In La Macarena, a program on “autopilot”

At the very end of April and beginning of May, a group from WOLA (The Washington Office on Latin America), CIP (Center for International Policy, Washington), Asociación MINGA(Bogotá), and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, Bogotá) traveled to Vistahermosa and San Juan de Arama, in the department of Meta, about 125 miles south of Bogotá.

These two municipalities are part of the “La Macarena” zone, shorthand for a longtime FARC guerrilla stronghold that, since about 2006-07, has been the target of heavy military and social investment. Since then, the Colombian, U.S. and other donor governments have spent about a quarter of a billion dollars (450 billion Colombian pesos) on security, crop eradication, infrastructure, governance and development programs.


It is called the La Macarena Integrated Consolidation Program (Spanish initials PCIM). It is by far the most advanced example of the “Integrated Action” or “Consolidation” strategy that the Colombian government, with U.S. input, has developed for establishing a state presence in about fourteen ungoverned and violent zones. Consolidation is coordinated by a national body, the Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) in the Colombian Presidency; the PCIM’s headquarters, or “Coordination Center,” is on a military base at the entrance to Vistahermosa’s town center.

The “Coordination Center” in Vistahermosa.

For much of our group, this was a second visit to Vistahermosa; a 2009 visit contributed to a CIP report (PDF) evaluating, and expressing concerns about, the Consolidation program so far. That report gives a lot of background on the La Macarena zone’s recent history, which won’t be repeated here. Suffice it to say, though, that despite its proximity to Bogotá, this area of jungle and savannah has been systematically neglected by Colombia’s government. The population has lived for generations among guerrillas and paramilitaries, and it has been a principal coca-growing zone. In 1998 the Colombian security forces vacated much of the area, meeting a FARC pre-condition for peace talks that took place in the zone until their failure in 2002.

This year, support from the Ford Foundation has made it possible for us to return and take another look. Our most recent visit took us only to two municipalities’ town centers, in addition to a series of meetings in Meta’s departmental capital, Villavicencio. Based on this, we are not yet ready to publish a formal evaluation of the La Macarena project. We will return to the PCIM zone later this year to speak with a larger, more diverse sample of the population, as we were able to do in Tumaco in April.

Two views of “Consolidation”

Tito Garzon has lived in Vistahermosa for 44 years, serving twice on the town council.
Islena Rey runs the Meta Civic Committee for Human Rights. She survived a FARC attack in the PCIM zone in late 2009.

Nonetheless, our meetings with officials in charge of the program, with civil-society representatives monitoring the program, and with community leaders in the two town centers are certainly enough to allow us to offer some preliminary observations. Keep in mind that these are preliminary: we have not yet been able to verify everything here to our satisfaction.

Also keep in mind that the entire Consolidation program is in a sort of “autopilot” state right now, as the 10-month-old government of President Juan Manuel Santos rethinks the entire strategy. This re-thinking, managed by 14 thematic working groups, should be more or less complete this month, when the government expects to unveil at least a “roadmap” (hoja de ruta) of where to go from here.

This may take place on Thursday the 16th, when officials in charge of Consolidation will be among the speakers at the launch of an evaluation of the program by the Fundación Ideas para la Paz, a prominent Bogotá think-tank. Among decisions the Santos government must make are the number of zones nation-wide where Consolidation will occur (a cutback is likely); the role of “Social Action,” the agency in the Colombian Presidency that manages the strategy (rather indifferently, some would say); and how to de-emphasize the military’s outsized role and speed the program’s “civilianization.”

The role of the military

What we heard leads us to conclude that the civilian handover isn’t happening. Colombian Army units within the Joint Task Force Omega, as well as some police, continue to be the PCIM’s most visible representatives, and by far its most visible face outside of the zone’s town centers. Soldiers continue to carry out public-works projects; we heard about an ambitious sewer project in Puerto Toledo, in Puerto Rico municipality, which isn’t functioning at the moment. With the exception of Social Action, getting civilian agencies to carry out infrastructure projects and other services in this sparsely populated zone continues to be a problem. And except for a few prosecutors, the justice system remains far off.

