A Review of How Colombia’s Truth Commission is Advancing

The 2016 Peace Accords created the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition Commission (La Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No Repetición) via Article 5.1.1. This entity is the truth component for the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición​​, SIVJRNR). The government established the Truth Commission through Legislative Act 01 of 2017 and structured its functioning through Decree 588 of 2017. According to the Decree, the Truth Commission will operate for a period of three years following an additional six-months of institutional preparation. The Truth Commission started operating on November 28, 2018. 

According to the Peace Accords, the Truth Commission aims to fulfill three main objectives before the end of its mandate:

  1. To investigate and explain the armed conflict, and to promote its understanding emphasizing its least known aspects
  2. To promote the recognition of individual and collective victims, and the voluntary acknowledgment of responsibility, in support of non-repetition
  3. To promote tolerant, respectful, and democratic coexistence across the country’s territories based on the dignity and rights of victims. 

Here, the Truth Commission’s activities are explored based on how they broadly advance each of the three objectives. 

Objective 1: To investigate and explain the armed conflict, and to promote its understanding emphasizing its least known aspects

On November 28, 2021, the Truth Commission will publish a comprehensive report explaining Colombia’s protracted armed conflict. For this, the Truth Commission is undertaking a multi-step investigative process. Throughout the first stage of its investigative process, the Truth Commission is hearing from victims and armed actors.

In 2019, the Truth Commission received a total of 10,755 testimonies from 5,988 individual and collective interviews. 20% of these testimonies were from Ethnic Peoples: 2,086 persons testified during eight collective interviews, and 61 testified in individual interviews. These indigenous communities were significantly impacted by the armed conflict. For approximately every seven victims, one victim was an indigenous person. Notably, civilian actors (such as members of the business community who financed the conflict) only gave 2% of the testimonies. Also notable, the Truth Commission received 365 testimonies from exiles.

Some prominent individuals provided testimonies to the Truth Commission including Former President Ernesto Samper who testified on allegations that the Cali Cartel financed his 1994 presidential campaign, as well as, former Senator David Char who spoke about the paramilitary’s activities in Atlántico and their involvement in his Senate campaign. Additionally, this year, José Miguel Narváez, former Deputy Director for the Administrative Department of Security (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS), is set to testify about the paramilitaries’ infiltration in the intelligence agency. Narváez is currently serving a 26-year sentence for the assassination of journalist Jaime Garzón.  

On March 9, 2020, the Truth Commission launched a new mechanism for collective interviews called Listening Spaces (Espacios de Escucha). With this initiative, the Truth Commission seeks to hear from a more diverse set of individuals involved in the conflict. Among the individuals scheduled to testify are former combatants from every irregular armed group, politicians from different parties, business leaders, journalists and members of the Armed Forces. This year, the Truth Commission expects to hold eight national and 56 territorial Listening Spaces —at least two in each of its 22 regional offices or Truth Houses (Casas de la Verdad). During the first Listening Spaces former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) members spoke about the assassinations of fellow ex-guerillas and other security issues they currently face.

To solidify its explanation of the Armed Conflict, the Truth Commission will contrast the conclusions from the testimonies gathered with secondary sources. In 2019, the Truth Commission received 118 reports from various social and ethnic organizations describing the incidents they and individuals from their territories suffered. Recently, for example, a group of women from the Nukak Maku peoples submitted their report on the sexual violence they endured for over 20 years. The social organization Region Corporation (Corporacion Región) also submitted their report: an account of the conflict’s impact on Antioquia based on more than 90 testimonies by individuals from the San Carlos, Granada, and San Rafael municipalities.

The Truth Commission aims to transversally apply the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Accords. This Chapter requires an ethnic-based perspective in the implementation of the Accords. To guarantee that the ethnic perspective is properly integrated, the Truth Commission met with the Permanent Working Table for Indigenous Peoples, and the Permanent Working Table for the Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero Peoples, and the Permanent Working Table for Women from the Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero Women. These Permanent Tables bring together representatives of indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizations to the Truth Commission in an advisory capacity. At these meetings, participants discussed the implementation of truth-seeking methodologies sensitive to the racism and ethnic intolerance that many communities suffer. They also stressed the importance of adopting a narrative that explains the differentiated experiences ethnic and racial communities suffered during the armed conflict in the final report. Groups that were present at these meeting were the Matamba Collective National Space for Previous Consultation (Colectivo Matamba Espacio Nacional de Consulta Previa), Paez’s Captaincy (Capitanía de Páez), the Network of Women from Matamba and Guasa (Red de Mujeres Matamba y Guasa), Other Black Women (Otras Negras), and Feminists (Feministas). 


Objective 2: To promote the recognition of individual and collective victims, and the voluntary acknowledgment of responsibility, in support of non-repetition.

In order to guarantee continuous input from victims during its recognition process, the Truth Commission held 131 sessions with victims’ working groups. 4,476 individuals participated in such sessions. They held sessions with the following groups: 

  • Sexual Violence: 37 tables with 1,034 participants.
  • In Search of Disappeared Individuals: 35 tables with 834 participants.
  • Children, Adolescents and Young People: 37 tables with 2,004 participants. 
  • Rural Farmers: 22 tables with 637 participants.
  • Solidarity and Dignity: 1 table with 11 participants. 

These tables aimed to guarantee the participation of victims in the planning and development of four Encounters for Truth (Encuentros por la Verdad). The Truth Commission designed these events to recognize victims of the Armed Conflict and to promote the acknowledgement of responsibilities. Each Ecounterhad a specific focus:

First Ecounter for Truth: My Body Tells the Truth, Cartagena, June 26, 2019:

At Cartagena’s Adolfo Mejía Theater, more than 400 women and members of the LGBTQ+ community gathered to recount their experiences as victims of sexual violence. During the event, the attendees heard the stories of 17 victims who, at the hands of paramilitaries, guerillas, police officers, and U.S. officials, were raped, tortured, or slaved. The stories emphasized the particular vulnerability of indigenous and Afro-Colombians to this criminal modality. Later in the day, approximately 2,000 individuals participated in artistic and cultural events in recognition of the victims’ courage and resilience. Cartagena (Bolívar) – as one of the Caribe region’s main cities – was chosen for the first Encounter because approximately 30% of reported sexual violence cases took place in the city.

Second Encounter for Truth: Recognition of the Persistence of Mothers and Families Searching for Disappeared Individuals, Pasto, August 26-28:

For three days, the Truth Commission organized a series of events in the city of Pasto (Nariño) to commemorate the victims of forced disappearance. These included theater plays, academic forums, art displays, and concerts in which more than 17,000 individuals participated. At the Encounter’s main event, the Truth Commission held an open dialogue ceremony with the mothers and families of the disappeared. There, the relatives of the victims (who are also considered secondary victims themselves) narrated their decades-long struggle to find their loved ones. Despite the lack of accurate data, estimates calculate around 80,000 to 100,000 individuals were disappeared during the armed conflict in Colombia. This criminal modality involved every actor in the conflict: guerilla groups, paramilitaries, and state agents. 

