The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Photo from Presidency of Colombia. Caption: “President Juan Manuel Santos greets a FARC member during a surprise visit to the La Carmelita disarmament zone in Putumayo.”

  • Ex-presidents and peace process opponents Álvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana had either a conversation or a brief contact with Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Good Friday. They were guests of one of the resort’s members, and the Miami Herald reports that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) may have helped arrange the meeting, or encounter, or whatever it was. The ex-presidents no doubt had at least a brief opportunity to express to Trump their opposition to the FARC peace accord.
  • Ex-president and sitting Senator Uribe sent a blistering missive to the U.S. Congress, and to much of the Washington community interested in Colombia, attacking the peace accord. The document included many false claims, which were rebutted by WOLA, by Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative journalism site, and by 50 members of Colombia’s Congress (PDF).
  • The occupation of formerly FARC-dominated territories by new armed groups was the subject of coverage by The Guardian in Cauca, La Silla Vacía in Chocó, and Rutas del Conflicto in Meta.
  • The dilemma of ex-FARC splinter or “dissident” groups is the subject of reporting by Verdad Abierta in Tumaco, Nariño, and Medellín’s daily El Colombiano, looking at the roughly 110-member “1st Front” in Guaviare.
  • FARC leaders are hinting that the disarmament process may be delayed as much as 90 days beyond the originally foreseen 6 months. They blame government slowness in complying with commitments. The government is reluctant to bear the political cost involved with granting such an extension.
  • The FARC is also hinting that it may want to allow its members to stay in the 26 disarmament zones after the 6-month (or perhaps 9-month) process concludes, or even to settle in them permanently.
  • President Juan Manuel Santos paid a surprise visit to one of those zones, in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, after visiting the site of a massive mudslide that killed hundreds in Putumayo’s capital two weeks earlier. VICE documented a visit to the site in Tumaco, Nariño.
  • Speaking of extensions, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said that, due to the legislature’s slowness in approving legislation to implement the peace accords, the government may seek to extend “fast track” lawmaking authority for another several months. The six-month authority expires at the end of May.
  • Colombian soldiers and police found a FARC arms cache in Putumayo. Opposition politicians called it a sign of guerrilla bad faith in the disarmament process. Maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño said the guerrillas are working with the UN mission to collect 900 arms caches hidden around the country.
  • WOLA called for the UN’s post-disarmament mission to make guaranteeing human rights, and the security of human rights defenders, a central focus of its work. This should include a prominent and autonomous role for the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • An essay in Semana looks at the international community’s growing concerns about the Colombian government’s continued stumbles in implementing the peace accord.
  • Verdad Abierta asks what will happen if the military’s thousands of “false positive” killings end up being tried by the special transitional-justice system established by the peace accords. Since many involved hiring criminals to murder civilians so that soldiers could win rewards granted for high body counts, these cases’ link to the armed conflict is tenuous at best.

Álvaro Uribe’s Questionable “Message to U.S. Authorities” About Colombia’s Peace Effort

On Easter Sunday Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, wrote a blistering attack on Colombia’s peace accords with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. He sent it in English as a “message to the authorities and the Congress of the United States of America.” It went to every U.S. congressional office, as well as to Washington’s community of analysts, advocates and donors who work on Colombia.

Inaccurate=pink. Debatable=orange.

Uribe, now Colombia’s most prominent opposition senator, is the most vocal critic of the peace process led by his successor, President Juan Manuel Santos. The ex-president’s missive leaves out the very encouraging fact that 7,000 members of the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, are currently concentrated in 26 small zones around the country, where they are gradually turning all of their weapons over to a UN mission. One of the organizations most involved in the illicit drug business has agreed to stop using violent tactics for political purposes and to get out of the drug economy. The process currently underway is ending a bloody conflict that raged for 52 years, and holds at least the promise of making vast areas of Colombia better governed, and less favorable to illicit drug production.

