Confronting Colombia’s Coca Boom Requires Patience and a Commitment to the Peace Accords

by Adam Isacson

In the vast areas of Colombia’s countryside where evidence of government is scarce, you can see the bright green bushes once again growing up to the roadside. They’re usually knee-high, indicating that they were planted recently. They’re in the same parts of the country as before: farmers don’t seem to be cutting down new forest and growing in new areas. Usually, it is one of several cash crops on a farmer’s land: at least some of the legal crops are more profitable, he or she will tell you, but with prices fixed by armed groups or organized crime, coca offers the steadiest income.Colombia is in the midst of a coca boom, perhaps its largest ever. The numbers show an explosion in plantings of the bush that produces leaves indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia (and a few in Colombia) have used for centuries, and drug traffickers today use to make cocaine. Using methods that it does not discuss, the U.S. government estimated 159,000 hectares of coca planted in Colombia in 2015 (a hectare is about two and a half acres). When it releases its 2016 estimate—reportedly on March 14—the U.S. number could reach or exceed 180,000 hectares for the first time ever. (The United Nations releases its own estimates, in cooperation with Colombia’s National Police, usually in June. Using a methodology that its reports endeavor to explain, the UN found 96,000 hectares in 2015. Though the U.S. and UN estimates diverge widely, they tend to follow similar trendlines—and both are increasing.)

Cocaine production is increasing along with the coca bushes. In 2016, Colombian security forces, mostly the police and navy, seized 379 tons of the drug, shattering earlier records and more than doubling the annual haul between 2010 and 2014. And Colombia has already interdicted 51 more tons in the first two months of 2017.

Though evidence-based research has cast doubt on illicit drug supplies’ ability to drive demand, U.S. authorities say that the coca boom is affecting cocaine consumption in the United States, which—though still at decades-low levels—is increasing for the first time in several years. In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [PDF] found a second consecutive annual increase in past-month U.S. cocaine users. The State Department’s March 2 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) stated [PDF] that “the number of overdose deaths within the United States involving cocaine in 2015 was the highest since 2007.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 56.7 percent more cocaine in 2015 than in 2014, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration [PDF].

The U.S. government, the UN, and analysts cite several reasons for the increase in Colombian coca production. These include:

The Activists Key to Consolidating Colombia’s Peace Are Facing Increased Attacks

by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Sonia Londoño

With the end of 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, civil society activists are playing a key role in constructing a lasting peace and democracy in Colombia. Sadly, the human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other community leaders conducting this vital effort are under threat. Since the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the start of its implementation, attacks against civil society activists have increased at an alarming rate. While the FARC accord has significantly reduced overall violence in the country, the demobilization of these fighters has created vacuums throughout the country, which are in turn being occupied by paramilitary successor organizations that are making their presence known through selective killings and death threats.

If implemented accordingly, the peace accord is has potential to further a number of promising social reforms. Among other things it is designed to lead to rural land reform, guarantee political participation for historically-excluded political sectors, facilitate the reincorporation of FARC guerrillas into civilian life, deepen consultation with marginalized ethnic groups, provide alternatives to rural farmers who grow coca, and fulfill the rights of truth, justice and reparations for millions of victims. But these goals necessarily clash with certain interests, and the possibility of achieving them is leading to illegal armed groups’ attacks against activists. Worst affected are members of newer political movements like the Marcha Patriotica, ethnic minority activists and community organizers in rural areas. The Colombian government must prevent further harm from taking place to these activists. Perpetrators of these acts should be prosecuted and brought to justice immediately. If these attacks continue, the peace accord with the FARC and nascent peace talks with the National Liberation Army will be seriously undermined. Ultimately, the success or failure of a lasting peace in the country will depend on the government’s ability to ensure justice for these crimes.

The Statistics Alone are Sobering, But the Story is Deeper

Unfortunately, the news on the ground has been bleak: a number of Colombian organizations report that since September 2016, the security situation faced by civil society activists has been rapidly decreasing. While the numbers differ depending on multiple definitions of human rights defenders, activists and community leaders, what is certain is that all reports point to the problem getting worse. Somos Defensores reports that from January to December of 2016, 80 social leaders were killed. The majority of these murders took place in Cauca Department. INDEPAZ, on the other hand, reports that during that same period, 117 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed. They also add that in Valle del Cauca (5), Cauca (43), and Nariño (9) departments, a combined total of 57 activists were killed (two thirds of the total). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office, meanwhile stated that since the November 24, 2016 signing of the accord, 13 of the 53 killings of civil society figures recorded by that office in all of 2016 took place.

