Thursday, December 30, 2010

I'm Back in Colombia

After four days of travel (included being sent back to San Francisco for two days!), I made it to Colombia on the 22nd, greeted by mariachis-for-hire at the Bogota airport. (Ok, so the mariachis weren't for me, but it was an amusing welcome admist the chaos that is the Bogota airport at 10pm on a major holiday travel day.)

I have returned to work with FOR, the organization I worked with the last time I was in Colombia. I will be here for at least a few months to help out with a gap in staff and to train new staff. I'm excited for the opportunity to dive back into this meaningful work, to see friends, to conduct interviews for some articles I'd like to write, and to gain a new perspective on the place and the work after 10 or so months of being in the U.S. And to write more blog posts!

This marks my third holiday season in a row spent in Colombia. My first I spent in the Peace Community, eating bunuelos and dancing vallenato with campesinos in rubber boots. Last year, a visiting college friend and I traveled to where the desert meets this Caribbean ocean, La Guajira, and were treated to the traditional Christmas meal of goat cooked in goat fat (I tried it...).

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Hidden Side of Violence in Ciudad Juárez: Student Shot by Federal Police

This article was published today on The Women's International Perspective, where I have previously published several articles about Colombia. It's similar to the previous post, but geared at a wider audience. Enjoy!

A mural worked on by Juárez artists during the Foro. The left side is a depiction of civil society. The right depicts death and destruction by the federal forces and other violent actors. Photograph courtesy of the author.
“Ciudad Juárez won’t be a big deal. You spent two years in Colombia!” my friend reassures me.
“Yeah,” I reply with nervous knots in my stomach, “but isn’t Juárez one of the most dangerous cities in the world?”

The violence wracking Mexico, largely fueled by the country’s drug war, is magnified in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. So even though I spent two years as a human rights accompanier in Colombia visiting some of the country’s most dangerous regions, the concentration and apparent randomness of the violence in Juárez left me apprehensive about my upcoming trip.

Just days before my departure the last weekend in October, four maquila factory workers were killed and fifteen more injured when gunmen shot up three company buses carrying the workers home. The following weekend, 20 more were killed. Since 2008, the murder rate has surpassed 6,500 in a city of about 1.5 million.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My trip to Ciudad Juarez: A glimpse into the hidden side of Mexico’s violence

I wrote this piece for the latest Colombia Update from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the organization I worked with in Colombia.

mural in Juarez1
A mural painted by Foro participants
When FOR staff asked if I could travel to a conference on civilian resistance to militarism in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico during the last weekend in October, I jumped at the chance to visit a country often compared to Colombia, where I recently spent two years as a human rights accompanier.

However, as my departure date grew closer, I became more and more nervous. The violence wracking Mexico, largely fueled by the country’s drug war, is magnified in the border town of Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, and often vies for the dubious title of most dangerous city in the world. So just because I spent two years in Colombia as a human rights accompanier, and knew that the mainstream news stories about Mexico I had read didn’t tell the whole story, the concentration and apparent randomness of the violence in Juarez, at least as portrayed in mainstream media, worried me.

Just days before my departure for Ciudad Juarez, for example, four maquila factory workers were killed and fifteen more injured when gunmen shot up three company buses carrying the workers home. Since 2008, the number of murders has surpassed 6,500 in a city of about 1.5 million. New York City, with a population of 8.3 million, had just 1,570 murders in a similar period.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Latin American Peoples Organize to Resist Increased Militarization in the Region

My article, originally published on War Times

Monday, October 25, 2010

Help release conscientious objector detained at army base

This post is a call to action from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, by my former colleagues Rachel and Peter. Please take action!
Juan Diego is a young campesino in the municipality of Andes, a few hours southwest of Medellin. He works on a farm to help support his parents and two little sisters; his father’s income as a day-laborer is not enough to feed the whole family. On September 5, Juan Diego was grocery-shopping for his family in town when soldiers came up to him and asked for his papers. When he told them he did not have his military service booklet, he was pushed into a truck and taken to the 11th battalion of the 4th Brigade. They took away his identification and have still not returned it to him. 


You can take action to help have Juan Diego released!!

1. Call the 4th Brigade in Medellín (011 574 493 9290 ext. 111) and ask for his immediate release.

2. Call the Ombudsman of Antioquia (011 574 218 1577 ext. 101) and ask for Doctora Sandra Maria Rojas to intervene in the release of Juan Diego.