Colombia’s peace accord implementation is going slowly, and faces daunting problems. There is a responsible, fact-based critique that a conservative analyst could make. Uribe’s document is not that critique. It suffers from numerous factual inaccuracies and statements that are easily rebutted. Its fixation on the FARC, a waning force, deliberately lacks important facts regarding other parties to the conflict and it does little to explain how the United States can help Colombia address post-conflict challenges.

Here is WOLA’s evaluation of several of the points made by Álvaro Uribe in this document, and evaluations of their accuracy. The vast majority of his claims are either inaccurate, or debatable.

Statement:

“Coca plantations were reduced from 170,000 ha to 42,000 ha, now there are 188,000 ha according to the lowest estimate.”

Inaccurate. Two sources estimate Colombian coca-growing: the U.S. government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (working with the Colombian government). Their highest, lowest, and most current estimates of Colombian coca-cultivation are as follows.

Source Highest before current Lowest Most current
U.S. government 170,000 (2001) 78,000 (2012) 188,000 (2016)
UNODC 163,300 (2000) 48,000 (2012-13) 96,000 (2015)

No estimate shows a drop from 170,000 to 42,000 hectares. Both show the lowest estimate in 2012, two years after Uribe left office. 188,000 hectares is not the “lowest” current estimate, it is the higher of the two. Using the 188,000 hectare (U.S.) figure yields an increase from a baseline of 78,000, not 42,000.

Nobody denies that Colombia’s post-2012 coca boom is a problem, but Uribe’s statement exaggerates its severity still further.

Statement:

“THE CAUSE OF THIS DANGEROUS TREND: The government has stopped spraying illicit crops to please the terrorist FARC.”

Inaccurate. First, the October 2015 suspension of “spraying illicit crops” with herbicides from aircraft is one of seven causes for the boom in coca cultivation, which WOLA explained in a March 13 report. (The other six are a decline in manual eradication, a failure to replace eradication with state presence and services, a drop in gold prices, a stronger dollar, a promise that people who planted coca would get aid under the FARC peace accords, and an increase in organized coca-grower resistance.) Giving all explanatory weight to the suspension of herbicide fumigation is misleading, as even the State Department recognized that the program’s effectiveness was “significantly reduced” by “counter-eradication tactics” like swift replanting and pruning sprayed plants.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald photo at WLRN. Caption: “A member of the FARC in Colombia’s Tolima province watches over guerrilla rifles turned over as part of the country’s peace agreement.”

  • By now, the UN mission in Colombia has inventoried more than 7,000 weapons that over 6,900 FARC members have brought to 26 disarmament sites around the country. The FARC is handing these arms over to the UN in phases.
  • FARC members concentrated at the disarmament site outside Puerto Asís, Putumayo, have offered to help with rescue and rebuilding efforts after mudslides and flooding destroyed much of the departmental capital, Mocoa, which is about two hours’ drive away.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, visited Colombia in their role as international representatives of a government-FARC commission to monitor compliance with the peace accords’ commitments.
  • The investigative journalism website Verdad Abierta finds some truth to FARC allegations that elements of Colombia’s military have been trying to coax guerrillas away from the sites where they are to disarm collectively, so that they might enter the Defense Ministry’s program for individual deserters.
  • The new administration in the United States has said almost nothing about future U.S. support for peace implementation in Colombia. So every statement that does come out is important, like this one from April 3:

“Right now as the United States works through its budget process both for the current budget here that we’re in right now, Fiscal Year 2017, as well as the next budget year, we are evaluating how our assistance funds can be best utilized to support the highest U.S. priorities. Supporting the peace process in Colombia has traditionally been a high priority for the United States. We look forward to working with the Colombian Government in order to make sure that our assistance dollars are utilized as effectively as possible.”

  • On the evening of March 28, Colombia’s Congress approved the transitional-justice system envisioned in the peace accords. This system, the “Special Peace Jurisdiction,” will try and punish war crimes that were ordered, planned, or committed by the FARC, the Colombian government, or private citizens. WOLA, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others have criticized some of the changes to the original accord that Colombia’s Congress added, and that we hope Colombia’s Constitutional Court will correct.
  • Two prominent generals imprisoned for their role in human rights crimes have signed up to have their cases considered by the new Special Peace Jurisdiction. This holds out the possibility of reducing their sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations. As many as 2,000 convicted or accused military personnel may choose the transitional justice route.
  • “The discourse rejecting indulgence for the eternal enemy—the FARC—helps avoid speaking of what is truly feared: that economic, military, and political elites’ ties to atrocities might be placed in evidence,” reads a tough analysis of transitional justice by human rights lawyer Michael Reed Hurtado at Razón Pública.
  • A coalition of Colombian human rights groups voiced strong concern that the country’s new transitional justice law does not give “high level entity status” to a new Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons in the attorney-general’s office, as envisioned in the peace accord.
  • As peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas continue to struggle, violence continues. An ELN ambush in the northeastern department of Arauca, where the guerrilla group is at its most activekilled two soldiers on March 27. A Colombian armed forces aerial bombardment killed 10 ELN guerrillas at an encampment in the Catatumbo region, also in northeastern Colombia, on April 1. Meanwhile the La Silla Vacía investigative journalism website denounced an intimidating message from one of the ELN’s most powerful leaders, and Jesuit peace activist Francisco de Roux, in his regular El Tiempo column, criticized arrests of civil-society leaders charged with ELN ties, and called for an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
  • A potentially fatal flaw in the FARC peace accords is their failure to address the “partial collapse” of Colombia’s state, argues the University of Chicago’s James Robinson in a speech at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

  • Colombia’s draft law creating a transitional justice system to try war crimes, two elements of which WOLA strongly critiqued last week, has not yet passed. The legislature failed to reach a quorum last Wednesday night. A new vote will be attempted the night of Tuesday the 28th.
  • FARC and government representatives met in Bogotá over the weekend to review the peace accords’ implementation so far. It was the two teams’ first formal meeting since the accords’ November 24 signing. A joint communiqué commits the government to finishing construction of disarmament zones by April (finally), and to speed up mechanisms to guarantee security for political activists. The FARC promised to turn over its final list of all its members.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, will be named on March 30 as international representatives to the FARC peace accords’ Committee of Oversight, Stimulus, and Verification of Implementation. This body, with the Spanish acronym CSIVI, will produce regular evaluations of both sides’ compliance with their accord commitments.
  • According to government estimates, about 5 or 6 percent of the FARC’s membership refused to demobilize and are considered “dissidents.” Another 2 percent are deserters from the demobilization process. This is considered low by the standards of post-conflict processes, but there are many months to go.
  • One of the main FARC dissidents, Carlos Carvajal alias “Mojoso” of the 14th Front in Caquetá, turned himself in to authorities. He had led a group of dissidents of unknown size: estimates run from eight to sixty. “Mojoso” will be tried within the regular justice system. He may have yielded in the face of dogged pursuit by his former comrades in the FARC, even though the guerrillas have purportedly been observing a ceasefire.
  • Women in the FARC were the subject of feature stories at The Intercept, The Guardian, and Agénce France Presse, while the Miami Herald portrayed guerrilla painter Inty Maleywa.
  • The acting mayor of Tumaco, the Pacific coast port that is the seat of Colombia’s number-one coca-growing county, alleged that undemobilized FARC members were illegally campaigning in favor of a candidate for an upcoming special mayoral election.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Disarmament

“There is now an inventory of 14,000 FARC weapons that will soon pass into the UN Mission’s hands,” President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted shortly after Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced that figure. Villegas added that around 11,000 of the arms that the FARC will “leave aside” are rifles. The UN verification and monitoring mission has so far received 507 arms, most of them from FARC members who have been authorized to act as the organization’s representatives outside the disarmament zones. The FARC has also turned over to the UN the coordinates of its arms caches and stockpiles. A new overview (in Spanish) of how the “laying aside” of weapons is to occur, produced by the Bogotá-based Fundación Ideas para la Paz, points out that the process is likely to take more than the originally planned 180 days.

Construction continues to go painfully slowly at the 26 zones where 7,200 FARC members are gathered to turn in weapons over six months. The UN mission reported [PDF] March 14 that no zone has reached 90 percent completion, and 13 are still at less than 10 percent. “Despite months of planning,” the Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss reported, “many of the camps don’t have adequate potable water, bathrooms, cafeterias, recreational facilities and other amenities that the guerrillas say they were promised,” which is hurting morale at the sites. Poor conditions at the zones appear to be causing a trickle of guerrilla desertions, which is in danger of becoming a flood.

“There is still time to correct the government’s inability to implement the accords,” Sen. Claudia López said. “There seems to be no problem introducing legislation, but to carry something out 200 kilometeres away from Bogotá seems to be too much to ask.”

Uncertainty meanwhile surrounds how the demobilization process will incorporate somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 FARC militias—part-time support personnel—whom the revised peace accord expects to report to the 26 concentration sites for up to a week of registration. About 700 have already done so. The actual number of militia members is unknown, and as most live in cities, it is unlikely that many will bother to emerge from clandestinity and journey to the FARC’s remote rural sites.

Transitional Justice

Defense Minster Villegas announced that he has signed a list of 817 imprisoned members of the security forces who are to request parole under the transitional justice system foreseen in the FARC-government peace accord. Contagio Radio obtained a list of 150 of them that includes some generals and colonels notorious for high-profile cases of human rights abuse.

Much press coverage during the week surrounded the 72 changes that Colombia’s Senate made to a bill creating a transitional justice system to judge guerrillas, military personnel, and civilians who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Reaching agreement on this topic was the most difficult part of the four-year negotiation between the government and the FARC.

The Senate did a favor to civilians accused of contributing to war crimes by making their participation in transitional justice “voluntary” and raising the threshold of evidence needed to bring cases. The Senate did a favor to retired military officers by redefining commanders’ responsibility for their units’ behavior in a way that might allow many to avoid punishment. And it upended the accord on political participation by banning ex-FARC members from politics until they get a sort of certificate stating that they have complied with their peace accord commitments.

Because of these changes, two prominent Green Party senators who are strong negotiation supporters—Claudia López and Antonio Navarro Wolff—voted against the Senate measure. The bill must now go to reconciliation with the House version, then it becomes law, then the Constitutional Court must review it. Meanwhile, Congress must pass a separate law to establish the new justice system’s operational procedures. The International Criminal Court may also choose to review the law, and if the Senate language on “command responsibility” is still in it, the ICC may decide that Colombia is not complying with its international human rights commitments.

(Sources: Semana magazine, El Espectador editorial, Verdad Abierta)

Human Rights

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) annual report on Colombia (EnglishSpanish – summarized in an earlier blog post) expressed concerns about legislative efforts to water down transitional justice, attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders, and the slow pace of the government’s peace accord implementation so far.

For the first time, a FARC leader was a panelist at the report’s launch press conference at a Bogotá five-star hotel. Julián Gallo, until recently known as “Carlos Antonio Lozada,” sat two spots from Police General Carlos Mena at the panelists’ table.

Interviewed by the daily El Espectador, Todd Howland, the longtime director of the OHCHR office in Colombia, did not hide his anger at the changes Colombia’s Senate wrought to the transitional justice bill.

At the dialogue table we worked hard to comply with international standards. In the end something was obtained that isn’t perfect, but isn’t bad. That took years of work. It was too big an effort for the Congress not to take it seriously afterward. That effort was based on an interest in victims’ rights, but now the congresspeople acted as though nothing had happened in Cuba.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Photo of an unbuilt Disarmament Zone

Much of the FARC disarmament zone in Catatumbo remains unbuilt. Colombian Senator Iván Cepeda posted this photo to his Twitter account while visiting the Caño Indio site on Saturday.

