Colombia: Questionable successes

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This past January a policy directive of Colombian President Uribe outlined the National Plan for the Consolidation of Territory (Plan Nacional de Consolidación Territorial). The short, assertive and results-oriented memo instructed Colombian national, local, military and civilian authorities to work together to attain a stronger grip over strategic swaths of land, recovered from guerrilla control, within a period of 18 months. Two objectives of the strategy include an increase in confidence by Colombian citizens towards their own government and the reassurance to investors about their economic interests.

This consolidation initiative was conceived to tackle the instability in several areas including southern Cordoba, located in the northern part of the country and considered the cradle of paramilitary groups since the mid-1980s. A few years ago, paramilitary leaders there negotiated a deal with the Colombian government to disband the militias through the demobilization of their foot soldiers in exchange for mild jail time for the leaders. At the same time, aggressive military operations and aerial fumigation of illicit crops have pushed guerrilla forces to more remote locations.

During my visit to southern Cordoba last October, one of many in the last five years, the situation appeared surreal: I could not reconcile the astonishing contrast between the official government version of the situation with what I saw and heard from several interviews with displaced groups and the local population. Authorities state that security is fully reestablished, the old paramilitaries are all demobilized and only small, disconnected criminal gangs are still trying to benefit from limited production and smuggling of narcotics. This assessment would indicate that generalized insecurity had been overcome and that the Presidential strategy has seen reasonable success.

But the reality is quite different. Middle and low ranking members of the "old" paramilitary group "Autodefensa Unidas de Colombia" (AUC) have regathered, enlisted youngsters and mushroomed into different groups. These new groups are competing with each other for control over the drug business and to fill the vacuum left by the AUC. Their activities also include making business deals with the guerrillas, and there is alleged widespread corruption amid the lower echelons of the National Army and police. Finally, many reports indicate that economic and mining interests have contributed to the increasing competition of land control and acquisition, often at the expense of displaced farmers.

Here is the real overview: the number of homicides in Cordoba has been increasing every year since the demobilization of the AUC, with 512 victims in 2008 and already 431 from January to September 2009. Six evangelical religious leaders have been assassinated, often because of their reluctance to submit to extortion or because of their work with community leadership. Forced displacement remains a serious consequence of the violence with more than 120,000 people forcibly displaced out of a population of 1.5 million people. Hundreds of families fled into Montelibano and Tierralta just in October and November of this year.

So, who is benefiting from the new Consolidation strategy? Definitely not the rural farmers who are forced to flee the violence and abandon their lands, nor the displaced people who have attempted several times to regain control of their lives and return to their lands, just to be forced to abandon them again. Not the community leaders, likely the most dangerous "profession" right now in Colombia. The strategy seems to fall short in building state credibility for the people, but it might provide opportunities for not-too-scrupulous investors, blessed by large amounts of abandoned land, wide cattle grazing properties and international and national mining businesses.