Soldiers are keeping a tight lock on security and playing basic policing roles. Roadblocks are frequent; we heard complaints about soldiers at roadblocks photographing riders’ ID cards, taking down numbers from their cellphones’ recent-calls lists, and limiting the number of people who can ride in a vehicle. This heavy-handed approach is in part a reaction to a security situation that, though better than four years ago, has grown more complicated in the past several months, as discussed below.

Titling has begun, slowly

When land changes hands and new landowners concentrate their holdings, they frequently plant crops like the young African oil palms seen from the highway in San Juan de Arama. A source of biofuels, they require little labor.

The lack of clear land titles was a big issue in 2009 and continues to be the first complaint we heard from producer associations. Late last year, a pilot titling program finally began; the goal is to title 1,250 plots of land in twelve hamlets (veredas). Many of these titles are now in their final phase of approval: revision by the Environmental and Agrarian division of the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría). Officials say the goal is eventually to title 5,000 plots in this zone.

Farmers remain concerned, though, about the likelihood that they will either lose their claim to their land or be pressured to sell to agribusiness investors. Many noted that legal “protection measures” to prevent large-scale land grabs were quietly lifted sometime in 2010, and land sales (which do take place, through signed contracts, in the absence of clear title) have been accelerating. Even without titles, though, we heard agreement that campesino producer associations – which barely existed in the zone before the PCIM’s entry – have become stronger.


On April 20, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a five-year, $115 million contract to Associates in Rural Development (ARD), a Vermont-based company that has executed a large portion of USAID’s alternative development programs in Colombia since 2005. With these funds, ARD will be supporting the “alternative livelihoods” side of Consolidation in La Macarena, as well as southern Tolima and parts of Valle del Cauca department. This will be the main non-military U.S. support to the PCIM.

A view of Meta’s plains, looking south from the departmental capital, Villavicencio.

The nature of USAID’s support changed significantly this year, as its Office of Transition Initiatives – which is designed to carry out short-term, quick-impact projects with minimal bureaucracy – ended its mission (PDF) in Colombia after four years. OTI’s field office in Meta closed down at the end of March.

The former head of the OTI office at the U.S. embassy has remained in country, and now holds the title of “Coordinator Of CSDI Implementation” in the USAID mission. Still, a Colombian government official with Consolidation responsibilities told us frankly that “regular” USAID had become noticeably slower and more bureaucratic with OTI’s exit from the scene.

While local leaders expressed gratitude to donor goverments, a frequent complaint surrounded the “operadores,” the contractors and subcontractors hired to carry out infrastructure and productive projects. They charge high operational “overhead” costs, the argument goes, which means that much aid money doesn’t actually reach the target communities. Costs that contractors claim to pay for items (construction materials, livestock) are higher than communities claim to be able to obtain for them on the open market. Operators’ timeframes for projects are short (often two or three years), and they are under pressure to spend down their money by the end date. What suffers are long-term planning and the flexibility needed to work in a very fluid environment.

Despite these concerns about “operators,’ however, the producer associations that have formed within the PCIM structure in both municipalities remained very dedicated to the program. We heard no accounts of increased coca planting; the reductions achieved since 2007 in the zone appear to be stable.

The security situation

Leaders in Vistahermosa also reminded us that it would have been impossible for them to come and meet with us in their town a few years ago. The FARC’s dominion over the town would have made that too risky for all of us.

from Semana magazine).

However, security appears to have improved only incrementally in the zone since 2009. In particular, the Consolidation program continues to face challenges in operating beyond the municipalities’ main town centers. In rural zones, armed groups remain fully able to intimidate the population.

In September of last year, a bombing raid in the PCIM zone, in the nearby municipality of La Uribe, killed the FARC’s top military commander, Víctor Julio Suárez alias “Mono Jojoy.” Contrary to what one might expect, the FARC has since been more active in Vistahermosa, San Juan de Arama, and much of the PCIM zone than it was in 2009.

This was the assessment of both military and civil-society leaders alike. The FARC leader assigned to replace Mono Jojoy, Jaime Alberto Parra alias “El Médico,” did not operate inside the same elaborate security cordon as his predecessor. This meant that the fighters assigned to Jojoy’s “security rings” – there may have been as many as 2,000 – have been freed up to go on the offensive. According to the Colombian daily El Tiempo, “Reports from demobilized guerrillas indicate that four key guerrilla fronts have increased in size.”

FARC fighters are operating in smaller groups, at times out of uniform, and carrying out more frequent attacks in the PCIM zone. These attacks are occasionally taking place in close proximity to town centers. In April, the FARC killed a police auxiliary and kidnapped two merchants in Mesetas, and killed a lieutenant and two soldiers in La Macarena. Just before that, about 10 miles outside the Vistahermosa town center, two guerrillas stopped and burned a passenger bus (the passengers were unharmed); it was the fourth such attack in six months.

Police at a roadblock handed this “wanted” leaflet, depicting a top FARC leader, to the 6-year-old son of someone we interviewed.

We heard that the FARC has reasserted control of some “pacified” towns in which police stations had not yet been established. Puerto Toledo, which we visited two years ago, is one of these.

“Several communities in the PCIM area, including communities recovered by the military as long as two years ago, have been subject to periodic, albeit brief, visits by uniformed members of the FARC,” reads USAID’s most recent report on the PCIM zone (PDF). “To address ongoing security concerns, the police will this year build permanent police stations in Santo Domingo, an important crossroads town in Vista Hermosa, and Jardin de Penas in Mesetas.”

The FARC have stepped up their targeting of civilians. This is one reason why nearly all attempts to return displaced populations, officials acknowledged, have been unsuccessful so far. Meanwhile the charging of vacunas – extortion payments, like US$15 per head of cattle – is way up, by all accounts. An official based in Villavicencio, Meta’s departmental capital, said that residents were complaining of vacunas in towns well outside the PCIM zone, such as Granada and San Martín, which had known no FARC presence for years.

We heard that the FARC are now prohibiting populations in remote parts of the PCIM zone from participating in social programs: not just the Consolidation programs, but conditional cash-transfer programs like “Families in Action,” which makes payments to parents who ensure that their children get medical checkups and go to school. Guerrillas, for instance, are prohibiting parents from traveling to town centers to collect subsidies.

We heard a few, sketchier reports that the FARC may be trying to compete with the PCIM by instituting its own social programs. A so-called “Plan Amigo,” possibly launched at the beginning of the year, purportedly includes some construction projects and an order that FARC fighters be more friendly toward, and avoid killing, civilians. (We note that Google yields no mention of any guerrilla “Plan Amigo”; we need to verify this.)

For their part, the “new” paramilitary groups active in Meta also suffered a blow late last year. In December, an elite Colombian police unit hunted down and killed Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias Cuchillo (Knife), a former mid-level AUC commander whose so-called Popular Anticommunist Revolutionary Army (ERPAC) had been growing quickly – and trafficking tons of cocaine – between Meta and the Venezuelan border.

The ERPAC continues to exist, and apparently has remained strong enough to prevent other “new” paramilitary groups from entering western Meta. The group’s presence has been weaker in the PCIM zone, though, and its remnants appear to be cooperating with the FARC in the drug trade. Episodes of combat with the guerrillas have been very rare.

Next steps

Shortly, the Colombian government will complete its review of the Consolidation plan, and ARD, the contractor, will launch new projects in the PCIM zone.

We very much hope that this rethinking, and the new investment, will address the concerns we voiced about the program’s execution back in 2009. All of these remain relevant. The pace of the civilian handover remains very slow, in part because the security situation remains very complicated. Land titling still lags. Judicial personnel needed to combat impunity are absent. Consultation with communities about development needs is partial. So is coordination between illicit crop eradication and food-security and development aid. Coordination in general remains a big challenge, especially as many of the Consolidation program’s initial managers are now gone, either transferred elsewhere or out of government, and have been replaced by new officials who may not share the same vision.

Our organizations will continue to monitor events closely, and will return to the La Macarena zone soon for meetings and a workshop with leaders from several of its rural communities. Much of what we recount here needs further verification, more detail and a wider range of views, and we look forward to obtaining those before offering final conclusions and recommendations.

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