Tell them this: “Llamo para expresar mi preocupación por la detención arbitraria e ilegal de Juan Diego Agudelo Correa, numero de cédula 1027885649, en el municipio de Andes (Antioquia) el día 5 de septiembre. Juan Diego se encuentra prestando servicio militar en el Batallón 11 de la Cuarta Brigada, pero se ha declarado objetor por conciencia, postura que tiene el amparo de la Corte Constitucional en el fallo C-728 de 2009. Quiero pedir que usted colabore para que el derecho fundamental de Juan Diego a declararse objetor, a través de una tutela, sea confirmado. Muchas gracias.”

I am calling to express my concern at the arbitrary and illegal detention of Juan Diego Agudelo Correa, ID number 1027884569, in the municipality of Andes (Antioquia) on the 5th September. Juan Diego is currently performing obligatory military service in the 11th Battalion of the 4th Brigade, but has declared himself a conscientious objector, a position that the Constitutional Court has backed in sentence C-728 (2009). I ask for your assistance so that Juan Diego’s fundamental right to declare himself a conscientious objector, by way of a writ, is upheld. Many thanks.
In Juan Diego’s words, “Since that day I have been in the base against my will, because I do not want to perform obligatory military service. In the first place, because my moral principles don’t let me participate in the war and so I do not want to be part of any army or armed force. And second, because my highest priorities are my family, which needs me to continue to work, and to continue my high school studies, which I had to temporarily suspend because of the economic difficulties in my family.” (link to declaration) The day after he signed this declaration of conscientious objection, the soldiers in the battalion asked who did not want to be there. Juan Diego replied that he did not want to be in the army because he does not agree with the war. The soldiers laughed, made fun of him, and answered that there wasn’t a chance in hell they would let him go. 

Juan Diego is a conscientious objector. He was arbitrarily detained and is being forced to serve in the Colombian military. There are differing views on the legality of Juan Diego’s recruitment, depending on whom you ask. According to Lieutenant Colonel Juan Carlos Quiroz, who directs operations in the 4th Recruitment Zone, which has jurisdiction over Andes, the Colombian Constitution says that the military can go out and compel men to serve in the army (according to Col. Quiroz this includes using force). “No one wants to serve, so what am I supposed to do?” Colonel Quiroz asked us. Lieutenant An officer of the “Cacique Nutibara” Battalion 11 in Andes told us that he feels he is doing youth a favor when he rounds them up in trucks: “Many of the kids don’t have the money to pay for transportation to the brigade’s base to enlist, so we provide the transportation for them.” 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Soldiers off the hook for 2005 Peace Community massacre

Despite lots of credible evidence and international attention, Colombian government and military are officially off the hook for the February 2005 massacre in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in which four adults and four children were brutally murdered. On August 18, a judge in Medellin exonerated ten members of the Colombian military who had been on trial for participation in the massacre in a more-than-100 page sentence that had me alternating between tears and sighs of frustration as I read it.

As I wrote in an article on Alternet earlier this year, the 2005 massacre case is emblematic not just as an example of the brutality suffered by civilians at the hands of the Colombian military and paramilitaries, but also of the Colombian state's efforts to maintain impunity in such cases. While the Peace Community has always insisted that the army and paramilitaries committed the crime, initially the Colombian government tried to lay blame on the victimized community itself. In fact, shortly after the massacre Colombian President Álvaro Uribe himself publicly accused the community of guerrilla collaboration, backing up army officials who claimed the FARC had committed the massacre to punish the community for collaboration gone awry. It has since been proven that army officials paid false witnesses to testify that the FARC committed the massacre.

Despite such revelations of witness buying, this ruling allows the government to again claim innocence and place blame solely on the paramilitaries. Sadly, the ruling, though extremely frustrating, is not terribly surprising, in spite of the strong evidence against the soldiers. Colombia is, after all, a country with a sky-high impunity rate (the ruling against retired Colonel Plazas Vega I wrote about recently was the first of its kind), the trial took place in a city notorious for military/paramilitary control over government institutions, and the ruling was handed down by a judge who likely received all kinds of pressure to let the soldiers off the hook.

