U.S. and Western Hemisphere: Partnership and Shared ResponsibilityAbout the Authors: Peter Kranstover serves as a Conflict Prevention Officer in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction & Stabilization. LCDR Spencer Abbot, U.S. Navy, serves as the U.S. Southern Command Representative to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
In San José de Apartadó, Colombia, people are returning to their homes. Businesses and public institutions in this town nestled amid banana and plantain farms are beginning to function again. Thanks to a reinvigorated effort by the Government of Colombia supported by the U.S. government, this former battleground between the Colombian military and armed insurgent groups is slowly coming back to life after suffering two decades of violence.
San José de Apartadó is well-known as an area that has experienced more than its share of violence over the past two decades. Right- and left-wing groups have been fighting for territory throughout northern Colombia for years, and the local people have been caught in the middle. The years of brutal violence caused many of the former residents to flee, and the region surrounding San José de Apartadó was the scene of a number of massacres by both groups, as acknowledged in May 2008 by the Colombian military. The protracted violence and instability in the region, combined with substantial numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and sustained high levels of narcotics production, called for a new approach on the part of the Colombian government to confronting these problems.
In the first Uribe administration, beginning in 2003, the Colombian government adopted a population-centric approach to combating insurgency that focused on protecting and providing services to the local populace, as well as training its own personnel in human rights and the rule of law. As a result, the Colombian military has established significant trust and credibility within the local population, many of whom had until recently been very suspicious of the Colombian military’s methods and motives.
A prime example of reestablished trust is the mayor of San José de Apartadó, Osvaldo Cuadrado. Alcalde Cuadrado is a former member of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL), an insurgent group demobilized in 1991. He began his involvement in politics as a leader within the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores labor union, and now presides over an area that at long last enjoys a consistent and effective Colombian government presence. Mayor Cuadrado serves as an important advocate for security and social services in this region. He has seen the transformation of the Colombian military and relies on them, in coordination with the Colombian police, to maintain a regular and professional presence in San José de Apartadó. With this increased security, he has been able to assure local residents that they can engage in their daily routines without fear of violence. He is now one of the Colombian military’s strongest supporters within his region.
With the surge in U.S. foreign assistance funding for Colombia in early 2001, the Government of Colombia engaged a number of local and international NGOs to assist the people of the area, focusing on those who had been displaced from their villages and homes by violence. These funds also helped the government hire more investigators for the Colombian Attorney General’s office, which has worked diligently to reveal the extent of the massacres and those responsible, both in this region and throughout Colombia. In addition, technical training and funds for the police and military were provided by the U.S. government, and coordinated with support from U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Miami and the U.S. Military Group (MILGP) in Bogotá.
The people of San José de Apartadó and the surrounding area have received relief assistance from a variety of sources, including nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, and the Government of Colombia. Much of the assistance has been coordinated through an executive level agency known as Acción Social, a sort of internal development agency for the Colombian government that serves as the umbrella for another executive level agency, the Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI). CCAI, with representatives throughout the various regions of the country, serves as the government entity responsible for development and security efforts in zones recently taken from insurgent groups.
Numerous U.S. government agencies have assisted CCAI in building its coordinative capacity. Programs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), SOUTHCOM, and Section 1207 funds coordinated by the Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction & Stabilization and provided to USAID have all played important roles in supporting CCAI and its efforts.
The changes apparent in this part of Colombia are indicative of the effectiveness of the Colombian government’s recent “whole-of-government” approach to an insurgency that had kept vast areas outside of central government control for decades. Both Colombian government resources and U.S. foreign assistance efforts have combined over the past eight years to bring fundamental change to areas in the north like San José de Apartadó, as well as a number of villages in Meta province, further south. The extensive cooperation with respect to CCAI and its initiatives, both among U.S. government agencies, and between the U.S. and Colombian governments, represents an important case study and model for collaborative action to facilitate stabilization and reconstruction in areas of previously failed governance, such as the now thriving town of San José de Apartadó.