The trend has not gone entirely unnoticed. On November 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a statement of concern regarding the killings of human rights defenders in Colombia in 2016. The Commission found that while the numbers of death threats and intimidation faced by human rights defenders are down from 2015, the number of actual killings is up. It also urges Colombia to include in its investigations the premise that these individuals were murdered due to their work defending human rights. On February 7 the IACHR condemned the killing of another 7 people in 2017. It is particularly concerning that five of the seventeen killed were ethnic minorities, including two women.

The impact of murders, attempted murders, threats and aggression against activists has a disproportionate impact on indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. This disproportionate impact is true numerically speaking–one source states that 30 percent of those civil society activists killed are ethnic minorities—as well as sociologically. Such killings cause disastrous effects on ethnic minorities’ collective, organizational processes and their ability to work together to advocate for their land, ethnic and cultural rights. .

In addition to the threats faced by community leaders, we also see illegal armed groups targeting ethnic leaders’ extended family members. Given this, it is necessary that a differentiated approach is taking when creating prevention and protective measures for these leaders and their communities. Constitutional Court Orders 004, 005 and 092 on Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and Women IDPs contain useful information on how to prevent the displacement of key communities. In many circumstances collective protective measures are required rather than individual ones. With U.S. Embassy support the Association for Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) worked to help develop collective measures for Afro-Colombian leaders and displaced communities at risk in urban and rural environments. However, Colombian authorities never followed through with implementing what was required. Access to justice for these communities is often more challenging, so it is the clear responsibility of the government to break down the barriers that exist for ethnic groups’ entry into the judicial system.

When it comes to the exact number of killings and attacks against Afro-descendant and indigenous leaders and communities, there are, generally speaking, no comprehensive statistics available. The reasons for this are many: institutional racism, underreporting by ethnic minorities due to fear of reprisals, corruption of local officials and the complex geographical dynamics found in the rural and urban areas they live in. Given this, it is likely that the problem is worse–and less addressed–than what is actually reported. When looking at the Somos Defensores figure of 80 leaders killed in 2016, it is noteworthy that 22 of those killed or, 27 percent of the total, were ethnic minorities (15 indigenous and 7 Afro-Colombians).

Recent Cases of Concern to U.S. Policymakers

WOLA issues periodic action alerts about threats and attacks against civil society. While all cases are of concern, there some are of particular interest to U.S. policymakers. In January, three members of the Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) were killed: Afro-Colombian Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera and her husband Joe Javier Rodallega from Valle del Cauca Department, and Wiwa indigenous leader Yoryanis Isabel Bernal Varela of Cesar Department. Ms. Bernal Varela was an outspoken leader for the rights of indigenous Wiwa, Kogui and Arhuaco women. She was disappeared and fifteen days later found dead with a bullet in her head. Ms. Mosquera was a tireless advocate for the rights of youth in the Community Council of Bajo Calima. She and her partner were killed in Buenaventura. Meanwhile, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice in Peace that legally represents CONPAZ suffered security incidents. Also in January, Marino Cordoba of the AFRODES and the Ethnic Commission suffered the murder of two of his relatives at the hands of Gaitanista paramilitaries in Chocó. This came just a few months after his son was killed by these same men in October 2016. AFRODES leaders continue to face security challenges throughout the country.

The Indigenous Association of Northern Cauca (ACIN), the Wayuu territorial authorities, and the Afro-Colombian Community Councils of Northern Cauca (ACONC) continued to face assassination attempts, attacks and death threats. The ACIN and ACONC are engaged in defending their ancestral lands from illegal mining, environmental damage and the encroachment of illegal armed groups. After the many publicized deaths of indigenous children due to malnutrition, dehydration and the humanitarian crisis in their region, Wayuu authorities advocated for cleaning up corruption and mismanagement of funds by Colombia’s Child Welfare Agency (ICBF). They have also denounced the environmental damage caused by the Cerrejon coal mine. The latter has resulted in stigmatization of Wayuu communities in the press and death threats. Particularly worrisome is the deteriorating security situation faced by members of the San Jose de Apartadó Peace Community in Antioquia, and Operation Genesis victims in Cacarica, Chocó, who have denounced paramilitary activity in their regions.

