|•“Parapolitics”: Since 2006, over 70 congress members have been investigated for ties to the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary death squad considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State. Seven have been convicted||•“False Positives”:Since Uribe’s inauguration in 2002, over 1,000 innocent civilians have allegedly been murdered by the Colombian armed forces and reported as members of the FARC guerilla organization killed in combat. The policy of rewarding soldiers for increasing the body count in this war of attrition has likely contributed to the atrocity.|
|•Violence Against Trade Unionists:In 2008, 49 trade union leaders were murdered, more than in the rest of the world combined.||•Judicial Impunity: Between 2006 and 2008, the Attorney General’s office brought convictions against 96 people for crimes against unionists, leaving the vast majority of cases—over 2,000—still unsolved.|
|•Internally Displaced Population: Colombia has the world’s second highest population of internally displaced persons, an estimated 2.5 to 4 million people.||•“The Teflon President”: A recent Congressional vote moves President Uribe closer to seeking a third term in 2010, which would undermine the integrity of Colombia’s democratic institutions.|
|•Wiretapping Scandal:In February 2009, Colombia’s secret intelligence service was implicated in a wiretapping scandal against opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and journalists. The scandal led to the firing of 33 intelligence officials.|
While free trade can be an economic boon, the human rights violations and political scandals that have marred the Uribe administration call into question whether Colombia is an authentic democracy that should be rewarded with a Free Trade Agreement. Real change must occur in Colombia before the U.S. can legitimately consider the FTA.
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Uribe’s Democratic Deficit
Despite a 71% approval rating, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s administration has drawn international scrutiny and criticism for its undemocratic tendencies. The Colombian legislature is currently proposing a referendum that would allow voters to change the Constitution in order to enable Uribe to run for an unprecedented third term in 2010. By inhibiting the transfer of power that is essential for a healthy democracy, such an amendment would undermine the democratic values that Uribe has tried to represent and could lead to a dangerous concentration of power in the executive. While Uribe has not formally announced his intention to seek a third term, the actions of the legislature clearly suggest that he could follow the growing trend of Latin American leaders amending their Constitutions in order to extend their terms in office.
Even during his second term, despite his widely successful crackdown against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), President Uribe has gone too far in consolidating his personal control over the country. Recent inquiries into Uribe’s supposed spying on opposition parties and his alleged ties to the drug trafficking industry should raise questions about Colombia’s political direction. Moreover, if President Uribe is elected to serve a third term, he could potentially pack the legislative courts with his appointees, and thereby perpetuate his confrontational and violent approach to combating Colombia’s civil unrest without political opposition. In his blind commitment to this sectarian agenda, Uribe has already neglected Colombia’s estimated three million internally displaced refugees, a mounting humanitarian crisis. The United States would do well to further investigate Uribe be- fore pursuing a free trade agreement and to reconsider if Colombia is in fact a beacon of democracy in Latin America.
Colombia’s False Positives
The debate over the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has brought public attention to the human rights violations and instances of violence against civilians that continue to plague Colombia.
The “false positives” scandal, which has recently become the most notorious instance of civilian persecution, was first documented in 2006 but only widely publicized in 2007. “False positive” is the sinister term given to young men who are promised employment with high compensation in rural regions of Colombia and then murdered by members of the armed forces, intentionally misidentified as guerillas or paramilitary soldiers killed in combat. The soldiers who perpetrate these murders
are rewarded with extended holidays, travel abroad, increased pay, and promotions.
In October 2008, 27 senior members of the Colombian military, and later Army Commander Mario Montoya, were forced to resign in relation to the scandal. While this response was significant, the government’s investigations of false positives have been very slow overall. Indeed, while approximately 1,000 members of the armed forces are suspected of murdering civilians, “the number of successful prosecutions remains very low,” according to UN Rapporteur on extrajudicial,
summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston.
It is unclear whether the false positive scandal has emerged as an intentional initiative of the Uribe administration or as a by-product of the President’s demands to rapidly demobilize paramilitary organizations and drug cartels. Either way, the incidence of false positives has increased since President Uribe’s inauguration in 2002, with reportedly over 1,000 victims during his presidency. The Colombian military has long used body counts of rebels killed in combat as a means of assessing
its achievements in reducing violence. False positives create a façade of success that may be used to appease the critics of the Colombian government.
Reservations Surrounding the Colombia FTA
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is traveling to Washington to encourage Congress to enact the long pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. While the agreement will equalize export benefits between the two countries, it has been opposed by labor leaders, human rights activists, and many Democratic members of Congress, primarily due to concerns over the violence committed against Colombian labor union leaders by paramilitary organizations. Nearly 4,000 union leaders and
activists have been assassinated since the mid-1980s, including 49 in 2008 alone. These staggering figures demonstrate that the Colombian government has not done enough to stem violence against union leaders and provide protection for union members.
Bogotá’s poor enforcement of labor laws has further deepened uneasiness about increasing bilateral trade with Colombia. There are labor provisions included in the current text of the free trade agreement, but these are insufficient because they do not encompass acts committed by
nongovernmental guerilla forces.
Moreover, the Colombian justice system exhibits irresponsible leniency toward former paramilitaries who admit to their crimes. Those who confess are often sentenced to shorter terms in prison and spared from extradition to the United States, while many others go entirely un-
The Colombian administration has been further wracked by a recent scandal in which the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) was accused of wiretapping opposition politicians, journalists, Supreme Court Justices, and activists. It is rumored that the DAS is rumored sub-
sequently sold this information to radical cartels.
The allegations surrounding President Uribe should call the legitimacy of his administration into question. A U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement ratified at this time could potentially funnel trade revenue into the hands of a corrupt and unlawful administration.
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is a right-wing paramilitary and narco-trafficking group classified by the Department of State as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The AUC works to eliminate the FARC, a left-wing guerilla group, by targeting key members aligned with power and influence in Colombia. By removing these individuals from significant positions, the AUC hopes to weaken its competition and protect its sponsors from insurgents. The AUC supports itself through its participation in drug trafficking, particularly the cocaine market. By imposing taxes on coca producers and by trafficking narcotics from farmers to distributors, the group is able to achieve financial security and purchase military-grade weapons.
In recent years, the Uribe administration, with support from the United Nations, has taken steps toward making peace between the government and paramilitary organizations by demobilizing the AUC. However, this process has not resolved the rampant violence in Colombia, as the UN reports that over 150 new paramilitary gangs have been created since the demobilization. These new groups are comprised largely of former AUC members. The UN also reports that since the AUC broke apart in 2006, no paramilitaries have been sentenced for crimes. It comes as no surprise that the UN calls into question the veracity of the demobilization process.
Moreover, since 2008, over 70 Colombian Congressmen, many of them supporters of Uribe, have been investigated for invovlement with paramilitary organizations. So far, seven have been convicted and more are awaiting trial. This scandal, which has become known as the “parapolitics,” further undermines the credibility of the Uribe administration.
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