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Colombia: Rosy picture belies stark problems

Published in: The Miami Herald

When President Bush meets today with his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, he will be tempted just to pat Uribe on the back. Like many U.S. officials, who heap praise upon Uribe while ignoring reality in Colombia, Bush will probably turn a blind eye to serious problems affecting not only human rights and the rule of law in that country, but also U.S. interests in fighting drugs and terror.

Nick Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, recently dedicated an op-ed to Colombia's ''stunning progress'' under Uribe. The U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Wood, also published an op-ed praising Colombia's laws on human trafficking but failing to mention that Colombia is a major source for the very people being trafficked. The day after Uribe's reelection two weeks ago, the State Department certified that Colombia was meeting human-rights conditions for U.S. military assistance.

Not one of these rosy statements gave even the slightest hint that, in fact, many things are going wrong in Colombia.

The official homicide rate has dropped, but forced ''disappearances'' are on the rise, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which registered 317 such cases in 2005. It is likely many more were never reported. There has also been an alarming increase in reports of threats and harassment against human-rights defenders and journalists in recent weeks.

The Colombian military, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars annually in U.S. aid, gives special cause for concern. There have been scores of allegations, described as credible by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and local authorities, that the Army's 4th Brigade has executed civilians and dressed the corpses as guerrillas so that they could record them as killed in combat.

A few weeks ago, another army unit shot and killed 10 elite anti-narcotics police who had been trained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration with funding from Washington. Prosecutors labeled the killings intentional, not accidental. The abuse seemingly continues inside the military: 21 recruits were allegedly tortured by their supervisors during training, subjected to beatings, burning and sexual abuse.

The Uribe government has been plagued by scandals about infiltration of its agencies, including the presidency's intelligence service, by the country's powerful, mafia-like paramilitary groups, which are considered terrorists in the United States.

All these issues have been covered by the mainstream media in Colombia, many sparking huge controversies. Yet in its memo justifying certification of Colombia's fulfillment of human rights conditions, the State Department ignores them almost entirely.

Meanwhile, Uribe has suspended U.S. extradition orders for Colombia's top drug lords in the name of a ''peace process'' with paramilitary groups. That process has produced many supposedly ''demobilized'' men, but no confessions, no turnover of the paramilitaries' massive wealth, no reduction in drug trafficking and no clear change in their control, through extortion and force, of large swaths of territory and many local economies.

Last month, a ruling by Colombia's Constitutional Court finally gave some teeth to the law on paramilitary demobilizations, requiring commanders to confess to crimes and face penalties for failing to surrender their illegal fortunes. Uribe did not like the ruling; the Bush administration, instead of calling on his government to implement it, remained deafeningly silent.

It is understandable that the United States wants to maintain good relations with the Colombian government: Colombia is still the largest exporter of cocaine into the United States, and its armed groups are on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

But U.S. officials' myopic and unqualified praise of the Colombian government sends the region the message that politics trumps not only direct U.S. interests in fighting drugs and terror but also the basic principles of human rights and the rule of law that it claims to promote around the world. The Bush administration, by blatantly ignoring difficult realities, is undermining its own credibility in the region.

José Miguel Vivanco is director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, where María McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is a researcher.

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