Colombian context behind the “Facebook hit list”

Word of the murder of 3 Colombian teens whose names were recently posted on a Facebook “hit list” has attracted a great deal of attention from English language news outlets. Certainly much more than usual for Colombia, where drug-related violence between rival gangs, security forces, paramilitaries, and leftist guerillas has been raging since the early 1980s.

According to CNN, multiple lists of names appeared on Facebook in mid-August along with a message to the victims that they had should leave the southwestern town of Puerto Asis. Authorities initially interpreted these lists as a joke of some sort. But now word of the killings have created panic in the town with many of the listed teenagers now leaving.

CNN goes on to quote a “federal defender of the public” named Volmar Perez Ortiz in claiming the presence of two main armed groups in the region: the Los Rastrojos criminal gang and the leftist guerillas of the FARC. Los Rastrojos is singled out for “executing violent actions, resolving community conflicts, imposing living and conduct norms, intimidating and meting punishment against … drug sellers and consumers, sex workers, people with criminal and unlawful histories and threatening social leaders, business people, taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi drivers.”

A report by Human Rights Watch released earlier this year on the reincarnation of paramilitaries as various drug gangs featured a short profile of the Rastrojos:

According to multiple reports received by Human Rights Watch, the Rastrojos were an armed wing of the North of the Valley drug cartel, who have historically been tied to Carlos Mario Jiménez (also known as “Macaco”). The group attempted to participate in the demobilization process but ultimately was not allowed to do so because the government considered it a criminal organization. Official documents state that the Rastrojos now operate in 10 departments and 50 municipalities, have 1,394 members, and are commanded by Javier Antonio Calle Serna (also known as “El Doctor”).

The International Crisis Group went into greater detail on the group’s origins in a 2007 report:

The Rastrojos are the armed wing of an NDVC faction led by Wilber Varela (“Jabón”),112 for whom the U.S. has an extradition warrant and offers a $5 million reward. NDVC is the successor of the Cali Cartel, and many of its leaders began under the Cali drug-trafficking organisation of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, Gilberto and Miguel, who are now in a U.S. prison. The NDVC fragmented after the death of its leader, Orlando Henao, in 1998, with Varela and another clan leader, Diego Montoya (“Don Diego”), who created a private army (the “Machos”), fighting an all-out turf war. During the Santa Fe de Ralito negotiations, the NDVC tried to integrate the Rastrojos and the Machos into the AUC to portray them as paramilitary rather than criminal but the government rejected the move after harsh criticism. [...] The Rastrojos were born in 2003 out of the break-up of the Cali Cartel and the surge of strongmen Wilber Varela and Diego Montoya. The new private armies were forged through alliances between local Traquetos and local armed units. They fought for control of cocaine production labs and commercial routes. (p. 12)

The group is one of the apparent successors to the AUC (the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) which was an umbrella group of various right-wing paramilitary groups. The paramilitaries were initially formed with the stated intent of combating leftist insurgents of the FARC and ELN and were often linked to massive human rights violations such as assasinations and massacres as well as criminal acitivities such as drug trafficking and extortion. Their activities peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the Uribe administration’s “demobilization” process getting credit for credit for reducing–but by no means eliminating–their presence. HRW and other human rights groups have criticized the demobilization process as being “fundamentalled flawed.” The process failed to adequately punish the paramilitary leaders responsible for some of the worst atrocities and also refrained from seizing their assets and blocking their financial sources of support. This “may have allowed groups to hide assets, recruit new members and continue operating under new guises.”

As mentioned earlier, Los Rastrojos were never a part of the AUC but instead an armed wing of the North of the Valley drug cartel. There are many reports that the group collaborates with the leftist ELN in drug trafficking activities. Despite this, it appears that the gang is taking on a socially and politically reactionary role as of late. This past April, they sent out “threatening emails and letters to over 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), senators and human rights activists.” Even the United Nations Development Program was targeted. The threats warned its victims to “leave behind subversive, archaic discussion which favors the rights and ideologies of the ‘narcoterrorists,’ from the FARC and ELN to all their accomplices from the past and present … we reserve our right to fight for a country free of scum like you, the only thing you do is to deceive the people, teaching them communist doctrines.”