For better or worse, a careful reading of the ruling reveals some faulty logic on the part of the judge that leaves plenty of room open for an appeal. The legal team representing the families of the victims of the massacre did an analysis of the ruling (including the very-at-risk human rights lawyer Jorge Molano, who I wrote about last year), and I’ve taken some points from that as well as added a bit of my own analysis:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Protect at-risk Afro-Colombian community threatened by paras

In my capacity as Colombia Country Specialist for Amnesty International, I created the following action alert. Please take action! This community has attempted to retake its land from paramilitaries and live peacefully and neutrally in the midst of Colombia's conflict, much like the Peace community of San Jose de Apartado.
Jhon Jairo Palacios, a member of an Afro-descendant community in the Cacarica River Basin in the north-east of the country, was abducted after he left his home to take a boat to the municipal capital. On July 30th he telephoned his family to inform them that he would be returning the following morning. His family called his mobile phone the next day. A man answered who said he was a member of a paramilitary group operating in the region, and to "tell his family that he is already dead." The family asked where his body was, and the man told them only that he had been abducted in Riosucio and taken far away. On August 9th, sources close to the paramilitaries claimed that paramilitaries had killed Jhon Jairo. 

The enforced disappearance and possible killing of Jhon Jairo Palacios came days before a contract was awarded for the construction of a major road in the region. The Cacarica communities have opposed this project, and there is concern that the enforced disappearance may be an attempt to silence them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Don’t Call it a Model: The Failures of Plan Colombia

I had been planning to post about U.S. officials' erroneous use of Plan Colombia as a model for countries like Mexico and Afghanistan. But Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin American beat me to it, and did an excellent job, so I decided to repost it. 

Don’t Call it a Model

On Plan Colombia's tenth anniversary, claims of “success” don't stand up to scrutiny

Download the printer-friendly PDF version of this report (515 KB).

(Written by Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, Washington Office on Latin America)

On July 13, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid, known as “Plan Colombia,” that made Colombia by far the biggest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East. Now, ten years later, Colombia often gets described as a “success” in Washington. Officials and analysts point to improvements in several measures of security in the conflict-torn South American country. They give the credit to U.S. assistance and to President Álvaro Uribe, who took over in 2002 and implemented a hard-line security policy.

Looked at more closely, though, Colombia’s security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by “collateral damage.” They have carried a great cost in lives and resources. Progress on security has been stagnating, and even reversing. Scandals show that the government carrying out these security policies has harmed human rights and democratic institutions. Progress against illegal drug supplies has been disappointing. And wealth is being concentrated in ever fewer hands.

What Colombia has done is worth learning from. But since it favors military force while neglecting both civilian governance and impunity, it is not a model to be applied in Afghanistan, Mexico, or anywhere else. Colombia's new government and U.S. policymakers face an ever more urgent need to change it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

With Opposition to U.S. Militarism in Latin America on the Rise, Colombian and Venezuelan Govs Clash

Below is an article of mine published on Friday on AlterNet. It might look familiar, as it's a rework of some recent blog posts.  Interesting photo they chose, huh?

On July 15 the Colombian government held a press conference to announce its possession of evidence that the Venezuelan government is harboring Colombian guerrillas, including high-ranking leaders, on Venezuela’s side of the border. The following week Colombia’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Alfonso Hoyos, presented to that regional body high-resolution graphics of more than 80 camps said to be housing nearly1500 guerrillas. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez responded immediately by severing diplomatic relations and putting Venezuela’s armed forces on high alert. Over Venezuelan 20,000 troops are now stationed on the two nations’ 1250-mile border.

Before the Colombian government’s announcement it had looked as though the previously tense relations between the two countries had been warming. President-elect Juan Manual Santos invited Chavez to his inauguration, while Chavez had approved a meeting between Venezuela’s foreign minister and Santos’ minister-designate.

For Chavez, though, this crisis isn’t just about Colombia; it is also the latest example of the power of U.S. influence in Colombia. On Monday he said he considers an armed attack from Colombia “probable” and accused the U.S. government of pushing for such an attack, calling the U.S. “the great instigator.” Undeterred by the fact that the U.S. is the biggest consumer of Venezuelan oil, Chavez pledged to cut off shipments of oil to the U.S. if such an attack occurs, “even if everybody over here has to eat stones.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thoughts on the Colombia - Venezuela conflict

On July 15 the Colombian government held a press conference to announce its possession of evidence that the Venezuelan government is harboring Colombian guerrillas, including high-ranking leaders, on Venezuela’s side of the border. The following week Colombia’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Alfonso Hoyos, presented to that regional body high-resolution graphics of more than 80 camps said to be housing nearly1500 guerrillas. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez responded immediately by severing diplomatic relations and putting Venezuela’s armed forces on high alert. Over Venezuelan 20,000 troops are now stationed on the two nations’1250-mile border. 

