow it into border wall construction.
A quick rundown:
2019 started with much of the U.S. government “shut down” because Congress would not pass a budget giving Trump the $5.7 billion he wanted for his border wall.
Finally, after a 35-day shutdown, Trump caved and signed a budget with far less wall funding.
On February 15, using power he claimed that the 1976 National Emergencies Act gives him, Trump declared an “emergency” at the border requiring him to move money out of defense accounts and into wall-building.
Court challenges to this emergency declaration are ongoing. In July, the Supreme Court allowed wall-building to proceed while judicial deliberations continue. In mid-October, though, a federal judge in El Paso froze much of the Defense Department money.
The National Emergencies Act gives Congress the ability to challenge the emergency declaration every six months, by passing a joint resolution. A 1983 Supreme Court decision allows the President to veto this resolution; the emergency declaration would then remain in place unless two thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the presidential veto.
Twice now—in February-March and September-October—Congress has passed joint resolutions to take down Trump’s emergency declaration. Both times, Trump has vetoed the resolutions. Both times, a strong majority, but not the necessary two-thirds, has voted to override the veto.
There have now been six votes on passage and override of these joint resolutions: three in the House and three in the Senate. Not a single Democrat has voted “no” against these resolutions. Any two-thirds override vote, though, also requires a significant number of Republican votes.
Even in this polarized time, some Republicans have defied the president and voted to undo the emergency declaration. To be exact, 14 in the House and 12 in the Senate. That’s 7 percent of House Republicans, and 23 percent of Senate Republicans.
The rest of the Republican Party’s congressional delegation seems to be unconcerned about the constitutional ramifications of a president unilaterally acting in direct opposition to the clearly expressed will of a Congress that, supposedly, has “the power of the purse.”
Here are the GOP legislators who have voted to undo this authoritarian and wasteful measure. In the Senate, half are members of the Appropriations Committee, whose power to assign funds is directly challenged by the emergency declaration. Many are among the party’s few remaining moderates. Most of their votes are more about preserving Congress’s constitutional power to appropriate funds than about the wisdom of building a border wall. That’s still a principled position, and I wish more GOP legislators would take it.
Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “I cannot support this national emergency declaration and be faithful to my oath to support the Constitution at the same time”
Roy Blunt (R-Missouri, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “Those decisions should not be made without congressional action.”
Susan Collins (R-Maine, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “while there is some discretion that he has to move money around, I think that his executive order exceeds his discretion”
Mike Lee (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): concerned about ceding congressional power
Jerry Moran (R-Kansas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “The declaration of an emergency under these circumstances is a violation of the U.S. Constitution”
Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations, said “This is about the administration overstepping Constitutional authority, forcing Congress to relinquish power that is fundamentally ours”
Rand Paul (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): a libertarian; said “I can’t vote to give extra-Constitutional powers to the president”
Rob Portman (R-Ohio, voted “yes” three times): a relative moderate, said “the emergency declaration circumvented Congress and set a ‘dangerous new precedent’”
Mitt Romney (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): a frequent Trump critic, concerned about ceding congressional power
Marco Rubio (R-Florida, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations, said “We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution”
Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “the emergency declaration undermines the constitutional responsibility of Congress to approve how money is spent”
Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “I have serious reservations as to what the Emergency Declaration might do to the Constitutional principle of checks and balances.” (Fun fact: as a member of the House in 2000, Wicker was one of few Republicans to oppose the mostly military aid package known as “Plan Colombia.”)
