Q&A: A Corruption Scandal Undermines Colombia’s Peace Accord Implementation

Corrupt officials in Colombia allegedly abused their positions to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in peace accord implementation funds, which were meant for some of the country’s poorest, most violent, and least governed territories. Their actions, documented in 2021 but likely occurring earlier, have undermined one of the most important commitments in Colombia’s fragile peace process: better governance in conflictive rural areas.

All involved did harm to a priority vital to any who share an interest in helping Colombia improve security and diminish illicit economies. They must be held accountable.

The so-called “OCAD Paz” scandal came to light thanks to a six-month investigation by journalists at the Colombian outlet Blu Radio.. Here’s an overview of what they found, what has happened since, and what it means for Colombia’s peace process as a new government takes over in Bogotá.

What is the OCAD Paz program?

The Colombian government’s budget is not funded entirely from taxes. Royalties collected from oil and mining companies make up very roughly five percent of central government income, a figure that varies with commodity prices. A 2012 reform created “Collegial Administrative Bodies” (Órganos Colegiados de Administración, OCAD) to administer these funds.

The 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) committed Colombia to carrying out dozens of promised efforts with an estimated total cost of about $41 or 42 billion over 15 years. About 85 percent of that would go to implement the peace accord’s first chapter, “Comprehensive Rural Reform.”

In 2018, Colombia’s government set up a subset of the OCAD, known as “ OCAD Paz,” to channel some royalty funds into meeting these rural reform commitments. Though a critic of the 2016 peace accord, President Iván Duque (August 7, 2018-August 7, 2022) rhetorically supported the accord’s rural reform chapter. From 2019 to 2021, his government channeled about 6.6 trillion Colombian pesos (about $1.5 billion) to the OCAD Paz.

What was the OCAD Paz money meant to pay for?

The 2016 accord’s rural reform provisions aim to achieve a longstanding goal: to bring the government into long-abandoned agricultural frontier areas where armed groups thrive and farmers grow illicit crops. While the Duque government didn’t give the “rural reform” chapter all of the resources it needed, it did increase rural development funding.

In particular, OCAD Paz funds supported “Territorially Focused Development Programs” (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs), a crucial feature of the 2016 accord. The PDETs are 15-year plans to bring government presence and services into the most conflictive and ungoverned 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties), covering 36 percent of national territory and 13 percent of the population.

These areas suffer from chronic statelessness. Roads and formal land titles are rare. Disputes tend to get settled informally or by armed groups. These 170 municipalities contained 94 percent of Colombia’s coca crop when the program started. Some areas are so far from government presence that currency is hard to come by, and stores allow customers to weigh coca paste on scales to pay for goods.

The PDETs, along with the FARC’s exit from the conflict, offered a crucial opportunity to address this chronic statelessness. But they would be expensive. The OCAD Paz funds were a critical part of the response.

In 2021, as part of an effort to fund the COVID-19 pandemic recovery, the government and opposition agreed on a legal provision allowing expenditure of future years’ OCAD Paz money. The program’s budget jumped from just over 1 trillion pesos ($225 million) in 2019 and in 2020, to 4.4 trillion pesos (about $1 billion) in 2021.

What did the journalists find?

With that, “corrupt people smelled blood in the water,” say Blu Radio reporters Valeria Santos and Sebastián Nohra. Over their 6-month investigation, they spoke to 25 mayors of PDET municipalities who found corrupt central government gatekeepers standing in the way of OCAD Paz funding for infrastructure and other projects in their territories.

Those gatekeepers were in the Presidency’s National Planning Department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación, DNP), which administers OCAD Paz. Some were in the national Comptroller’s Office (Contraloría), an auditing body that signs off on these expenditures. Some were members of Colombia’s Congress serving as “godfathers” shepherding the funding projects through the approval process.

All told, Santos and Nohra very roughly estimate that about 12 percent of 2021 OCAD Paz resources, perhaps 500 billion pesos ($115 million) meant for about 355 of the peace accords’ vital PDET infrastructure projects, was lost to bribes and kickbacks.

How did the corrupt officials allegedly steal the money?

The DNP and Comptroller roles in approving OCAD Paz grants created an unfortunate opportunity for unethical officials to serve as gatekeepers, holding PDET funding hostage until they paid bribes or kickbacks. Without bribes, projects stalled or were canceled. The Colombian investigative website La Silla Vacía summarized the Blu Radio findings succinctly:

25 mayors…denounced off the record that in order to obtain the approval of a project in the OCAD Paz they had to pay several bribes: between 1 and 2 percent to officials of the Comptroller’s Office, who although they only exercise “preventive” control in the OCAD generated alerts that were enough for a project not to proceed; 5 or 6 percent to Álvaro Ávila, director of the General Royalties System [within the DNP], technical secretary of the Ocad Paz, appointed by then-DNP director Luis Alberto Rodríguez; and between 7 and 9 percent to the congressman who “sponsored” the project. They specifically mentioned Ape Cuello and Samy Merheg.

Cuello and Merheg are members of Colombia’s Conservative Party. They, along with Conservative Rep. Wadith Manzur, are now under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court. Others frequently mentioned in press coverage of the scandal are former top Comptroller’s Office officials Juan Carlos Gualdrón, who oversaw post-conflict issues, and Aníbal Quiroz, who oversaw royalties.

Together with Gualdrón and Quiroz, El Espectador explained, Ávila, the Planning Department’s royalties chief, “pressured officials of the Ministry of Transportation to withdraw approval from more than half of the tertiary road projects already approved for different municipalities.”

What was the Duque government’s response?

All of the above officials have denied requesting or receiving bribes or kickbacks to allow PDET projects to go forward using OCAD Paz money. The Duque government’s final DNP director, who was not in her position when most of the alleged corruption occurred, said that she looked into the allegations going back to August 2021 and, finding no proof, shelved internal investigations.

The Duque presidency’s top official for peace accord rural reform implementation, former presidential counselor for stabilization and consolidation Emilio Archila, said that he had heard these allegations as well, and had e-mailed information to the Colombian government’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Archila’s e-mails, though, did not constitute a formal complaint. “We find it hard to understand,” reads an El Espectador editorial, “why, if these allegations existed and Archila considered them of sufficient importance to forward them to the authorities, the government itself has not given more impetus to the investigations.”

What investigations are underway?

At least three investigations are now ongoing.

  • The Fiscalía is looking into the OCAD Paz allegations; in early July, investigators brought Archila in for questioning about what he knew. (Archila, who often served as the face of peace accord implementation within the Duque government, is not suspected of wrongdoing in this case.)
  • Colombia’s Internal Affairs Office (Procuraduría), which administers administrative investigations and punishments, has opened 24 disciplinary proceedings connected to the case, covering 13 of Colombia’s 32 departments (provinces).
  • As noted above, Colombia’s Supreme Court has opened preliminary investigations against three Conservative Party members of Congress.
  • Colombia’s Congress may carry out a political oversight debate, but that has not happened yet.

With the exception of the congressional action, these investigations are likely to take many months.

Is this the only scandal involving corrupt management of rural peace accord funds?

No, there are others.

  • In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, a local political boss—a former congressman who served prison time for working with paramilitary groups— offered a lawyer (himself the brother of a former paramilitary leader) “several projects in PDET municipalities” in exchange for a loan to his son’s congressional campaign. The lawyer turned him down flat. (Edgar Ulises Torres’ son failed to win election in March, winning just 2 percent of the vote.)
  • In the Caribbean department of Cesar, Ávila, the former DNP royalties chief, appeared in an anonymous complaint regarding major contracting irregularities in a multi-million-dollar solar panel project.
  • In Valle del Cauca, the Pacific department whose capital is Cali, more than US$100 million in OCAD Paz funds for PDET municipalities ended up being administered by a body run by the governor’s political machine, which mostly handed out no-bid contracts.

Why is this scandal particularly harmful to U.S. and international community interests in Colombia?

The U.S. government and Colombia’s other international donors have invested heavily in implementing the 2016 peace accord, including its promise of undoing the lack of government presence in the country’s rural areas. That state-building effort, foreseen in the accord’s “rural reform” chapter, required Colombia’s government to move fast, filling vacuums left by the FARC before other armed groups could move in.

Colombia has mostly failed to do that—and now a corruption scandal provides a compelling argument for more safeguards and red tape, which would slow the implementation process even further.

Government presence and services in PDET zones offer the greatest hope for denying territory to organized crime, armed groups, and illicit economies, from coca to illegal logging to wildcat mining. The OCAD Paz scandal shows that hope being undermined by corruption of the most vulgar sort: the kind that robs resources from the poorest and most violence-wracked Colombians.

This is exactly the kind of behavior that the peace accord sought to undo, by empowering social leaders, increasing community participation in the PDETs and similar development programs, and establishing strong oversight bodies. All of these efforts flagged badly during the Duque government.

The Petro government must ensure accountability

It is now up to the new government of President Gustavo Petro to restore trust in the peace accord implementation process. WOLA urges the Petro government to give the OCAD Paz investigations the resources and high-level political backing that they require. We urge Colombia’s Congress to move forward with oversight hearings.

Since the scandal involves the new government’s political opponents, much of that is likely to happen. However, the facts may at times lead investigators to people whose political support could be needed to achieve other priorities. (The Conservative Party’s legislators, for instance, are up for grabs, having decided not to join the opposition bloc in Colombia’s Congress.) The Petro government must ensure that those responsible for the OCAD Paz scandal face consequences, regardless of where the investigation leads.

WOLA encourages U.S. diplomats to make clear, in all appropriate ways, that those investigating this scandal have Washington’s full political support, and that the U.S. government continues to support the PDETs and other rural reform efforts within the peace accord.

Finally, WOLA urges Colombian authorities to provide any necessary protection to Santos and Nohra, the reporters who broke the OCAD Paz story. In mid-July, Nohra reported receiving threatening phone calls.

Tags: Budget, Corruption, Implementation, Stabilization

August 16, 2022

WOLA Podcast: “What happens with the Petro government could become a model for engaging with the region”

Colombia’s June 19 presidential election had a historic result: the first left-of-center government in the country’s modern history. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who demobilized over 30 years ago, will be sworn in to the presidency on August 7. His running mate, Afro-Colombian social movement leader and environmental defender Francia Márquez, will be Colombia’s next vice president.

WOLA’s director for the Andes, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, was in Colombia on election day, and has a lot to share about what she saw and heard. She and host Adam Isacson talk about what made Petro’s victory possible—including high levels of popular discontent. They discuss the political transition so far, the immediate challenges of governability and tax revenue, implications for implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, and hope for greater participation of women, Afro-descendant, Indigenous, and LGBTI Colombians.

The discussion covers areas of potential disagreement with a U.S. government that has long made Colombia its largest aid recipient, including drug policy, trade, and Venezuela policy. Sánchez and Isacson also discuss new areas of potential U.S.-Colombian cooperation, including judicial strengthening and implementation of peace accord commitments that could stabilize long-ungoverned territories.

Links to recent WOLA analysis of Colombia’s elections:

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Audio, Elections, Podcast, Politics and Security, Politics of Peace, U.S. Policy

July 11, 2022

Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

Read in English at wola.org | Leer en español en wola.org

Tags: Elections, Politics and Security, U.S. Policy, WOLA Statements

May 30, 2022

The Cooperation Space for Peace Warns of Deepening Humanitarian Crisis in Chocó Department

On May 3, the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz, ECP)—a coalition of civil society organizations of which WOLA forms part of—published a statement about the deepening humanitarian crisis in Chocó department. The organizations who form part of the ECP expressed great dismay to the deteriorating security situation in the department and the lack of institutional state presence in the region.

The ECP expressed solidarity with the ethnic-territorial organizations, churches, and humanitarian agents who, on the ground, have directly verified what is happening in the territories.  They call for the use of dialogue to identify and overcome the causes of the situation.

The statement urged the state to implement effective measures to protect the lives of human rights defenders, social leaders, their communities and organizations, and the signatories of the 2016 peace accord, with comprehensive actions that go beyond the militarization of the territories.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the unofficial English translation here.

Tags: Chocó, Civil Society Peace Movement, Security Deterioration

May 3, 2022

What we know about the March 28, 2022 military raid in Putumayo, Colombia

What happened?

The Guardian called it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.

Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.

Later that day, Colombian President Iván Duque and Defense Minister Diego Molano posted tweets celebrating the “neutralization” of 11 ex-FARC dissidents, and the arrest of 4 more. The Army said it was a long-planned operation to capture Carlos Emilio Loaiza, alias “Bruno,” a leader of the Comandos de la Frontera, a Putumayo-based armed group that trafficks cocaine. (“Bruno” was not present.) The Comandos are believed affiliated with the “Segunda Marquetalia” network, led by re-armed former FARC guerrillas, which the U.S. State Department added to its list of foreign terrorist organizations last November.

Much remains unclear about the Alto Remanso incident. What we know comes from denunciations by local Indigenous and campesino groups, and Bogotá-based human rights groups; three Colombian media outlets’ thorough fieldwork; and a mission from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Colombian daily El Espectador has produced a helpful timeline of events.

What was the human toll of the operation?

Eleven people died in Alto Remanso on March 28. At least four (one source claims six) were civilian non-combatants: the president of the town’s Community Action Board, Divier Hernández; his pregnant partner, already a mother of two, Ana María Sarrias; a Kichwa Indigenous reserve governor, Pablo Panduro; and a 16-year-old boy, Brayan Santiago Pama. Another of the dead was a former FARC guerrilla who demobilized in 2017, Jhon Jairo Silva.

Four more people were wounded, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission confirms, including a soldier who was shot in the arm.

Were four additional people captured?

No. Early reports, including President Duque’s tweet, noted the arrest of “four criminals” in addition to the eleven killed. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (FIscalía) responded days later that no suspects had been handed over. Three people who had been wounded in the operation received medical care at clinics elsewhere in Putumayo, and were freed.

Were those killed combatants, or civilians?

Witnesses insist that at least four (or perhaps at least five) of those killed had nothing to do with armed groups.Of the other six or seven, it is unknown which or how many were armed or engaged the military in combat. The Army recovered only six weapons from the scene.

Alto Remanso is an area with very little state presence. People who are not combatants coexist every day with armed groups like the Comandos de la Frontera. It is not surprising that members of this armed group, which keeps close watch over all activity in the area, would have been present at a large community gathering.

Rather than admit errors or “collateral damage” in a crossfire, Colombia’s Army and Defense Ministry insist that every single one of the dead was a combatant. Military sources provided the pro-government Semana magazine with an account of months of preparation and intelligence leading up to the operation, including soldiers’ surveillance of what the magazine called a “cocalero bazaar” starting on March 26. In a March 30 Twitter response to opposition presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, Defense Minister Molano wrote that the operation “wasn’t against innocent Indigenous people, but against narco-cocaleros [apparently a reference to coca farmers]. It wasn’t at a bazaar, but against criminals who attacked soldiers.”

The commander of Colombia’s Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, reiterated on April 11 that all of those killed were guerrilla dissidents. “This isn’t the first operation in which pregnant women and minors get killed,” Gen. Zapateiro told a television interviewer. (Gen. Zapateiro caused controversy in February 2021 with a tweet comparing human rights advocates to venomous snakes, posted the day after major revelations about past extrajudicial executions.)

On April 12, Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, commander of the Army’s Air Assault Division, told the Caracol radio network that all of the dead were armed-group members, either fighters or support personnel. Gen. Correa is a close U.S. ally: he spent 2019 and 2020 in Miami, at U.S. Southern Command headquarters, as the director of the U.S. military command’s J7/J9 (Exercises and Coalition Affairs) Directorate.

The Colombian Armed Forces shared a document purporting each deceased individual’s ties to the armed group. It claims that Hernández, the community leader, went by the alias “Gordo,” and his partner, Sarrias, was alias “Dayana.” It alleges that Panduro, the Indigenous leader, was shooting a rifle with a scope. In the document, Pama, the 16-year-old, was allegedly carrying a rifle too.

Townspeople say that the four had no armed-group affiliation; even if they did, though, that would not be grounds for use of lethal force against them. Hernández and Sarrias were not armed when they were shot: investigative journalist José Guarnizo of the online media outlet Vorágine writes that he has photos, too explicit to publicize, that prove it. Panduro “never picked up a weapon, and there is an infinity of testimonies” supporting that, wrote Guarnizo. Witnesses of the military operation say that Pama was shot not while carrying a rifle, but while trying to offer first aid to a combatant who had been carrying a rifle.

What is the security situation in Putumayo?

The security situation is dangerous. A Maryland-sized department (province) of about 350,000 people, Putumayo has long been ungoverned and conflictive. One of Colombia’s principal coca-growing departments, it is also a key corridor for cocaine transshipment across the border into Ecuador. It was a stronghold of FARC guerrillas, until paramilitary groups made inroads into towns—with military support —in the late 1990s. In 2001, Putumayo was the initial theater of U.S.-backed military operations supported by the first “Plan Colombia” aid package.

Do the military units involved receive U.S. aid?

Yes. A pro-government media report identifies the Colombian Army’s 3rd Counternarcotics Battalion as the unit to which the soldiers who carried out the attack belonged. This mobile battalion was created with generous U.S. support in the early 2000s with funding from the first Plan Colombia appropriation, and continues to get U.S. support today. During the Duque government, this and other counternarcotics battalions were reorganized into a Command Against Narcotrafficking and Transnational Threats (CONAT), which also works closely with U.S. counterparts. U.S. trainers were present for the CONAT’s March 2021 activation ceremony.

This is one of the Colombian Army’s most elite units, whose members “are trained day and night about international humanitarian law and human rights,” law of war expert Jean Carlo Mejía told El Espectador.

The Leahy Law prohibits U.S. aid to foreign military units that commit gross human rights violations unless “effective” or “corrective” steps are being taken. As long as investigations continue (see below) and responsible officials are held accountable, the Leahy Law will not be invoked. Should investigative and accountability processes stall, assistance to the 3rd Counter-Narcotics Battalion, and possibly to the CONAT, could be in jeopardy.

Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?

A consensus view in recent reporting is that it is very likely that this attack, launched in the middle of a party crowded with civilians, violated international humanitarian law. “According to International Human Rights Law, the intentional use of lethal weapons can only occur when it is strictly unavoidable, and with the purpose of protecting life,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Colombia field office recalled in a April 13 tweet .

The armed forces insist that the operation was legitimate: that it was planned and executed at all phases “based on the principles of international humanitarian law.” President Duque said on April 11, “There was an exchange of fire, members of the security forces were wounded, and all protocols were followed.”

However, the decision to pursue a “high value target,” spurring a firefight in the midst of dozens of civilians, including women and children, ran a very high risk of violating the “principle of distinction,” which requires soldiers to avoid harming non-combatants in all but the extreme circumstances, like urgent self-defense. The soldiers took that risk on March 28, ordering snipers to fire “discriminately” (in their words) at the gathering—even after video taken through a sniper’s rifle sights, shared later with Caracol, showed women and children present.

Did the soldiers wear black outfits and say they weren’t the Army?

Yes to the first, “probably” to the second. Townspeople in Alto Remanso say that the soldiers arrived in the town dressed all in black, and that they shouted, “Get down, we are not the security forces.” Some had their faces hidden; some had facial hair. Gen. Correa said that special-forces units do occasionally wear black uniforms, a practice that “is totally regulated.”

It is a violation of international humanitarian law to wear outfits lacking “a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance.” It is also a violation (perfidy) for actors to pose as members of another side.

Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?

Almost certainly. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission “ received information about a supposed denial of medical assistance required by affected people.” Indeed, it appears that some of those killed in Alto Remanso bled to death from wounds that might have been treatable.

Divier Hernández, the Community Action Board president, lay bleeding outdoors, well enough to ask another townsperson to take the keys to his boat and bring his wounded, pregnant partner, Sarria, to get medical aid. The townsperson carried Sarria to the river’s shallows where they sat, submerged, unable to reach the boat because of gunfire. Sarria eventually bled to death from her leg. Panduro, the Kichwa governor, lay on the ground for half an hour begging for help until he, too, perished. Amid the shooting, nobody could get near him to assist.

Was the scene tampered with?

It appears likely. Army personnel had Alto Remanso to themselves for about seven hours: investigators from the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) did not arrive until after 2:00 PM on March 28th. By then, soldiers had moved the dead, allegedly to “keep them in a secure area.” The Fiscalía personnel were initial crime scene investigators, some of whom were seen hugging Army commanders upon their arrival. Fiscalía detectives did not begin to interview witnesses in the town until four days later.

More serious are allegations that victims’ bodies may have been manipulated to make them appear to have been combatants. Strong questions surround Brayan Santiago Pama, the 16-year-old who was killed. Reporters from Cambio, El Espectador, and Vorágine have photos of Pama’s body—which they’ve reproduced as artist renditions out of respect for the victim’s family—showing Pama first lying on the ground unarmed, and then later lying on the floor of a boat with a rifle laid on top of him.

In another video shared by Vorágine we see a grieving woman, while an off-screen voice asks soldiers, “We civilians don’t have weapons, why are you doing this to us? What is most shocking is that you put guns on them. The man you put a rifle on is a governor accredited by the mayor’s office. He was an unarmed person.”

What happened to the money and the whiskey?

They’re gone. Reporters who visited Alto Remanso and spoke to townspeople heard that the three-day bazaar was going well, having raised about 11 million pesos (US$3,000) for the road-paving. The boozy gathering still had about eight cases (96 bottles) of Buchanan’s whiskey still left to sell or drink.

Several witnesses said that the Army took the money, and that the whiskey is no longer in the town. Some say soldiers also took another 36 million pesos in cash (nearly US$10,000), the proceeds of a land sale. A sex worker said that, as she lay on the ground, a soldier put his foot on her head and wrested away her mobile phone “without any explanation.”

The Army reported seizing 9.8 million pesos in cash during the raid, along with weapons. A Defense Ministry source told Cambio that it would be “unthinkable” for the soldiers to have taken the liquor, because “each one would have had to carry two bottles.”

Are credible investigations happening?

Investigations are ongoing, for now. The Internal Affairs Office (Procuraduría) has launched a preliminary inquiry into what happened in Alto Remanso, though the Army has so far not provided requested documents. Senators are calling on Defense Minister Molano to testify. Reporters from El Espectador couldn’t ascertain whether personnel from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office had managed to visit Alto Remanso.

Real judicial accountability resides with the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). “We urge the Fiscalía to conduct a thorough and independent investigation to guarantee the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights field office tweeted on April 13. “We recommend that all disciplinary and criminal measures be taken to prosecute and punish those responsible for what happened.”

The quality of the Fiscalía investigation is not assured. Detectives came to interview witnesses four days after the events occurred, though reporters and NGO investigators were able to arrive days before. Interviews with witnesses took place outdoors without privacy. Military personnel stood nearby, some with video cameras mounted to their helmets.

What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?

Serious. Residents say they have alerted the Fiscalía about the disappearance of five people from the Alto Remanso community, including an eight-year-old boy. Meanwhile, the town is virtually abandoned: El Espectador’s reporter wrote that about 20 people came to the town to talk to her, but “by the evening, the village was once again nearly unoccupied.” Contagio Radio noted, “fear reigns due to reprisals following the denunciations, and many of the region’s inhabitants continue to suffer forced displacement without government assistance.”

What does this mean for politics and civil-military relations in Colombia?

Unless clarity and accountability come swiftly, it is a bad sign. The Alto Remanso, Putumayo attack has generated a political firestorm as Colombia heads toward May 29 first-round presidential elections. The deeply conservative Duque government, which is unpopular, is facing calls for Defense Minister Molano’s resignation and a move by opposition legislators to censure him (which probably lacks necessary votes).

All presidential candidates have weighed in. While all call for an investigation, their postures vary. Rightist, pro-government candidate Federico Gutiérrez assures that the military “rigorously respects human rights.” Rightist independent candidate Rodolfo Hernández criticizes “media tribunals that, without knowing the full facts, make these narco-guerrilla meetings look like a Boy Scout camp.” Centrist Sergio Fajardo said, “the government cannot present a disproportionate and vile action as a successful operation.” Leftist Gustavo Petro called it “a war crime against Putumayo’s population,” adding, “In my government, honor will be the security forces’ axis.”

Of particular concern is the Defense Ministry’s and security forces’ defiant attitude in the face of mounting evidence that not all of those killed were combatants. Mistakes happen in combat. For leaders to insist that none occurred in Alto Remanso—that what happened on March 28 was an exemplary operation—carries serious and lasting risks to the credibility of Colombia’s security sector, when much careful reporting indicates otherwise.

Retired Col. Pedro Javier Rojas, a moderate, oversaw doctrinal reforms a decade ago but resigned from Colombia’s army in late 2020 over disagreements with the current, harder-line high command. Speaking with El Espectador, Rojas viewed the Putumayo attack as an ominous sign that the armed forces are losing their way. “Today, doctrine, one of the three pillars of any military force—together with cohesion and principles and values—is weakened. The current Army leadership did not continue to build it, and furthermore it has not been correctly internalized and disseminated. That is why we see these repeated mistakes in operations.”

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Putumayo

April 14, 2022

How USAID Can Help Support Peace and Human Rights in Colombia (2022)

On March 22, WOLA sent a letter to the Colombia mission of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with ample suggestions to support peace and human rights in Colombia. Before the annual consultation between USAID and U.S. civil society, WOLA informally surveys organizations, experts, academics, activists, and others partners in Colombia about U.S. cooperation in the region. We did the same for the 2022 consultation and solicited input from more than 40 entities, including groups receiving USAID assistance and many who do not receive funding. This input is not a scientific survey. Rather, it is a summary of the impressions we received combined with WOLA’s suggestions due to our long history of monitoring U.S. funding to economic, social, peace, and human rights matters in Colombia.

The document outlines optimism for continued peacebuilding. Topics include the strengthening of mechanisms set up by the 2016 peace accord with the FARC, fortifying the implementation of the peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter, dismantling illegal armed groups and corruption between such groups and members of the public forces, protection and justice for social leaders, the Truth Commission’s Final Report and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s Macro Cases, the reincorporation of former combatants, police reform and accountability for abuses, addressing the multidimensional human mobility crisis, the protection of youths, women, and the LGBT+ persons

The original English letter is here.
The unofficial Spanish translation is here.

Tags: Human Rights, U.S. Policy

March 31, 2022

Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace Must Open a Macro Case on Sexual Violence

On March 17, WOLA and nine other national and international civil society organizations published a statement calling on the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP)—the 2016 peace accord’s transitional justice tribunal—to open a macro case to investigate sexual violence in the context of Colombia’s internal armed conflict.

According to the organizations, Colombia has an international obligation to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence perpetrated by both state and non-state armed actors and to provide reparations to victims. The obligation to document, investigate, and prosecute these crimes, particularly against women and LGBT+ persons, and to adopt a gender-sensitive analysis of major international crimes has taken root and become increasingly ingrained in the culture of international justice.

The peace accord and the norms that regulate the functioning of the JEP incorporate a gender-based focus that see sexual violence as an autonomous crime with no concessions. These obligations, together with the principle of centering victims, commit the JEP to prioritize the rights of all victims of sexual violence. The opening of a national macro case would make visible, in an autonomous and specialized manner, the way in which discrimination affects rights to sexual liberty, integrity, and autonomy of the victims. A macro case is essential to materialize the approach of centralizing victims, which should guide the actions of the JEP.

Given the historical and very high level of impunity for these crimes, along with the low level of acknowledgment by those responsible, the JEP has a responsibility to generate conditions to overcome these barriers and guarantee their rights to truth, justice, and reparation. Civil society and victims have insisted that this is an urgent measure for the satisfaction of victims’ rights, as opening the macro case would improve their situation. The peace accord and the laws that develop it gave the JEP instruments to investigate sexual violence.

Read the full Spanish statement here.
Read the unofficial English translation here.

Tags: Gender Perspective, LGBT+, Sexual Violence, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Transitional Justice

March 18, 2022

International Civil Society Organizations Denounce Assassination of Colombian Indigenous Leader Miller Correa

On March 17, WOLA and 27 other international civil society organizations denounced the March 14 assassination of Miller Correa, the Chief Counselor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN).

This new aggression against the Indigenous peoples of Cauca is only an addition to the long list of attacks against human rights defenders and signatories of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, which according to March 7 figures from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, Indepaz) are 36 and 7 respectively. So far in 2022, there have been 20 massacres with 61 victims.

Standing in solidarity with his family, the ACIN, and the Nasa people, the organizations demand that the Colombian state conduct investigations that identify and bring to justice the material and intellectual authors responsible for this atrocious crime. Amid increasing violence against social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia, state entities must duly address the constant messages of concern and requests for protection from Indigenous communities.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the unofficial English translation here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Indigenous Communities

March 18, 2022

Victim Seats in Congress Could Help Advance Peace in Colombia

By Matthew Bocanumenth and Felipe Puerta Cuartas
(Cross-posted from www.wola.org)

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

On March 13, the regions hardest hit by Colombia’s internal armed conflict will have the unprecedented opportunity to elect congressional representatives for 16 new, temporary “peace” seats in Colombia’s House of Representatives. Implementing these seats, devised in the 2016 peace accord, has been no easy feat. At the same time, the electoral process has been marred with risks and challenges that are illustrative of the entrenched dynamics of violence, racism, and political exclusion this historic mechanism was designed to overcome

The peace seats represent 16 Special Transitory Peace Districts (Circunscripciones Transitorias Especiales de Paz, CITREP) strategically located in 167 municipalities where central state and institutional presence are traditionally weak. These are regions where armed actors inflicted violence against a high number of victims, multidimensional poverty is substantial, and a dependency on producing illicit crops remains to be a prevalent need for many residents. 

The identified municipalities have rarely had the opportunity to elect representatives in Congress to advocate for their needs. The peace accord sought to rectify this lack of political representation by providing 16 congressional seats over two legislative terms for Colombia’s over 9 million victims, many of whom are Afro-Colombian and Indigenous. In fact, the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition Commission—a key component of Colombia’s transitional justice system—identified that 17 of the 22 corridors of violence during the conflict are resided mainly by ethnic communities. By changing the configuration in Colombia’s House of Representatives from 171 members to 187 members for the next eight years, the seats are ultimately meant to uplift the voices of these victims in the halls of power and help integrate their needs and territorial perspectives into the national political agenda.

While a noble effort at reconciliation, the mechanism has encountered a series of obstacles from the government itself. In 2017, after months of debates through both congressional chambers, many representatives saw the legislation to create the peace seats as a given. However, in late November of that year, the then-President of the Senate illegitimately blocked the legislation from passing by claiming an insufficient quorum, despite the securing of an absolute majority vote. This move tabled the legislation and prevented the peace seats from operating in the 2018 legislative elections. Obstructing the legislation pushed back the legal codification of this key peace accord commitment by four years. Reviving the legislation was only made possible in May 2021 when the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a constitutional writ (tutela). On August 26, 2021, the Iván Duque administration finally abided by the ruling and promulgated the law to create the 16 peace seats. Ironically, after having obstructed the legislation, the Duque government now presents itself as having facilitated these seats and utilizes them as an indicator to show its commitment to peace to the international community. 

lack of awareness about the objectives of the seats has made bringing the mechanism to life a difficult undertaking. Delays and obstructions have meant that some of the initially registered 398 candidates had little to no time to prepare their campaigns. Many candidates have yet to receive their allotted state funding to campaign in rural areas. Skepticism around the process has even prompted some candidates to call for postponing the elections

Additionally, paramilitary groups, other criminal interests, and traditional political parties have found their way to continue sabotaging the peace process. Such is the case with Jorge Rodrigo Tovar Vélez, the son of the paramilitary leader “Jorge 40,” whose campaign for the peace seat in Valledupar was approved by the National Electorate Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE). Jorge 40 was recently deported to Colombia after serving 12 years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking charges. Upon his return, he was sentenced in February 2022 with 40 years in prison for murder and has over 1,400 other pending investigations. Despite this conflict of interest, Tovar Vélez was named the Victims Director in the Ministry of the Interior by the Duque administration. Now, Vélez is running a campaign for a peace seat, with reports indicating that armed actors are intimidating residents to vote for him. Questionable candidates running campaigns for the peace seats raises concerns that this key commitment of the peace accord will not serve its intended purpose.

Alarmingly, the moment is also plagued by a climate of increasing violence by illegal armed groups in the territories these peace seats will represent. Five years after the ratification of the peace accord, the country has broken a five-year record when it comes to the frequency of mass internal displacement. It is experiencing an increase in homicides of different kinds—from targeted killings of social leaders to the massacres of civilians.  

The situation is so dire that Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral, MOE) issued an alert warning that 58 per cent of the municipalities represented by the new peace districts are at high risk for violence and electoral fraud. This electoral cycle for the peace seats has already seen the kidnapping of a candidate in Arauca department, intimidation of a candidate in North Santander department, at least 347 registered complaints of armed threats and intimidation against almost the same number candidates, and even eight contenders rescinding their candidacies because of a lack of guarantees and for fear of their safety. This violence raises major concerns for the security of the victims running campaigns for the peace seats, as threats and assassinations against political and social leaders were terrifyingly rampant throughout the 20th and early 21st century and persist in Colombia’s post-accord context.

In Colombian politics today, candidates are unable to carry out political activities in many regions due to fear for their lives. There is also a lack of accountability against alleged corruption and fraud in elections. This political arena has impeded the country from further democratizing, ensuring the rule of law and social justice, and overcoming economic inequality, all of which have worsened during the ongoing pandemic and have further suffered from the lack of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation.

Given the current security conditions in territories throughout Colombia, the government may arbitrarily suspend the elections for these peace seats at its own disposition for reasons related to public order. Ensuring the security and safety of the candidates running for the peace seats is vital for democracy and peace in Colombia. Evidenced by the historic difficulties for alternative political movements throughout the country to safely participate in traditional electoral structures, this violent legacy of political and social exclusion has strained Colombia’s efforts at peacebuilding.

Colombia’s next Congress will have to commit to advancing peace accord implementation. After years of efforts to obstruct legislation that sought to advance peace and starving the process of adequate funding, bold steps are needed to get peace back on track. The new Congress will also need to pass a tax reform. Given how Duque’s proposed tax reform pushed the country to the brink of crisis, this will need to be done in consultation with civil society. The police repression with which the national protests were met is yet to be adequately investigated or prosecuted and should also lead to serious security sector reforms. 

With the introduction of these 16 new peace seats, there is hope for a legislative environment that advances progressive reforms for Colombians. While representing the diverse interests of Colombia’s victims won’t be easy—if supported by the government, the public at-large, and most importantly fellow congressional representatives—the presence of these peace seats in Congress could provide impetus for a legislative agenda centered around human rights and one that tackles Colombia’s structural problems of socioeconomic exclusion and racism—all core objectives of the 2016 peace accord. If the peace seats are able to serve their intended purpose, they ultimately represent a step forward for political participation as a means of reparation.

Tags: Congress of Colombia, Elections, Politics of Peace, Special Congressional Districts, Victims

March 14, 2022

SOS Cauca: International Community Condemns Murder of Indigenous Leader Albeiro Camayo Güeito

On January 25, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and 19 other international civil society organizations, as part of Colombia’s Cooperation Space for Peace, published a statement heavily condemning the murder of former Regional Coordinator of the Indigenous Guard Albeiro Camayo Güeito by armed actors from the Jaime Martínez Front of the FARC’s dissidents.

With the murder of Camayo Güeito, illegal armed actors have murdered three kiwe thegnas (Indigenous Guards) in under two weeks. The other two individuals are Breiner David Cucuñame and Guillermo Chicame. Given this context, Indigenous authorities have declared a maximum alert throughout their territories in Cauca department.

The international civil society organizations reinforced the alert by the Nasa Indigenous community and requested that the diplomatic corps present in Colombia urge the national government to implement efficient and effective measures to protect the Indigenous communities of Cauca, including the comprehensive implementation of the 2016 peace accord. They also called on the Ombudsman’s office to fulfill its constitutional mandate by immediately traveling to the territory and issuing appropriate and necessary Early Warning alerts.

Read the original, Spanish statement here.
Read the translated, English statement here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Indigenous Communities, Security Deterioration

January 31, 2022

Social Investment is the Path to Peace in Arauca, Colombia

By: Matthew Bocanumenth, WOLA Program Associate

(Twitter / Mayerly Briceño @mayeb96)

“I’m 25-years-old and my entire life I’ve lived in the midst of armed conflict,” social leader Mayerly Briceño sorrowfully expressed as she spoke about the dire humanitarian situation in Arauca, Colombia—a northeastern department that shares its border with Venezuela. At a January 7 event hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Colombian daily newspaper El Espectador, Briceño formed part of a panel of civil society leaders and experts convened to inform the international community about the realities being lived in Arauca after an outbreak of violence that marked the beginning of 2022 in the department. As the humanitarian situation continued to deepen, Briceño, who profoundly understands the perils of living through ongoing internal armed conflict, took to the streets with several communities throughout Arauca to demand peace, not more militarization.

This recent episode of violence in Arauca over the first weekend of 2022 killed at least 33 people, left many disappeared, and internally displaced hundreds of families and campesinos amid fighting between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) 10th Front. On January 19, a car bomb was detonated in Saravena, Arauca in front of a human rights organization’s office. At the date of publication, more than 1,400 individuals have been displaced as a result of the ongoing violence, including over 400 families, and dozens of Venezuelan migrants and refugees living along the border. While horrifying and unacceptable, this surging violence is not surprising.

Decades of Violence in Arauca

Arauca has long felt the effects of Colombia’s internal armed conflict and true social investment, a longtime demand of Araucan civil society, is needed to advance peacebuilding efforts. Arauca is located in a remote region that has historically lacked institutional presence and has been left in the periphery of Colombia’s political and economic life. This lack of investment exists even though the department is the third largest oil producer in Colombia. As contended by Sonia Lopez, spokesperson for the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation, “armed conflict has been imposed on Arauca.” 

Amid a lack of state presence, the guerrillas imposed their coercive and violent rule across communities in the department. The ELN established its influence in the region in the early 1970s, with the FARC shortly after marking its territorial presence. The discovery of oil in the early 1980s caught the attention of the extractive industry, which began expanding its lucrative operations. The guerrillas often targeted and extorted the oil industry with attacks like those against the Caño Limón–Coveñas pipeline, which is operated by state-owned Ecopetrol and U.S.-owned Occidental Petroleum. Such attacks prompted the Colombian government to deploy its troops to protect this growing industry and its infrastructure. 

Violence against Araucan civilians persisted even with the state’s militarized presence in the region. The 1980s were met with the inception of drug trafficking schemes and the 1990s with the disturbing incursions of expansive paramilitary networks. In the 2000s, violent confrontations between the FARC and the ELN deepened Arauca’s humanitarian crisis. Civilians were often caught in the crossfire, harassed and forcibly recruited by these illegal armed actors, and internally displaced from their homes. The guerrillas eventually signed a non-aggression pact in 2010, but estimates for this gruesome period between 2006 and 2010 indicate that these confrontations killed up to 2,000 civilians.

The Colombian state’s military presence has not served to protect communities. Lopez characterized the strategies imposed by the Colombian state in Arauca as a “laboratory for armed conflict policies.” She pointed to the intensified violence seen during the implementation of Colombia’s counterinsurgency initiatives that saw a high incidence of extrajudicial killings, as well as counternarcotics initiatives that undermined the social needs of Araucan communities. With social investment at the forefront of the pleas by Araucan civil society, the state has continuously stigmatized civil society by accusing leaders of collaborating with guerrilla groups. When social leaders and communities at-large carry out activism demanding basic social investment and services, they are stigmatized as insurgents or sympathizers, and essentially persecuted by the state.

Adding yet another layer to an already multifaceted context, Venezuela’s proximity to Arauca—so much so that many residents in the region even tend to hold a binational cultural identity—plays a major role in the policies and narratives the Colombian government chooses to advance. A tense political relationship between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments has often undermined the wellbeing of these border communities by prioritizing geopolitical influence and optics. Meanwhile, the lack of a diplomatic relationship between the Maduro and Duque governments, despite sharing a 1,300 mile-long border, means that there are no formal channels through which the two countries can resolve border conflicts. For this reason, following a series of armed confrontations in the Venezuelan state of Apure in March 2021, a group of Colombian and Venezuelan NGOs issued a letter urging the UN Secretary General to designate a Special Envoy to support efforts to deescalate tensions along the border.

Overall, these dynamics, interests, and the state’s security approach to conflict in Arauca victimized the civilian population for decades. As Lopez put it, “if militarization were the answer, we would have already seen a solution.”

A Security Situation Foreshadowed

The current violence in Arauca was foreshadowed, according to Juan Carlos Villate—an Araucan Ombudsman for Tame municipality. The 2016 peace accord signed between the Colombian state and the FARC sparked hopes for peace throughout the country, prominently so in Arauca. In tandem with dialogues that were occurring with the ELN in the mid-2010s, these peacebuilding advances brought about a respite from violence for communities across the department. However, this tranquility was short-lived. Villate underscored how the faltering implementation of the 2016 peace accord helped generate the current security situation.

The Colombian government’s failure to comprehensively implement the 2016 peace accord helped triggered the growth of dissident groups that operate in the region. However, it is incorrect to assume that these dissident factions operate in the same ways as the FARC, according to President of Arauca’s Human Rights Protection Committee Guillermo Antonio Díaz Leonis. He explained that the commanders of these splinter groups are not the thousands of individuals that committed themselves to Colombia’s peace by laying down their arms. Communities throughout Arauca recognize that the dissidents are different from the FARC that demobilized. Instead, they are composed of a mix of different armed actors that are financed by the department’s illicit economies and fuel its violence.

A mute institutional and humanitarian response to the evolving composition of armed actors in the region also fostered the current insecurity and violence. The Ombudsman’s Office—which since 2001 has published over 70 different Early Warning alerts, risk reports, and follow-ups—has persistently documented the dynamics among armed actors in the department and warned that clashes between the ELN and dissidents of the FARC were going to arise. Even with this foreshadowing, the state has made no concrete humanitarian plans to ensure protection, leaving the civilian population entrenched in deep insecurity. Ultimately, Villate and Díaz Leonis concluded that Araucans are strong advocates of comprehensively implementing the 2016 peace accord and resuming dialogues with the ELN guerrilla, as they understand the detrimental implications of not following through with these peacebuilding efforts.

Dialogue with the ELN is Crucial for Colombia’s Peace

Luis Eduardo Celis, an expert with the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, echoed sentiments for a comprehensive peace by making a strong case for the Colombian government to resume national dialogues with the ELN. Celis characterized Arauca as having separate governing states: the Colombian state and the ELN. The guerrilla group has enforced its rule over communities throughout Arauca for over half a century. Residents, as they hold deep fear of repercussions and reprisals, are made to follow the ELN’s rules and norms. While the ELN is responsible for unacceptable atrocities and violence, many Araucan communities also deeply distrust the Colombian state and its institutions, often looking to the ELN to address community needs that should be carried out by the state. It’s a reality that must be acknowledged to truly address the complex situation in Arauca. The state must rethink its relationship with the department, which can only happen through social investment and peacebuilding efforts.

The Need to Prioritize Social Investment

Each panelist at WOLA’s event described the fundamental lack of social investment in Arauca, and how it perpetuates different manifestations of violence. 

Adam Isacson, WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight, spoke of a 2019 trip he took to Arauca with WOLA’s Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. He described how despite the profits brought in by the oil industry, they saw how a large portion of the department’s residents live in poverty, as these profits are not invested back into the community for basic infrastructure and services. When roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure are built, they are made solely with the oil industry’s interests in mind. Even past U.S. foreign aid, such as under the Bush administration, was directed towards amping up security to protect Arauca’s oil infrastructure, leaving behind social investment for Arauca’s over 300,000 residents. This disregard for the communities and people who make up Arauca must change.

The people of Arauca deserve to advocate for themselves and choose their path to true democracy and peace. Arauca desperately needs to be given the ability to build up its institutions and infrastructure, so that it can govern autonomously, build up its economy, fortify its health systems, form an education system, and offer sustainable opportunities to its people. Right now, they are living with fear and anxiety of what will come with the ongoing internal armed conflict occurring in their department. But their story is also one of hope. Social leaders like Briceño are mobilizing communities to advocate for themselves. They are pleading with the international community to accompany them and urge the Colombian government to advance peace accord implementation and dialogues with the ELN. These communities are the catalysts to peace, and Colombia must invest in them.

Tags: Arauca

January 25, 2022

SOS Arauca: International Civil Society Organizations Demand Peace in Arauca, Colombia

On January 24, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and 26 other international civil society organizations, as part of Colombia’s Cooperation Space for Peace, published an SOS statement demanding peace in Arauca department amid escalating violence in the region.

As the organizations note, Arauca started 2022 with egregious episodes of violence by illegal armed groups that deepened the humanitarian situation for Arauca’s civilian population. At least 33 people were murdered, 50 disappeared, 170 families and 36 former FARC combatants internally displaced, and a car bomb detonated against a human rights organization’s office. The Ombudsman’s office and civil society organizations have warned of this escalating violence for years now.

The statement calls on the international community to urge the Colombian government to prioritize dialogues with guarantees and humanitarian agreements as solutions forward from this senseless violence and to consolidate peace.

See the original statement here
See the unofficial English translation here.

Tags: Arauca, Armed Groups, Human Rights

January 25, 2022

WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Arauca, Podcast, Security, Security Deterioration, Stabilization

January 19, 2022

Colombia’s Peace Movement: “Arauca Deserves True Peace and Democracy”

“Defend the Peace”

The first weekend of 2022 saw one of the most serious humanitarian situations in recent years in Arauca—a department in Northeastern Colombia that borders Venezuela. Armed confrontations among illegal armed actors, believed to be members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), left at least 23 people killed and several others displaced. Details surrounding the situation are still emerging.

On January 3, Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos La Paz Colombia, DLP) published a statement calling on all armed actors to cease their hostilities and to respect the lives and dignity of the communities, organizations, and leaders impacted by the confrontations. DLP further reiterated the importance of advancing a peace process with the ELN, addressing the dynamics brought forth by the FARC’s dissidents, and ratifying a humanitarian accord to bring an end to cycles of violence.

An English-language translation of the statement is below:

Defend the Peace observes with great concern the sensitive situation occurring in Arauca. The ongoing insecurity further reiterates the importance of advancing a peace process with the ELN, handling the dissidents of the FARC who continue their armed actions, and ratifying a global humanitarian accord to move away from these relentless cycles of armed conflict.

Given this situation of ongoing confrontations and the repercussions on communities and their organizations, we are grateful for all the humanitarian action and accompaniment of both national organizations with legal capacities and the international community, as accompaniment to the communities must always be a priority.

Arauca will only find a path of coexistence and true democracy if agreements are reached to leave behind more than four decades of armed conflict.

We call on the ELN and FARC dissident structures to cease their armed confrontations and respect the communities, their organizations, and their leadership.

Tags: Civil Society Peace Movement, Dissident Groups, ELN, Human Rights, Security Deterioration

January 4, 2022