Before the Colombian government’s announcement it had looked as though the previously tense relations between the two countries had been warming. President-elect Juan Manual Santos invited Chavez to his inauguration, while Chavez had approved a meeting between Venezuela’s foreign minister and Santos’minister-designate.

For Chavez, though, this crisis isn’t just about Colombia; it is also the latest example of the power of U.S. influence in Colombia. On Monday he said he considers an armed attack from Colombia “probable” and accused the U.S. government of pushing for such an attack, calling the U.S. “the great instigator.” Undeterred by the fact that the U.S. is the biggest consumer of Venezuelan oil, Chavez pledged to cut off shipments of oil to the U.S. if such an attack occurs, “even if everybody over here has to eat stones.”

New Report: U.S. Aid for Civilian Murders

The following is a release from the Fellowship of Reconciliation of an explosive new report released today.

This week, the Wikileaks "Collateral Murder" scandal has rocked the world. Its explosive findings have described a U.S. military unaccountable to its own nation's laws and human rights policy, including the deaths of hundreds of innocent Afghans. Now today, a detailed report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and U.S. Office on Colombia describes how several years of U.S. funding to the Colombian military has supported army units directly responsible for at least a thousand murders of unarmed civilians.

Drawing on extensive data from the U.S. State Department, Colombian government and military, and human rights organizations, the report shows that massive military training, equipment, and intelligence provided under the rubric of "Plan Colombia" have violated U.S. human rights law and contributed to illegal killings. Next month, Colombia's human rights status will be reviewed by the State Department: Tell Secretary Clinton today to withhold Colombia's certification.

"The U.S. has provided more than $6 billion in military aid to Colombia since 2000," said John Lindsay-Poland, FOR's research and advocacy director. "This money is used to support military units that have been proven to murder innocent civilians. That is outrageous and needs to stop." U.S. law prohibits support to any foreign military unit for which there is credible evidence of having committed gross human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings.

This forceful study also has serious implications for Pakistan, where the United States has spent more than $12 billion in military assistance and where human rights groups have reported hundreds of extrajudicial killings. The U.S. Congress, State Department, and National Security Council must take action to ensure U.S. tax dollars no longer bankroll militaries that carry out illegal executions in Colombia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mexico, or any other country! Act today: Call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to decertify Colombia's human rights status.

Read the full report, executive summary, and see special maps of U.S. aid and rights violations: Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Opposition mounts to increased U.S. military presence in Latin America

Last year I published several articles about the U.S.-Colombia agreement for U.S. use of seven Colombian air and military bases. As I wrote in those articles, opposition quickly mounted to the agreement from unions, opposition political parties, human rights groups, and more, for reasons as varied as worries over increasing regional tensions, U.S. personnel's legacy of sexual abuse in foreign outposts, and questions of legality.

Now, Colombia's Constitutional Court itself is stepping into the fray with its own concerns. In a draft opinion released Friday, Judge Jorge Ivan Palacios urged his colleagues to declare the bases agreement invalid and send the agreement to Congress for a chance to approve or reject it. Though the Court will not officially rule on the case brought by the José Alvear Restrepo legal collective until August 17, this draft opinion directly challenges President Alvaro Uribe's assertion that the agreement isn't actually a treaty and therefore does not require Congressional approval as dictating by Colombian law. If the Court follows Judge Palacio's suggestion, it will confirm a non-binding ruling by the State Council, and advisory body, that urged compliance with the Colombian law requiring Congressional approval of treaties.

Meanwhile, opposition to increasing U.S. military presence continues to mount in the region. When  the earthquake hit Haiti, the strong U.S. military contingent sent to the ravaged island large numbers. Then in July, the U.S. deployed 46 warships and 7,000 marines to military-less Costa Rica.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fundamental Change in Colombia Unlikely with President-elect Santos

This analysis of the June 20th Colombian presidential election results was my most recent article published by the Women's iInternational Perspective.

Juan Manuel Santos as Defense Minister. Photograph courtesy of the Center for American Progress and downloaded under a Creative Commons license.
Fulfilling expectations after a solid showing in May’s first round, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos handily won Colombia's June 20th presidential run-off election. Though Santos and his contender, Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of the capital city Bogota, had been neck-in-neck in opinion polls leading up to the first round of elections, the May 30th results gave Santos a substantial lead that he never lost. On June 20th Santos won 69% of the vote.

