We are grateful to all the members of the U.S. Congress who signed the Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concerning social leaders that Representatives James McGovern (D-MA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) are circulating. For those who haven’t signed, we strongly encourage you to do so by Friday, June 26. This letter will help advance protections for social leaders and help to prevent further abuses like those listed below from continuing to take place. Since our last urgent action on May 19 we received the following information:
This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.
In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat.The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) urges members of Congress to sign a Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being circulated by Representatives James McGovern (D-MA-2) and Mark Pocan (D-WI-2).
The letter brings to light the difficult circumstances faced by social leaders in Colombia. The U.S. Congress representatives include specific demands in their letter: protective measures for social leaders; thorough and transparent investigations of their murders; cracking down on paramilitaries and their drug trafficking networks; holding Colombian Army intelligence members accountable for illegal spying on journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians; and vigorously implementing the peace accords. The U.S. Congress representatives also urge the United States to work alongside rural communities to sustainably replace coca crops, rather than returning to ineffective policies of aerial spraying and forced eradication.
Please contact your U.S. Congress representative to sign on. You have an opportunity to help hold Colombian institutions accountable for a near quarter-century track record of direct assaults against a vibrant civil society. The letter will only make a significant impact if it is backed by as many representatives in Congress as possible. So send a message now!
Paste this sample email into the appropriate box. See sample message here.
It will only take two minutes of your time. Do it so that the people organizing for an entire country’s better future don’t have to worry about laying down their lives for the cause.
Below please find the text of the letter.
Dear Secretary Pompeo,
As the coronavirus pandemic exposes and magnifies existing problems in each of the countries it ravages, we are particularly concerned that it is affecting the safety of Colombia’s brave human rights defenders and social leaders who are putting their lives on the line to build lasting peace.
We write to ask you to urge the Duque Administration to recommit to implementing the historic 2016 peace accords and protecting Colombia’s endangered human rights defenders whose vulnerability has only increased during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Colombia is now the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of the peace accords – a loss of committed and valiant civic leaders that Colombia cannot afford. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked. This appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders.
For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira. He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and poor farming communities like the San José de Apartadó peace community continue to suffer and are even more vulnerable from the unchecked presence of illegal armed actors in their territories.
Marco Rivadeneira was one of 23 social leaders killed between March 15 and April 24, during the first weeks of Colombia’s pandemic lockdown. According to the Colombian NGO, Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ, in the first three months of 2020, 71 social leaders and defenders were killed in Colombia.
To stop this tragedy, we ask you to urge the Duque Administration to:
– Improve protection of human rights defenders and social leaders, starting with effective investigations of attacks and threats against them, identifying those who ordered these crimes and publicly presenting the outcomes of these investigation.
– Develop a road map for protection in consultation with defenders in the guarantees working group, including for pandemic-related challenges such as the need for personal protective equipment.
– Fund and implement collective protection measures with differentiated ethnic and gender approaches in consultation with communities through the National Protection Unit. Collective measures agreed to with Afro-descendant and indigenous communities’ authorities must be guaranteed. The self-protection mechanisms of the San José de Apartadó peace community and similar humanitarian zones should be respected, including the support provided by international accompaniers, even during the pandemic.
– Dismantle the paramilitary successor networks involved in drug trafficking, which fuel much of the violence against human rights defenders and social leaders. The government must honor its commitment to regularly convene the National Commission of Security Guarantees, which was established by the accords to develop and implement plans to dismantle illegal groups and protect communities, social leaders, and ex-combatants.
– Effectively investigate, prosecute, and present results about these paramilitary and criminal networks through the Attorney General’s special investigative unit. We welcome the new agreement between the Colombian Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia to train prosecutors and investigators in aggressively addressing these human rights crimes. It is critical the State end impunity in the murders, disappearances, assaults and threats against human rights defenders, social leaders, land rights and environmental activists, journalists, trade unionists and other defenders.
– Swiftly hold accountable Colombian Army intelligence members, including at the highest ranks, who ordered and carried out mass surveillance on 130 journalists (including U.S. reporters), human rights defenders, political leaders, and military whistleblowers. The U.S. should also ensure that U.S. security and intelligence assistance does not assist, aid or abet such illegal surveillance, now or in the future.
– Vigorously implement the peace accords, including by adequately funding the transitional justice system, fully implementing the Ethnic Chapter, delivering on commitments for protection for ex-combatants and productive projects to reintegrate them into civilian life, and honoring commitments for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition for victims of the conflict.
We urge you, Mr. Secretary, to ensure that all agencies of the United States speak with one clear voice to condemn these ever-escalating murders and to press the Duque Administration to take the necessary steps to identify and prosecute the intellectual authors of these crimes and dismantle the criminal structures that protect them.
Finally, we urge you to continue to provide valuable U.S. assistance to Colombia to implement the peace accords, provide humanitarian assistance for Venezuelan refugees and refugee receiving communities, and address the health and food security crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. should also take advantage of opportunities provided by the peace accords to carry out sustainable and lasting eradication of illegal crops by working with communities to replace coca with legal livelihoods and by dismantling trafficking networks.
Thank you for your attention to these important concerns in this difficult time.
On June 2, 2020, EarthRights and 15 other international and Colombian civil society organizations, including WOLA, published a statement condemning the murder of Indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of the ancestal U’wa territory.
Joel Aguablanca Villamizar was murdered on May 31, 2020 in the Department of North Santander during a Colombian military operation against fronts of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN). The Indigenous community has adamantly stated that their leader had no link to the armed group.
The militarization of the territory has had a detrimental impact on the indigenous U’wa population. The organizations demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future.
Below is the text of the statement:
Human rights organizations condemn the murder of indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of ancestral U’wa territory
Washington D.C, June 2, 2020: Last Sunday, indigenous leader Joel Aguablana Villamizer was murdered by the Colombian army in the Chitagá municipality of Norte Santander, Colombia. Joel was an indigenous leader and education coordinator for the U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Cabildos (ASOU’WA). The army murdered Joel as part of a mission to capture Darío Quiñonez, alias Marcial, third leader of the Efraín Pabón Pabón Front and commander of the Martha Cecilia Pabón Commission of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earthrights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa issued the following statement in response:
“In carrying out this operation, the Colombian National Army and the ELN did not respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law, threatening the life and security of the U’wa civilian population, including five minors.
“The military operation that resulted in Joel’s murder was carried out in close proximity to the U’wa United Reservation, which is part of the U’wa Nation ancestral territory. This highlights the impacts that the Colombian government’s fight against armed forces still has on the indigenous U’wa population. The U’Wa have been declared an endangered group by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.
“The organizations below stand in solidarity with the U’wa voices who denounced this heinous act and who stated that ‘[they] are not going to allow this unfortunate situation to be considered a false positive for the Colombian State, since the murdered U’wa brother was never linked to the ELN insurgent group (A SOU’WA Communiqué).’
“We are concerned and outraged at the frequency of events such as this one. According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (Ascamcat), with the death of Joel Aguablanca there have already been three cases of extrajudicial executions in the department of Norte Santander in 2020 (El Tiempo, 2020).
“We demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future. Likewise, we will bring the situation to the awareness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. EarthRights is currently supporting the U’Wa in a long-standing land rights case at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights”
Alma y Corazon (USA)
Amazon Watch (USA)
Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) (Regional-Americas)
Colombia Human Rights Committee (USA)
Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia)
EarthRights International (Amazon)
Indigenous Environmental Network (USA)
Mujer U’wa (USA)
Perifèries del món (Spanish State)
Rainforest Action Network (USA)
Rete Numeri Pari (Italy)
University of California Irvine Community Resilience Projects (USA)
On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.
What is an “SFAB?”
On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country.
Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.
Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”
Is this a big deployment? Is it new?
A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.
While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations.
Is this about Venezuela?
U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.”
The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.
If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.
The U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?
The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.
The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:
Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.
Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.
Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers.
That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.
The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.
We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.
Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?
The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.
The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up.
If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.
The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.
Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”
Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.
It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.
This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota
Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,
We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers. As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.
This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services. In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rightsreport, targeted killings and forced disappearances. In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters. In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda. In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists. In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.
The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy. The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings. For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone. This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy. It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders. The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.
We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”
As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves: What can ensure that this never happens again?
At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:
Support the creation of an independent group of experts under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and recommend steps to achieve justice and non-repetition.
Press for a thorough review of military doctrine and training to ensure that it promotes a proper understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society, including the role of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, and an independent judiciary. While the written doctrine was revised during the Santos Administration, clearly improvements to doctrine are not being followed. The review should seek an accounting for the too-frequent episodes of senior military behavior that contradicts this revised doctrine. Such a review must have input from Colombian human rights defenders and judicial experts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Urge the Colombian government to provide all necessary protection measures, agreed upon with the targeted individuals and organizations, to ensure their physical and psychological integrity, as well as that of those around them.
Urge the Colombian government to purge all intelligence files, whether of state security forces or other organizations, collected on human rights organizations, finally addressing the long-standing demand by human rights organizations, unfulfilled for nearly a quarter century.
Urge the Colombian government to reveal publicly the full extent of illegal intelligence operations targeting civil society activists, politicians, judges, and journalists, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives.
The administration should direct DNI, CIA, NSA and DIA to inform congressional intelligence, armed services and foreign relations and foreign affairs committees of their conclusions on the full extent of illegal Colombian intelligence operations, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives. The administration should direct the same agencies to inform these congressional committees whether and when the U.S. government learned of these actions by the Colombian military and intelligence services and whether U.S. intelligence agencies cooperated with their counterparts even after learning of those actions.
Investigate whether recipients of U.S. training and/or equipment participated in ordering or implementing these illegal activities and immediately suspend individuals and units involved from receiving U.S. training and equipment, per the Leahy Law.
Suspend all U.S. support for Colombia’s military and intelligence services if the Colombian government does not immediately suspend and promptly investigate and prosecute officials who ordered and executed these illegal activities and conduct the thorough review and rewriting of military doctrine and training mentioned above.
If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end. Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York Colombian Studies Group, The New School International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights Latin America Working Group (LAWG) Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) Oxfam America Presbyterian Peace Fellowship School of the Americas Watch United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Since our last urgent action Colombia’s weekly magazine Semana revealed that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. We at WOLA find this to be completely unacceptable . On Tuesday, May 19 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, WOLA is hosting, alongside other human rights organizations, a webinar with several of the persons targeted by this illegal espionage. We encourage you to join us to hear their perspectives and recommendations on what should be done to redress this. In this document, you will find summarized statements made by several civil society groups about this scandal. You can join the webinar by registering here.
Additionally, WOLA produced a short video about the violence faced by social leaders in Colombia. The video asks U.S. authorities to call on the Iván Duque administration to protect social leaders, prioritize investigations of the assassinations, and prioritize full implementation of the peace accords.
We also take this opportunity to update you on developments on the April 25 request to President Duque by Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal persons asking for the creation of an Afro-Colombian Emergency Fund. The Ministry of Health announced that it will designate a person to manage the COVID-19 emergency in the Colombian Pacific. However, details of who this will be or how this person/office will function are not clear. CONPA and others are asking for that to be determined as soon as possible. It should be done in full consultation with Afro-Colombian authorities. Secondly, a special education plan is required for Afrodescendants living in areas with limited internet capacity. Virtual learning is not reaching most children in shantytowns and rural areas because they do not have computers and/or the technical capacity to access school in this manner. Lastly, CONPA insists that the government advance humanitarian accords with the ELN that provide protection to civilians and communities caught up in conflict. We were disappointed by last week’s developments that run counter to peace in Colombia. Please see our May 14 statement Inaccurate Trump Administration Charges Against Cuba Damage Prospects for Peace Talks in Colombia and Elsewhere.
The following are summaries of the human rights situations and cases we received that require action. We have divided them into three parts: military intelligence scandal, COVID-19 related concerns, and human rights abuses.
Military Intelligence Espionage
Illegal Military Surveillance Targeting Social Leaders
On May 10, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) condemned the illicit surveillance carried out by the Colombian army’s intelligence units on social leaders Luz Marina Cuchumbe and Jani Rita Silva and CIJP staff Father Alberto Franco and Danilo Rueda. They make clear that strong measures must be taken to protect the whistleblowers in this case.
Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WFP), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, the Colombia Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International USA for an online forum.
On May 1, 2020, the Colombian weekly news magazine Semana revealed that Colombian military intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance on more than 130 individuals between February and December 2019. Among those targeted were human rights defenders, Colombian and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and members of the military. Several were targeted for reporting, documenting, or representing families of victims of extrajudicial killings, and for bringing to light other grave abuses.
This illegal espionage is not a new phenomenon. In 2011, Colombia’s former intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Directorate (DAS), was dismantled after revelations in 2009 that it was illegally wiretapping and monitoring the activities of civil society leaders, judges, and politicians. The recent revelations by Semana raise the question: why is this a recurring problem in Colombia, and what needs to happen to secure accountability and at last bring about much-needed reforms to Colombian army intelligence and military doctrine?
Journalists, human rights defenders, and military whistleblowers are carrying out crucial work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices amid a fragile security situation in post-conflict Colombia. When units in the military criminalize this work, it undermines efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic Colombia. What should be done to guarantee the end to illicit surveillance of social leaders? What role can the U.S. government play in achieving accountability, given its status as Colombia’s top military donor and trainer? How can the Organization of American States and the United Nations guarantee protection, justice, and non-repetition of such crimes? What are the implications of these revelations for Colombia’s 2016 peace accord?
To help answer these questions, we invite you to join us for a webinar with individuals targeted by this illegal surveillance and with Colombia human rights experts.
On May 12, the Department of State notified Congress that Cuba and other countries were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015. In its statement, the State Department referred to Cuba’s denial of Colombia’s request for the extradition of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) leaders who are stranded in Havana after broken-off peace talks, and the presence of fugitives wanted by U.S. authorities who have lived in Cuba for decades. These politically motivated charges, aimed at pleasing U.S. political constituencies, undermine existing U.S.-Cuba security cooperation as well as the possibility of peace negotiations in Colombia and potentially elsewhere.
The sanctions attached to the “non-cooperation” designation—a prohibition on the sale or export of defense equipment and services to the designated country—do not have practical consequences for Cuba, since U.S. embargo regulations already prohibit the sale of defense-related equipment and services. However, this designation further poisons the diplomatic atmosphere between Cuba and the United States.
Designating Cuba as “non-cooperative” might be one step short of returning the country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba was officially removed from the list in 2015). The rationale cited by the State Department for labeling Cuba as “non-cooperative” is similar to the justifications previous administrations invoked for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.
Since Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, the U.S. government and Cuba have deepened security cooperation on issues of mutual interest for mutual benefits. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in the signature of a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement issues, where both governments committed to expanding operational collaboration on counter-terrorism, illicit drug traffic, cybercrime, and cybersecurity, among other issues. In addition, both governments established specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases including counterterrorism.
The most recent public technical meeting took place in January of 2018 between the Cuban Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, who highlighted the importance of cooperation in these areas and agreed to continue the technical meetings in the future.
One of the factors cited by the State Department for Cuba’s 2015 removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list was Cuba’s critical role in the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In May 2018, Colombia’s government, the ELN guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host peace talks between Colombia and the ELN, which had been taking place in Ecuador. Cuba and Norway were serving as “guarantor countries” for those talks, aimed at ending a conflict that began in 1964.
In April 2016, at the outset of the talks, all involved —including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These stated clearly that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was much more skeptical about peace talks. In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police academy, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government did not honor the protocols governing a breakdown of talks. It demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves continue to demand to be allowed to leave Cuba, as detailed in the protocols that Colombia’s government signed.
The communities where the ELN operates have consistently pleaded with the Colombian government to engage in exploratory peace talks with the guerrilla group, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These recent actions by the U.S. and Colombian governments disregard the security and well-being of afro-colombians, indigenous, and rural farmers who have no alternative but to deal with the negative implications of illegal groups like the ELN that operate in their territories. Rather than create obstacles to consolidating peacemaking efforts, the Colombian government should be taking all possible steps to create the conditions needed to reinstate dialogue and work towards establishing a durable peace.
It sends the message that if a state agrees to host peace talks, and doesn’t violate its word, that state could still face severe consequences for its contribution to global peace and security. In Colombia, as reprehensible as the ELN’s actions were, this sends a perverse message to any group that might decide to enter into a future peace process with the government.
Ultimately, this step by the Trump administration undermines ongoing cooperation on national security and law enforcement cooperation between Cuba and the United States, while undercutting effective international diplomacy.
By Gwen Burnyeat and Andrei Gomez-Suarez at Rodeemos el Diálogo on April 25, 2020. Cross-posted with permission.
There has been recent speculation about whether the COVID-19 pandemic might offer a window of opportunity for reigniting negotiations between the government of Iván Duque and Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), at war with the state since 1964. These speculations stem principally from two unilateral gestures, one by the ELN, one by the Duque government.
First, on 29 March, Duque’s High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos, re-designated two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, as “Peace Promoters”, a role given to members or ex-members of armed groups who commit to contributing with their experience to paving the way for peace negotiations with illegal armed groups, while the government suspends any legal process against them for their actions in that group. Galán and Torres, who both formally dropped out of the ELN and demobilised many years ago, had previously been designated by the administration of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) as “peace promoters”. In January 2019, after the ELN detonated a car bomb in the General Santander National Police Academy, killing 23 people, Duque had cancelled the status of all peace promoters, reactivating arrest warrants against them. In addition to Galán and Torres, this included active ELN members Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Eduardo Martínez, who had also been designated peace promoters. Galán and Cuéllar were captured; Martínez and Torres went into hiding. Galán and Torres were wanted on charges against the whole of the ELN Central Command (COCE) for a 1999 kidnapping, in which they did not participate because they were imprisoned at the time, but until this investigation is formally closed, they need a presidential pardon to walk freely.
Contextualising the Perspectives of Each Side: “Resistance” versus “Legality”
Neither the ELN nor the Duque government are homogenous entities. Both are complex ecosystems, each with their own internal dynamics, identity narratives, political power balances, and ideas about how Colombian public opinion perceives them.
Between October 2017 and January 2018, a virtuous cycle of unilateral and bilateral gestures led to a hundred-day bilateral ceasefire, which included a hybrid monitoring mechanism comprising representatives of the international community and Colombian civil society. While this bilateral ceasefire was welcomed by pro-peace networks as it alleviated humanitarian suffering, the ELN and the government had different interpretations as to what constituted breaches of the ceasefire, and it was ultimately not possible to extend it. Paradoxically, what was meant to be a trust-building step created a major deadlock in the negotiations. This, compounded by the short time that the Santos government had left in power, the ELN’s growing criticism of the government’s implementation of the Havana Peace Agreement signed with the FARC in 2016, and the ELN’s kidnapping of two Ecuadorian journalists, among other things, derailed progress of the negotiations under Santos. The support within the ELN and among their sympathisers shifted towards the hard-line faction, which does not see a negotiated peace as a viable solution, and rather supports the strengthening of the ELN’s military might to continue what they see as their resistance against an unchanging oligarchy.
President Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, won the 2018 elections on a promise of drastically modifying the Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and taking a hard-liner stance with the ELN. Governments themselves are complex dynamic ecosystems within the wider state structure, comprising multiple people and institutions, immersed in relationships within themselves, with various players in the political establishment, with their political opposition, and with Colombian public opinion.
Duque’s political capital draws overwhelmingly on the support of ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010), today Senator, whose popularity rested on his ‘democratic security’ policy, and who had staunchly opposed the negotiations with the FARC, leading to the triumph of the ‘No’ vote in the 2016 Peace Referendum. However, his government also comprises a key alliance with the Conservative Party, via his vice-president Marta Lucía Ramírez, and multiple other alliances with national and local-level politicians of different parties.
When Duque took power in August 2018, the ELN negotiation team was in Havana, where the negotiations were transferred in May 2018. They waited there and stated publicly their willingness to continue the dialogue with the new government. Duque announced that he would evaluate the state of the negotiations before taking a definitive decision. His government consistently pushed for the release of all the ELN’s hostages and the cessation of all criminal activities as conditions for negotiating. The ELN, in turn, argued that such actions would be made in a series of bilateral humanitarian gestures, as negotiations progressed.
Meanwhile, the negotiations remained frozen, no government delegation arrived in Havana, and the conflict intensified in regions such as Catatumbo, Cauca, Chocó and Nariño. With the ELN’s car bomb in January 2019 Duque formally ended the negotiations, saying the ELN did not show a willingness for peace, and requested an Interpol warrant against the ELN negotiation delegates in Cuba. He urged Cuba and Norway, both guarantors to the Santos negotiations with the ELN, to ignore protocols signed with his predecessor which guaranteed the safe return of the ELN negotiation team to the Colombian jungle in the case of breakdown of peace talks, and return the negotiators to Colombia to be arrested.
Ever since, two members of the ELN COCE (Nicolás Rodríguez and Pablo Beltrán) have remained in Havana (Cuba decided to respect the protocols), giving frequent press interviews expressing their wish to reignite negotiations, urging Duque to send a negotiation team to continue with the existing negotiation agenda, as it was an agenda signed with the Colombian state. The Duque government, meanwhile, contends that the previous agenda was signed with the Santos government, and that new negotiations would require a new agenda. Duque continues to emphasise further unilateral permanent gestures by the ELN as conditions for negotiating, especially hostage release and cessation of criminal activities, in line with his government’s key slogan, “peace with legality”.
The ELN tends to reject unilateral gestures, claiming that the government does not see them as a gesture of a strong group willing to make concessions and pave the way to peace collaboratively between two antagonists, but rather as a show of weakness. The ELN’s gesture is thus suggestive of a possible shift towards a consensus at least on seeking a way to alleviate humanitarian suffering. The compliance of all the ELN’s Fronts with the ceasefire so far (between 1-22 April there were zero attacks by the ELN) is also positive, considering the ELN’s geographical fragmentation and non-vertical hierarchy, and is indicative of the COCE’s capacity of command and control. The Colombian army has not instigated any attack since 12 March, which suggests that the government is likewise prioritising the response to the Coronavirus crisis. This convergence of unilateral strategies has materialised in a tacit truce, which could nurture a virtuous cycle of decisions that lead to long-term de-escalation of the conflict. Many sectors of civil society and the international community have welcomed the positive impact of the ceasefire in the lives of war-torn communities.
However, this cannot be misinterpreted as a step towards the opening of a negotiation table, and a shift within the ELN towards a consensus for a negotiated peace. On the contrary, the geopolitics around Venezuela offer a ripe context for a radicalisation of the ELN. Donald Trump’s constant threats to the Maduro regime and Duque’s confrontational approach to Venezuela reinforce the ELN’s self-perception of being a bastion of resistance against global neoliberalism and fascism. The unilateral ceasefire thus could also be read as a move to regain international legitimacy in the global context of failing neoliberal democracies, and position themselves as standing against Trump.
The Duque administration’s gesture of reinstating Torres and Galán as peace promoters suggests of a willingness within at least one sector of the government to take tangible steps towards peace, responding to the many calls by pro-peace sectors of Colombian civil society and the international community for the government to seek a “complete peace” – one that encompasses all illegal armed groups in the country. Just as an insurgency has harder and more moderate positions internally, which fluctuate in power and visibility according to the unfolding political present, so does a government. The intensifying violence of the conflict with the ELN, and the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan migrants arriving in Colombia, have now been compounded by the coronavirus crisis. Pro-peace elements within the government now have the opportunity to elevate the protection of life as the central mandate of the Duque administration, beyond the scrabbles of right/left sectarianism which have thus far dominated its political narratives, in which it has been stuck since coming to power on the basis of opposing Santos and his peace process.
Possibilities and Challenges for Peace: Opening the Window of Opportunity
Peace is not a linear process. Even if these two unilateral gestures do not immediately bring the parties to a negotiation table, they give oxygen to pro-peace elements in the government, in the wider political establishment, among Colombian civil society and in the international community.
We see four interdependent and mutually reinforcing conditions as essential for a future Duque-ELN negotiation. First, the Duque government needs to show both sufficient political will and political capital to engage successfully in peace negotiations. Second, the ELN must build sufficient consensus internally to commit to a negotiated solution to the conflict, and accepting that this may have to look different to what they envisaged when they committed to negotiating with the Santos administration. Third, the growth in support in Colombian public opinion for an end to violence in the country. Fourth, a favourable geopolitical environment for fostering a sustainable peace in Colombia, which had been adversely affected by the Trump administration’s disdain for the 2016 Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and the worsening of the Venezuela crisis.
The Coronavirus pandemic is radically reshaping our world. As governments worldwide are extending lockdowns, might not the ELN similarly reconsider, and extend their ceasefire? Might increased political and citizen support crystallise around a government mandate for protecting life? And might the government continue to abstain from military engagement with the ELN, and offer an explicit unilateral gesture of de-escalation? Might the outcome of the coming US elections create a more favourable geopolitical context for future negotiations with the ELN? The transformations of political identities around the world under coronavirus will change global trends on everything from neoliberal economic policies, state welfare, populism, and community solidarity. These transformations could redefine how the Duque government and the ELN see themselves and each other, and how Colombian society feels about a negotiated solution to the conflict. The window of opportunity remains to be opened.
On April 17, WOLA participated in the Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos La Paz Colombia, DLP) webinar that explored the prospects for peace with the ELN. Following the guerrilla group’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire due to the global pandemic, hope was reawakened that this temporary truce could serve as a stepping stone for restarting peace dialogues with the ELN. DLP, of which WOLA forms part, released a statement commending the ELN for paying heed to the UN Secretary-General and Colombian civil society’s calls for ceasefires. The Government of Colombia announced that two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Carlos Velandia, would serve as “peace promoters”. The DLP statement emphasizes that these steps serve as an opportunity to consolidate a full peace by opening a much-needed space for exploratory dialogues with the ELN. DLP urges the Colombian State and illegal armed groups to agree to a multilateral ceasefire in order to advance peace and as a response to the public health crisis.
The findings of the latest report by the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos, CERAC) were presented. This noted that (as of April 17) the ELN had not engaged in armed actions and that no military offensives against the ELN were initiated. Clara López, representing DLP, stated that the public health crisis should not reduce efforts for consolidating peace and that the Iván Duque administration should increase its political will to foster dialogue with the rebel group. Former Senator and Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando stated the CERAC report’s main finding- the positive developments between the Colombian government and the ELN – were not getting media attention because the pandemic was dominating the headlines. Given this, proponents of peace had to adapt their advocacy and be strategic so as to guarantee that both issues, peace promotion and the health crisis, get attention. To help mobilize efforts by civil society in support of advancing peace with the ELN, it was necessary that positive developments obtain visibility.
Senator Roy Barreras argued that the Duque administration continues to carry out warmongering acts against the ELN that generate obstacles for advancing dialogue with the rebel group. Violence committed by the group, fuels fear in Colombian society and the administration takes advantage of this to justify its military actions. Further, Senator Barreras noted that humanitarian emergencies weaken governmental plans and this is also used to explain away poor leadership. The pandemic allows governments in general to reframe political narratives in their respective countries, which can unfortunately result in assaults against critical rights. The Senator believes that the Colombian government should take advantage of this unprecedented public health emergency to reframe the political narrative around peace with the ELN. The speakers closed by asking that Colombia’s government fully implement the 2016 Peace Agreement with FARC and start peace dialogues with the ELN.
Speakers went on to emphasize that civil society participation is crucial to any peace process. César Sandino from Paz Completa said that civil society needs to be treated like an actor at the negotiating table because they are the ones directly affected by the conflict and are essential to guaranteeing a sustainable peace. Diana Sánchez added that continued oversight and support by the United Nations’ was needed.
Afro-Colombian leader and Bojayá massacre survivor from Chocó Leyner Palacios emphasized that guarantees of non-repetition are needed and that victims are central to peace negotiations. A multilateral ceasefire is needed in order to protect innocent civilians throughout Colombia. At the current juncture, communities in the Pacific face infrastructure issues, institutional neglect, and armed conflict. The health crisis is compounding all of these structural issues. Leyner pleaded that the government take action to protect the territories of ethnic minorities now affected by the pandemic. Throughout the discussion, it was pointed out that the communities affected by the ELN’s armed actions are the same that are likely to be most negatively affected by the pandemic. Despite the national quarantine, forced coca crop eradication operations continue and armed actors are murdering social leaders. Marylen Serna, a social leader from Cauca, and Ediver Suárez, an activist from Catatumbo, pointed out that the government was not implementing the 2016 peace agreement. They recommend that it be fully implemented and that negotiations with the ELN are prioritized.
Cali’s Monsignor Dario Monslave of Cali urged the ELN to free any hostages it has in its possession. He asked that the ELN respect the territories and communities it typically operates in. When doing so, the rebel group needs to be environmentally conscientious, as its operations are detrimentally impacting ecosystems. U.S. Reverend Douglas Leonard from the Global Council of Churches spoke of the importance of peace, particularly during the Easter season.
In sum, these are challenging times for communities facing on-going armed conflict and now a pandemic. Senator Iván Cepeda closed the meeting by underscoring the need to uphold democracy during these times. He stated that democracy should not be seen as an obstacle but rather a vital part of the solution to pandemic. Senator Cepeda called on other armed groups including the Gulf Clan to lay down their weapons. He said: “Facing the pandemic is a war in itself. Peace is fundamental to civilian security and is the only path forward.”
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General toldEl Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
This is an English translation of a statement signed by the U.S. and European human rights and humanitarian aid organizations whose logos appear above. (PDF en español)
International civil society organizations warn of the serious risk that misuse of state intelligence systems represents for peace and democracy in Colombia
The international civil society organizations that sign this communiqué express their solidarity with the more than 130 people, including journalists, members of political parties, NGOs defending human rights, and trade unionists who, according to Semana magazine investigations, have been victims of a new episode of illegal interceptions, through the implementation of a computer monitoring program, executed by several units of the national Army. These intercepts, which include even high officials of Iván Duque’s government, call into question the guarantees of constitutional and democratic principles in Colombia.
The results of this journalistic investigation are worrying: the surveillance took place in response to the publications, by the New York Times in early 2019 on the return of extrajudicial executions, and the investigation by La Liga Contra el Silencio and Rutas del Conflicto in July 2019 about agreements between extractive companies and the Ministry of Defense.
Freedom of expression is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in Colombia it is a constitutional right (article 20) and it is essential, as stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its chapter VIII, for the development of democracy and for the full exercise of human rights.
As highlighted by the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state intelligence systems should be used for the protection of human rights, and not to violate them. In this sense, we urge the Colombian State to take concrete measures to regulate these intelligence systems .
It is urgent that the Colombian State, in an exercise of transparency with the Colombian people and with the international community, carry out the pertinent investigations to clarify the origin of these actions and bring to the competent authorities those responsible for this very serious aggression against the work of human rights defense, freedom of the press, and guarantees to the political opposition in Colombia.
The Colombian State must, likewise, provide sufficient guarantees for life and integrity and the right to defense of individuals and organizations defending human rights in general and in particular of those who have been exposed with this illegal practice.
As international civil society organizations, we warn of the high risk of the sustainability of the peace process in Colombia, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with this type of persecution of the political opposition, added to the increase in murders of human rights defenders and ex-combatants from the Farc, which so far in 2020 already number more than 100, according to the records of Indepaz.
Intelligence systems must respect human rights and be subject to strict civil and judicial controls