Relevant Mechanisms in the Accords and Steps Forward

The peace accord with the FARC signed on November 24 includes mechanisms that guarantee the physical protection for human rights defenders and guarantees for them to do their work. In the political participation (point 2 of the accords) it stipulates that adequate normative and institutional prevention, protection, evaluation and monitoring of will take place to guarantee the security for leaders and organizations of social movements and human rights organizations. The accord states that “security guarantees are a necessary condition for consolidating the construction of peace and coexistence.” It also highlights the importance of civil society activists in the implementation of the plans and programs set forth by the accord.

The third point of the accords, the end of the conflict section, includes an agreement “to guarantee security by fighting criminal and other organizations responsible for homicides and massacres that target defenders, social and political movements, or who threaten persons who participate in the implementation of the accords and construction of peace.” This includes actions against “organizations referred to as successor paramilitary organizations and their support networks.” This point then proceeds to include the agreement that several mechanisms will be developed to address this problem. These include a National Commission to Guarantee the Dismantlement of Criminal Organizations, which would be responsible for attacks against defenders, social and political movements that include paramilitary successor groups. It calls for the creation of a Special Investigation Unit to dismantle these criminal organizations and their networks, the integration of an Elite Corps within the National Police and an integral security system for policy development. Lastly, it sets forth basic guarantees for prosecutors, judges and other public servants involved in this fight.

The press coverage reveals that in his conversation with President Juan Manuel Santos, President Donald Trump indicated that he would personally see to it that Colombia receives the assistance package needed to consolidate peace, which will first require approval from the U.S. Congress. Such an indication of support for Colombia’s peace is a positive first step. We would also encourage policymakers to prioritize operationalizing the commitments found in the accord pertaining to protecting human rights defenders, community leaders and political parties, and dismantling paramilitary successor groups.

Colombia’s ELN Peace Talks Explained

by Geoff Ramsey and Sebastian Bernal

After a months-long delay, today the Colombian government is finally starting formal talks with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The negotiations are sure to raise questions about Colombia’s post-conflict future, the implementation of the peace accords with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and ongoing human rights issues. With today’s launch of the peace negotiations’ public phase in Quito, Ecuador at 5:00 p.m. local time, here is an overview of the process.

Talks with the ELN were first announced in 2016. Why the delay?

While a joint statement announcing the beginning of talks was released in March 2016, the beginning of the Quito negotiations was delayed over the government’s insistence that the rebels release all hostages and kidnapping victims. (The government held the FARC to the same standard in 2012; the larger group renounced kidnapping months before the announcement of formal talks.) This included Odín Sánchez, a former lawmaker and member of a political family dynasty that has been linked to paramilitary and corruption scandals in the department of Chocó. Until his release from captivity last week, Sánchez had been held since agreeing to swap places as an ELN hostage with his brother, former Chocó Governor Patrocinio Sánchez Montes de Oca. Odín Sánchez’s February 2 release, on top of the February 6 release of a soldier taken captive by the group in January, removes a final barrier to the formal start of talks.

Why are the ELN talks important?

While most attention on Colombia’s armed conflict has focused on the roughly 7,000-strong FARC, the ELN—with up to 2,000 members—retains an active presence in the country, mostly in northeastern Colombia though their influence also extends to Chocó and other parts of the Pacific coast. With the FARC beginning to demobilize, there is concern that the ELN, along with criminal organizations and neoparamilitary groups, could move to fill territorial and economic power vacuums that the FARC leave behind. Reaching a peace accord with the ELN would help ensure that the group does not expand its area of influence or recruit disenchanted FARC deserters. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance in ELN-controlled areas that have long suffered from a lack of state presence and strong democratic institutions.

For the United States, a peace deal would ultimately mean the effective dissolution of another group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as well as a potential boost to anti-drug efforts at a time when authorities are slowly taking steps toward a new strategy to address coca production in rural Colombia.

What will the negotiations look like?