Mockus’ defeat may be seen as a combination of several factors. For one, opinion polls are unreliable in Colombia. Pollsters tend to reach only middle and upper class urban residents. Poor and rural Colombians, who tend to not have access to landlines or other standard survey methods, are rarely surveyed.

Presumably, much of Santos’ hidden support came from the countryside. As former Defense Minister for outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Santos represents Uribe’s hard line on security in Colombia’s decades-old internal armed conflict. Those security policies are often credited with a reduction in violence in recent years (though strong evidence indicates violence may again be on the upswing.) Santos’ direction of high-profile events like the 2008 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors created an image of competence against the principal guerrilla group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.)

Read the rest of the article

Thursday, June 17, 2010

See for yourself: Military Bases, Human Rights & Free Trade Delegation

Last Chance to Apply! There are still a few spaces left on this unprecedented delegation, taking place July 24 - August 2, hosted by Fellowship of Reconciliation and Witness for Peace.
Last fall, the governments of Colombia and the United States signed an agreement to grant the Pentagon use of seven military bases on Colombian soil. The agreement bolstered the United States' military presence in the Andean region at a time when progressive movements in Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia struggle to reorganize their societies more equally, and victims of Colombia's dirty war demand accountability. It also intensified the contentious mix of militarism and free trade that has characterized U.S. Latin American policy. 
What role do the bases play in upholding free trade orthodoxy and advancing the counterinsurgency, anti-narcotics program known as Plan Colombia? How does the increasing militarization of Colombia affect grassroots politics? 

  • Visit several U.S. military bases
  • Talk with Colombians who live and work near the bases
  • Meet with human rights, labor, peasant, and community groups
  • Meet with U.S. and Colombian government and military personnel
DELEGATION LEADERS: The delegation will be led by Susana Pimiento Chamorro and by Lesley Gill (Ph.D. 1984, Columbia); Vanderbilt U., Department Chair, Anthropology. Lesley's research in Latin America focuses on political violence, human rights, global economic restructuring, the state, and transformations in class, gender, and ethnic relations. Her books include The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence (Duke, 2004). Susana Pimiento is a Colombian-American attorney who co-directs Fellowship of Reconciliation's Task Force of Latin America and the Caribbean. Based in Bogotá, she has undertaken research on military bases and played a very active role in the formation of the Colombia No Bases Coalition.

CONTACTS: Lesley Gill 615-322-2851,
Ken Crowley 202-423-3402,
COST: Full Delegation Cost $1,225

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hostage rescue is good news, but no excuse for impunity

Four FARC hostages were released over the weekend. While I rejoice for them and their families, I can't help feeling cynical about the timing of the release.

The rescue, code-named "Chameleon", occurred exactly two weeks before the country elects a new president. The front runner in the June 20th runoff, Juan Manuel Santos, is outgoing-president Uribe's heir apparent and served for several years as Uribe's Defense Minister, including presiding over another cinematic rescue, Operation Check, in 2008. He also presided, however, over the "false positives" scandal in which young men were captured from poor urban neighborhoods, taken to the countryside, killed, dressed up as guerrillas and claimed as combat kills. Could this latest rescue have been timed to divert attention from that macabre practice condoned under Santos' watch (and the wire-tapping scandal I wrote about recently) and generate support for his style of leadership?

This style of leadership certainly seems, after all, to seek out impunity for the military. Last week ex-Colonel Luis Alonso Plazas Vega was sentenced to thirty years in prison for his role in the disappearance of eleven people in the violent re-capture of the Justice Palace in 1985 from the now-defunct M-19 guerilla group. Now Uribe, Santos and the military leadership have been circling the wagons around Plazas Vega, claiming his sentence horrible affront to the military. Uribe made a public announcement after the sentencing claiming that the sentence "generates profound pain and disincentive among the members of the Armed Forces, responsible for protecting Colombians." The judge who handed down the sentence has since received death threats. So much for separation of judicial and executive powers, which Colombia's 1991 Constitution seeks to protect.

