The U.S. Department of State’s American Bureau of Consular Affairs decided that “based on all relevant information,” there are areas in the world that pose “significant risks to the security of American travelers.” The danger of “anti-American violence” is a “result of the military action in Iraq.” Between January 2002 and April 2003, a total of thirty-seven countries have been given travel alert status. On February 24, 2003, when Colombia, the country the Embassy votes “one of the worlds’ most dangerous” was added to the list, we felt compelled to ask questions.
The alert came on the heels of our day in the capital city of BogotÃ¡. While strolling toward an unusually crowded Plaza del Bolivar on a cool and sunny day, a policeman and policewoman sped over on a motorcycle to inform us that photo taking was not permitted in the area. They solicited us to bury our cameras quickly and deeply in our bags so that they could not be ripped from our tender necks. These new decrees, as they are explained and put forward, are for the vulnerable and hapless gringo’s protection. What a pity the Colombianos themselves garner no such official concern. The numbers flexing their photo shooting muscles were ubiquitous around us.
Was something else going on? Was there a double standard?
At the Basilica Primada, whose mouth and nave we were approaching when advised to divest ourselves of document producing apparatuses, we learned that in Colombia a Roman Catholic Diocese services the Colombian Military exclusively. Could it be that the image of the Military Bishop placing the symbolized body of Christ onto the tongues of hundreds of pious looking men in various colored uniforms at this official ceremony might spark some discussion on the relationship of church and state?
Why, for instance, after High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo announced on December 5, 2002 that government negotiations with the paramilitary would soon commence, did he meet the paramilitary in the presence of church representatives? Why again, was the Bishop in Buga the messenger of a negotiation proposal for a drug cartel in Valle del Cauca?
Could it be, too, that the staggering numbers of uniformed and armed men outside the church (police? army? Special Forces? some other? all of the above?) might raise concerns about the mounting militarization, paramilitarization, and private militarization, of civil life?
Could there be random images resulting from that militarization which the Colombian government prefers outsiders not to see, images such as this one at the airport? Somewhere between the second and third x-ray, after the hands-on bag search but before the first and second body searches, my companions and I detoured in the airport’s Libreria. Those looking to spend their last pesos before leaving the country and cozying up in their airline of choice with a drink, a blanket and a pillow, could add to this ritual a scintillating, though mainstream-type, book. There, in the store’s central location was a display hawking the autobiography of paramilitary mastermind Carlos Castano. Peddled at the same display were two books authored by a person some might assert is his semblable. The author of the two additional books, creating a marketable and tantalizing triptych, was Adolph Hitler.
This was not the first example of the “exterminator high-profile phenomenon” we witnessed on our travels. In the case of Carlos Castano, his celebrity status is Hydra like. With each foot-shooting verbal misfire, when his criminal intentions and his criminal confessions could not be more explicit, when one has to think “This is it! He’s finished! Kaput!” he rebounds with at least double the media-ops. A year ago, a quote from one of his paramilitary units headlined Barrancabermeja’s daily newspaper with this warning to journalists: “If you do not stop playing with the people’s pain, then we will show you what pain is.” More recently, Carlos Castano was featured on a popular radio breakfast show. The segment could have been promoted Tea, Toast, and Terrorism, because the 47 minutes allotted him were not so minimal as to omit squeezing in another threat to life, this time targeting advocates of the abstentia position on the upcoming referendum. 6.5 million votes are needed for the referendum to be valid under Colombian law, so even “no” votes are welcome. Because the referendum is viewed as Uribe’s genuflection before the IMF, the abstentia campaign is seen by his critics as a plebiscite against him. Castano parlays his authority over the airwaves and into every household, every mind: the abstentia campaign is subversive, and its leaders must be eliminated.
While the referendum meets contention, the purported onset of negotiations between the Colombian government and Castanos’s paramilitary group Auto Defensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, the group the U.S. formally declared a terrorist organization one day before September 11, 2001, also meets contention. Official treatment of the event renders it a tentative, “toe dipping” rapprochement– but is it?
In BogotÃ¡, we met with Alejandro Albarracin, the High Commissioner of Human Rights, to ask him what the government intends to do with Castano, and why there is immunity for the paramilitary.