Justin Amash (I-Michigan, voted “yes” twice, then left the Republican Party): said “I think the President is violating our constitutional system”
Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said “I think this decision should be made by Congress”
Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “we can’t continue to expand executive authority just because our party now controls the White House”
Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “He [Trump] literally contradicted the Constitution to use this money for something other than which it was intended”
Will Hurd (R-Texas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; represents a border district and has been a consistent border wall critic
Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota, voted “yes” three times): said “I spent eight years under President Obama fighting ever-expanding executive authority. I remain committed to that principle”
John Katko (R-New York, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): said “Presidents, from either party, should not legislate from the executive branch”
Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): said “The appropriations process belongs within Congress according to the Constitution”
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): said “Article I of the Constitution gives the legislative branch the exclusive power to make laws and set funding priorities”
Francis Rooney (R-Florida, voted “yes” three times): said “My vote to override a veto of the resolution to rescind the national emergency declaration was based on the U.S. Constitution and had nothing to do with President Trump.” Recently made headlines by saying he is “open” to impeaching Trump
Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “It is imperative that no administration, Republican or Democratic, circumvent the will of Congress”
Elise Stefanik (R-New York, voted “yes” three times): said “No matter what Party is represented in the White House, I will stand up against executive action that circumvents Congress”
Fred Upton (R-Michigan, voted “yes” three times): said “declaring a national emergency and reprogramming already appropriated funds without the approval of Congress is a violation of the Constitution”
Greg Walden (R-Oregon, voted “yes” three times): said the “Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse, not the President”
After our early October visit to Arauca, Colombia, WOLA colleagues and I spent several days in the middle section of Chocó. This department (province) borders both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as Panama, in Colombia’s far northwest. It’s been a week and a half since we completed this last leg of our trip. It took a while for me to type up these notes, in part because the situation I’m describing is so grim.
Chocó is big and sparsely populated, with about a half-million people in an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is beautiful and biodiverse. Most of its forests remain in pristine condition—for now—which helps make it one of the two or three rainiest places on the planet. It has thousands of miles of rivers.
It is also Colombia’s poorest department, with a very slight presence of the government. Over 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Chocó is mostly roadless, and the only way to get around is via rivers, especially the Atrato, which runs from about 40 miles east of the Pacific into the Caribbean. Fuel is expensive, and so is riverboat travel.
Because Chocó is hard to get around, our visit was limited to the middle and upper Atrato River regions, a few hours north and south of Quibdó, the capital. The Atrato, which flows from south to north, is a major vector for trafficking cocaine and other contraband, and has long been violently contested by drug traffickers and armed groups.
The middle and upper Atrato is living a tense calm, sandwiched between more violent regions of Chocó to the north and south. The lower Atrato river, flowing into the Caribbean in northern Chocó, is a site of intense fighting between the ELN guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which have gained control of principal towns. To the south of where we went, in Chocó’s San Juan and Baudó river valleys, fighting between the ELN and paramilitaries (and more recently, FARC dissident groups) has displaced thousands of people, mostly indigenous communities.
In the communities we visited in the middle and upper Atrato regions—just as in Arauca—security conditions aren’t as dire, but the armed groups are on the move. People told us they had lived a period of peace from about 2016 to 2018. This coincided with the latter phases of the FARC-government peace negotiations and the FARC guerrillas’ subsequent withdrawal and demobilization in Chocó. “With the Santos government and the peace process, we breathed a new breath of tranquility,” a social leader told us. Populations’ mobility increased, and forced recruitment and laying of landmines abated.
As in Arauca, we heard that this began to get worse in late 2018 and early 2019. As in Arauca, we heard that the ELN and a growing number of FARC dissidents are observing a loose and fragile non-aggression pact (at least in the middle region; in southern Chocó, they are fighting). As in Arauca, we heard of large-scale recent recruitment by all armed groups, mostly of minors. A few times, social and religious leaders in the upper and middle Atrato used the term “time bomb” to describe conditions: a fear that violence may soon explode to levels not seen since the armed conflict’s worst years. We heard similar concerns in Arauca.
In Chocó, the ELN guerrillas quickly filled the vacuums left by the demobilizing FARC’s 34th and 57th fronts. Their territorial control was quickly contested by paramilitaries, nominally affiliated with the “Gulf Clan” organized crime network. More recently, some demobilized FARC have rearmed, though it appears that most of the dissidents’ membership are new recruits. Many communities now live in contested territory, which is far worse than living under the monopoly control of a single armed group.
The guerrillas, dissidents, and paramilitaries fight for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitaries are also violently appropriating land deeded to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Quibdó, a frequent destination for displaced people, is hardly an oasis of calm. Urban violence, much of it gang or armed-group related, has left Quibdó with one of the highest homicide rates among Colombia’s mid-sized cities. Nearly all businesses in the capital must make extortion payments to someone.
Colombia’s security forces, to the extent they’re present, stand widely accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries, allowing them to pass through riverine checkpoints, sometimes in large numbers, and to bring their illicit products downriver or overland into Panama. We heard this denounced several times. “The paramilitaries pass by in boats easily,” a social leader told us. “There’s no trust with the security forces,” said another. “If you talk to them about something, the paramilitaries will get the information.… I see, and I stay quiet—that’s how the people have to be.”