I do hope that I don't sound unfeeling or callous about the suffering of the FARC kidnapping victims or their families. That is an ordeal no one should have to endure, and the FARC should definitely be condemned for such a practice. In fact, for a heart-wrenching but insightful look into that experience, check out a recent episode of This American Life about being held hostage. I was on a walk listening to the podcast and nearly starting sobbing on the sidewalk during the section about the families of FARC kidnapping victims.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Amid Tensions and Surprises Colombia Prepares to Elect a New President

My latest article from The WIP, an intro to the Colombian presidential election on May 30th for those who don't regularly follow Colombian politics.

An Earth Day campaign celebration for candidate Antanas Mockus in Medellin, Colombia. Photograph by Flickr user Sergio Fajardo Valderrama
Colombia prides itself on being Latin America’s oldest democracy. Unlike its neighbors, Colombia has not suffered brutal military coups and dictatorships and, with one brief exception, has held regular presidential elections since the mid 19th century. Nonetheless, in a country mired in internal conflict in which armed actors attempt to influence outcomes through violence, vote buying is not an uncommon practice and dozens of senators have recently been convicted of collaboration with paramilitaries. Election season in the country highlights the danger and complexity in which the country continues to live. And, as Colombians prepare to elect the successor of Álvaro Uribe, tensions are high and some surprises are surfacing.

While Uribe – who changed the country’s constitution in order to run for a second term – remains popular and is hailed by many for improving security, recent scandals tainting his presidency may be affecting the two candidates seen as his heirs, his former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín. Those scandals include both wire-tapping Supreme Court justices, journalists, and opposition politicians and extrajudicial executions – a practice in which poor young men are kidnapped from cities, taken to the countryside and shot, then dressed up in guerrilla uniforms and claimed as combat kills. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Adjusting to life back in the Bay

I have been back in San Francisco for about two weeks now, after nearly two years of living and working in Colombia. Many things are the same here--the weather that changes moment to moment, the hipsters on their fixies, the lovely Victorian architecture--but some things have definitely changed--way more fancy coffee and ice cream shops in the Mission, a new apartment building where I remember an empty lot. Kind of like me, I suppose: I am still Moira, but several seemingly-small changes I have undergone in the past two years have created important shifts in my character. Now I have to figure out how to navigate those changes in myself and in the people and places in this familiar-yet-different old home of mine.

Despite the fact that it's been nearly two months since I've been back in the U.S., I still have periodic moments of culture shock, though the feeling of confusion and disorientation have mostly faded by now. In my first days back in the Bay, though, I didn't feel totally at ease in many public settings because the norms I became accustomed to in Colombia are different in so many ways. A couple weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who has also spent time in Colombia, so we were able to talk in depth about current events and dynamics in the country. As she explained her analysis of recent guerrilla and paramilitary activity, I found myself tense, and glanced around to see who might be listening in. As soon as I realized what I was doing I laughed at myself and relaxed; here in the U.S., unlike in Colombia, I don't have to be careful about what I say where.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

SF event: My report-back from Colombia

If you're in the Bay Area, come hear me speak about my time in Colombia!

Paramilitaries, Privilege, and Papaya: Two years as a human rights observer in Colombia

Tuesday, May 4 @ 6-8pm
Make-Out Room
3225 22nd St (at Mission)
Light snacks served

An evening with Moira Birss, who just returned from two years working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation Colombia Program as an human rights observer in San Jose de Apartado and Bogota, Colombia to support communities and organizations that nonviolently resist war and displacement in the context of Colombia's decades-long conflict.

For more information, contact FOR: 510.763.1403,

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Speaking of snitches, it looks like Uribe's one, too

April 21 note: A version of this post was published on Alternet under the title "Chilling": Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's Spying Program Targeted Judges and Journalists. Check it out!

In my latest article I described Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's efforts to engage Colombians in a civilian spy network. Solid evidence from the Attorney General's office now demonstrates what many - myself included - suspected: Uribe was doing plenty of spying of his own.

During the trial of five current and former functionaries of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS, the intelligence agency that reports directly to the president) accused of illegally spying on journalists, Supreme Court justices, and human rights defenders, an investigator from the Attorney General's office presented detailed evidence that the illegal surveillance of the Supreme Court  was directed from no less than the Casa de Nariño (Colombia's White House).

Among the evidence presented by the investigator on Saturday was a folder labeled "President Uribe," used to collect documents of "special interest" to the president, as well as transcriptions of private meetings and sessions of the high court that were secretly recorded by the intelligence agency. Evidence also included witness' descriptions of secret meetings in which DAS functionaries were delegated tasks for spying on the justices. The witnesses named several high-level presidential advisors who participated in many of these meetings.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Colombia’s Government Wants a Country of Snitches

Check out my latest article, published on the international women's journalism site, The WIP.