Third Encounter for Truth: Never Again Children in the War, Medellin, November 22-23:

At two separate events in Medellin (Antioquia), the Truth Commission and more than 1,000 attendees heard the stories of twenty-six children and adults that –as children–were victims of the armed conflict. Their accounts highlighted that, during the conflict, minors were especially vulnerable to massacres, forced recruitment, murders and internal displacement. Notably, this was the first Encounter where perpetrators faced their victims and publicly acknowledged their responsibility. Rodrigo Londoño (former FARC leader), Fredy Rendón (former paramilitary commander), and Daladier Rivera (a military major) stood in front of the victims and recognized their direct or indirect responsibility for the crimes they committed. According to Colombia’s Victims Unit (Unidad de Victimas), approximately 2,500,000 children were victims of the armed conflict.

Fourth Encounter for Truth: The Countryside Tells the Truth, Cabrera, December 12-13:

The Truth held the fourth Encounter for Truth in Cabrera (Cundinamarca), a town at the center of the Sumpaz Rural Farmers’ Concentration Zone. This Encounter consisted of multiple intergenerational and inter-territorial tables where rural farmers (victims of the armed conflict) shared their experiences. More than 700 individuals participated. For decades, these individuals suffered forced displacements, land dispossession, and political persecution. Out of the more than 8 million individuals internally displaced in Colombia during the conflict, approximately 6 million are rural farmers. Such massive displacement has contributed to a highly unequal land ownership regime in which 1% of the productive units own more than 80% of the land. 

The Truth Commission also held six events titled “Dialogues for Non-Repetition: Truth Comes Alongside Social Leaders.” These were public round table-type discussions were stakeholders considered how the phenomenon of social leaders’ assassinations affects peacebuilding and non-repetition in Colombia. Many of attendees were representatives from social organizations. Others included social leaders, journalists, opinion leaders, and government officials. More information on the events:

First Dialogue for Non-Repetition, Bogotá (Cundinamarca), May 11:

During this dialogue, speakers introduced the phenomenon of social leaders’ assassinations. According to data mentioned at the discussion, 4,788 social leaders have been assassinated in the country since 1986. The departments most affected are Cauca, Antioquia, Nariño and North Santander. All four of them have a significant number of coca crops and are strategic locations for drug trafficking. The speakers also discussed the causes and dimensions of this phenomenon. They highlighted that, since 1997, the government has signed legislation aimed at protecting social leaders. However, as the speakers pointed out, the government has failed to comprehensively implement these measures partly because it lacks presence in the most vulnerable areas.

Second Dialogue for Non-Repetition, Arauca (Arauca), September 12:

At this second dialogue, speakers expanded on the causes of social leaders’ assassinations discussed in the first dialogue. The speakers agreed that the indiscriminate stigmatization of social leaders as guerilla sympathizers is among factors that cause this deadly phenomenon. They also explained the role of social leaders as the voice of the country’s communities: they regularly report corruption in their territories and fight against private or public projects that go against their community’s wellbeing. The speakers also emphasized the wide discrepancy between the central government’s concept of security and that of the rural, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities. They argued that the general security measures crafted at the central level do not match different local-level needs.

Third Dialogue for Non-Repetition, Monteria (Cordoba), September 19:

At this third dialogue, speakers explored the relation between the assassination of social leaders and Colombia’s peace-building efforts. In their interventions, many of them emphasized the particular history of Cordoba as the stage of multiple peace processes. Cordoba saw the demobilization of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberación, EPL), the United Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), and now of the FARC. Nevertheless, social leader’s assassinations are on the rise in this department. Among others, the speakers presented two factors as causes for this increase: (1) a general effort to exclude ethnic and racial communities, and (2) the efforts by irregular groups to maintain political and economic control of strategic regions as other groups demobilize. Different from the last two dialogues, legislators from three different political parties participated in this discussion. 

Fourth Dialogue for Non-Repetition, Barrancabermeja (Santander), November 19:

The focus of discussion during the fourth dialogue was the Middle Magdalena region, a historic epicenter of the Armed Conflict and a region that extends into 8 departments. At this dialogue, speakers tried to answer the question: how has the aggression against social leaders evolved recently? In their answers, the speakers introduced a new level of analysis for the phenomenon: the extraction-based economy. Barrancabermeja is a national center for the extraction of oil, and as armed groups fight to capture some of the oil rents, to the risk to social leaders increases. The speakers also discussed other topics mentioned before such as the lack of state presence in vulnerable areas of the territory as well as the endemic corruption present in many of the country’s departments. 

Fifth Dialogue for Non-Repetition, Quibdó (Chocó), November 28:

The Armed Conflict disproportionately affected departments like Chocó: with precarious standards of living, widespread poverty, and acute state abandonment. At its capital Quibdó, the speakers discussed these and other dire socio-economic conditions and how they impact the efforts at non-repetition. They emphasized the disparities between urban and rural territories, and why the latter experience higher levels of social leaders’ assassinations. Notably, this was the first time that a former FARC leader took part in the dialogues. Pastor Lisandro Alape, now a political leader, centered his remarks on how the lack of implementation of multiple elements of the Peace Accords hinder efforts at closing the country’s socio-economic gap. These elements include the comprehensive rural reform (Chapter 1) and the 16 congressional seats for victims of the conflict (Chapter 2). 

Sixth Dialogue for Non-Repetition, Bogota (Cundinamarca), December 6:

During the last dialogue, four social leaders provided concluding remarks on the impact of social leaders’ assassinations on their communities. They reiterated the crucial political and cultural role that social leaders play in pace-building. After their remarks, Francisco de Roux—the Truth Commission’s president—and eight Commissioners spoke. They summarized the general points on the causes of social leaders’ assassinations as well as the particular impact of this phenomenon on Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. This concluding dialogue centered on themes such as the lack of appropriate region-specific protection measures, and the forced displacements caused by social leaders’ assassinations cause. De Roux also mentioned the proposals discussed at the dialogues. Among others, he explained the need to strengthen self-defense mechanisms like the Afro-Colombian Cimarrona guard and the indigenous guard. He closed by calling for the full implement the Peace Accords.


Objective 3: To promote tolerant, respectful, and democratic coexistence across the country’s territories based on the dignity and rights of victims

To promote coexistence, the Truth Commission held a number of capacity-building workshops with social and community leaders. The first series, conducted in partnership with the Foundation for Reconciliation (Fundación para la Reconciliación), trained 110 social leaders in: reconciliation, restorative practices, generative dialogues, and appreciative communication. The second series consisted of 5 “truth laboratories;” an idea proposed by the Center for Faith and Culture (Centro de Fe y Culturas). At these events, the Truth Commission sought to raise awareness about the role of the environment and the territories in the promotion of coexistence. Held in Urabá, North Santander, Cauca, Caquetá and the Pacific region, 84 social leaders participated in these.  

The Truth Commission also created 58 spaces for capacity-building in coexistence practices. At these events, the Truth Commission worked with victims of the conflict on coping mechanisms, constructive communication strategies, and other tools to promote peaceful coexistence. With 1,508 participants, these spaces are territorially distributed as follows: 

Macro RegionNumber of processes carried out
Caribe2
Center Andina24
Middle Magdalena2
Northeast9
Orinoquia8
Pacific5
Antioquia and Eje Cafetero6
South Andina2
Source: Informe de Gestión – Comisión de la Verdad

PDF Version with References

Tags: Transitional Justice, Truth Commission

Statement from the Cooperation Space for Peace (ECP): Stop the Bloodshed and Protect Social Leaders

On March 16, the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz – ECP) published a statement, signed by 17 international civil society organizations, urging the Colombian government to guarantee protections for social leaders throughout the country.

Social leaders are vital to the communities they represent. The statement argues that in its process of consolidating peace, Colombia cannot tolerate violence against leaders who work in their communities to improve living conditions and protect natural resources.

The statement calls on the Colombian government to provide adequate safety guarantees, ensure justice is enforced, and implement policies that dismantle the criminal groups responsible for the bloodshed against social leaders and their communities. Below is the English text of the statement:

STATEMENT TO THE PUBLIC AND A CALL TO THE COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT INTERNATIONAL CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS

Bogotá, March 16, 2020. The international civil society organizations signed onto this statement express with deep pain and concern the persistence and increase of threats, attacks, harassment, and murders against individuals and human rights organizations who endorse the peace agreement and, in the process of reincorporation, move from a past of war to a future of reconciliation and peace. 

In the past week, Astrid Conde Gutiérrez (March 5) and Edwin de Jesús Carrascal Barrios (March 10) were assassinated. Thus far, according to the FARC’s political party, these killings amount to 15 former combatants of the FARC killed since the beginning of this year and 190 former combatants killed since the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016. Additionally, the corporation Legal Solidarity (Solidaridad Jurídica) has also reported threats and harassment against other former political prisoners. 

On March 11, a new threat from the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) against an extensive list of lead social organizations and social leaders became public. It included the Wayuu Women’s Force (Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu)—a human and territorial rights organization that won the 2017 National Human Rights Defense Award and has been working for ethnic and territorial rights in La Guajira since 2006. 

The lack of protections for social leaders and the lack of comprehensive implementation of the Peace Agreement put the sustainability of the process and the search for new paths towards peace in Colombia at serious risk. Thus, it is urgent for the State, who is responsible for the life of all Colombians, to: 

  • Provide sufficient guarantees for those who actively work towards peace and defend human and territorial rights so they can carry out their legitimate work in an enabling environment. 
  • Ensure that justice is enforced and that those responsible are identified, investigated, and brought before competent authorities. In doing so, a strong message in favor of peace would be expressed through Colombia’s institutions, currently governed by Iván Duque.
  • Rapidly advance the design and adoption of public policies to dismantle criminal organizations that are responsible for killings and massacres or attacks on human rights defenders, social movements, or political movements. Such criminal organizations include paramilitary groups, successor groups, and their support networks (3.4.3 of the Peace Agreement). Civil society organizations have already submitted proposals about this matter.

The international civil society organizations signed onto this statement and members of the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz) reiterate concern about these incidents and the lack of strong action by the Colombian State to clarify and finally stop this bloodshed in Colombia. 

A country that genuinely aims to consolidate peace cannot tolerate violence against citizens of any kind, particularly against those in civil society who work to improve living conditions and protect territories and natural resources. 

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, FARC

Forced Coca Eradication Operations amid the COVID-19 Crisis: Letter to the Colombian Government

On March 30, 2020, the Action for Change (Acciones para el Cambio – APC) coalition published a letter addressed to the Colombian government urging it to stop forced coca eradication operations amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. The letter encourages the government to instead enforce quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus among vulnerable farmer communities.

Despite calls to follow quarantine measures, the Government of Colombia has continued forced coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. These operations, the letter states, violate voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities within the framework of the peace accord.

The letter also highlights the increased use of force and violence against farmers and condemns the murders of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Here is the English text of the letter:

THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION CALLS ON THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT TO SUSPEND FORCED ERADICATION OPERATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS TO GUARANTEE THE RIGHTS OF RURAL POPULATIONS

The COVID-19 pandemic places the Colombian State in a unique situation, in which it must implement rigorous measures to contain the spread of the virus and guarantee its citizens the right to life, health, and survival.

Despite the measures implemented by the national government to address the emergency, several organizations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo have denounced intensified forced coca eradication operations, specifically in municipalities where collective agreements were signed under the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). To date, the national government has not fully complied with these agreements. Such noncompliance, coupled with uncertain isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days caused a number of violations to rural populations’ rights.

Amid the national quarantine on March 19, Marco Rivadeneira was assassinated in the Nueva Granada territory, located in Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo. Marco was a prominent leader who promoted the substitution of crops in the department and sought alternatives for those who had been left out of crop substitution programs. According to data from the Coordinator for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM), Marco Rivadeneira’s murder raises to 60 the total number of people killed for leading crop substitution processes in Colombia. Three days after that, on March 22, the arrival of state forces was denounced, as they began to fumigate coca crops with glyphosate using manual spray pumps.

According to public complaints from the COCCAM and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales, Ambientales y Campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC), since March 23 in Caquetá, members of the National Army have carried out forced eradication operations using force and gunfire against farmers. Despite the public health crisis, these operations are occurring in the Palestina, Inspección Unión Peneya territory in Montañita municipality.

Finally, according to information from the Peasant Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) and the COCCAM, Alejandro Carvajal was killed by members of the National Army in the context of forced and violent eradications last Thursday, March 26. This assassination occurred in the territory of Santa Teresita, La Victoria, which forms part of Sardinata municipality in Norte de Santander. The National Army has already assumed responsibility for said killing. 

Faced with the aforementioned context, the APC coalition urges the Colombian government to:

  1. Investigate the incidents and punish those responsible for the killings of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Additionally, investigate and punish the members of the National Army who use threats and force against rural populations in Catatumbo, Caquetá, and Putumayo.
  1. Implement the mandatory, preventative measures ordered by the President and suspend forced eradication efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rural population is already at risk and its right to health and food security needs to be guaranteed.
  1. Respect and advance compliance with voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities.

SIGNED

THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Caqueta, Catatumbo, Coca, coronavirus, Illicit Crop Eradication, Putumayo

ELN Unilateral Ceasefire an Important Opportunity for Peace in Colombia

Here’s the text of a press release about the ELN’s unilateral ceasefire posted yesterday to wola.org (Versión en español).

On March 29, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group announced a month-long, unilateral ceasefire that will begin on April 1 and end on April 30. The Colombian government subsequently announced that two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Carlos Velandia, would serve as “peace promoters” (gestores de paz)—a small but critical first step in restarting peace negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government that have been stalled since January 2019.While these humanitarian actions will help bring a temporary peace to some conflict-ridden communities in Colombia, securing a lasting peace requires using this ceasefire as a starting point for reinitiating dialogue between ELN and the government.    

The Duque administration has tried to control the spread of COVID-19 through a nationwide quarantine. Yet, despite enhanced public health and security measures all over the country, killings, displacements, and violent actions by illegal armed groups targeting ethnic, indigenous, and rural communities have continued at an alarming rate. Since the quarantine, hostilities between armed groups have exacerbated humanitarian emergencies and led to the confinement of civilians in Nariño, Chocó, and Cauca. In Putumayo, forced coca eradication has prompted conflicts with rural farmers, while it has led to an extrajudicial killing in Catatumbo. Four ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) were recently murdered: two in San Vicente del Caguán, one in La Macarena, and one in Bogotá.

All over the country, social leaders have seen their protection diminished even further since the quarantine, and several have been assassinated. They include feminist leader Carlota Salinas of Bolívar, Ángel Ovidio Quintero of Antioquia,  leaders of the Emberá indigenous group Omar Guasiruma and Ernesto Guasiruma of Valle del Cauca, and several other leaders and community members in Awá territory and Afro-Colombian communities in Jiguamiando, Chocó. Jhon Restrepo, director of Casa Diversa and a well-known LGBT activist suffered an assassination attempt. 

All armed actors in Colombia should implement ceasefires at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic… All should use the temporary pause to explore paths for sustained peace.

In response to the violence during the pandemic, more than 100 Colombian ethnic, indigenous, and rural communities wrote letters to all the armed groups in Colombia urging them to stop bellicose operations during the pandemic in order to minimize violence and public health risks.

Though the ELN’s chain of command is loose, the group has generally observed past ceasefires. In zones under the group’s influence, populations interviewed by WOLA recall the group’s 100-day 2017 ceasefire with some nostalgia, as an unprecedented period of tranquility. WOLA encourages the ELN to continue its ceasefire after April 30 if, as is likely, the public health emergency is continuing.

All armed actors in Colombia should implement ceasefires at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, refraining from offensive tactics or other actions that might leave populations vulnerable to infection. All should use the temporary pause to explore paths for sustained peace. In the case of the temporary ELN unilateral ceasefire, the Colombian government should take steps towards a bilateral ceasefire and reestablishment of talks with the guerrillas. It should increase protection for social leaders in addition to taking measures to protect vulnerable communities from the COVID-19 virus. All belligerent groups should respect the Humanitarian Accord Now in Chocó (Acuerdo Humanitario ¡Ya! en el Chocó)—a 2017 humanitarian accord proposed by dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups in Chocó—and international humanitarian law.

Tags: Ceasefire, coronavirus, ELN, ELN Negotiations

WOLA Podcast: “I Wish I Did More Positive Reporting About Colombia Because I Love the Place”

Since 1997, John Otis has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).

Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Tags: Audio, Podcast, Politics of Peace, Post-Conflict Implementation, Transitional Justice, U.S. Policy

Over 21 International Civil Society Organizations Urge the Colombian Government to Investigate the Assassination of Marco Rivadeneira

On March 25, over 21 international civil society organizations signed a letter calling on the Government of Colombia to investigate the assassination of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader from Putumayo, Colombia. Social leaders like Rivadeneira – who strive to fully implement the 2016 Peace Accords – continue to be targeted for working valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities. Sadly, Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where he was discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.

The letter urges the Colombian government to effectively investigate and prosecute the assassinations of social leaders, especially amid the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also calls on the U.S. government to vigorously support the Peace Accord implementation in Colombia. You can read the English version of the letter below. (Versión en español).

International Civil Society Organizations Call for the Colombian Government to Investigate Killing of Marco Rivadeneira and to Protect Human Rights Defenders
March 25, 2020

We are grieved to learn of the death of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader in Putumayo, Colombia. Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where Rivadeneira and other community members were discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.

Rivadeneira was a human rights defender, a promoter of the peace accords, and a proponent of voluntary coca eradication efforts in his rural community. He was a leader of the Puerto Asis Campesino Association and a representative to the Guarantees Roundtable (a process intended to protect human rights defenders). Rivadeneira was also the representative of his region for the national network of 275 Colombian human rights groups known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Coordinación and its members are close partners of many of our organizations.

This killing “underscores once again the lack of security guarantees for the work of human rights defenders and the lack of political will on the part of the Colombian government to dismantle the criminal structures and paramilitary organizations that continue to attack social leaders and those who defend peace in the countryside,” as Coordinación asserts. The Coordinación urges the government to act decisively to ensure that “enemies of peace” do not use the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 virus to continue to exterminate social leaders.

107 social leaders were assassinated in 2019, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia. One out of three human rights defenders killed in 2019 (documented by Frontline Defenders) was from Colombia. 2020 has started off with a wave of violence against them.

We urge the Colombian government to ensure this crime is effectively investigated and prosecuted and to communicate what steps are being taken to bring the perpetrators to justice. We also urge the Colombian government to provide effective guarantees for human rights defenders, social leaders, and those working to build peace in Colombia. This starts with the vigorous implementation of the 2016 peace accords in Colombia, including convoking the National Commission of Security Guarantees to create and implement a plan to protect communities and social leaders at risk.

We urge the U.S. government to vigorously support peace accord implementation in Colombia. This includes adhering to the drug policy chapter of the accord which mandates working closely with farming communities to voluntarily eradicate and replace coca with government assistance, rather than returning to ineffective and inhumane aerial spraying programs.

Colombia must not lose more leaders like Marco Rivadeneira who have worked so valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Illicit Crop Eradication

New Section: “Explainers”

We’re pleased to announce the addition of a new section to the colombiapeace.org website. This is the final feature that we had planned to add during the site’s early-2020 overhaul.

Explainers is a series of brief articles offering plain-language, fact-filled explanations of persistent, evergreen topics. Each looks at an aspect of Colombia’s conflict, peace effort, human rights challenges, or U.S. policy. The format is inspired by—but less ambitious than—the “card stacks” that Vox.com used when it first launched, but later abandoned.

These Explainers are never “finished.” We will edit and update them as new information emerges or situations change. Months from now, some may look quite different than they do now.

We’ve completed three Explainers so far, and plan to add approximately one per week between now and June. Right now, you can find Explainers about:

Explainers about the ELN, and about Colombia’s efforts to build state presence in rural areas, will be coming soon. We expect to maintain a total of about 10 to 15 on the Explainer page.

Tags: Admin

COVID-19 Ceasefire Now: Letter to Armed Actors from Over 100 Organizations

From the open letter at the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace website.

Over 100 ethnic and rural organizations are calling for a two-week ceasefire in Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas. They are asking for a cessation of hostilities to be added to measures taken by the Colombian government to curb the spread of COVID-19.

With support from the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, the signatories sent separate letters to the national government, the ELN, the FARC dissident groups, and the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. The communities are asking all to call an immediate halt to offensive actions until April 1, with a possible extension to May 30.

The signatories are overwhelmingly from the conflict-hit departments of Cauca, Chocó, Meta, Putumayo, and Valle del Cauca. Many communities have self-protection measures in place, like the Indigenous Guard, to peacefully work to defend their territories. Colombia must listen to vulnerable communities and meet their demands at this time.

Here is the English text of the letter that went to Colombian President Iván Duque. The letters to the illegal armed groups are closely similar.

Cessation of armed operations by COVID-19 to President Iván Duque Márquez

Our communities live in territories where violence persists in various forms.

We call upon you, combatants of all forces, to protect your own lives and the lives of we, the civilians, in our territories.

We call on you as the main commander of the Armed Forces and National Police to protect the lives of the official combatants and the lives of civilians in our territories with a cessation of hostilities. We make this call on all armed groups operating in our regions based on the WHO declaration of the pandemic called COVID–19, which is already causing irreparable loss of human life.

In particular, we propose:

  1. Inform all personnel of the COVID–19 pandemic and the consequences for their lives and those of those who are in contact with them.
  2. Train them in preventive mechanisms.
  3. Only act in case of attacks and non-compliance by opponents of this proposal, which is implicit in the Global Humanitarian Agreement by the Pandemic.
    This request is also made explicitly to the Armed Forces and Police, security agencies, and eradicators. we have reports of the virus infection in armed forces personnel of the United States.
  4. Remove your personnel from our environments or communities and place them at distances that prevent the virus from spreading.
  5. Refrain from convening any kind of mandatory meeting.

Our communities in some regions are experiencing droughts, other regions are affected by heavy rains. Their lives and our lives are precious. The armed strategies, for reasons of humanity—of all humanity—must stop for at least two weeks, until 1 April, starting tomorrow with a possible extension until at least 30 May.

The pandemic has very severe social, environmental and economic effects that are calling us to take the path of a different society. Today no one is exempt from dying from this virus, not even the most powerful in weapons and wealth.

Let’s take advantage of COVID–19 to think about the life of each one of you, in the life of each of us, in the life of the country. Assume the reflection among your crews, fronts, brigades, battalions, commanders. Nothing remains of our arrogance, nor of our vain pride. It is the time of solidarity, and from it peace in a new democracy.

We invite you to listen to our request for a partial cessation of hostilities.

Life is teaching us. It is a time for everyone. The isolation experienced by the citizenry in the country must lead us, perhaps, to reflect on the confinement and lack of food for years that we have lived in the regions.

We need a social, environmental and legal state that consolidates a transversal and integral peace. With this crisis, the importance of an inclusive country without corruption, in cooperation with all of humanity, in which you can contribute, will be recognized.

Let’s start now!

Signatory organizations:

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Civil Society Peace Movement, Indigenous Communities, Public Health

Podcast: “Guerrilla Marketing” in Colombia

Here’s a new Colombia-related installment in WOLA’s podcast series. A conversation with Alex Fattal, whose 2018 book “Guerrilla Marketing” tells the story of the Colombian military’s employment of advertising campaigns to convince guerrillas to demobilize during the country’s armed conflict. His work explores the overlap between national security, global capitalism, and “branding.”

The podcast is above, or download the mp3 here.

Tags: Audio, Demobilization Disarmament and Reintegration, Podcast, U.S. Policy

Podcast: “I Could Listen to Colombians, Especially in the Countryside, Talk All Day”

WOLA’s March 18 podcast is with Toby Muse, who spent almost two decades as a foreign correspondent in Colombia. He traveled to dozens of places affected by the war on drugs and recorded innumerable conversations with people—participants in the drug trade, officials, reformers, and victims caught in the middle. His new book, Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels – From the Jungles to the Streets, draws heavily from all of his conversations. It comes out on March 24, 2020.

The podcast is above, or download the mp3 here.

Tags: Audio, Drug Policy, Podcast

What Macro-Cases has Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) Opened?

Chapter 5, Article 1.2 of the 2016 Peace Accord created the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) as the justice component of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición, SIVJRNR). The Special Jurisdiction’s mandate, which cannot last for more than 20 years, is to administer transitional justice and uncover the crimes committed before December 1, 2016 in the context of the armed conflict. The JEP began operating after approval by the Senate on November 15, 2017 and was further strengthened on March 9, 2018 through the Acuerdo 001 of 2018, which regulated and structured its functioning.

Since it started operating and as of January 23, 2020, 12,493 individuals have come before the JEP—77.9% of them are former FARC members and 21.2% are members of the Armed Forces. It has held 96 hearings and has heard 249 individual testimonies. Notably, the JEP has granted 183 amnesties to former FARC combatants, one guarantee against extradition, 313 transitory, conditional, and anticipated parole to members of the Armed Forces or third actors, and 171 to former FARC combatants.

The JEP’s work is concentrated on seven macro-cases:

Case 001, Illegal Detentions of Individuals by the FARC

On July 4, 2018, the JEP opened case 001 to investigate the high number of kidnappings that took place throughout the armed conflict. The JEP is basing its preliminary investigations on a report by the Prosecutor’s Office that identified 8,163 victims, in cases allegedly committed by the FARC. During the case’s first stage: “recognition of truth, responsibility and determination of facts and conduct,” the JEP’s Sala de Reconocimiento has held multiple fact-finding and truth-telling sessions with former FARC members. Through these sessions, the JEP is seeking to expand the collective testimony that it received last September from 10 delegates of FARC’s former Estado Mayor. These sessions are organized territorially, based on the areas where the FARC’s Blocs operated, and held in the former Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación, ETCRs). On December 3, 2019, former FARC members from the Occidental Bloc testified in Popayán (Cauca). Next on the list are the testimonies in Pondores (La Guajira) by the Caribe Bloc, and in Miravalle (Caquetá) by the South Bloc and the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column. Additional to these collective territorial testimonies, the JEP has also received 33 individual testimonies and will soon begin hearing from the victims. As of December 12, 2019, the JEP had accredited 1,709 victims in this case.

Case 002, Territorial Situation of the Tumaco, Ricaurte, and Barbacoas Municipalities (Nariño)

Opened on July 10, 2018, this case centers on investigating the human rights abuses and the violations to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) perpetrated by former FARC members and members of the Armed Forces in Nariño. Initially, the JEP is only investigating cases that occurred between January 1, 1990 and December 1, 2016. By restricting its attention to the Tumaco, Ricaurte, and Barbacoas municipalities, the JEP is taking unprecedented steps to acknowledge the environment as a victim of the armed conflict, especially in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous territories. As such, the JEP is investigating the “socio-environmental and territorial” harm that Afro-Colombian Community Councils (Consejos Comunitarios) and Awá and Eperara Siapiadaara Reservations suffered in the region. Along with these, the JEP is also investigating other crimes such as internal displacements, assassinations, sexual violence, torture, and forced recruitment. On November 2019, the JEP accredited Tumaco’s Campesino Association (Asociación Campesina de Tumaco)—a group of more than 5 thousand families—as collective victims. A week later, it recognized the Katsa Suterritory and 32 Awá cabildos as victims, more specifically as collective subjects of rights.

Case 003, Illegitimately Perpetrated Deaths Presented as Combat Casualties by Agents of the State

The JEP opened this case on July 17, 2018 to investigate the so-called false positive cases. Case 003 focuses on specific areas of the country: Cesar, Antioquia, Catatumbo (North Santander), Casanare, Meta and Huila. The evidentiary basis for the case came from a report by the Prosecutor’s Office, which identifies 2,248 victims in cases that occurred between 1988 and 2014. According to documents from the Ministry of Defense, 1,944 members of the Armed Forces have already expressed willingness to appear before the Special Jurisdiction. By December 5, 2019, the JEP had heard 156 testimonies of individuals involved in these crimes. Notably, in December 2019, the JEP ordered General Mario Montoya Uribe, former commander of the National Army, to testify. Various reports obtained by the JEP, as well as multiple testimonies by members of the Armed Forces, implicate General Montoya in cases of false positives. Also noteworthy, several testimonies in the past year led the JEP to a mass grave in Dabeiba, Antioquia apparently filled with victims of false positives. So far, the JEP has exhumed 54 bodies. The JEP’s Sala de Reconocimiento is expected to release its preliminary conclusions and begin the process of hearing from the victims later this semester.

Case 004, Territorial Situation in the Urabá Region

On September 11, 2018, the JEP opened case 004. This case focuses on crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated in the Urabá region between January 1, 1986 and December 1, 2016. Ten municipalities are at the center of the investigations: Turbo, Apartadó, Carepa, Chigorodó, Mutatá and Dabeiba (Antioquia) and El Carmen del Darién, Riosucio, Unguía and Acandí (Chocó). Reports by the Prosecutor’s Office, the National Center of Historic Memory, and social organizations such as the Reiniciar Corporation and the Popular Research and Education Center (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, Cinep) cite 3,523 crimes relevant to case 004. These include cases of massacres, internal displacements, illegal land takings, gender-based violence, and sexual violence. Among the individual and collective victims identified by the JEP thus far are Unión Patriótica leaders, the Embera-Katío, Embera Chamí, and Tule o Kuna Peoples, the Afro-Colombian Community Councils (Consejos Comunitarios) of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, and San José de Apartadó’s Peace Community. As of February 21, 2019, the JEP had accredited more than 1,700 victims, including the most recent accreditation of 37 victims, for the “La Chinita” massacre. The JEP is expecting to hear the testimonies of 100 former members of the Armed Forces and 74 former FARC members who have some degree of responsibility for the crimes in case 004.

Case 005, Territorial Situation of the Northern Cauca and Southern Cauca Valley Regions

The JEP opened this case on November 8, 2018. Case 005 investigates 2,308 “victimizing acts” that occurred in seventeen municipalities in Northern Cauca and Southern Cauca Valley between January 1, 1993 and December 1, 2016. The significantly high number of victims that these acts produced makes this case notable. Among them are 344,333 victims of internal displacement, 1,038 victims of kidnappings, 828 victims of confinement, 260 victims of anti-personnel mines, 2,105 victims of forced disappearance, 26,861 victims of threats, 213 victims of forced recruitment, and 3,885 cases of attacks against the civilian population. On January 21, 2020, the JEP made history when it accredited the largest number of victims in any case related to the armed conflict— 124,785 victims. These victims comprise of the 31 Nasa Reservations and Cabildos part of Cauca’s Indigenous Regional Council (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC) and of North Santander’s Association of Indigenous Cabildos (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN). Additionally, the JEP also accredited 20,205 victims who are members of 47 Afro-descendant Community Councils (Consejos Comunitarios). Some of these Councils form the Association of North Cauca’s Community Councils (Asociación de Consejos Comunitarios del Norte del Cauca). Others are part of different organizations from Southern Cauca Valley.

Case 006, Victimization of Patriotic Union (UP) Members by the Armed Forces

The JEP opened this case on February 24, 2019 to investigate between 1,620 and 6,000 instances of victimization suffered by UP members. Among the cases are the 67 assassinations of UP leaders, which were declared crimes against humanity. Throughout last year, the JEP conducted multiple sessions to hear from UP victims in exile; it gathered 16 testimonies. By October 2019, 72 members of the Armed Forces and state agents had requested to be accepted in the JEP. These members claim to have knowledge relevant to case 006. Recently, on January 13, 2020, the JEP’s Appeals Section rejected requests from General and former DAS Director Miguel Maza Márquez to have his case taken up by the Special Jurisdiction. Maza Márquez is currently serving a 30-year sentence for the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán.

Case 007, Recruitment of Children in the Armed Conflict

On March 1, 2019, the JEP opened case 007 to investigate cases of child recruitment from January 1, 1971 to December 1, 2016. The Prosecutor’s Office has identified 5,252 victims of child recruitment thus far. However, this phenomenon is notable for its high degree of impunity—there are only 10 convictions out of the 4,219 investigations opened by the Prosecutor’s Office. During the first stage of the investigation, the JEP applied the April 1997 Declaration of Cape Town Principles’ definition of child recruitment. The Declaration defines a child soldier as any individual under the age of 18 who forms part of an armed group in any capacity other than being a family member. According to reports received by the JEP, during the FARC’S Seventh National Guerilla Conference in 1982, the group adopted a policy that allowed recruitment of children starting at the age of 15. Moreover, the JEP has also found that such policy was not strictly applied and almost half of FARC’s child recruits were 15 years of age. These facts, according to the JEP, may suffice to attribute responsibility for these crimes to former FARC leaders. Indeed, between December 2, 2019 to January 30, 2020, the JEP summoned 14 former FARC-EP members to provide their version of the facts. Initially, the JEP only planned to summon former members of FARC’S Estado Mayor or Secretariat from 1978 to 2007. 

References

Tags: JEP, Justice System, Transitional Justice

A UN Special Rapporteur’s Report Caused Tensions with Colombia’s Government. Here’s What It Said.

On December 26, 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, released a report on the challenges that rights defenders are facing in Colombia. The report concluded that social leaders are in grave danger, and that the risks they face have increased in the three years since the signing of the Peace Agreement. The report provides analysis and recommendations that the Colombian government should follow to safeguard vulnerable communities throughout the country. The Government of Colombia, however, vehemently disagreed with Forst’s findings. It produced a 20-page response to the report, submitting it to the UN Human Rights Council. In the response, the government blames non-state armed actors for the attacks on defenders, takes issue with numerous phrases in Forst’s report, and claims that the report’s data is incomplete, limited, and biased.

Forst’s report, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ February 25 report on the country’s 2019 overall situation, caused tensions between the government of President Iván Duque and the United Nations. Forst was barred from entering the country in 2019 to complete research, which prevented him from presenting a more up-to-date version to the Council. High government officials continue to downplay the gravity of the security situation faced by social leaders—including Interior Minister Alicia Arango, who said on March 3 that more people are killed in the country for cellphone thefts than for being social leaders or human rights defenders.

What is in the report that so angered the Colombian government? Below are five main points from Special Rapporteur Michel Forst’s document.

  1. Assassinations and other attacks on human rights defenders are constant.

Assassinations of human rights defenders and social leaders—who work actively to implement the 2016 Peace Agreement—are constant and continue to escalate at alarming rates. According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, as of June 30, 2019, the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has reported over 486 assassinations since 2016. Other international observers and civil society organizations have reported different statistics on the total number of assassinations using distinct methodologies; however, rather than debating the methods of documentation, the report stressed that efforts should focus on understanding how to bolster the security situation for human rights defenders in Colombia.

2. Impunity provides an incentive to continue carrying out violations.

There is a high level of impunity for killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. In his report, the Special Rapporteur notes that cases that remain “with no establishment of guilt” exceed 89%, indicating a lack of recognition and justice for the victims and their families. The report suggests that this lack of recognition for victims provides a clear incentive for perpetrators to continue attacking social leaders.

3. Stigmatization and criminalization are common.

Political leaders, public officials, and other influential figures stigmatize and criminalize human rights defenders and social leaders, often characterizing them as guerrillas, guerrilla sympathizers, or anti-development terrorists. The report specifically points to a public declaration from the Governor of Antioquia, who stated, “Criminal gangs with close ties to the Gulf Clan illegal armed group and individuals linked to the National Liberation Army (ELN) were behind the miners’ strikes in Segovia and Remedios in 2018.” The report also highlights previous statements by the Minister of Defense that conflate public protests with organized crime activity. Mr. Forst argues, “Such statements undermine human rights defenders and expose them to greater risks and violations.”

4. Rural, ethnic, environmental, and women human rights defenders are among the most targeted.

Leaders in Colombia’s rural territories are among the most frequent targets of violations and assassinations. In its recommendations, the report highlighted the need to fortify security for social leaders who defend land, environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights. The report also notes a disproportionate number of attacks and assassinations of members of community action councils, ethnic leaders, victim’s rights defenders, farmers, land restitution claimants, and human rights lawyers.

5. Public and private companies continue to contribute to the human rights crisis.

National and international corporations operating in rural communities are adversely affecting the human rights situation in Colombia. Business interests and activity have resulted in the intimidation, criminalization, forced displacement, and killing of social leaders in their own communities. According to the report, 30% of recorded attacks occurred in areas with large-scale mining projects, while 28.5% took place in areas where palm oil, banana, and sugar cane agribusinesses operate.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, United Nations

An outdated interpretation of counter-terror law has painted U.S. Colombia programming into a corner. The way out is simple.

The Humanicemos website uses a lot of the same mission language as U.S. government documents. But U.S. officials can’t even buy its members a cup of coffee.

(Español)

Humanicemos is a non-governmental organization dedicated to clearing landmines in Colombia. Its personnel are former combatants from the FARC guerrillas, who demobilized after the signing of a 2016 peace accord and are now embarking on new lives. It gets support from the UN and the European Union, and works with Colombian government agencies.

This sounds like the sort of feel-good group that the U.S. government would want to support. But it does not support it. In fact, for U.S. officials, the members of Humanicemos are untouchable.

In January, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano writes at JusticeInfo, Angela Orrego of Humanicemos reported to a Bogotá hotel to participate in a 2020 planning meeting of groups working on de-mining.

But when Orrego and two of her colleagues from Humanicemos, one of those organizations created to destroy landmines, arrived, another government official barred them from entering.

“I’m very sorry,” she told them. The meeting was partially funded by the U.S. State Department, she explained, and that meant they could not participate.

At issue is a U.S. law prohibiting “providing material support to terrorists” (18 U.S. Code Sec. 2339A). Though it demobilized nearly three years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and all of its members are still considered to be terrorists. As a result, it is a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any FARC party members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

As currently interpreted, the prohibition doesn’t apply to former FARC members who demobilized individually and have in some way renounced membership in the FARC political party. Individual demobilized receive some U.S. support through the Colombian government’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency.

The rest, though—the thousands of former FARC members who maintain some identity related with the FARC political party, like Ms. Orrego—are frozen out. It is illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

This “material support” statute—or rather, the way it’s being interpreted right now—is more than an annoyance. It’s becoming an obstacle to U.S. interests in Colombia. The State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID all place a high priority on supporting “stabilization” in Colombia. That’s the term they and the Colombian government use to describe introducing a functioning government presence, with basic services and security, in vast ungoverned rural areas where coca and armed groups thrive. In these areas, thousands of former FARC members circulate freely today. Many have a strong interest in the goals of stabilization, which overlap closely with the first chapter of the peace accord (“rural reform”).

This means that today, U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are frequently running into engaged former FARC members, with bizarre results. In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told WOLA staff of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have had a sandwich or drink provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.