For the military, collaboration with paramilitaries is not a counterinsurgency strategy, as it was in the 1980s-2000s. It’s mainly corruption: local personnel are getting something in return. And to some extent, it’s fear: what would actually happen to an army, police, or marine commander who challenged the paramilitaries or seized large amounts of their cocaine? Would forces based in faraway Bogotá, Medellín, or even Quibdó be able to protect that officer from retribution? It’s doubtful.
The resurgent ELN is treating the population brutally, controlling their movements, recruiting youth, and laying landmines. Residents of riverside communities say they are crueler than the FARC. Rapes of women, in particular, are happening “every day.” ELN leaders are ignoring communities’ attempts at dialogue. “With the FARC we knew who to talk to, now, we don’t. You get a phone number, nobody answers,” a leader told us.
Paramilitaries are similarly terrorizing the population. Combat and tight controls on people’s movement have confined indigenous communities up the Atrato River’s tributaries. Guerrilla landmines are doing the same. Confined communities are suffering malnutrition and lack of medical care. Selective killings are increasing. Paramilitaries are arriving in communities demanding that they turn over social leaders.
We visited the town of Bojayá, on the Atrato about 3 1/2 hours’ boat ride downriver from Quibdó. In May 2002, Bojayá was the site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Colombia’s conflict. During an episode of combat between the FARC and paramilitaries, much of the town’s population was taking refuge in its church. The FARC indiscriminately launched a gas-cylinder and shrapnel bomb into the church, killing 79 people, most of them children, and wounding many more. Even before the FARC peace talks concluded, local guerrilla leader Pastor Alape visited Bojayá and asked for forgiveness.
Bojayá’s victims have received some reparations from the government, including the building of a new town about a kilometer upriver (a town that lacks electricity much of the time), and money that many used to buy their own riverine passenger boats. Still, Bojayá’s residents feel unsafe as the ELN activates and paramilitaries move in from the north. Bojayá and the town across the river, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, sit on a junction of rivers that is strategic for trafficking and control of tributaries. Opogadó, about an hour downriver in Bojayá municipality, has seen a jump in selective killings this year. “Bojaya is remembered for a massacre. We don’t want there to be another,” said a local leader.
Chocó also has a lot of illegal gold-mining, causing severe environmental damage on rivers. Criminal groups, usually with acquiescence or collaboration from local political leaders, send dredges and backhoes up the Atrato’s tributaries, digging up river banks and dumping mercury into the streams. Some rivers have been “killed” by the churning of their banks, leaving them wide, shallow, and impassable. There is less mining now than before, thanks to a police crackdown, but some tributaries continue to suffer from it. And once gold is mined, it mixes in with “legal” gold and can’t be interdicted easily. The mining thrives with corruption, which allows it to operate in the open in some river tributaries.
Political corruption is epic in Chocó. The two dominant political clans, the Sánchez Montes de Oca and Torres networks, face numerous accusations (and some convictions) of collaboration with paramilitary groups. With a well-oiled political machinery, their preferred candidates are likely to do well in the October 27 local elections.
Chocó also has coca, mainly in the San Juan and Baudó river regions south of where we were. But it is not a major producer: the UNODC measured 2,100 hectares in 2018, putting Chocó in 11th place among Colombia’s 32 departments, a reduction from 2,600 in 2017. Chocó is unlikely to be a major target of U.S.-backed forced eradication (or renewed aerial herbicide fumigation) campaigns.
I wish I could end these notes with something positive about what we saw. Chocó does have a very strong network of civil society groups, especially Afro-Colombian community councils, indigenous reserves, victims’ associations, the Catholic Church’s Quibdó Diocese, and—perhaps most vibrantly—women’s groups.
Many have been promoting a humanitarian accord, committing the ELN to respecting the civilian population, the government to protecting citizens and breaking up paramilitary groups, and both parties to restarting negotiations. But for now, with ELN peace talks over since January, the “Acuerdo Humanitario Ya” movement is having trouble getting traction. Meanwhile, the social leaders promoting peaceful solutions are keeping a lower profile amid worsening threats and attacks.
These civil society groups need all the solidarity and international accompaniment that they can get. Especially now, as the “time bomb” keeps ticking in Chocó.
Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.
Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.
The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.
A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.
The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.
That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.
Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.
That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.
Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.
I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.
Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)
The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.
Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.
We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.