A painting on the wall of the Medellín Youth Network’s office illustrates the group’s stand against militarism.
The other day I was translating at a meeting between a U.S-based NGO director and a Colombian human rights lawyer. The NGO director remarked how the situation in Colombia reminded him of the story of a frog that, placed in a pot of lukewarm water, doesn’t realize his awful plight as the water is slowly heated to a boil. I translated frog as sapo, which is more accurately the word for toad. Though it didn’t occur to me in the moment, it is also a colloquial term in Colombia for a snitch. “Ah,” said the lawyer, “that’s why Uribe wants sapos!” 

We laughed for several minutes at the joke but the fact is, it’s true. In the context of a decades-old internal conflict, dissent, opposition, and questioning are all repressed – often violently – here, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe repeatedly attempts to draw civilians into the fray. The latest example, to which the lawyer referred with his joke, was a program announced in late January for students in Medellín to spy on each other and report to the Armed Forces in exchange for $50 a month.

Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

On culture shock and readjusting

I have been back in the U.S. for just over a week now. My contract with FOR has finished, and I am taking some time to decompress and contemplate my next steps.

Being back is strange, but perhaps not as strange as I might have imagined. Perhaps that's because I arrived from Bogota, a huge metropolis, to East Lansing, Michigan, a quiet Midwest college town. Perhaps it's because I have largely been able to sleep long hours in in the comfort of the same bed I slept in from age 8 to 18. And compared to the severe culture shock I experienced moving from the countryside of Urabá to Bogotá, this adjustment is feeling relatively painless.

That's not to say that I haven't experienced bouts of culture shock. Arriving in the Miami airport last Wednesday, I was saddened by gringos' lack of politeness and friendliness. In Colombia, any interaction with a stranger involves at the very least a "hello, how are you?," be it at a checkout counter or in the airport security line. If someone nearly bumps into you, as happened to me in the Miami airport bathroom, in Colombia each party will always apologize and excuse themselves. Not here, apparently (I did! But she didn't).

I also miss speaking Spanish (I had to stop myself from saying “que pena” to the woman in the airport bathroom), and dancing Salsa. When the other day I complained on my gchat away message about my desire to dance Salsa and my recognition that it was extremely unlikely given the lack of even a Spanish radio station in the Lansing area, a friend emailed me a link to a Salsa club nearby. “I stand corrected!” I thought. But it turns out I was right all along: the place closed over a year ago. Sigh.

There are things to appreciate about being here, obviously, mostly having to do with food (as well as, of course, seeing family and friends). I have eaten sushi (without fake crab meat!), Indian, and Bangladeshi food, goat cheese, bagels. And the beer! It is dark! And flavorful! ¡Qué delicias!

I would love to hear what kinds of experiences others have had when returning to the U.S. (or your home country) after an extending time abroad. How did you deal with the varied emotions? With the fact that non-English words would come out of your month and few would understand? With the difficulty of communicating, even in English, all you learned and how you changed and grew during your time away?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reclaiming Land and Life in Colombia

The following is an article of mine recently published in IFORNews, the publication of International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the international secretariat of which FOR USA is a part.

Reclaiming Land and Life in Colombia

One of the stories that does not tend to make it into the news articles about Colombia’s armed conflict is that of internal displacement. Over 4 million Colombians have been internally displaced – and countless killed – due to the country’s armed conflict, which has spanned over nearly five decades and multiple administrations. Many of these dezplazados (displaced people) are peasant farmers or indigenous who flee their rural homes to seek refuge in nearby towns. However, the violence follows them there, and they must flee to the far-away cities of Medellin or Bogotá, where their likely future is a life of misery living in the shantytowns that grow daily on the outskirts of Colombia’s biggest cities.

Despite the potentially bleak future awaiting Colombia’s millions of displaced people, there is an effort afoot to reverse the flow of campesinos (peasant farmers) away from their land.  In the department of Antioquia, for example, the Antioquian Campesino Association (ACA) is helping campesinos return to and reclaim the lands from which they were violently displaced. These returns are made possible by international accompaniment, including that of FOR USA’s Colombia Program.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Five years after massacre, real justice still distant

February 20th update: A version of this was published on, under the title “Five Years After Colombian Massacre, Justice Is Still Elusive.” Check it out!

February 21st marks 5 years since 8 people, including 3 children, from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia, were brutally massacred. Horror about the crime – in which some of the bodies were beheaded, and the rest cut into pieces before being thrown into a common grave – led to a six-month suspension of U.S. military aid because the 17th Brigade, implicated in the crime, received U.S. assistance at the time. Ample evidence points to military-paramilitary collaboration in the crime, yet five years later, not a single individual has been punished for the crime.

This case is emblematic not just as an example of the brutality suffered by civilians at the hands of the Colombian military and paramilitaries, but also of the Colombian state's efforts to maintain impunity in such cases, particularly for those high in the chain of command. While the Peace Community always insisted that the army and paramilitaries committed the crime, the Colombian government tried to place blame on the Community itself. Shortly after the massacre, President Uribe publicly accused the Community of guerrilla collaboration, backing up Army officials who claimed that the FARC had committed the massacre to punish the Community for collaboration gone awry. It has since been proved that army officials paid false witnesses to testify that the FARC committed the massacre.

Several former paramilitaries have admitted their participation in the massacre and described the military’s role. After being implicated by these testimonies, Captain Guillermo Gordillo, who commanded one of the companies involved in the military operation during which the massacre took place, pled guilty in exchange for a lesser charge. As a result of these testimonies, ten low-ranking soldiers have been charged with collaboration in the massacre. Nonetheless, there are over a hundred soldiers who participated in the operation, not to mention the superiors who ordered or had knowledge of it. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Now this is art

When traveling in Latin America, I have always been impressed by the quantity and often quality of graffiti covering walls all over the continent. Not only is there so much more than in the States, but the pieces are often stunning works of art or political statements unlike what I have seen at home.

As far as I can tell, one of the places with the highest concentrations of graffiti - particularly political graffiti - is the National University, located across the street from my apartment. Often referred to as la Nacho,
it is the principal public university in the country, and arguably the best institution of higher education in the country. Several friends have commented to me that whereas the Nacho requires excellent results on an exacting admissions exam, enough cash is the main thing you need to get into most of the private universities. 

Tuition at the Nacho, however, is determined by a sliding scale based on income, and as a result is a diverse, dynamic place. The Nacho has also long been the site of strong student activism in Colombia. This is student activism in the style of the University of California protests late last year, not a quiet protest with a few unhappy students. Fee hikes have also been the cause of protests her, resulting in several pelas (confrontations) with police.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Defending Human Rights in Colombia is a Deadly Job

Check out my newest article, published on the international women's journalism site, The WIP.

Jorge Molano speaks to a delegation from the U.S., Canada and El Salvador about the challenges faced by human rights defenders in Colombia. Photograph by Kelly Dowdell.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid,” Jorge tells me. “Your right to freedom disappears - you have to limit your movements and activities.”

I would be afraid, too; Jorge and I sit talking after I have spent a good ten minutes trying to convince his bodyguard to let me see him. But I don’t mind the hoops I had to jump through - I actually would have been happy to undergo a bit more security, perhaps a metal detector or something more intimidating. After all, in a country like Colombia, where human rights defenders are targeted by both the judicial system and paramilitary actors, Jorge Molano is a walking target.

Read the rest of the article.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Irresponsible journalism puts Peace Community at risk

January 5th update: It seems that O’Grady has been up to such reckless journalism for a while. Check out this excellent piece by Phillip Cryan from 2004.

A little less than a year ago I wrote about Peace Community fears that doctored testimony from alias Samir, a recently demobilized FARC leader from the region, would be used to discredit and harm the Community. Over the past few months those fears have been realized, mostly recently in no less than the Wall Street Journal.

On December 13th, Mary Anastasia O’Grady published a column in which she claimed, based solely on a conversation with Samir, that the Peace Community and its Colombian supporters have had close ties with the FARC. Not only that, but she makes inferences that Amnesty International and Peace Brigades International (an accompaniment organization like FOR) have supported such ties. 

Now it’s no secret that I’m no fan of O’Grady’s, but I am appalled at her dangerous and irresponsible journalism. Dangerous, because in a country like Colombia, such accusations and insinuations put both Community and PBI members at risk. Irresponsible because as a veteran journalist, O’Grady should know better than to make serious assertions based upon a sole, and highly unreliable, source.