Mr. Albarracin corrected us:
“There is no process of immunity with the self-defense groups. We have merely entered an exploratory phase in which to determine the intentions and the commitment of the AUC. We will first determine if talks will be convenient, if they will be successful for future negotiations. In this exploratory phase, the government acts to verify and simulate the cease of hostilities declared unilaterally by self-defense groups at the end of last year. To elaborate a common agenda when the exploratory phase ends, we will determine if the process of negotiation is viable. Only at that moment will we start thinking of the legal procedures. The second phase has not begun. Some of the self-defense groups’ legal processes have expired, some are current. They are not protected by Law 782. Legal benefits will be applied when the negotiations begin. The dialogues between the High Commissioner and the self-defense groups received a special permission decree by President Uribe’s office. I, as the High Commissioner, am thus legally empowered to proceed with Phase I. The political takes priority over the legal.”
As for Castano’s abiding “visibility,” Mr. Albarracin explained that the “armed forces have not been able to capture him.”
I reminded him that Castrano was on the air for nearly an hour.
“If there was a follow up to that, it should have come from the Office of Intelligence. Here, we have no knowledge of why he was allowed to be on the program.”
Why was their puerile, yet odious threat “we will show them what pain is” legitimized by being published without denunciation in the headline of a major newspaper?
“First, there is freedom of the press in Colombia.”
He then thanked us for our country’s support in Colombia’s conflicts.
Later that week we paid a visit to Colombian Congressman Gustavo Petro, whose analysis differed. Representative Petro is a former member of the M-19 guerillas, who were given blanket amnesty by then Colombian President Betancur in August 1984. In Colombia’s 2002 election, he received a total of 77,690 votes, or 4.84%, the highest of any winning candidate in BogotÃ¡. In November of 2002, a conversation concerning Petro was intercepted between a high ranking official in the Attorney General’s office and Castano, revealing plans to assassinate him.
In contrast to Commissioner Albaraccin’s reference to “self-defense groups,” a term that echoes favorably the erstwhile legal status conferred on armed citizen’s groups by former President Samper in 1994, Congressman Petro referred to them simply as the “paramilitary.” Freedom of the press, or freedom of much else for that matter, were absent themes in his discourse.
“Under Uribe, the social and economic situation will deteriorate. Uribe will continue to put IMF practices into place, which will give the impression there is a small economic growth. Unemployment will grow. Poverty will increase. In the next 4 years, a crisis similar to the one in Argentina will explode.
“Our financial system includes 20 billion dollars which is allotted for internal credit. This is the base for our economy. Business credit to stimulate the economy makes up 70% of that total. This credit is distributed among only fifty people, most of whom are bank and landowners. That is why I do not doubt that Colombia is a capitalist country. Throughout history the U.S. has never seen the realities here. The U.S. analyzes its interests and imposes actions that deepen the crisis. The majority of the political class that controls policy in Colombia, answer to the U.S. so the U.S. will not interfere with their interests.
“The Colombian order is the most unequal on the planet. 11,700 Colombians, or .04%, are landowners. Together they own 32 million hectares of land, or nearly 55% of the total arable land in Colombia, and control over half of its resources. Since 1984, a total of eighteen years, they have tripled their extensions of land.
“There are two methods to achieve this: lots of money, and violence and terrorism.
“The paramilitary and cocaine explain the phenomenon. The social result is that millions of peasants gather in the cold upper mountains, the unhealthiest parts of the rain forest. Tens of thousands have been killed in massacres. There is no coca on the 11,700′s land. All coca is located near the rainforest on peasant land, the areas fumigated through Plan Colombia. The United States fumigates the victims of narcotraffickers, while the narcotraffickers launder money and live happy in Miami under agreements with the DEA.
“For example: If the U.S. wants to solve the drug problem, for every $100 dollars made in cocaine production, only $2 remain with those who produce it, the drug mafia, which is more paramilitary everyday. Most money remains in the international economy. If I concentrate on the $2 of every $100, and want to cut coca production, the way to do it is through land reforms, in order to make land available to peasants, rather than through fumigation or alternative crop programs.
“U.S. foreign policy is wrong. It is using the drug issue to get at the oil fields. In the Americas, Venezuela is more important than Colombia. The first U.S. Green Beret battalion was not located in the coca area, but in Arauca, the main oil producing region near Venezuela. The paramilitary are being pushed toward Venezuela, and they now control 80% of the Colombian-Venezuelan border.”