Transitional justice

With the right-wing opposition abstaining, the pro-government coalition in Colombia’s Senate passed, by a 61–2 vote, a law to create the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz or JEP), the new transitional-justice system. Tribunals will judge ex-guerrillas and military personnel who carried out war crimes, as well as civilians who may have ordered, planned, or funded them. The next step is reconciling differences in the law’s House and Senate versions.

The Senate’s major changes to what was agreed in the peace accord are:

  • Defining “command responsibility” for war crimes to a standard below that of the Rome Statute ([PDF], the international law creating the International Criminal Court), to which Colombia is a signatory. Article 28 of that statute says that commanders are legally responsible for war crimes that they, “owing to the circumstances at the time, should have known” about. The Senate version of the law, reflecting strong pressure from retired military officers, waters that down to commanders having “effective control of the conduct” of those who committed the crime. Former officers are likely to try to evade accountability by claiming that killers under their command were not under their control. If it stands, this is not going to go down well with the International Criminal Court or with human rights groups, including WOLA.
  • Weakens the JEP’s ability to punish civilians who aided war crimes: they now cannot be tried if the evidence against them comes only from the JEP’s own proceedings.
  • Puts off for a later law to determine how the JEP will go about deciding, case-by-case, what past drug-trafficking activity is a “political crime” that can be amnestied.

(Sources: La Silla Vacía (Colombia), March 14; El Tiempo (Colombia), March 14; El Espectador (Colombia), March 14.)

Colombia’s ability to implement the accords

Analysts are voicing worry, or outright pessimism, about the Colombia’s government’s ability—or will—to honor its peace accord commitments. Alejandro Reyes, a prominent Colombian scholar who advised Santos’s first agriculture minister, told the Los Angeles Times that he sees big pushback coming from a nexus of landowners and organized crime:

Researcher Reyes said carrying out those ambitious plans is a tall order for the government because as much as one third of the 15 million acres in question is now controlled by violent drug traffickers and other criminal groups.

“Many narcos and mafiosos have tried to seem legitimate by becoming huge landowners, mainly for cattle ranches,” said Reyes. “You can be sure they will react against any efforts to implement agrarian reform.”

In a piece published at Spain’s daily El País, Enrique Santiago, a Spanish lawyer who served as legal advisor to the FARC during the peace talks, ripped into the Colombian government’s poor implementation of the accords so far.

“The ZVTN [disarmament zones] were to have been built before December 1… but today it is an exception to see one with even half of its infrastructure built,” Santiago observes. “On December 30 the amnesty law was approved… however, judges haven’t applied it.… As of today they have approved less than 70 amnesties of guerrillas, five authorizations of transfer to ZVTNs, and no paroles.” The guerrillas’ own security is also at stake, Santiago adds: “One of the accord’s most important measures is the creation of a specialized Investigative Unit for the dismantling of paramilitary organizations… but the current Prosecutor-General, ignoring the peace accord, seeks to impede this special unit’s launch.”

El Tiempo reporter Marisol Gómez visited a FARC demilitarization zone in the northwestern department of Chocó that had only 31 guerrillas present because facilities still weren’t ready yet.

Violence in Chocó

Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, has also been the site of numerous recent paramilitary incursions into zones of former FARC influence. These, along with fighting between the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group and the ELN guerrillas, have already displaced hundreds in the Upper Baudó River region, in the almost completely stateless southern half of Chocó.

The military

More than two dozen retired generals and admirals wrote a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos voicing concern that the FARC’s disarmament sites will become permanent “independent republics,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Meanwhile Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said that 420 military personnel accused of war crimes (or perhaps accused or already sentenced for war crimes, it’s not clear) have already agreed to have their cases tried by the new Special Jurisdiction for Peace.