Colombian President Uribe visits Crawford Ranch: U.S. should ask some tough questions

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Washington, DC – This Thursday, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe will meet with President Bush at his Texas ranch. On Uribe’s agenda will be firming up support for billions of dollars in future aid from the United States and his request for millions more to support his plans to demobilize up to 20,000 paramilitary fighters.

“The United States should not be such a pushover in its dealings with the Colombia government,” commented Latin America Working Group Education Fund director Lisa Haugaard. “We should get some real progress in strengthening the rule of law in exchange for our billions of dollars in assistance.”

Military aid on hold. The White House will be lauding Colombian President Uribe’s accomplishments. But a little-known story is that 12.5% of last year’s military aid was frozen for half the year over lack of progress in cases involving extrajudicial executions and other abuses by Colombia’s military. Under pressure from the U.S. embassy, two cases slowly advanced – on July 12, formal charges were brought against soldiers of the U.S.- funded 18th Brigade for the extrajudicial execution of three trade union leaders in August 2004, and on June 30, arrest warrants were issued for soldiers in the shooting deaths of five members of a family, aged 6 months to 24 years old, in Cajamarca in April 2004. However, this is slow progress, made reluctantly after the Colombian government initially said the unionists died in combat and the family was killed accidentally. Many other cases go nowhere. For example, little progress has been made in investigating the case of two families in San José de Apartadó who were murdered and their bodies dismembered in February 2005, with evidence, according to witness, pointing to soldiers, and the high-profile Mapiripán massacre case is still dragging through the courts.The State Department’s decision to certify that Colombia meets the human rights conditions for the remaining FY04 military aid and 12.5% of FY05 military aid will be controversial. (75% of U.S. military aid through the foreign aid bill is sent without conditions; the remaining 25% is subject to the human rights conditions in law, requiring that the Colombian government make progress in investigating and prosecuting security force members engaged in gross violations of human rights or collaboration with paramilitary forces.)A letter sent by 22 Senators on July 1st called for Secretary Rice “to refrain from certifying that the Colombian government meets the human rights conditions… until further progress is demonstrated.” Click here to see the letter.

“The State Department should use the leverage it has—not give away the store,” said Lisa Haugaard. “The price of U.S. assistance should be respect for human rights.”

Demobilization funding. President Uribe will also likely be asking for U.S. funding for a controversial plan to demobilize paramilitary fighters. Since 2002, the Colombian government has been engaged in negotiations with illegal paramilitary organizations under the umbrella of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the AUC. The AUC is a major drug trafficking organization, and is also on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

In June, the Colombian congress approved a “justice and peace” law that will serve as the legal framework for the ongoing negotiations. The law virtually ensures impunity for paramilitary leaders who have committed human rights and drug trafficking crimes. It provides generous benefits for paramilitary leaders who demobilize, without requiring that they fully dismantle their organizations. Prosecutors will have only 60 days to investigate and charge demobilizing commanders for the atrocious crimes they are alleged to have committed. In Colombia, similar investigations routinely take a year or two before charges are formally filed. Commanders who fail to fully confess their crimes or turn over illegally obtained assets will still enjoy minimal sentences. Commanders do not have to ensure that the men under their command demobilize.

“Of course we support a just and lasting peace in Colombia. That is precisely why, with regret, we have to urge our government not to provide support for the paramilitary demobilization under the current conditions,” said Lisa Haugaard. “Where is an honest balance between peace and justice? Where is the truth commission, as in most serious peace processes, or a role for victims in justice and reparations? Most importantly, where is there a guarantee that the paramilitary leaders and drug traffickers will not retain, or even strengthen, their hold over Colombian society? This demobilization is a series of disturbing, unanswered questions. Under these conditions, we should not foot the bill.”

Recommendations. The Latin America Working Group Education Fund, Center for International Policy, Washington Office on Latin America and U.S. Office on Colombia produced a Blueprint for a New Colombia Policy that makes ten recommendations for improving U.S. policy to the country.

For more information, contact: Lisa Haugaard, 202-546-7010.