Published by WOLA on February 28, 2021
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
February 28, 2021
Published by WOLA on February 28, 2021
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
February 28, 2021
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has maintained an office in Colombia since 1996 with presences in Bogotá and nine regions. Early each year, it produces a report summarizing Colombia’s human rights situation during the prior year. The Colombia office issued its latest report on February 23. Among its topline findings for 2020:
The UN High Commissioner counted up to 133 killings of human rights defenders, though as of publication it had been able to verify only 50 due to pandemic restrictions. “Of the verified cases, 25 per cent were reportedly committed by criminal groups, 15 per cent by FARC dissident groups, 13 per cent by ELN, and 4 per cent by the police or military.” Colombian authorities achieved 20 convictions in 2020 against killers of human rights defenders.
The day before the UN report launched, the Colombian presidency issued its own brief report. Presidential Human Rights Advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez claimed that the government and the UN human rights office had counted 66 murdered social leaders, with 63 remaining to be verified. The reason for the discrepancy with the UN is unclear.
The UN and government estimates are on the low end. The government’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counted 182 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2020, and 753 in the five years since 2016. The non-governmental Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (Indepaz), which includes names and places but does not verify each case, counted 310 murders in 2020.
The UN report faults the Colombian government for the continued lack of a stated public policy for dismantling paramilitary successor criminal organizations, as foreseen in the 2016 peace accord. It finds a “lack of a comprehensive State presence” in conflictive parts of the country, which “limits the State ́s capacity to comply with its duty to protect the population.” Juliette De Rivero, the director of the High Commissioner’s Colombia office, told Verdad Abierta, “After the accords’ signing, there was about a year and a half of breathing space in these territories. But then the State didn’t occupy the space—and armed groups began to arrive and exert very strong social control.”
The UN report, as well as press comments by De Rivero and High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, voiced strong support for Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system. They especially upheld its Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which has taken bold moves in recent weeks against ex-guerrilla kidnappers and military personnel responsible for “false positive” killings, and which often finds itself under political fire from allies of President Iván Duque’s government. Bachelet shared her concern about “declarations against the transitional justice system, including legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”
U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg met with the JEP’s President, Eduardo Cifuentes, on February 26. This was a notable show of support for an institution that some U.S. officials over the years had avoided praising, out of concern that it might end up failing to punish perpetrators.
As reported in last week’s update, the JEP surprised the country by announcing that it is investigating a much higher than anticipated number of military murders of civilians who were then falsely presented as combat kills. The Special Jurisdiction said its review of existing databases led it to estimate 6,402 of these “false positive” killings between 2002 and 2008 alone.
As an analysis by La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León shows, that number could increase or decrease as the transitional justice system proceeds with its “bottom up” strategy of starting with the perpetrators in order to arrive at the most responsible military commanders. Cifuentes, the JEP’s president, told El Espectador that the next steps involve collecting more testimonies from perpetrators and victims in order “to charge those identified as most responsible.”
This has some top current and former military commanders concerned. Articles last week in El Espectador and Verdad Abierta name some of the officers most frequently cited for commanding units that committed the most “false positive” killings. These include several generals who were promoted to lead Colombia’s army in the 2000s and 2010s.
The JEP’s method of starting with lower-ranking military perpetrators in order to arrive at the top commanders puts pressure on those lower-ranking defendants, who make up most of the 1,860 security-force members who agreed to have their cases heard in the JEP. Nineteen of them had reported being threatened or followed, according to a September 2020 document from the government’s Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
On February 2, the JEP sent a letter to the Specialized Technical Defense Fund for Members of the Security Forces (FONDETEC), a sort of public defender service for members of the military and police accused of crimes. The letter asks for information about the advice that FONDETEC lawyers may be providing to low-ranking military defendants in the JEP system.
Some of these defendants have alleged that their public defenders strongly encouraged them to avoid implicating senior commanders in their JEP testimonies. “FONDETEC conditions our testimonies to improve the defense of those above us,” a military witness told the JEP, according to El Espectador investigative columnist Yohir Akerman.
“What evidence do you have to link General [Mario] Montoya, commander of the Army? The situation could turn around against you,” a FONDETEC lawyer called “Doctor Vargas” apparently told defendants at the military’s detention center in Facatativá, Cundinamarca. Akerman identifies him as Fernando Antonio Vargas Quemba, a FONDETEC attorney with ties to far-right, even paramilitary-linked, groups.
Colombia’s politically powerful associations of retired military and police officers issued a communiqué opposing the JEP’s information request regarding FONDETEC activities, viewing it as part of an “unprecedented offensive against our military and police, with the purpose of demoralizing and discrediting those who selflessly serve the country.”
The commander of the Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, appeared to go further. The day after the JEP’s revelation of its estimate of 6,402 murders, the general posted to his Twitter account nature footage depicting snakes, interspersed with Bible excerpts, and a vow that “we will not let ourselves be defeated by poisonous and perverse vipers that want to attack us, accuse us, or weaken us.”
“How frightening that these gentlemen are still there [in command]. We are not poisonous snakes. We are victims of the Army,” responded the Association of Mothers of False Positives. A La Silla Vacía analysis, noting Gen. Zapateiro’s “impulsive” nature, observed that the commander is under pressure from the hardline retired officers’ associations. An unnamed “high government official who works with the Army” insisted that the General’s position is not the Army’s institutional stance.
On February 26 President Duque visited the Tolemaida base in Tolima to inaugurate a new Colombian Army Command against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats (CONAT). This 7,000-person unit’s objective will be “breaking, striking, and subduing the structures of drug trafficking and transnational threats, linked to the illegal exploitation of minerals, trafficking of species and people, and, of course, any transnational form of terrorism,” reads a Presidency release.
The CONAT’s commander is Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, a former commander of the Colombian Army’s National Training Center who served a recent tour in Miami as the commander of the U.S. Southern Command’s J7/9 Exercise and Coalition directorate.
It is not immediately clear how much about the CONAT is new, other than its command and organizational structure. Colombia’s Army already had Counter-Drug Brigades; these are now being combined under the CONAT with a counter-illicit mining brigade and aviation units. Reporting about the unit doesn’t specifically speak about new capabilities, equipment, or personnel increases.
Defense Minister Diego Molano said the new command will prioritize “areas identified as being highly influenced by drug trafficking such as Catatumbo, Cauca, and Putumayo.” Catatumbo is along the Venezuelan border, which drew the notice of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In response to an earlier announcement by President Duque about the CONAT, Maduro had called on Venezuela’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need.”
A Caracol Noticias report by noted investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón—who was part of an unfortunate recent exodus from Semana magazine—cited videos and emails indicating an ever closer relationship between Venezuelan security forces and members of the ELN and FARC dissident groups on Venezuelan soil. “Today we are in full support of the commander, comrade Nicolás Maduro, so that this government may continue, so that he may continue to lead this ship,” a video depicts “Julián Chollo,” a commander in the dissident group headed by former FARC leader “Gentil Duarte,” telling residents of the town of Elorza, deep within Apure, Venezuela. The Caracol report finds, “According to internal ELN communications, Venezuela may have become the scene of a ‘war among guerrillas’ in which each side has the support of different [Venezuelan] military units.”
February 28, 2021
On February 24, over 25 international civil society organizations, including WOLA—through the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz—published a statement commending the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) for its February 18 order on how it plans to investigate and prosecute the at least 6,402 extrajudicial executions it has identified in macro-case 03.
The original Spanish-language statement is here.
The English-language version of the statement is below.
The undersigned international civil society organizations welcome the progress made by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). On February 18, 2021, through Auto 033 of 2021, the JEP made public its prioritization strategy within Case 03, known as “false positive” extrajudicial executions. According to information gathered by the Chamber for the Acknowledgment of Truth and Responsibility (Sala de Reconocimiento de Verdad y Responsabilidad), “at least 6,402 people were illegitimately killed to be presented as combat casualties throughout the national territory between 2002 and 2008”.
The courageous and rigorous work of Colombian human rights and victims’ organizations has been key in clarifying the truth about these painful events, which the Colombian people continue to mourn and must be prosecuted. Seeking to reduce the JEP’s work as an attempt to “discredit” the leader of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) political party, not only constitutes an affront, but it is also untrue and puts at serious risk, once again, the lives and work of human rights defenders, whose truth is key to definitively overcoming the conflict in Colombia.
We reject this new stigmatization and alert the state and the Government of Colombia about the serious security consequences it may have on the victims and defenders who have been denouncing these cases for years.
It is important that the JEP does not falter in its work, which, as stated by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssel, “is taking important steps in the fight against impunity, which will help Colombia to address past serious violations of international law and prevent the recurrence of such violations”.
As international civil society organizations that have accompanied Colombian human rights organizations for many years, we reiterate our support for their legitimate work, which we consider essential for consolidating peace and strengthening the rule of law in Colombia.
All sectors and actors should refrain from issuing stigmatizing statements that put lives at risk and further polarize Colombia. We encourage all to contribute with determination from their different roles and mandates to the definitive overcoming of the conflict in Colombia.
February 28, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Colombia’s post-conflict justice system (JEP) issued a dramatic order on February 18, explaining how it plans to investigate and prosecute its “Macro-Case 03: Deaths illegitimately presented by state agents as combat casualties.” These war crimes, called “false positives,” involved security-force (usually Army) personnel killing civilians, then presenting the dead as armed-group members killed in combat, in order to earn rewards.
The JEP’s most surprising finding was its topline number. Security forces murdered at least 6,402 civilians, the tribunal contends, in the seven years between 2002, the first year of Álvaro Uribe’s presidential administration, and 2008, when a scandal involving 19 murdered young men from a poor neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts broke the scandal open.
6,402 is equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed between 2002 and 2008. It is nearly triple the 2,248 cases, dating from between 1988 and 2014, that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) had shared with the JEP. Colombian human rights organizations called the Fiscalía’s undercounting “infuriating.”
The actual number is probably higher than 6,402; the JEP “is still receiving reports to contrast” with its database, La Silla Vacía reports, adding, “For each, the JEP has already identified the name, surname and identity card number,” and each appears in at least three of four governmental and non-governmental databases the tribunal consulted. In addition, some FARC members who demobilized during that period may have been killed later and counted as combatants. And many more cases may still be in the files of the military justice system, not the civilian Fiscalía.
On January 28, the JEP had indicted seven top FARC leaders for their role in kidnappings, with the intention of moving down the chain of command to on-the-ground perpetrators. The false positives investigation, though, is to go “bottom up,” starting with soldiers and officers, then moving up the ladder to top commanders who, today, deny any responsibility for the killings. (The FARC leaders, by contrast, appear poised to accept responsibility for kidnappings.)
That means proving that the practice of killing civilians to receive rewards, a phenomenon that the UN and other human rights monitors began denouncing around 2004, was systematic—a claim given new credibility by the startlingly high number of 6,402 cases. With this order complete, the JEP is to focus its investigations on Antioquia, the Caribbean coast, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, and Meta.
Ex-president Uribe, calling the JEP order “another outrage,” denied responsibility for the killings, saying that while of course he placed strong demands on the military, “effectiveness is not an excuse to violate the law.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and some NGOs and victims’ groups, hailed the JEP’s action. A statement from several groups worried, though, that the JEP’s “bottom up” approach might go too slow, failing to touch the military’s top ex-commanders before the tribunal’s 10-year mandate ends in 2028.
Fourteen Colombian legislators from the political opposition, spanning six parties, issued the latest in a series of data-rich reports monitoring the government’s compliance with commitments made in the 2016 peace accords. The driving force behind these reports is Green Party Representative Juanita Goebertus, who was a member of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.
The official most responsible for accord implementation in President Iván Duque’s government, High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, challenged some of the legislators’ claims with a point-by-point Twitter thread, to which Rep. Goebertus then responded with a point-by-point rebuttal thread.
The report finds the Colombian government falling further behind in implementing the accord, especially its provisions related to rural governance and crop substitution. Among its numerous findings:
Since taking power in August 2018, President Iván Duque and his government have vowed to re-start spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft to eradicate coca. A U.S.-backed “fumigation” program, a significant part of the “Plan Colombia” strategy, operated from 1994 to 2015.
Public health concerns forced the program’s suspension that year. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court then laid out a series of six health, environmental, consultation, and safety requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the program. One of those steps is the emission of a decree laying out how fumigation would operate. The government produced an 11-page draft decree in December 2019, but never issued a final document. On February 15, the Justice Ministry produced a new, 20-page, draft decree.
This document prohibits spraying in “the National and Regional Natural Park Systems, strategic ecosystems such as páramos, Ramsar category wetlands and mangroves, bodies of water, and population centers.” It does not mention indigenous reserves or Afro-Descendant community council lands. As the Constitutional Court requires, it calls on Colombia’s National Health Institute (INS, roughly similar to the CDC) and environmental authority (ANLA) to sign off on the spray program’s safety after performing studies, which have been underway since at least early 2020. The Counternarcotics Police would have to provide monthly spray reports to the ANLA, the Ministry of Health, and other oversight agencies.
Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano, recently insisted that all conditions for re-starting spraying might be met by late March, but experts interviewed in Colombian media see approval being delayed for months more. “This decree won’t accelerate the process,” María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drug Studies (CESED) told El Espectador.
The draft decree is just one of several unmet criteria, including the INS and ANLA sign-offs and a green light from the multi-agency National Drugs Commission (CNE). Via the Colombian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia learned that, as of September, the INS health study had only completed work in 7 of 14 departments where fumigation was expected to occur. The ANLA approval, meanwhile, is being delayed by two court challenges seeking to uphold vulnerable communities’ ability to participate in the process.
Should the Duque government meet all of the Constitutional Court’s requirements to restart fumigation, there will be legal challenges—and it’s not certain whether the Court will approve of the program’s design. Its rulings have noted that glyphosate spraying, as the 2016 peace accord explains, is meant to be a last resort after other options have received higher priority, like voluntary crop substitution and manual eradication. The draft decree does not mention this prioritization. Nor does it mention prior consultation with indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, an omission that the Constitutional Court may object to, Vélez contends.
February 21, 2021
February 16, 2021
On November 18, 2020, we the undersigned and representatives of civil and academic organizations who participated in the discussion about the status of the civic strike agreements organized by the University of Florida and the University of Arizona, publicly insist that the Colombian government headed by President Iván Duque prioritize the implementation of the agreements signed between the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee and Colombian government entities. The U.S. Congress, a political and commercial ally due to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, should force its counterpart to keep its word to the people of Buenaventura.
First, we express our deep concern for the physical security of leaders who are part of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee and the accompanying and allied organizations of this process in Colombia.
In particular, we are very concerned that at least three members of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee are facing complex situations of insecurity and that the State’s response has been insufficient to guarantee their physical integrity. These leaders include Leyla Andrea Arroyo and Dañelly Estupiñán, leaders of the Black Communities Process (PCN), John Janer Panameño, president of the Isla de la Paz neighborhood community action board, and Adriel Ruiz Galván, coordinator of the Foundation Spaces of Coexistence and Social Development (FUNDESCODES).
Ms. Arroyo recently received a death threat from unknown men while she was eating at a restaurant. Mr. Panameño has recorded surveillance of her person and received death threats on her phone. Ms. Estupiñán has also recorded surveillance, received death threats, and the situation deteriorated to the point that she had to travel internally to guarantee her safety. On November 2, Mr. Galva received numerous death threats via the WhatsApp application.
Due to the murder of the historic Afro-Colombian leader Temistocles Machado, known by the nickname “Don Temis,” and constant attacks against members of the civic strike, we urge the governments of the United States and Colombia to:
In terms of what was agreed between the Colombian authorities and the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee, we see it important that both prioritize the implementation of the following:
3) The legal clarification of the territory. To advance with what was agreed with the Territory, Housing and Infrastructure working group, it is necessary to resolve the issue of the territorial rights of Black and Indigenous ethnic peoples and to advance with the titling of individual properties and public assets – INURBE.
4) Review the affairs of the Dragados Bahía and Aguacate and San Antonio estuaries. The meetings of the Environment, Productivity, Employment and Territory, Housing and Infrastructure working groups did not take place. The details of the dredging projects of the access channel to Buenaventura Bay and the Aguacate and San Antonio estuaries were not publicized. The working groups did not have the opportunity to analyze these infrastructure projects. Therefore, they advanced without institutional and community input of the possible effects and environmental damage caused. There was no verification of said works with the affected ethnic communities and their fundamental right to prior consultation and participation for said works was violated. In summary, the government signed contracts to dredge the access channel to Buenaventura Bay and the San Antonio Estuary, completely ignoring the civic strike agreement. As a result of this, these projects must be put on hold until due process is fully carried out with the organizations and communities whose rights have been violated.
5) The District POT Formulation of Buenaventura. In accordance with what was negotiated with the Territory, Housing and Infrastructure working group, the district mayor’s office has not asked the Ministry of the Interior to initiate prior consultation for the POT. According to the Committee, the mayor’s office and the Ministry of the Interior are unaware of the prior consultation agreement and promote a path for citizen participation with community councils. The Ministry of the Interior and the DNP have not convened the construction session of the proposed route for prior consultation of the formulation of the District POT. The governments of the United States and Colombia must insist that these entities comply with this obligation.
6) The development of a public policy of access to justice and rural energization. In accordance with the working group on access to Justice, Victim, Protection and Memory, advances are required in both things.
7) Approval and implementation of collective protection measures for 4 priority collective subjects within the framework of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Movement. To date, only the measures of one of the collective subjects have been approved. The Human Rights, Guarantees and Protection working group emphasizes the need to approve and implement these measures.
8) Investigation of the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation on the facts of violation of human rights by ESMAD. In three years, the Prosecutor’s Office has not made official results of the investigation into the victimizing events that occurred during the 22 days of the civic strike and subsequent days. To guarantee non-repetition and ensure justice for the victims, it is essential that such an investigation be initiated with prompt results.
9) Advance with the IACHR’s Visit to Buenaventura to verify the status of the right to participation in the framework of social protest. In three years, the Foreign Ministry has not processed the Colombian government’s invitation to the IACHR to visit Buenaventura. The U.S. government should urge the Duque administration to move forward with this expert visit.
10) Construction, provision and commissioning of the new headquarters of the Centro Náutico Pesquero – CNP – SENA. This work was projected for 18 months, started in 2017. Three deadlines have been scheduled, without meeting. (This agreement is from 2014 – Shock Plan – March to bury violence and live with dignity).
11) Creation of a legal commission to lead regulatory processes, adjustments of existing regulations and formulation of legislative initiatives and presentation to the Congress of the Republic of Colombia.
12) Transfer to FONBUENAVENTURA of the resources of the prioritized agreements effective 2019, not executed by the Ministries and decentralized entities. More than 18 months after FONBUENAVENTURA was established, it has not started its operation and most of the resources not executed from prioritized agreements from the 2017 to 2019 terms have not been transferred.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Dr. Carlos de la Torre, Director, Center for Latin American Studies, The University of Florida*
Dr. Marcela Vásquez-León, Director, Center for Latin American Studies, The University of Arizona*
Dr. Joel Correia, Assistant Professor, Center for Latin American Studies, The University of Florida*
Dr. Anthony Dest, Assistant Professor, Lehman College*
*Asteriks indicate that they are signing in their personal capacity and that affiliation is for identification purposes only.
February 17, 2021
We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Luis Fernando Arias, the Mayor Counselor of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC). We offer our deepest condolences to Luis Fernando’s family and the Indigenous movement.
Luis Fernando was a champion in defending the rights of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples. He was a forceful advocate for the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in Colombia’s 2016 peace accords, safeguarding the rights of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. During the peace negotiations in Havana, he was the leading Indigenous voice in ensuring that the accords accounted for the heavy impact that Colombia’s 50-plus years of conflict with the FARC had on Indigenous communities. WOLA staff worked with Luis Fernando over many years in efforts to elevate the voices of the victims of Colombia’s conflict, uphold Indigenous rights and to ensure that the U.S. government plays a positive role in helping secure a lasting peace for Colombia. He will be missed by his colleagues in D.C., and throughout Latin America.
February 16, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
In November 2020, the Interagency Platform for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM) estimated that 1.71 million migrants from Venezuela were living in Colombia: 770,246 documented, and 947,106 with “irregular migration status.” They are part of a flow of 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the collapsing country since 2015.
In a surprise February 8 move, Colombian President Iván Duque decreed that all Venezuelans who arrived in the country before January 31 may receive a “Temporary Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV) allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years, to work legally, and to access health and education services, including COVID-19 vaccines. Implementation of the new status could take up to a year, Ligia Bolivar of Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andrés Bello told The New Humanitarian, starting with the creation of a register of all undocumented Venezuelans.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Bogotá for the announcement and called it “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the Americas since the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” (Angélika Rettberg of the Universidad de los Andes told the BBC she also saw “a kind of gesture towards the new U.S. government, because it shows that their [Colombia’s] policy towards Venezuela is not just ‘stick,’ but also humanitarian ‘carrot,’ something that may be more in line with Joe Biden’s administration.”)
President Duque highlighted that Colombia will need more international aid to assimilate a community equivalent to nearly 4 percent of Colombia’s population, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Duque, the announcement was a sharp reversal from his earlier position of refusing vaccinations to undocumented Venezuelans. While Colombia has not suffered major outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan violence, analysts worry about worsening xenophobia, especially among informal and low-wage workers who perceive themselves as competing for scarce jobs with the new arrivals. Such tensions, MercyCorps’ Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told the New Humanitarian, “have been on the rise.”
“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America, we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said. Colombia’s move comes at a time when Peru and Ecuador have sent armored military vehicles to their common border to interdict migrants, and Chile has returned Venezuelans to their country on air force planes.
El Tiempo revealed a February 6 communication that the Cuban embassy in Colombia shared with the Colombian government, the chief of the UN Verification Mission, and two Catholic Church representatives. It reads: “Our embassy received information, whose veracity we cannot assess, about an alleged military attack by the Eastern War Front of the ELN in the coming days. We have shared this information with the ELN peace delegation in Havana, which expressed total ignorance and reiterated the guarantee that it has no involvement in the organization’s military decisions or operations.”
The “Eastern War Front” (FGO) is the ELN guerrilla group’s largest unit, based in the northeastern department of Arauca and over the border in Venezuela. Its commander, Carlos Emilio Marín alias “Pablito,” a 40-year member of the group, may be its most powerful member. The FGO carried out the January 2019 truck-bomb attack on Colombia’s police cadets’ school that killed 22 people and ended slow-moving peace negotiations in Havana. Several ELN negotiators have remained in Cuba since the talks’ breakdown; “experts assert that the alert to Colombia could be interpreted as Cuba distancing from its uncomfortable guests,” El Tiempo speculates.
High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz used the occasion to reiterate a demand that Cuba extradite the ELN leaders stranded in Cuba. The Havana peace talks’ protocols, signed by the Colombian government and international guarantors in 2017, made clear that if negotiations broke down, the ELN leaders would return to clandestinity in Colombia. The Duque government ignored these protocols, calling them a non-binding commitment made by the prior administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
As a result, the ELN leaders remain in Cuba. Their continued presence was the principal reason the outgoing Trump administration cited for its January 11 re-addition of Cuba to the State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
On February 7 El Tiempo revealed an internal, encrypted ELN communication, leaked from a government source, that appears to reveal internal division within the guerrilla group. Disagreements allegedly center on some units’ involvement in narcotrafficking and presence in Venezuela. The document also expresses frustration with ELN negotiators being “physically trapped” in Cuba.
High Commissioner Ceballos cited the document as proof that the ELN’s internal divisions make them impossible to negotiate with. From Havana, ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, who had headed the negotiating team stranded in Cuba, insisted that the document was fake. Later in the week, the ELN leadership called the Cuban government’s warning about an imminent attack a “false positive,” saying that such an attack “is not part of the ELN’s military plans.”
In other leaked ELN document news, Semana revealed in late January a document retrieved from computers captured during an October military raid that killed Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” a vocal mid-level ELN leader, in Chocó. Using indirect language, the document appears to point to an $80,000 loan to the presidential campaign of Andrés Arauz, who led in February 7 voting in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections. (Arauz is the candidate aligned with Rafael Correa, the populist president who governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017.) On February 12 Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito to furnish this evidence to Ecuadorian counterparts.
In Buenaventura, the port that accounts for 70 percent of Colombia’s import-export activity, a paramilitary-derived gang that briefly dominated criminality in the city, “La Local,” underwent a December schism into two factions, the “Chotas” and the “Espartanos.” Daily street fighting has ensued, leaving much of the city’s 400,000 people in the crossfire. Estimates of the toll so far in 2021 range from 20 to 52 killed, and 112 to 1,700 families displaced.
Youth groups led days of protest against the situation during the week of February 1. These continue, using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura. When they manage to block port cargo transport for even a few hours, these protests get national attention.
The national government responded with a February 8 visit from Interior Minister Daniel Palacios. The minister promised increased rewards for information leading to the capture of gang leaders, the arrival of 120 more police, and “two detachments of Army Special Forces and a Navy reconnaissance platoon to assist with urban surveillance, adding up to more than 1,200 men from the security forces in Buenaventura.” The government also promised an increase in security cameras, a measure also being adopted in Buenaventura’s Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, a district whose organized population bans weapons and seeks to exclude members of all armed groups.
These security measures are not what the #SOSBuenaventura movement is demanding. “There’s already a police presence here, for many people they do not represent security,” Leonard Rentería, a youth leader and vocal protest organizer, told El Espectador. “People continue to be afraid because they do not see the police providing guarantees to protect their lives.”
The bishop of Buenaventura, Msgr. Rubén Darío Jaramillo, went further:
The people feel that there’s no authority, that the authority is the bandits who are in the street with their guns dominating the territories. They are the authority here… The security forces are supposed to defend citizens in their honor, their property, and their lives. But many make the mistake of allying themselves with criminals. They buy them with money. The bandits know that by buying the police they win, and there is nothing the people can do about it.
Thousands of Buenaventurans, dressed in white, lined the narrow port city’s main thoroughfare on February 10, forming a 21-kilometer (13-mile) human chain. Prominent participants in the protest included Bishop Jaramillo and Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal, who is starting his second year in office.
Vidal is Buenaventura’s first mayor who is not the product of a big political machine. He was a leader of the “Paro Cívico,” a social movement that shut down much of the city with three weeks of peaceful protests in mid-2017, demanding state investment in a city that, though the main port, is one of Colombia’s poorest. Paro Cívico members were threatened and killed in the ensuing years; given the forces arrayed against it, Vidal’s late-2019 election victory was remarkable.
As La Silla Vacía and Pares noted, though, the Paro Cívico has not been in the vanguard of the current anti-violence protests. While the movement has been supportive, it appears more focused on governing. Much of the new energy has come from youth leaders like Rentería, who described the Paro as “deactivated from the role it had assumed.”
February 14, 2021
Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura. This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
Support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign:
February 7, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
A new WOLA alert details more than 30 attacks on social leaders, journalists, opposition political leaders, and communities since late December. Colombia’s security situation continues to worsen in territories that were conflictive before the 2016 FARC peace accord. The first 35 days of 2021 saw 13 massacres kill 50 people in 7 of Colombia’s departments, according to the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (PARES).
“It’s as though we’ve gone back years in a spiral of violence,” wrote PARES’s deputy director, Ariel Ávila, at El Espectador. Ávila sees three differences from the pre-accord past: more violence along the Pacific coast, a government that seems “paralyzed” with the military “closed up in its barracks,” and a fragmented flux of criminal groups changing names, appearing and disappearing. He cites a boom in coca and gold prices creating criminal incentives, and worries that violence will get much worse as Colombia’s 2022 election campaign approaches. Ávila faults the ruling party—led by Álvaro Uribe, who as president oversaw a period of security gains—for “fighting the last war,” choosing incapable defense ministers, and ideologizing the strategy.
Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) also finds a jump in prices offered for coca (counterintuitive, since cultivation remains historically high), and fragmentation of armed groups. This fragmentation, he notes, calls into question the effectiveness of “high value target” strategies that pour resources into taking out easily replaced criminal-group leaders. Garzón adds that corruption in the security forces is “a serious problem, rarely denounced, but frequently reported in areas where illegal economies are highly prevalent.” His analysis, in La Silla Vacía, also highlights the “consolidated influence” that armed groups, especially the ELN and “Segunda Marquetalia” FARC dissidents, have in Venezuelan territory.
Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses, writing for the Universidad de los Andes’ 070, join Garzón in questioning the Duque government’s insistence that attacking drug supplies—especially eradicating smallholding farmers’ coca crops—is the key to easing the larger security crisis. Colombia’s government manually eradicated and seized record amounts of coca and cocaine in 2020, yet “some of the regions hardest hit by the FARC conflict are at risk of returning to the levels of violence experienced before negotiations began in 2012. That is, they may lose the security gains generated by the peace process.” Johnson and Vélez call for more emphasis on territorial governance, especially implementing the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET) foreseen in the peace accord’s first chapter. They criticize the Duque government’s flagship territorial governance strategy, called “Zonas Futuro,” for only strengthening military presence.
Over the past week, several stories in Colombian media documented security deterioration in specific regions.
On February 3 President Iván Duque announced a new “inter-sectoral table” to “unify information” about persistently frequent murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. Alarmed, critics pointed out that Duque was proposing to adopt the smallest available estimate of these killings, and that the move may be a sign of weakened checks and balances.
As several local leaders fall to assassins every week, different entities maintain varying estimates of how severe the problem is. While all are still verifying their 2020 numbers, estimates through 2019, laid out in a graphic in El Espectador’s good coverage of the “inter-sectoral table” proposal, come from:
President Duque’s new “unification” policy adopts as “official” the lowest of those estimates, the one used by the Fiscalía. Yet this figure, El Espectador points out, is artificially the lowest “because, as the UN office itself has acknowledged, they are partial reports, as it does not have sufficient presence in territory to cover all cases.”
By subsuming the human rights ombudsman’s larger number to the Fiscalía’s, President Duque’s plan would throw out about 200 cases and seek to “silence” the Defensoría, worried Leonel González, the main data-keeper at Indepaz. The move also raises concerns about separation of powers. In Colombia’s system, the Fiscalía, Defensoría, and the internal-affairs office or Procuraduría are separate branches of government, beyond the executive’s control. But President Duque has managed to place close colleagues at the head of these agencies, especially the Fiscalía and Procuraduría, calling their independence into question. Lourdes Castro of Somos Defensores voiced concern in El Espectador about “the implications for democracy of this co-optation of the control bodies by the administration.”
Two big networks of Colombian human rights organizations, the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos and the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, quickly put out a statement rejecting Duque’s move as “a serious step backward.” They criticized Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa’s claims to have “clarified” a growing percentage of this smaller universe of murders, citing “misinterpretation…of the term ‘clarification,’ understanding it as any procedural advance.” The groups called out the Fiscalía for prosecuting trigger-pullers “without reaching the intellectual authors [masterminds] of the aggressions, much less dismantling the armed structures behind them.”
Meanwhile, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Bogotá, Juliette de Rivero, rightly recalled that a focus on statistics about murders is misplaced. “It would be a mistake to believe, given what is happening in the country, that the main objective should be to agree on figures. The important thing is to prevent killings, attacks, and threats against human rights defenders and social leaders, whether it be 10, 20, or 100 cases.”
February 7, 2021
WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
February 5, 2021
Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.
The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.
The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.
The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)
The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.
If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.
Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibility that a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)
The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-level FARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.
The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.
During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:
“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:
On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.
Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.
Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
January 31, 2021
On January 21, a coalition of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and Campesino communities represented by the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) published a statement addressed to the Biden-Harris administration outlining recommendations for peacebuilding priorities in Colombia.
The recommendations include: a full commitment to the agreed terms of the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), resume peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and advance humanitarian minimums, dismantle illegal armed groups following community input, enforce agrarian reform, implement illicit crop substitution programs, and strengthen rural judicial institutions.
Below is the full English translation of the statement.
The original Spanish statement is here.
January 21, 2021
Dear President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris,
We send a respectful greeting and our best wishes that the exercise of your mandate during these four years will be the beginning of a process of new horizons for humanity and planet earth in brotherhood, solidarity, and justice.
We write to you a day after your possession in the hope that our concerns can be received by you and taken into account in the political, economic, environmental, and labor decisions you are going to make in relations with our country.
Our Black, Indigenous, and Campesino communities live in remote parts of Colombia, that for more than 40 years, have lived in the midst of armed confrontation for political and social reasons. Today, we continue to suffer old and new violence. Persecution, torture, murder, enforced disappearance, displacement and violent dispossession of land, sexual violence, stigmatization, and forced to remain silent or we will be killed. New slavery.
More than 900 social, peace, and environmental leaders have been killed, and more than 200 peace signers have been killed. The Peace Agreement signed by President Santos in 2016 is today in crisis due to the series of breaches to what was agreed
We believe that peace is built on dialogue and compliance with agreements on social inclusion, on the cessation of discrimination and on respect for sources of life such as water and forests.
Neither investment nor development in the world nor in Colombia can be based on misery, exclusion, environmental devastation and armed violence, yes in respect for human rights, in the peace agreed, in reconciliation and respect for the land and all its wealth and a neat and respectful public force of rights.
In the midst of the pandemic, the undersigned wrote to President Duque to ask him for a cease-fire, in the face of what was to come, that illegality would consolidate his armed control, sadly protected by sectors of the Military Forces. We never received a precise answer. Today everything is more serious. We also sent this message to the ELN guerrillas and other new guerrillas. Also to the groups inherited from the paramilitaries such as the AGC, Comandos de Frontera, Los Caparrapps, La Local and Los Bustamante to a Global Humanitarian Agreement. The president ignored us, as well as United Nations Security Council resolution 2356 and Pope Francis’ call for peace.
We respectfully invite you to take into account in your agenda of cooperation with Colombia the following aspects:
1. Invitation to the government of President Duque to complete compliance with what was agreed with the FARC signatories.
2. A resumption of rapprochement with the ELN guerrillas on humanitarian agreements and the development of the six-point agenda for dialogue towards peace. 3. A public policy built from the territories and with the communities for the gradual and comprehensive dismantling of all armed structures
3. A public policy built from the territories and with the communities for the gradual and comprehensive dismantling of all armed structures inherited from paramilitarism.
4. An agrarian reform that makes it possible, with the provision of land, to clean up property, to create guarantees for the inhabitants of the territories and, in particular, for women, for those investors who wish to approach these territories in accordance with respect for human rights, democratic principles and principles of respect for the environment. Avoiding the implementation of any model of development that excludes direct dialogue with the legitimate owner inhabitants, which destroys vital sources of life such as water and forests necessary for the survival of humanity.
6. Implementation of an illicit crop substitution policy agreed with communities with international oversight.
7. Institutional inclusion in territories with civil State presence in our remote areas through justice houses with the presence of the Office of the Comptroller, the Office of the Attorney General’s Office and socio-environmental care units with a focus on human security and restorative law.
Without social and environmental inclusion, without respect for human rights, it will be difficult for the military solutions and investments to generate well-being and authentic contributions to new international relations at a time when global warming is accelerating, when COVID-19 continues, of cocaine trafficking.
Thanking you for your attention, with hope, from all consideration.
January 25, 2021
On January 22, Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient and renowned Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez published a statement to the newly sworn-in Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris. In powerful words echoing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia, the letter underscored how peace has yet to reach ethnic territories and “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations”. Márquez expressed profound concerns about structural racism, the ongoing assassinations of community social leaders and former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the operations of illegal armed groups, environmental exploitation, militarized counternarcotic policies, police brutality, and an “indolent government” that has failed to respond to the countless recommendations it has received from ethnic communities.
Márquez requested direct communication with Vice President Harris to help ensure the United States’ continued commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia. Support from the United States can help manifest the collective rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have acutely suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.
Below is the full English translation of the letter.
The original Spanish-language letter is here.
Santiago de Cali, January 22, 2021
Mrs. Kamala Devi Harris
Vice President of the United States
I would like to begin by congratulating you on the historic step you just took. Becoming the first African-American woman Vice President of the United States is an achievement that brings hope to many women and people around the world. We recognize that this great moment is in part due to the historic efforts initiated by anti-racist social movements, and in particular, by women like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and many others who paved the way for a more just, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal society. I wish you and President Joe Biden every success in your administration, hoping that you will implement policies focused on the quality and care of life that guarantee human dignity and world peace.
My name is Francia Elena Márquez Mina. I am an Afro-Colombian woman and grew up in the Cauca department, in an ancestral territory located in the Pacific region of Colombia. Sadly, the region is stricken by armed conflict, structural racism, and lethal policies imposed by political leadership that has governed with its back to the most vulnerable communities in the country. The elite that rules and governs this State has obtained its wealth from the death, corruption, misery, and fear it has sown into Colombian society, maintaining us in the shameful status as the most unequal country in the region. Inspired by the struggle of my ancestors to fight for freedom, to recover their “stolen dignity”, and to protect and preserve their territory as a living space, I became an environmental activist and human rights defender, alongside the Black Communities Process of Colombia (PCN) and the elders of the communities who have taught me that “dignity has no price” and that “to resist is not to endure”.
Currently, I am President of the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Coexistence, a platform for ongoing dialogue and civil society participation. The platform serves as an advisory and consulting body to the National Government on these serious matters, as well as safeguards human rights protections. We have made countless recommendations to President Iván Duque Márquez to protect the lives of social and environmental leaders and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who have been systematically murdered in Colombia. Likewise, we have recommended that he provide collective protection assurances for rural and ethnic communities, seek negotiated solutions to the armed conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and advance the dismantlement of paramilitarism and all armed groups that continue to put the lives of our people at risk.
I am convinced of the need to make proactive and well-needed efforts to protect our lives, human rights, peace, and our country’s environment. Today, I dare to write you this letter, in the hope that it will be read by you, in order to establish a conversation that will allow us to coordinate the necessary actions to take care of life from a place rooted in maternal love and a common instinct of empathy.
For decades, the United States has invested in Colombia’s anti-drug policy with programs such as Plan Colombia, which have visibly resulted in increased human rights violations. Policies of forced eradication have been failures, as they have only served to worsen the humanitarian conflict in the country, primarily, in the territories of Afro-Colombians, Indigenous and impoverished peoples. We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living, voluntary illicit crop substitution programs, and autonomous communities who courageously decided not to plant coca in their territories despite pressure from armed groups.
Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations, and of seeing our rivers and lands become cemeteries and mass graves. We do not want to live confined or banished from the territories where we were born. Even in the midst of the pandemic that affects humanity today, the “stay-at-home” orders have not been an option for hundreds of families who have had to flee due to armed conflict in their communities.
As a social leader, it hurts to witness the daily assassinations of leaders, who like me, have raised their voice against the state of affairs. Through the work carried out by the Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento), it has been painful to witness the testimonies of Black Indigenous women who were not only sexually violated by armed men but also branded as was done in the time of slavery. It has been painful listening to mothers sing praises and write poetry to ease the pain of losing their children to the armed conflict. It is painful to know that economic conglomerates partner with illegal armed groups to banish and eliminate us.
I am sure that the majority of the people who voted for you and for President Biden did so in hope of taking the knee off of the necks of African Americans in your country. Police brutality is prevalent in our countries and needs to be eradicated with decisive actions that can be enforced under our leadership. As Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, we suffer the same situation; those who have imposed armed conflict, lethal politics, gender-based violence, structural racism––they keep their knees on our necks. They do not let us breathe. They murder us every day.
We face an indolent government that promises not only to shatter the dream of allowing those of us who suffered the consequences of war to live in peace, but that also refuses to hear the desperate cries of children like the son of social leader María del Pilar Hurtado, who was murdered in front of him in 2019. We consider 8 million victims enough to turn the page of violence and achieve a complete, stable and lasting peace with social justice. Our children and grandchildren deserve a Colombia in peace.
“Restoring the moral leadership of the United States around the world”, as you put it, implies a U.S. commitment to guaranteeing peace, the protection of social leaders, the eradication of racism and patriarchy, and the protection of the environment in Colombia and the world. We are aware of the support under the vice presidency of today’s President Joe Biden to the peace accord during its negotiations in Havana, Cuba. This U.S. support was realized through the Colombia Peace Plan and defined the Ethnic Chapter of the accord. However, given the State’s omission to peace accord implementation, we request that this be a priority for you, in order to manifest the collective rights of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have historically suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.
I kindly request to establish permanent communication and conversation with you, on behalf of civil society organizations in Colombia, in order to contribute to the unification of peace in Colombia.
I am because we are (“Soy porque Somos”)
Francia Elena Márquez Mina
National Award as Human Rights Defender 2015
January 25, 2021
As President Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump, Colombian media speculated about how the bilateral relationship might change.
One of the most likely shifts is renewed U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which Trump, in the final weeks of the campaign, derided as “the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels.” Biden, by contrast, had counseled President Iván Duque, at a 2018 event in Bogotá, that “the peace agreement was a major breakthrough and should not be minimized or ignored.”
In the new administration’s first days, the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave remarks strongly supportive of the accord’s implementation (discussed below), and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, along with the Bogotá embassy’s Twitter account, made clear that the accord’s implementation is once again a key U.S. priority.
President Duque, whose party, the Centro Democrático, opposed the accord in 2016, did not refer to it specifically in remarks congratulating Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. He noted “the defense of democracy, the fight against transnational crime, against drug trafficking, against terrorism; of course, cooperation, comprehensive development, the commitment to renewable energies and to confront the vicissitudes of climate change and, of course, to continue strengthening investment ties.”
Much media speculation surrounds the possibility of cooling relations amid accusations that members of the Centro Democrático improperly favored Donald Trump and other Republican candidates during the U.S. campaign. “Joe Biden has spoken, after the elections, with Latin American leaders, such as those of Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, but not with Ivan Duque,” noted El Espectador.
“The interference of some Colombian political figures in the U.S. election was inappropriate and not very strategic, and has left its mark especially among members of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority,” Michael Camilleri, a State Department official during the Obama administration, told the paper. Added WOLA’s Adam Isacson at Caracol, “the bilateral relationship will remain just as close, but relations between the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático are not going to be the best.”
Opposition Senator Antonio Sanguino called for the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, who was accused by his cousin, former President Juan Manuel Santos, of improperly favoring Trump. The Ambassador attended Biden’s January 20 inauguration ceremony.
Biden’s arrival “opens space for citizen diplomacy,” said much-cited conflict analyst Luis Eduardo Celis, adding, “we must prepare the messages and mechanisms to tell the new President of the United States that there is a peace to be built in Colombia.” Letters asking for more explicit U.S. support for peace accord implementation came from the Defendamos la Paz coalition, and from 110 Afro-Descendant, indigenous, campesino, and victims’ organizations.
The Security Council met virtually on January 21 for a quarterly review of Colombia’s peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission, which produced its most recent report at the end of December.
“2021 is year five of the 15-year timeframe envisioned for the implementation of the entirety of the Peace Agreement,” said the UN Special Representative in charge of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu. “It is incumbent to ensure 2021 is remembered as the year in which bold steps were taken to bring to fruition the full promise of sustainable peace enshrined in the Agreement.”
The UN mission director said his office has been warning repeatedly about budget shortfalls in the Colombian government agency charged with providing physical protection to threatened social leaders and former FARC combatants. “More than 550 vacancies for bodyguards remain and over 1,000 requests for close protection are still pending review” at the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit, he said. These numbers far exceed results presented by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Blum, who highlighted “more than 200 schemes to protect former combatants” in 2020, along with 24 sentences handed down for killing ex-combatants, 40 cases under investigation, and 48 arrest warrants issued.
The Security Council should find it “intolerable that more than 250 ex-combatants—signatories to the Peace Accord—have been killed since its signing,” said Norway’s UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who called for strengthening the National Protection Unit and three bodies created by the peace accord: the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the Special Investigative Unit of the Fiscalía, and the Comprehensive Program of Safeguards for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders.
Even during the Trump administration, U.S. representatives at Security Council meetings tended to give statements generally supportive of Colombia’s peace process. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador, was explicitly supportive, signaling an early change in tone with the arrival of the Biden administration. “What can often be often lost, I think, in the specifics of our discussions in this topic is the magnitude of the peace agreement, and the profound impact it has already had on Colombian society,” Mills began. He went on to voice strong concern about attacks on social leaders and ex-combatants, urging Colombia’s government to increase its presence in rural areas and to punish those responsible.
Ambassador Mills also voiced support for Colombia’s “truly innovative” transitional justice system, a topic on which U.S. diplomats have generally avoided comment. In 2019, the U.S. ambassador at the time even supported President Duque’s unsuccessful efforts to weaken this system.
The village of El Salado, in El Cármen de Bolívar municipality, in the once-conflictive Montes de María region a few hours’ drive from Cartagena, is known throughout Colombia for the massacre and displacement its residents suffered at the hands of paramilitaries between February 16 to 21, 2000. About 450 AUC members killed 60 people amid days of uninterrupted torture and rape, while the security forces failed to respond.
The name “El Salado” evokes the worst moments of Colombia’s armed conflict. Those memories revived this week as 11 community leaders received a written death threat. A flyer circulated by the so-called “Black Eagles” on January 18 reads, “The people who appear on this list, whose pictures or names are here, leave, or we will come for you at any time.” El Salado social leaders have also received text messages reading, “Either you leave or you die. We know where you are,” “this is how we started 21 years ago,” and “we already know where every family member lives.”
The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) responded by sending a delegation to El Salado, led by Vice-Ombudsman Luis Andrés Fajardo. 2019 and 2020 “early warning” reports from the Defensoría point to a growing presence of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization, which moves cocaine through the Montes de María en route to the Caribbean coast. The National Police stated that it was sending an elite team along with representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía).
The name “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras) frequently appears on death threats sent to human rights defenders and social leaders around the country. But the group does not seem to have visible leadership or hold any territory. “The Black Eagles don’t exist,” said Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. “These are people, surely not among those wanted by the law, who use the ‘Black Eagles’ emblem to threaten. The authorities, led by the Fiscalía, must determine the threats’ origin. The problem is that this is never investigated.”
January 24, 2021
After a year of massacres, police brutality, political upheaval, a worsening pandemic, and more in Colombia, peace feels more tenuous than ever before. Hundreds of social leaders have been targeted, threatened, and killed in the last year. 90 massacres—the highest number since before the 2016 Peace Accord—were carried out, largely in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.
In response and in partnership with social leaders in Colombia, WOLA is launching a digital advocacy campaign, Con Líderes Hay Paz. The campaign aims to protect Colombia’s activists who are building peace in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities all over the country. In the last few months, WOLA has been working with social leaders—documenting their stories and boosting their voices—in order to raise awareness of the crisis Colombia faces today.
To pave the way towards a more peaceful, just, and equal society, the Colombian government must bring to justice those who threaten them and their communities, while increasing protections and supporting the work of social leaders. The international community—including the U.S. government, the European Union, the United Nations, and civil society groups—must play an important role in pushing the Colombian state to take prompt action in carrying out these efforts.
We encourage you to join the story. By subscribing to the campaign, you will receive exclusive access to the stories of courageous social leaders, advocacy materials and resources, and previews of the campaign’s upcoming documentary podcast REBUILDING PEACE—premiering February 2021.
Support their work. Protect their lives.
Únete a la historia: Con Líderes Hay Paz
Después de un año de masacres, brutalidad policial, agitación política, una pandemia que sigue empeorando y más en Colombia, la paz se siente más tenue que nunca. Cientos de líderes sociales han sido atacados, amenazados y asesinados en el último año. Hubo 90 masacres en el país, el número más alto desde antes del Acuerdo de Paz del 2016. Las masacres se concentraron en gran parte en comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas.
En asociación con líderes sociales en Colombia, WOLA está lanzando una campaña de promoción digital, Con Líderes Hay Paz. La campaña tiene como objetivo proteger a los activistas de Colombia que están construyendo la paz en las comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas de todo el país. En los últimos meses, WOLA ha estado trabajando con líderes y lideresas sociales—documentando sus historias y amplificando sus voces—con el fin de crear conciencia sobre la crisis que enfrenta Colombia hoy.
Para allanar el camino hacia una sociedad más pacífica, justa e igualitaria, el gobierno colombiano debe llevar ante la justicia a quienes amenazan a los líderes sociales y a sus comunidades, al tiempo que aumenta las protecciones y apoya su trabajo. La comunidad internacional, incluido el gobierno de Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea, las Naciones Unidas, y los grupos de la sociedad civil, debe desempeñar un papel importante para presionar al Estado colombiano para que tome medidas rápidas para llevar a cabo estos esfuerzos.
Te animamos a unirte a la historia. Al suscribirte a la campaña, recibirás acceso exclusivo a las historias de valientes líderes sociales, materiales y recursos de incidencia, y avances del próximo podcast documental de la campaña REBUILDING PEACE/CONSTRUYENDO LA PAZ, que se estrenará en febrero 2021.
Apoya sus luchas. Protege sus vidas.
January 21, 2021