Showing graphs and statistics, he pointed out that contrary to the U.S. claim that social violence erupts when there is drug growth, in 1957 through 1968, violence fell with the National Front and land reform policies. In 1985, negotiations between the government and the M-19 also lowered the amount of violence. 1991, the year the new constitution was being drafted, also saw a drop in violence. History, he concludes, demonstrates that violence diminishes with efforts to initiate land reform policies and democratic processes.
“Investigations in Congress find the paramilitary are the main exporters of cocaine. Carlos Castano helped the DEA kill Pablo Escobar and destroy the Medellin cartel. The paramilitary have infiltrated, or have connections with, the police, the military and the Attorney General’s office. The paramilitary command 35% of the Congress, not because the people voted them in, but because people were forced to vote them in.
“There is every indication that President Uribe is with the paramilitary. The policy of Uribe and his administration is to paramiltarize the entire society. They do this by strengthening the informers’ network, by arming its citizens, and by using legal organizations. They no longer need ‘illegal’ paramilitaries, thus the negotiations. This is the first case in history where negotiations occur among friends. [Laughs]
“Carlos Castano predicts in his biography that there will be a time when the U.S. supports the paramilitary, forgetting that they have narco ties. The U.S. could destabilize Venezuela depending on what happens in Iraq. Now that Chavez has defeated the strike, the paramilitaries could be introduced in Venezuela. The U.S. can do this if the Venezuelan elite will permit it, reproducing the Contra reality in Venezuela. Carlos Castano aspires to be a necessary force for the U.S. like the Contras were in Nicaragua.
“Referendum #6 pertains to the legal process of reinstating into society the AUC members involved in the peace process. This could become a reality by August 7, 2006. The president could appoint to Congress and the Senate persons who represent the paramilitary. The government would no longer be required to take into account the law that prevents eligibility for anyone who has committed a crime. This law would become void. The ones who call for an alternative to this process will be killed. Some paramilitary will be demobilized, some will stay.
“It is a fact that we are on the path toward a totalitarian, paramilitarized terrorist society. This would be totally loyal to U.S. policies. The U.S. government is not opposed to negotiations with the paramilitary in spite of the extradition requests.
“As more of Latin America begins to live more democratically, Colombia will become the Israel of Latin America.
“If position #6 of the referendum is approved, Carlos Castano and Salvatore Mancuse will end up with offices in Congress.”
Is Congressman Petro’s criticism a case of the kettle calling the pot black? After all, the M-19 guerillas were an armed group, and they received impunity from the government. Yet the referendum sets a disquieting precedent. While Congressman Petro and other former guerillas campaigned for public office and were voted in democratically, if #6 of the referendum were passed, Uribe would be given the right to unilaterally appoint paramilitary members to government posts with no input from the people.
What is the official U.S. position on this immunity process that commences with the so-called Phase I? I telephoned the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington D.C. to find out. After being shuffled around to several offices for two days, I was put in touch with a person named Drew Wade. I asked him what his title was.
“Spokesperson is good enough.”
I asked him if he could explain the official U.S. view on the exploratory phase after the U.S. had issued an indictment for Castano’s arrest.
“We’re not going to talk about that. [speaker emphasis] Colombia is a sovereign nation and can take the judiciary stand any way they want to.”
I asked him why the indictment for the extradition of Carlos Bolas, leader of Colombia’s largest guerilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or FARC, was issued in the U.S. on March 2002, but the indictment for Carlos Castano, leader of the Auto Defensas Unidas de Colombia, or paramilitary, and two of his subordinates, Salvatore Mancuso and Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramirez, wasn’t issued until September 2002, a full six months later. Although both were issued on a level playing field of drug-trafficking, and Castano had publicly “confessed” that as much as 70% of the paramilitary’s financing comes from drug trafficking; only Bolas was offered up to the manacles of U.S. authorities, not Castano and his partners.
“When you issue an indictment, you want to make sure you have all the necessary evidence. These things take time . . . they just take time.”
I asked if the U.S. lobbied any other office of state on the Castano case as it did in the case of Bola when, according to the news release, the DEA office worked in conjunction with the Government of Colombia, DEA offices in Brasilia and BogotÃ¡, and with attorneys from the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Division of the Department of Justice.
“We don’t talk about that. [speaker emphasis again] Maybe you want to talk to someone at State. We don’t reveal contents of international negotiation at Justice.”
Has Bolas been arraigned?
“No. The arraignment has been postponed indefinitely. I don’t know the reason. It is unknown.”
Where is Bolas being held?
“I don’t know. When he was first turned over to the U.S. he was turned over in Washington D.C. Maybe he is somewhere in that vicinity now.”
This got me thinking about another immunity case described by Congressman Petro during our visit. This one concerned private U.S. investments administered through the government’s taxpayer backed OPIC, or the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. The journal Mother Jones reports that their investors have “one notable qualification in common: powerful political ties.” Investors include two of the largest contributors to the Democratic Party: Dirk Ziff, rated #6 on the Mother Jones 400, and Maceo Sloan, who received support in securing the loan from his senator, Republican Jesse Helms. Initially the fund included pension funds of the AFL-CIO and other unions. Before the Clinton administration, the OPIC’s venture funds totaled less than $100 million. By 1996, they were worth $3 billion. Mildred Callear, OPIC’s one-time acting president, elaborated, “The idea behind the funds is to replace direct foreign aid.”
I visited the OPIC website to see how they explain themselves. The adults’ only page, that is, the page for would-be investors, differed in no substantive way from the “OPIC for Kids” page, that is, the page created for those at the beginning stages of indoctrination. It is a long held belief among educators that visual stimulus aids the learning process. Because “OPIC for Kids” features a “Photo Safari” showing pictures of exotic animals juxtaposed with pictures of nascent development projects in the wilds of poor underdeveloped countries, I surfed mainly that site. Doing so made me sensitive to a certain juxtaposition regarding my own childhood experience. Seeing money divide and ravage the small industrial U.S. town I grew up in, I learned to disdain it, for what it provides and for what it prevents. Kids not handicapped with such a bias learn that OPIC’s mission is to “foster development in new markets,” to “support U.S. foreign policy,” and to “provide direct loans and loan guarantees.” By clicking on words with pop-up definitions, they learn that “for a small fee,” political risk insurance “will protect you against certain problems by paying for losses that are caused by those problems.” They learn concepts like illegal expropriation, when “a government takes an owner’s property without the owner’s permission and doesn’t pay adequate compensation.” Kids also learn narcissism, because if this website proves anything, it proves that OPIC’s mission is to convert the world into our mirror image. Like Michael Jackson croons, “Don’t stop ’til you get enough,” OPIC programs are now “available for business enterprise” in over 150 countries worldwide. Here’s how they work:
Early this year, OPIC increased a line of credit to Afghanistan (which was added to the State Department’s list of countries dangerous for American travelers on the day I write this) from $50 million to $100 million minimum. The loan will promote private sector investment, including $35 million in financing and political risk insurance for the construction of a 5-star international hotel in Kabul, to be managed by Hyatt International. What significant social improvement justifies this heady largesse? The project will employ a measly 300 Afghans. Unless a stepped up bombing campaign enervates the population count even further, this is not an impressive percentile.
In February, Roumel Development Corporation was awarded a loan to build 700-800 apartments and condominiums, as well as retail space to target the middle and professional classes in a Bosnian City that saw a significant portion of its housing destroyed by the recent war. The Bosnian-based corporation happens to be owned by U.S. citizen Laurence Masserant, who offers the besieged a palliative dose of “California Dreamin.” He christened his enclave “Sun Valley.”
In South Africa, $742,500 was awarded to U.S. land developer John. R. Young, and his South African registered corporation Granton Safaris. His corporation will transform a local cattle ranch near Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal, into a game park. This is a big leap for Mr. Young, whose former projects were limited to land, farm, and timberland operations in the southeastern U.S. “South Africa has great tourist potential . . . OPIC is pleased to be able to . . . exploit that potential for the benefit of the South African Economy.” Just in case the citizens of KwaZulu Natal fail to appreciate this turn of fortune for the 7,712 acre property which will house only three guest lodges to accommodate intimate parties of 4 each, the $742,500 is allotted for political risk insurance.
What might the U.S. government’s OPIC teach our kids about its investment project in Colombia? Perhaps they should consult with Congressman Petro.
OPIC offered $100 million in guaranteed loans to the South America Private Equity Growth Fund. The contact person for this pension fund is WestSphere Equity Investors’ John Lugar, son of Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana). He bought major shares in Ecuador’s Banco Del Pacifico, which has branches in Colombia, Panama, and the National Pacific Bank in Miami. The main shareholders in Colombia evince an impressive lineup: Luiz Alberto Moreno, Colombia’s Ambassador to the United States, Luiz Fernando Ramirez, Colombia’s Minister of National Defense, and Camillo Gomez, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace under Pastrana. While these shareholders also share seats on the board, the man at the helm, or the board’s president, is Fernando Londonyo, the current Minister of Interior and Justice in Uribe’s administration.
One project was to fund the construction of the recently bombed club El Nogal, the event Vice-President Santos blames on the FARC, despite their denials. Records as to whether the money was paid back cannot be found.
Petro saved the best for last. “The Superintendencia de Socialades approved a system of internal loans with low interest rates for the bank, which were awarded to the paramilitary’s friends. It was petty cash for Pastrana’s friends. [Laughs] At the same time, an agreement was made with the government that money from the people’s taxes would be deposited in this bank. Because the loans were not paid back, the bank started to cover the money holes left by Pastana’s friends with the money from the Colombian taxpayers. A clean $140 million in Colombian taxpayer money vanished through banks in Colombia, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and to the bank in Miami, where Ricardo Moreno, brother of the shareholder, board member, and Ambassador Luis Albert Moreno, is president. Knowing the critical situation of this bank, functionaries of the state did nothing. Fanny Kertzman, former Director General of Tax and Customs, did nothing.”
Petro introduced the case to Congress for an investigation. The state’s verdict was succinct: “They were satisfied with the answers of the accused.”
How is this immunity achieved?
Petro’s words resound: “By two methods, lots of money, and the use of violence and terrorism.”
The law that fails to protect taxpayers’ money also fails to protect the people’s human rights. The nebulous, neither-here-nor-there policy of Phase I merely protracts the time. In that protraction of time, every act of violence that happened once, has room to happen again and again.
Yet some, it seems, adopt the stand former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took in 1996, when asked for her reaction to the killing of half a million Iraqi children in five years. It was a “very hard choice, but . . . we think the price was worth it.”
Like Albright and other arbiters of U.S. pragmatism, the weathervanes of Colombia’s future do not find this protraction of time, or the acts of violence occurring within it, objectionable.
An editorial in the conservative newspaper El Nuevo Siglo adds its two cents on the paramilitary status. “There should not be a precipitous move to give up their arms.” It warns “there will be pressure from the left and from some members of the international community to move quickly to reach agreements when what really needs to take place is a careful and unhurried study. To suggest a demobilization of the auto-defenses in such a helter-skelter fashion . . . would lead to increased conflict.”
Fernando Londonyo, the Colombian Minister of Interior and Justice implicated in the phantom taxpayer funds at Banco del Pacifico, concurs, adding that “for now it is necessary to negotiate, speak with him (Castano) in order to learn what it is that he wants, where he is going, see what can be done and to work every day toward these goals.”
With negotiations like this, the status quo becomes a river. There is no beginning: there is no end. The play of the eternal at the same time time is running out. Amigos at the negotiating table simulate their non-helter-skelter study, while hourglass sands attenuate into a pool of blood. Men are tied by testicles and beaten. In the presence of wives, of children, they are raped. Union leaders are ambushed. People not out of their teens are decapitated or disemboweled. Women, routinely used as collateral between armed groups, are branded with slashed eyebrows and breasts in exchange for their service. Those who conceive in villages fumigated with U.S. manufactured chemicals give birth to rolls of flesh with no bones.
While the more immune members of the social order allow for mirth and merriment to go on in their multitudinous manifestations, critics of the status quo are forced to flee the country to save their lives, as Congressman Petro was forced to on three separate occasions in 2002 alone. Yet for every one who leaves, how many are left behind? Instead of “travel alerts” for visitors entering the country, there should be “no travel alerts” for those lacking even the modicum freedom to escape, those sentenced to life in an endgame no-exit, where notions of “what he (Castano) wants” require no clarification, and notions of “where he is going,” descend like night and fog.
As to the travelers from the U.S. told to vacate and leave Colombia’s conflict to Colombians, those scurrying to spend their last pesos in the canteens of the airport, I recommend you pass on the Libreria and its alarm-registering triptych hawking Castano’s best-seller. Brace yourselves for the last flight out. It’s likely to feature the movie version.