It has taken more than two years of intricate exploratory talks—a period marked by setbacks like the kidnapping of Odin Sanchez as well as that of Spanish journalist Salud Hernández—to finally reach a point where both the government and the ELN can pursue dialogues with a formal agenda.

Moving forward, the two negotiating teams will be headed by former Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo and the ELN’s Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” who is viewed as a moderate among the ELN’s five-member Central Command. On paper, the talks’ agenda and methodology remain quite vague. However, from the joint statement on the negotiations (PDF) it appears the process will seek to include the perspectives of civil society and community actors. According to the negotiating parties the agenda will cover the following points:

  • Participation of society in constructing peace
  • Democracy for peace
  • Transformations for peace
  • Victims
  • The end of the armed conflict
  • Implementation

How will talks with the ELN differ from the accords signed with the FARC?

From a practical standpoint, negotiating with the ELN will be a different experience than with the FARC. Unlike the larger guerrilla group, the ELN’s command structure is not as centralized. While it is headed by a five-person Central Command, and a 31-member National Directorate below that, ELN columns operate with a high degree of regional autonomy. This means that decision-making processes and internal deliberations could take longer, and the risk of dissenting factions—or subordinate units that simply ignore orders—is higher.

Although the last two points of the agenda echo items discussed in the FARC talks, it remains to be seen how already agreed-upon elements of justice, reparation, non-repetition, and truth will be harmonized with the accord reached with the FARC in Havana. The government would be wise to avoid revisiting these areas after undergoing a long and unfinished process of designing a new set of transitional justice institutions. Reopening themes covered with the FARC would delay a process that is already destined to face the pressures of an upcoming presidential election in 2018, after which President Juan Manuel Santos will leave office.

The challenge the parties will face during the negotiations’ initial phase is to decide who will participate in this process, and what will be the mechanism to receive thousands of proposals and ideas generated by Colombia’s diverse civil society. As Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank has pointed out, a key difference between the ELN and FARC talks will be the former’s insistence on expanding talks to include a broader social base. And the government, for its part, appears to recognize that: Juan Camilo Restrepo has assertedthat “dialogue with the remote communities of Colombia will be decisive in the negotiations with the ELN.” In this process, groups like the Ethnic Commission and other victim’s organizations who were heard in Havana may play a large role in organizing communities in rural Colombia for participation in the talks.

International facilitation of this process will be provided by Ecuador as a hosting country. Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela pledged to serve as guarantors and will reportedly also host subsequent negotiating rounds, while Norway will play the same guarantor role it played during negotiations with FARC.

What would a constructive U.S. role in the ELN process look like?

The U.S. role in this peace process will likely be drastically different than with the FARC talks, which hosted a full-time special U.S. envoy who played a constructive role in moving the accords along. By contrast the Trump administration has been relatively quiet on the peace accords in Colombia so far, although on February 6 a State Department spokesperson issued a statement confirming U.S. support for the search for peace in Colombia, as well as praising “advances in demobilization.”

This is a welcome remark following recent statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in written responses to questions submitted for his nomination hearing process expressed an intent “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement [with the FARC], and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a review of the Havana accords will in fact give the administration every reason to support them. We also believe that the talks with the ELN are worthy of support, though we caution that they will require much patience. In the meantime, we call on both sides in the talks to move quickly toward a bilateral, verified ceasefire, or at least a series of gradual de-escalation measures. While the guarantor countries have already pledged to provide key support, the United States can play a positive role by refraining from opposing or making destructively critical statements about the ELN process, and encouraging a discussion that is both inclusive of civil society, as the ELN wants, and carried out with discipline, clarity, and purpose, as the government and most stakeholders want.

5 Ways Supporting Peace in Colombia Benefits U.S. Interests

This week, the United States Senate is expected to hold a final confirmation vote for President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. While his nomination is expected to be confirmed, in his written testimony Tillerson made a remark regarding the longstanding U.S.-Colombia partnership that merits some clarification. When asked about Colombia’s historic peace accord, which ends 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, he suggested he would “review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a look at the details will prove that Colombia’s peace agreement deserves full U.S. support. For one thing, the agreement holds immense benefits for the Colombian people, particularly those communities that have been most affected by over five decades of violence. But support for a lasting peace also carries promise for the United States as well, and it is directly in line with U.S. interests.