The FARC ceased to exist as an armed group in August 2017, after handing in 8,994 weapons and more than 938 arms caches to a UN mission. “Of 13,202 ex-combatants accredited before the accord’s signing,” the Colombian Presidency’s High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation reported last month, “12,940 remain committed to their reincorporation.” While some estimates of ex-guerrillas’ desertions from the peace process run as high as 830, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of former FARC members continue to be engaged with the process. That their mere presence can halt or water down U.S. support for important stability and demining efforts is an absurdity. 

“The FARC are still part of the terrorist list,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a Colombian newspaper in February, “because, as we know, there are some dissident groups still involved in narcotrafficking and violence.” The dissident groups are a big challenge. Their approximately 2,400 members, scattered across about 23 groups, either refused to demobilize, abandoned the process later, or are new recruits. Their numbers are growing.

But the dissident groups aren’t the ex-FARC. In fact, they are one of the main threats to the security of ex-FARC fighters who have renounced violence. To date, about 186 demobilized FARC members have been killed. Of 93 cases for which Colombian government investigators have been able to attribute responsibility, FARC dissidents are the likely killers in 36—that is, 39 percent of cases. It makes no sense, as Ambassador Goldberg did last month, to conflate FARC party members who’ve renounced violence with the FARC dissidents who are attacking them. They don’t belong on the same list.

If this is truly the reason why peace process-respecting former guerrillas remain on the terrorist list, there’s an easy remedy that doesn’t necessarily even require removing a group called “FARC” from the terrorist list. The U.S. government just needs to reinterpret the existing statute in a way that distinguishes between dissident groups and demobilized guerrillas. If the current interpretation has painted U.S. programming into a corner, then that interpretation needs to be updated for the reality of Colombia in 2020.

That would mean screening out from U.S.-funded programs not everyone who is considered a FARC party member or affiliate, but instead only:

  • The few dozen ex-guerrillas who are wanted by U.S. courts for drug trafficking or kidnapping;
  • Those facing serious and specific accusations of war crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian government’s system of war crimes tribunals;
  • Those on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list; and
  • Those credibly alleged to be continuing to engage in illicit activity.

The number of individuals meeting these criteria is a small percentage of the total universe of non-dissident ex-guerrillas. For the rest, there should be no other barrier to participation in U.S.-funded programs. The remaining rank and file, trying to build a peaceful life and contribute to Colombia’s reconciliation, must lose their “untouchable” status.

Three years is enough: it is past time to realign the statute’s interpretation to match up with Colombia’s reality. And Congress should communicate to the State Department, in any way appropriate, that it does not object to this common-sense adjustment.

Tags: Counter-Terrorism, U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

Colombian Social Leaders at Great Risk in Chocó, Arauca, Cauca and Elsewhere

On March 4, unknown individuals killed Afro-Colombian Arley Hernan Chala, the bodyguard of prominent human rights defender and Afro-Colombian leader Leyner Palacios Asprilla. Leyner currently serves as the secretary general for the Interethnic Commission for Truth in the Pacific Region (Comision Interétnica de la Verdad de la Region Pacifico, CIVP) and is an active member of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and Ethnic Commission. In our urgent action dated January 9, we urged U.S. policymakers and others to act to prevent harm from being done to ethnic leaders from the Bojayá region of Chocó Department in Colombia’s Pacific.

We highlighted the deteriorating security situation faced by Leyner Palacios Asprilla and numerous other cases in a monthly urgent action alert on WOLA’s website.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders

U.S.-Colombia Anti-Drug Plan Pushes Failed Policy of Aerial Fumigation

Here’s the text of a press release posted this morning to wola.org. (Versión en español) And below, a 2-minute video from Adam Isacson, WOLA’s director for defense oversight.

Washington, D.C.—On March 5, the United States and Colombian governments reaffirmed a bilateral agenda aimed at halving the cultivation and production of coca in Colombia by 2023. The announcement, which reflects growing alarm about record-high rates of coca cultivation and cocaine production, pushes an anti-drug strategy that includes the aerial herbicide spraying of coca-growing zones from spray aircraft dispensing the herbicide glyphosate. This policy risks causing serious harm: it may push some of Colombia’s poorest citizens deeper into poverty, generate violence and unrest, harm the environment, and detrimentally impact efforts to implement Colombia’s 2016 peace accords.    

“It’s clear that the United States is pushing for aerial fumigation, and that they’ve found a willing partner in Iván Duque,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “What both countries are ignoring is the lack of evidence supporting aerial fumigation as an effective long-term drug control strategy. The plan also ignores the very real possibility that restarting fumigation will result in grave consequences for communities in vulnerable situations.”

For public health reasons, Colombia suspended a U.S.-backed aerial fumigation program in 2015, after 21 years and 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) sprayed. But from 1994 to 2015, mass campaigns of aerial fumigation in Colombia were the cornerstone of U.S. drug policy in the region. It took at least 13 acres of spraying (some estimates go as high as 32 acres) to reduce coca-growing by one acre—and years of evidence showthose gains were not permanent. In areas absent of government presence, with no farm-to-market roads, land titles, or even basic security, replanting happens quickly after spraying, even if there is an initial reduction in coca acreage. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in 2018 found that coca farmers had adopted easy ways to counter mass campaigns of aerial spraying. 

“Aerial fumigation is a short-term tactic with no long-term results, like losing weight on a crash diet only to gain it again,”said Isacson. “The regions where families plant coca need basic government services: roads, food security, an effective police force. Sending police and contractors to anonymously spray herbicides from overhead is the direct opposite of what those government services should look like.”

The potential costs of aerial fumigation are significant. Past WOLA research in the region has documented how aerial fumigation displaces ethnic communities and destroys food security. Another concern is social discord in coca-growing areas: about 120,000 Colombian households currently make a living from growing coca, earning an average of $130 per month. There is also the question of environmental harm and potential health damage, as a growing number of studies point to a potential link between glyphosate and forms of cancer. A 2015 literature review published by the World Health Organization found that glyphosate, the chemical used in aerial fumigation, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  

“The accords already provide for crop substitutions, economic opportunities in rural areas, and social development. The Duque government needs to uphold these commitments, not restart a failed and risky aerial spraying program,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes at WOLA. “Rather than pressure Colombia to fumigate, the United States should instead encourage President Duque to quit dragging his feet on the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating. We have this historic opportunity to provide avenues for economic and social development thanks to the 2016 peace accords, and both President Duque and the United States are ignoring it,” added Sánchez-Garzoli. “Instead, they want to bring back fumigation. Imagine, for some of the people living in these regions, a police plane dropping glyphosate on their communities could be the first evidence of state ‘presence’ they see since the accords were signed in 2016.” 

Adam Isacson explains why we can’t spray our way out of Colombia’s coca cultivation challenges.

Tags: Coca, Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy