In an interview with Colombian newspaper El Espectador on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield talked about his country’s military base agreement with Colombia, the pending Free Trade Agreement, the recent State Department report on human rights, the false positives scandal, the drug war, and the extradition of narco traffickers.
El Espectador: Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro said in a presidential debate that Barack Obama does not like the military base agreement with Colombia. Is this true?
William Brownfield: To my knowledge, President Obama supports the agreement. And I agree with Mr. Petro in that the President doesn’t support the concept of putting U.S. Armed Forces in Colombian bases, and base-agreement doesn’t change that. At the moment, we have 240 U.S. military personnel in Colombia, and more than half of them are in the Embassy. The others are in training missions and collaborate exercises.
EE: Why are these bases so important to the U.S.?
WB: They are important in a global sense. In each country where we have military collaboration – at the moment, we have collaboration with 120 countries – we need some sort of agreement written in clear terms with the rules, norms, and obligations of the two governments. Some people suggest that this agreement (with Colombia) is different, but it is really the same as with other countries, so much so that we are about to sign military cooperation agreements with two other Latin American countries, whose government have asked us us to keep silent at the moment to avoid the types of reactions that these agreements tend to produce.
EE: Then why do these agreements bother the region?
WB: I have no doubt that some of the governments have their own political objectives and want to take advantage of other things to express their political or ideological positions.
EE: A few days ago, the U.S. State Department released their Human Rights Report. If the illegal phone intercept and false positives scandals have been going on for so long, why act now?
WB: That information was included in the latest report because it was only last year that we received the evidence and clear statements on the subject. However, despite the criticism, I think the report, in its entirely, is very positive for Colombia, because it talks about progress, development and improvements in the human rights area.
EE: But the Uribe government doesn’t like it…
WB: I will not specifically criticize the Vice President of Colombia, a man who is probably more responsible than any other person in Colombia for the progress in human rights in the last four or five years. I respect criticism from everyone.
EE: Did the U.S. warn the Colombian government about the risks on subjects such as false positives?
WB: It is an issue that has been discussed between our two governments for several years. There were statements and accusations by human rights defenders, which both governments investigated. A year and a half ago, this investigations resulted in evidence of false positives. The most important thing is not whether or not there were false positives, but what they are going to do to punish those involved.
EE: The paramilitary leaders were extradited to the U.S. in May of 2008 with the promise of finding ways for them to continue collaborating with the Colombian justice system from U.S. prisons. Today, nearly two years later, this hasn’t happened. Why?
WB: The figure that I received three days ago from the Department of Justice in the U.S. indicates that in the last 21 months, there have been 89 informal or formal interrogations for the 15 extradited Colombians with Colombian judges and prosecutors. The figure from the Colombian prosecution is 55. To say that there was no collaboration is an exaggeration. On average, there was one interrogation every week. How many times did they (in Colombia) interrogate them before they were extradited to the U.S.? Zero. How many have been found guilty in the U.S.? 15 of 15. How many were found guilty in Colombia prior to extradition? Zero. I accept that the system isn’t perfect, I accept that there are things to resolves, I accept that the coordination and communication between the U.S. Department of Justice, the Colombian prosecution, and Colombian Supreme Court still has problems, but I do not accept that there hasn’t been progress.
EE: How does your government feel about the Colombian Supreme Court’s decision to deny the extradition requests of big fish such as (paramilitary leader) “Don Mario”?
WB: I respect the decision of the Supreme Court, who under our analysis, is not satisfied and convinced that a person can be simultaneously processed under the Justice and Peace program (in Colombia) and for narco trafficking in the U.S. It’s a problem that we have to resolve, we must make the changes in the United States’ system to assure the (Colombian) court that they can do this, that both legal processes can occur simultaneously. It will be complicated because they are two independent and jealous systems, but we have the same objectives: we want justice for the victims, we want narco traffickers to be punished, and we don’t want to take advantage of a broken process to avoid taking responsibility.
EE: What do you think of the possibility that the Partido de Integracion Nacional (PIN), which is known to have been started from the La Picota prison, will form part of the next government, regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential elections.
WB: A Colombian political party is an issue for Colombian institutions. I have heard a lot of strong opinions, and it was even discussed during the presidential debates.
EE: From the debate, all of the candidates boasted of having excellent relations with the U.S. How true is this?
WB: I agree with them and this is a reflection of Colombia’s democratic institutions. Whoever wins the election, we can maintain a very positive bilateral relationship.
EE: If Colombia is the main ally of the U.S. in the region, then why hasn’t the Free Trade Agreement passed, or is Washington supporting more social issues in Colombia?
WB: U.S. support for Colombia under Plan Colombia has not been reduced much during the last two cycles. In 2008, there was a reduction in the budget for the fight against drugs, but an increase in more than 50% in the support for economic, social, and institutional development. Two important things have occured reciently in Washington: the passing of health care reform, which was a priority of President Obama since his first day in office, and the launching of initiative to boost U.S. exports, which is prioritized in six countries, one of them being Colombia. After this, I see great opportunities for the FTA in the coming months.
EE: If the model in the drug war has been demonstrated to be insufficient, why do you insist on the strategy of prohibition (in the U.S.)?
WB: It’s a good question to ask in five or six years. Our strategy has been continuously adjusted in the last three years. Since my arrival to Colombia over a two and a half years ago, we have reduced the budget and size of personnel focused on drug eradication programs, and are increasing our support for alternative development programs. I must say to the critics that they were right, and because of that we, are changing our strategy.
EE: Does this new strategy have to do with the budget reduction in Plan Colombia?
WB: Yes, it reflects this reality. In 2007, our support for Plan Colombia was something around $547 million. This year it is $541 million.
EE: What does the end of the Uribe era mean for the U.S.?
WB: Colombia on August 7, 2010 will be very different from August 7, 2002: It is a more secure country, more prosperous with less illicit drugs, more development and progress in all areas. This is the product of eight years of good collaboration with many governments. I hope Colombia is able to continue this progress, although i cant deny that the relationship in the last few years has been excellent.