Last year saw widespread bipartisan support for a $450 million aid proposal for Colombia, which was approved by both houses of Congress. However, the 2017 foreign aid bill has not yet passed. When it does, this $450 million should be sustained or increased. Below are five reasons why doing so is in the U.S. interest.

1. Consolidating Security Gains will Require Sustained Investment

The accords have had a drastic effect on violence in Colombia. The historic ceasefire between the armed the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been accompanied by a major drop in homicides: the country reported 12,262 in 2016, down 25 percent from when the peace talks began.

However, neither the Colombian government nor the United States can remain complacent. Now that the rebels are beginning to demobilize, a state presence—infrastructure, basic services, access to justice—must be established in the roughly one-fifth of Colombia’s territory with heavy FARC presence. By continuing its support, the U.S. government can ensure that the benefits of peace go beyond simply an end to fighting. Post-conflict transitions elsewhere have clearly shown the limits of military aid alone, underscoring the importance of focusing resources on strengthening democratic institutions and expanding state presence.

2. More Integrated, Long-Term Efforts are Needed to Address Drug Trafficking

According to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, coca crop cultivation in Colombia has increased by 40 percent. With coca cultivation on the rise, now is not the time to cut U.S. aid. Instead, the United States should be helping Colombia in its efforts to build state presence in in coca-growing areas, and present rural Colombians with sustainable economic alternatives.

Fortunately, the peace accord lays out the blueprints for an innovative program that aims to supplement mandatory eradication with coca reduction through community engagement, a plan that will be aided by the participation of former FARC rebels. The plan will require resources and could benefit from parallel U.S. funding, but it holds far more promise for reducing coca crops in the long term than the failed policies of the past.

3. Peace Can Prevent Proliferation of Illegal Armed Groups

While the FARC—the country’s largest guerrilla group—have signed the accords and are participating in demobilization efforts, other smaller armed groups remain active. The United States has a role to play in ensuring that talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) move forward, and that criminal networks and neo-paramilitary actors across the country do not fill the vacuum left by the FARC. There are already reports that criminal gangs are moving to take control of traditional FARC areas and dissuade rebel elements from demobilizing. In order to ensure that these efforts are not successful, the United States will need to provide generous support for increasing state presence and programs to reintegrate ex-combatants.

4. Supporting Peace in Colombia is a Bipartisan Policy

The Plan Colombia aid package, despite its shortcomings, has been hailed in Washington as a rare successful foreign policy initiative with broad bipartisan support. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike backed the initiative across five U.S. presidential terms. In today’s polarized political climate, supporting U.S. funding for Colombia’s post-conflict future represents an opportunity to show the public that lawmakers of both parties remain committed to working together to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

5. U.S. Support for Vulnerable Populations is Key to Deepening Colombian Democracy

U.S. policy towards Colombia has long been rooted in support for the country’s democracy. Over the last two decades, U.S. aid has been increasingly focused on the needs of vulnerable populations in Colombia, namely indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Because these same groups are among the hardest hit by Colombia’s armed conflict, supporting civil society efforts in their communities is essential in order to secure a lasting peace and help Colombia make its democracy more inclusive.

U.S. assistance will continue to be fundamental in Colombia’s post-conflict transition. Today, civil society leaders in rural areas are under serious threat. Despite the nationwide reduction in violence since the accords, community activists and rural organizers are being targeted by criminal organizations in a wave of threats and killings around the country. Continuing to fund civil society organizations and community initiatives in these areas would send a powerful message to those who are opposed to making political participation safe for all in Colombia.

Some of the Many Reasons Why the United States Should Keep Supporting Colombia’s Peace Accord

The Trump administration’s likely secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has declared an intention “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.” WOLA is confident that once he reviews those details, Mr. Tillerson will conclude that the 2016 agreement, which ends 52 years of fighting between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group, deserves strong support.

There are many practical reasons for such a conclusion. Here are a few.

1. The 2016 government-FARC accord, and accompanying UN-monitored ceasefire, have brought Colombia’s violence to decades-low levels. The gains are not irreversible: they depend on strong accord implementation. In 2016, only 216 members of the Colombian security forces, guerrilla groups, or paramilitary groups died in situations that could be defined as combat—a 46 percent drop from 2015, and a 93 percent drop from a decade earlier. Even before an August 29 bilateral ceasefire shut down FARC-government violence almost completely, CERAC, the Colombian think-tank that most methodically tracks violence statistics, reported that Colombia’s conflict was in its least intense since it began 52 years ago. Overall, Colombia reported 12,262 homicides in 2016, a 25 percent drop from 2012, the year the FARC peace talks started.

Before 2012, intensified security operations had brought important drops in combat and violence. But battlefield progress slowed notably after about mid-2008. This made clear that a military victory over the FARC would take many more bloody years, while a peace accord might bring the conflict to a much more rapid end—as it did last year. After a several-year plateau, violence measures did not drop further until the FARC negotiations reached an advanced phase.

2. Right now, the FARC guerrillas’ membership is gathering to demobilize and disarm. The United States must help Colombia to minimize dissidences and rearmament. As many as 14,000 FARC members and militias have arrived, or are on their way, to the village-sized sites where they will spend six months demobilizing, turning in their weapons to a UN mission, and entering either civilian life or trial for war crimes. Arrivals at the 26 zones should be complete by the end of January. While this process is behind schedule, the delays owe to logistical difficulties, not bad faith.


A UN rendering of one of the village-sized zones where FARC guerrillas are reporting for demobilization and disarmament.

These security gains are remarkable, but they are fragile. FARC dissidences are emerging in several parts of the country—a normal phenomenon at this phase in post-conflict processes, but a worrying development. Organized crime groups and the smaller National Liberation Army guerrillas are poised to fill territorial power vacuums that the FARC leave behind, if Colombia’s state proves unable to fill them first. To keep these challenges under control, Colombia will need generous, determined, and active U.S. support for increasing state presence and reintegrating ex-combatants—not criticism or opposition.

3. This is a historic opportunity to de-mine the world’s second-most mine-affected country. Anti-personnel mines have killed or injured more than 11,000 Colombians since 1990. The overwhelming majority have been planted by guerrillas, and the threat of violence has impeded their removal. With the peace accord in place, Colombia has big plans to accelerate de-mining: with a 10,000-person force and international (including U.S.) support, it has set a goal of being mine-free by 2021. But for this to happen, mine-clearers need to do their work without fear of attack, and they need ex-guerrillas to tell them where the mines are. Both require the conflict to be definitively over, and the peace accord can guarantee that.


Part of a Colombian government map showing sites identified as needing demining in San Miguel, Putumayo. This detail is approximately 6 by 9 miles in size.

4. It opens the way for reparations of millions of conflict victims, offering hope of breaking a generations-old cycle of violence. The Colombian government’s National Unit for Victims, which began work in late 2011, has approved the provision of reparations to over 297,000 people who suffered a lost relative, forced displacement, torture, sexual violence, or another tragedy as a result of the conflict. As impressive as this sounds, over 6.3 million Colombians are in fact registered with the Unit, and determined to be “subject to assistance and reparations.” (The total number of registered victims exceeds 8.3 million, or one-sixth of the entire population.)

The signing of a peace accord offers hope that the reparations process might accelerate for this enormous population. It also holds out hope that FARC members—who carried out a minority of homicides and displacements but a majority of kidnappings, landmine use, and child recruitment—will, in compliance with their accord commitments, participate in reparations and tell victims the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones. The victims’ assistance process must go forward, and the U.S. government should support it.

Social Leaders Face a Wave of Attacks in Colombia. The Peace Accord’s Credibility Hinges on Immediate Action to Stop It.

With the FARC guerrillas likely to begin disarming very soon, this should be a time of hope, even joy, in rural Colombia. Instead, though, it is a time of fear. The last several weeks have seen the worst wave in years of murders of social leaders, indigenous leaders, land-rights activists, and human rights defenders. The renewed violence casts doubt on whether space for non-violent political activity will truly exist in Colombia’s “post-conflict” period.

The Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Bogotá-based think-tank supported by the business sector, counts 71 homicides and 17 homicide attempts against social leaders so far in 2016. (The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, using the definition of “human rights defenders,” counts 52 homicides and 35 attempts [PDF].) Ideas for Peace found the most attacks happening in the Pacific coast departments (provinces) of Valle del Cauca (whose capital is Cali) and Cauca; the south-central department of Caquetá; the northwestern department of Antioquia (whose capital is Medellín); and the northeastern department of Norte de Santander. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of human rights groups, counts 30 murders of social leaders since August 29, the day the Colombian government and FARC declared a bilateral ceasefire. The UN High Commissioner’s office counts 13 since the September 26 signing of the first peace accord with the FARC.

The wave of terror elicited statements of concern since the second half of November from the UN and its High Commissioner, the OAS, and the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, which compared it to the late 1980s-early 1990s massacre of more than 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-linked leftist political party.

WOLA has also been sounding alarms about this. See our November 21 memo to U.S. authorities, a December 2 joint statement, and a December 2 alert listing dozens of recent cases.

Among the social leaders most recently murdered, or who barely escaped murder, are the following individuals.

Jhon Jairo Rodríguez Torres, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 1

A longtime local leader in the township of Palo, Rodríguez co-founded the Association of Campesino Workers of Caloto in 2003, and was active in several local organizations, including the Marcha Patriótica, a recently created, largely rural political movement that is widely viewed as a building block for the FARC’s transition to a non-violent political party. His body was found by a roadside, next to his motorcycle, with three bullet wounds.

José Antonio Velasco Taquinás, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 11

Velasco was a member of several campesino organizations in Caloto, and of the Marcha Patriótica. The Center for Historical Memory describes Velasco as “recognized by the community as a great friend and community member who stood out for having good relations with the whole community. On November 11 he was found in the area known as La Trampa, in Caloto, with a bullet wound in the head.”

Argemiro Lara, from Ovejas, Sucre, attempted murder on November 17

Lara is part of a community of campesino leaders organized to re-claim the La Europa hacienda, from which they were displaced by paramilitaries during the early 2000s. This case is very well known, and Lara has received so many threats that he is protected by the Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit. On November 17 in Sincelejo, Sucre, Lara’s bodyguard shot and killed a hitman who had drawn a gun.

Erley Monroy Fierro, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18

Monroy was a leader of the Losada-Guayabero Environmental Campesino Association (ASCAL-G), very active in local human rights and campesino networks including the Marcha Patriótica, and a vocal opponent of oil exploration and fracking. He was shot in the neighboring municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, about three miles from the base where Colombian Army’s Cazadores Battalion is headquartered. He was 54 and a lifelong resident of this region, a traditional FARC stronghold.

In May, Monroy and other local activists denounced
that “soldiers from the Battalion were patrolling together with three people in civilian clothing, taking photographs of leaders,” and that “graffiti with the name ‘AUC’ had appeared on the road” near San Vicente del Caguán, according to Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative journalism website. (The AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was a national network of right-wing paramilitary groups that formally disbanded in 2006.)

San Vicente del Caguán and La Macarena—two of five municipalities that hosted failed peace talks with the FARC between 1998 and 2002—are a flashpoint for violence against social leaders. San Vicente’s mayor, elected in October 2015, comes from the Democratic Center, the rightist political party of former president Álvaro Uribe. Mayor Humberto Sánchez told reporters he does not believe Monroy’s killing was politically motivated, speculating that he “was likely killed by disgruntled neighbors.” Sánchez had also accused Monroy’s campesino organization of being guerrilla collaborators, and said that the spate of AUC graffiti owed to “the guerrillas preparing the ground for assassinations of campesinos and cattlemen and using that to justify their actions.”

Didier Losada Barreto, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18

Losada was president of the Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, a sort of local elected advisory commission) of Platanillo township in La Macarena, and a member of DHOC, the Foundation for the Defense of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of East-Central Colombia, a local human rights network, as well as the Marcha Patriótica. He was at home with his family when two masked men burst into his home and shot him nine times.

Hugo Cuéllar, from La Macarena, Meta, attempted murder November 19

Cuéllar was president of the Community Action Board of La Victoria township in La Macarena, and a member of ASCAL-G, the same organization as Erley Monroy.

He was walking home from Monroy’s wake with his daughters, when two men on a motorcycle shot him. “They followed him all the way home on the motorcycle and then shot him,” Cuéllar’s sister told the Miami Herald. “And then they pointed at the girls, but the gun didn’t go off.”