A recent article from Colombia Reports suggests that Los Rastrojos and other Colombian criminal gangs are taking on a new role as  social cleansers:

Paramilitary group “Aguilas Negras” and drug gang “Los Rastrojos” have recently started threatening large numbers of people in the southern Putumayo and Nariño departments, in the central Cundinamarca department and the north-eastern Antioquia department. In the north of Antioquia, the Aguilas Negras threaten citizens they accuse of supportingr rival group “Los Paisas.” In Caucasia, Los Paisas imposed a curfew and threatened to kill alleged prostitutes and drug users, and Los Rastrojos prohibited any parties. The threats have forced dozens of people to flee their homes in the affected departments, which are all of great importance for drug traffickers.

“It is the same pattern the [demobilized paramilitary organization] AUC used in the 1990s to consolidate in the regions; a ‘social cleansing’ to justify their presence in the towns and capture the local economy,” an anonymous investigator told newspaper El Tiempo. “The only difference with what you see now is that the AUC initially tried to end subversive influence in certain regions,” Mauricio Romero of left-leaning think tank Corporacion Arco Iris told the same newspaper.

Indeed, the recent Facebook “hit list” incident appears to fit in with this. The Economist notes that those mentioned in the hit lists are mostly accused either of being drug dealers or of having links to prostitution. Los Rastrojos apparent fondness for “social cleansing” makes them a likely suspect. While it should be noted that FARC is also mentioned as a possible perpetrator of the hit lists, it appears there is no reason to come to the conclusion that they were behind them other than the fact that they operate in the general area. All signs currently point toward Los Rastrojos as being the ones behind the hit lists.


Criminal complaint makes corruption allegations against Mexican law enforcement officials

According to a DEA press release and an unsealed criminal complaint, a high ranking Mexican official that had access to US drug intelligence allowed himself to be used as an asset by a drug trafficking group known as the Fernando Sanchez Organization (FSO). From page 64 of the complaint:

Jesus Quiñones Marquez is currently employed as the director of International Liaison for the Baja California Attorney General’s Office. In the capacity, Marquez is one of the primary Mexican liaison official responsible for sharing information with the United States. Marquez is not only aware of the FSO’s illegal activities, he uses his position to obtain confidential law enforcement information for the use of the Enterprise. Based on his contacts with US law enforcement, Marquez obtains information maintained by the California Highway Patrol, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles Police Department, San Diego Police Department, Customs and Border Protection, and Border Patrol on behalf of the Enterprise. Further, Marquez is actively involved in making arrangements to have various rivals of the FSO arrested and detained by Mexican law enforcement officials.

He also stands accused of planting “stories in Mexican media outlets that placed the blame for killings on a rival gang.”

The complaint mentions a couple more Mexican law enforcement officers as being involved with the FSO’s activities. One police officer, Jose Antonio Ortega Nuvo is alleged to run a “hit crew” on behalf of the organization. He is accused of killing rival drug traffickers and–even more insidiously–of providing a “photographic roster of current Baja California State Police Officers to [fellow drug suspect Carlos] Cosme so that the FSO could target police officers for assassination or corruption.”

It should be remembered that corruption in the Mexican drug war is a huge problem on both sides of the border. Recently, for example, there have been allegations concerning irregularities in a US customs agency anti-drug task force that resulted only in retaliation against a whistle-blower.

The number for the Mexican cartel case is 10-MJ-2489 and can be found in the PACER files of US District Court for the Southern District of California.


Assessing plans for Haiti’s reconstruction

For those who have followed the history of Haiti since the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, it is clear that the international community led by the US has not had the interests of the Haitian majority at heart. Haiti–it must be remembered–is a country where 1% of the population controls more than half the national wealth. The US and its allies have often found it worthwhile to not only preserve this social order but also to aggravate it further. The earthquake which recently destroyed and emptied out Port-au-Prince was a bitter reversal to the trend of rural dwellers moving to its teaming slums. Ever since the advent of neo-liberalism in the country, Haiti’s agricultural sector has been undermined by cheap–often heavily subsidized–imports from the US and the rest of the world. This had the effect of pushing many farmers off their lands by running them out of business and increasing price volatility for basic food items. The quintessential example of this is the case of Haitian rice. Trade liberalization schemes promoted by organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lowered the tariff on rice imports to 3% in the mid-1990s. Heavily subsidized “Miami rice” from the US flooded the food market and and dramatically reduced the price of rice to levels at which domestic farmers could not compete. This accelerated the ongoing process of “de-peasantization” in which rural populations migrated to urban areas such as Port-au-Prince in search of a source of income. Once settled in the poorly maintained and densely populated slums they were often rendered dependent on sweatshops for income. This past March, former US president Bill Clinton offered a long overdue apology for forcing low tariffs on Haiti’s underdeveloped agricultural sector:

“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake […] I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”

There are other indications that the US and the international community are aware of the negative press their economic recommendations for Haiti have caused. However, it remains to be seen whether this will result in a fundamental move away from orthodox neo-liberalism or a mere repackaging of the same old formulas. On March 16, a financial services subcommittee in the House of Representatives held a hearing entitled “Rebuilding Haiti’s competitiveness and private sector” (large PDF). There were numerous acknowledgments made about legitimate concerns on the US role in Haiti. Congressman Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) congratulated Congress for passing bill to relieve Haiti’s foreign debt and expressed a desire that long term reconstruction provide “hope and opportunity for all [of Haiti's] population and not just the privileged elite.” Despite this, there was absolutely no suggestion that the US’ policies towards Haiti in the past have been less than benevolent and very little reference to the staggering disparity in wealth and income present in the country. Numerous mentions were made of corruption on the part of the Haitian government with little sense of context or self-examination. Flaws on the part of US aid organizations were mentioned mostly in passing. It did not appear that the participants were aware that USAID itself once bragged that “84 cents of every dollar of its funding in Haiti goes back to the US in the form of salaries, supplies, consultant fees, and services.” There was much talk of micro-financing and re-energizing Haiti’s private sector, but very little acknowledgment that a country where such a small number of families owns most of the means of production, trade and credit such measures will only enjoy small-scale token achievements.

The official plan for reconstruction was released this past March. The plan, much like the hearing referenced earlier, occasionally gives voice to the concerns of critics of the international community’s treatment of Haiti. For example, it briefly mentions the saturation of NGOs and contrasts their deep influence with the weakness of the national and local governments. However,  one can’t help but get a feeling of deja vue from the continued emphasis on private investment. On a bullet point describing the 18 month “implementation” period after the quake (p. 9) it states the need for (emphasis mine):

Projects to kick-start the future of Haiti and establish a framework of incentives and supervision for private investment on which Haiti ‘s economic growth will be founded. As foreseen by various analyses and assessments, private investment in the economy as well as in the social sector will form the backbone of the country’s reconstruction. Among the commitments of donors, support will be given to the private sector to provide it with the capacity required to fulfil this role.

It mentions some genuinely laudable goals such as increasing access to electricity, health care, water and sanitation but doesn’t not specify precisely how this will be done. There is mention of “public-private partnerships” for certain public works projects such as the rebuilding of ports, which is worrisome considering that the biggest private interests in Haiti are not known for their concern for public well-being or willingness to engage in honest competition.

On page 44 there is talk of “decentralization” of government duties by giving more authority and responsibilities to the municipal governments. One of the bullet points states that:

Initially the local governments will remain dependent on grants from the State, but they will have to develop their own resources through a locally adapted taxation system. By the year 2020, State grants should not be more than 50 percent of the functional revenue of the municipalities that are development centres and by the year 2025 for other municipalities.

This strategy seems incredibly premature considering the fact that the economic powers of the national government were never too strong too begin with. Decentralization could in practice enable even more inequality by allowing the richer municipalities to deprive the poorer regions of much needed tax revenues.

The section on fiscal and budgetary policy (p. 49) gives lip-service to “increasing tax revenues by improving the fairness of the taxation system and fighting tax evasion,” certainly a worthy goal in a poor country with a decadent ruling class. One of ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s greatest achievements (before getting overthrown, of course) was the increase in tax revenue from the notoriously evasive upper-class. However, the rest of the document de-emphasizes tax policy and only notes that direct budgetary aid will be necessary to offset the loss of revenue collection capabilities. This probably means that Haiti will be rendered even more dependent on foreign governments to fund its own budget and thus more easily cowed by foreign interests.

Overall, the plan for reconstruction relies on a private sector that is notoriously in-egalitarian and exploitative and is run by small clique of rent-seekers. It is not clear how increased attention to micro-loans to small- and medium-sized businesses  will help the situation if the oligarchy’s numerous monopolistic and oligopolistic entities are not subordinated to the public good. Sad as it sounds, it seems that this plan is mostly window dressing to cover for the continued dominance of Haiti by domestic elites and foreign powers.