Danilo Bolaños, from Leiva, Narino, attempted murder November 19

Bolaños, a member of the Association of Campesino Workers of Nariño (Astracan), was on his motorcycle, returning from a meeting of local pro-peace groups, when a hitman riding on the back of another motorcycle fired six shots at him from a handgun. All missed. Verdad Abierta reports that he had not received any threats beforehand, “and the only thing he know of was a pamphlet with the ‘self-defense groups’’ initials that had circulated in Leiva, without mentioning either him or Astracan.”

Rodrigo Cabrera Cabrera, from Policarpa, Nariño, murdered November 20

Like many of the victims listed here, Cabrera was a member of the Marcha Patriótica. “As a member of the Marcha Patriótica, he actively supported diverse peace initiatives,” reports the Center for Historical Memory, including the designation of a village in Policarpa as a zone for FARC disarmament.

Cabrera had not been threatened before the 20th, when two masked men intercepted his motorcycle and shot him 12 times.

Rather than push for an investigation, the mayor of Policarpa, Claudia Inés Cabrera (no relation), denied that the murder had any political motivation. The victim “isn’t recognized as a community leader,” she said. After a security meeting between the mayor and local law enforcement, a statement contended that Cabrera’s father said “he was apathetic about politics and had never belonged to a political group.” The victim’s father, Sergio Cabrera, told reporters that no, “he liked politics, but not too much. He was a man of peace.” Lizeth Moreno, a local Marcha Patriótica leader, noted that “in her communiqué, the mayor doesn’t even reject the homicide, she justifies it saying that Rodrigo presumably had a [criminal] past.”

Froidan Cortés Preciado, from Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, murdered November 23

Cortés, a boat mechanic and member of the Marcha Patriótica and at least two local human rights networks, had been organizing protests against forced coca eradication in the rural zone of Buenaventura. A red boat with three black-clad men who were unfamiliar to eyewitnesses brought Cortés from his workshop to his home, where they shot him to death.

Marcelina Canacué, from Palermo, Huila, murdered November 25

Canacué, a 60-year-old member of her township’s Community Action Board and of the Marcha Patriótica, was shot three times on a road near her home. Though active, she was not considered a prominent social leader. “She was part of the Marcha Patriótica, one of those people who goes to all of the events and meetings,” an acquaintance told the Center for Historical Memory.

At a meeting with Huila’s governor the next day, local leaders denounced an increase in acts of vandalism and the presence of paramilitaries “hidden and poised to pounce” (agazapados). Police never arrived at the crime scene to investigate the killing. Canacué’s body remained on the roadside from 8:30 AM until 1:00 PM, when the funeral home came to recover it.

Jorge Humberto Chiran, from Cumbal, Narino, attempted murder November 28

Unidentified people threw an explosive device at the home of Chirán, governor of the Gran Cumbal indigenous reserve. On November 3, Chirán, who works with the local Marcha Patriótica, had received a threatening pamphlet from a group calling itself the “Military Bloc of the Southwest Pacific of Nariño.”

Carlos Ramírez Uriana, from Fonseca, La Guajira, attempted murder December 3

Ramírez, a leader of the Mayabangloma reserve of the Wayúu indigenous community, was shot three times by an individual waiting for him outside his residence. He is recovering from his wounds. Southern Guajira indigenous authorities say they have “detected in several communities unknown subjects on high-powered motorcycles.”

Creating a Climate of Fear

The sharpness of the increase in murders during the post-first-accord period is striking. It looks almost as though a switch got thrown somewhere within Colombia’s darkest, most reactionary quarters. Still, experts warn against attributing all this killing to a coherent nationwide conspiracy against the peace talks.

Carlos Guevara, who runs the Human Rights Observatory at the Colombian group Somos Defensores, told Verdad Abierta that the first accord’s rejection in an October 2 plebiscite did worsen the situation significantly. Because there was no accord in place, the protection measures it foresaw for opposition social movements could not be implemented, even as the FARC began clearing out of zones that it controlled or influenced. With the FARC presence reduced, other groups have moved into these zones and begun to threaten existing organizations.

Guevara cautioned, though, against blaming everything on the right wing: