On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Since our last urgent action Colombia’s weekly magazine Semana revealed that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. We at WOLA find this to be completely unacceptable . On Tuesday, May 19 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, WOLA is hosting, alongside other human rights organizations, a webinar with several of the persons targeted by this illegal espionage. We encourage you to join us to hear their perspectives and recommendations on what should be done to redress this. In this document, you will find summarized statements made by several civil society groups about this scandal. You can join the webinar by registering here.
Additionally, WOLA produced a short video about the violence faced by social leaders in Colombia. The video asks U.S. authorities to call on the Iván Duque administration to protect social leaders, prioritize investigations of the assassinations, and prioritize full implementation of the peace accords.
We also take this opportunity to update you on developments on the April 25 request to President Duque by Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal persons asking for the creation of an Afro-Colombian Emergency Fund. The Ministry of Health announced that it will designate a person to manage the COVID-19 emergency in the Colombian Pacific. However, details of who this will be or how this person/office will function are not clear. CONPA and others are asking for that to be determined as soon as possible. It should be done in full consultation with Afro-Colombian authorities. Secondly, a special education plan is required for Afrodescendants living in areas with limited internet capacity. Virtual learning is not reaching most children in shantytowns and rural areas because they do not have computers and/or the technical capacity to access school in this manner. Lastly, CONPA insists that the government advance humanitarian accords with the ELN that provide protection to civilians and communities caught up in conflict. We were disappointed by last week’s developments that run counter to peace in Colombia. Please see our May 14 statement Inaccurate Trump Administration Charges Against Cuba Damage Prospects for Peace Talks in Colombia and Elsewhere.
The following are summaries of the human rights situations and cases we received that require action. We have divided them into three parts: military intelligence scandal, COVID-19 related concerns, and human rights abuses.
Military Intelligence Espionage
Illegal Military Surveillance Targeting Social Leaders
On May 10, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) condemned the illicit surveillance carried out by the Colombian army’s intelligence units on social leaders Luz Marina Cuchumbe and Jani Rita Silva and CIJP staff Father Alberto Franco and Danilo Rueda. They make clear that strong measures must be taken to protect the whistleblowers in this case.
Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WFP), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, the Colombia Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International USA for an online forum.
On May 1, 2020, the Colombian weekly news magazine Semana revealed that Colombian military intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance on more than 130 individuals between February and December 2019. Among those targeted were human rights defenders, Colombian and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and members of the military. Several were targeted for reporting, documenting, or representing families of victims of extrajudicial killings, and for bringing to light other grave abuses.
This illegal espionage is not a new phenomenon. In 2011, Colombia’s former intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Directorate (DAS), was dismantled after revelations in 2009 that it was illegally wiretapping and monitoring the activities of civil society leaders, judges, and politicians. The recent revelations by Semana raise the question: why is this a recurring problem in Colombia, and what needs to happen to secure accountability and at last bring about much-needed reforms to Colombian army intelligence and military doctrine?
Journalists, human rights defenders, and military whistleblowers are carrying out crucial work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices amid a fragile security situation in post-conflict Colombia. When units in the military criminalize this work, it undermines efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic Colombia. What should be done to guarantee the end to illicit surveillance of social leaders? What role can the U.S. government play in achieving accountability, given its status as Colombia’s top military donor and trainer? How can the Organization of American States and the United Nations guarantee protection, justice, and non-repetition of such crimes? What are the implications of these revelations for Colombia’s 2016 peace accord?
To help answer these questions, we invite you to join us for a webinar with individuals targeted by this illegal surveillance and with Colombia human rights experts.
On May 12, the Department of State notified Congress that Cuba and other countries were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015. In its statement, the State Department referred to Cuba’s denial of Colombia’s request for the extradition of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) leaders who are stranded in Havana after broken-off peace talks, and the presence of fugitives wanted by U.S. authorities who have lived in Cuba for decades. These politically motivated charges, aimed at pleasing U.S. political constituencies, undermine existing U.S.-Cuba security cooperation as well as the possibility of peace negotiations in Colombia and potentially elsewhere.
The sanctions attached to the “non-cooperation” designation—a prohibition on the sale or export of defense equipment and services to the designated country—do not have practical consequences for Cuba, since U.S. embargo regulations already prohibit the sale of defense-related equipment and services. However, this designation further poisons the diplomatic atmosphere between Cuba and the United States.
Designating Cuba as “non-cooperative” might be one step short of returning the country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba was officially removed from the list in 2015). The rationale cited by the State Department for labeling Cuba as “non-cooperative” is similar to the justifications previous administrations invoked for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.
Since Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, the U.S. government and Cuba have deepened security cooperation on issues of mutual interest for mutual benefits. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in the signature of a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement issues, where both governments committed to expanding operational collaboration on counter-terrorism, illicit drug traffic, cybercrime, and cybersecurity, among other issues. In addition, both governments established specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases including counterterrorism.
The most recent public technical meeting took place in January of 2018 between the Cuban Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, who highlighted the importance of cooperation in these areas and agreed to continue the technical meetings in the future.
One of the factors cited by the State Department for Cuba’s 2015 removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list was Cuba’s critical role in the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In May 2018, Colombia’s government, the ELN guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host peace talks between Colombia and the ELN, which had been taking place in Ecuador. Cuba and Norway were serving as “guarantor countries” for those talks, aimed at ending a conflict that began in 1964.
In April 2016, at the outset of the talks, all involved —including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These stated clearly that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was much more skeptical about peace talks. In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police academy, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government did not honor the protocols governing a breakdown of talks. It demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves continue to demand to be allowed to leave Cuba, as detailed in the protocols that Colombia’s government signed.
The communities where the ELN operates have consistently pleaded with the Colombian government to engage in exploratory peace talks with the guerrilla group, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These recent actions by the U.S. and Colombian governments disregard the security and well-being of afro-colombians, indigenous, and rural farmers who have no alternative but to deal with the negative implications of illegal groups like the ELN that operate in their territories. Rather than create obstacles to consolidating peacemaking efforts, the Colombian government should be taking all possible steps to create the conditions needed to reinstate dialogue and work towards establishing a durable peace.
It sends the message that if a state agrees to host peace talks, and doesn’t violate its word, that state could still face severe consequences for its contribution to global peace and security. In Colombia, as reprehensible as the ELN’s actions were, this sends a perverse message to any group that might decide to enter into a future peace process with the government.
Ultimately, this step by the Trump administration undermines ongoing cooperation on national security and law enforcement cooperation between Cuba and the United States, while undercutting effective international diplomacy.
By Gwen Burnyeat and Andrei Gomez-Suarez at Rodeemos el Diálogo on April 25, 2020. Cross-posted with permission.
There has been recent speculation about whether the COVID-19 pandemic might offer a window of opportunity for reigniting negotiations between the government of Iván Duque and Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), at war with the state since 1964. These speculations stem principally from two unilateral gestures, one by the ELN, one by the Duque government.
First, on 29 March, Duque’s High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos, re-designated two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, as “Peace Promoters”, a role given to members or ex-members of armed groups who commit to contributing with their experience to paving the way for peace negotiations with illegal armed groups, while the government suspends any legal process against them for their actions in that group. Galán and Torres, who both formally dropped out of the ELN and demobilised many years ago, had previously been designated by the administration of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) as “peace promoters”. In January 2019, after the ELN detonated a car bomb in the General Santander National Police Academy, killing 23 people, Duque had cancelled the status of all peace promoters, reactivating arrest warrants against them. In addition to Galán and Torres, this included active ELN members Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Eduardo Martínez, who had also been designated peace promoters. Galán and Cuéllar were captured; Martínez and Torres went into hiding. Galán and Torres were wanted on charges against the whole of the ELN Central Command (COCE) for a 1999 kidnapping, in which they did not participate because they were imprisoned at the time, but until this investigation is formally closed, they need a presidential pardon to walk freely.
Contextualising the Perspectives of Each Side: “Resistance” versus “Legality”
Neither the ELN nor the Duque government are homogenous entities. Both are complex ecosystems, each with their own internal dynamics, identity narratives, political power balances, and ideas about how Colombian public opinion perceives them.
Between October 2017 and January 2018, a virtuous cycle of unilateral and bilateral gestures led to a hundred-day bilateral ceasefire, which included a hybrid monitoring mechanism comprising representatives of the international community and Colombian civil society. While this bilateral ceasefire was welcomed by pro-peace networks as it alleviated humanitarian suffering, the ELN and the government had different interpretations as to what constituted breaches of the ceasefire, and it was ultimately not possible to extend it. Paradoxically, what was meant to be a trust-building step created a major deadlock in the negotiations. This, compounded by the short time that the Santos government had left in power, the ELN’s growing criticism of the government’s implementation of the Havana Peace Agreement signed with the FARC in 2016, and the ELN’s kidnapping of two Ecuadorian journalists, among other things, derailed progress of the negotiations under Santos. The support within the ELN and among their sympathisers shifted towards the hard-line faction, which does not see a negotiated peace as a viable solution, and rather supports the strengthening of the ELN’s military might to continue what they see as their resistance against an unchanging oligarchy.
President Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, won the 2018 elections on a promise of drastically modifying the Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and taking a hard-liner stance with the ELN. Governments themselves are complex dynamic ecosystems within the wider state structure, comprising multiple people and institutions, immersed in relationships within themselves, with various players in the political establishment, with their political opposition, and with Colombian public opinion.
Duque’s political capital draws overwhelmingly on the support of ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010), today Senator, whose popularity rested on his ‘democratic security’ policy, and who had staunchly opposed the negotiations with the FARC, leading to the triumph of the ‘No’ vote in the 2016 Peace Referendum. However, his government also comprises a key alliance with the Conservative Party, via his vice-president Marta Lucía Ramírez, and multiple other alliances with national and local-level politicians of different parties.
When Duque took power in August 2018, the ELN negotiation team was in Havana, where the negotiations were transferred in May 2018. They waited there and stated publicly their willingness to continue the dialogue with the new government. Duque announced that he would evaluate the state of the negotiations before taking a definitive decision. His government consistently pushed for the release of all the ELN’s hostages and the cessation of all criminal activities as conditions for negotiating. The ELN, in turn, argued that such actions would be made in a series of bilateral humanitarian gestures, as negotiations progressed.
Meanwhile, the negotiations remained frozen, no government delegation arrived in Havana, and the conflict intensified in regions such as Catatumbo, Cauca, Chocó and Nariño. With the ELN’s car bomb in January 2019 Duque formally ended the negotiations, saying the ELN did not show a willingness for peace, and requested an Interpol warrant against the ELN negotiation delegates in Cuba. He urged Cuba and Norway, both guarantors to the Santos negotiations with the ELN, to ignore protocols signed with his predecessor which guaranteed the safe return of the ELN negotiation team to the Colombian jungle in the case of breakdown of peace talks, and return the negotiators to Colombia to be arrested.
Ever since, two members of the ELN COCE (Nicolás Rodríguez and Pablo Beltrán) have remained in Havana (Cuba decided to respect the protocols), giving frequent press interviews expressing their wish to reignite negotiations, urging Duque to send a negotiation team to continue with the existing negotiation agenda, as it was an agenda signed with the Colombian state. The Duque government, meanwhile, contends that the previous agenda was signed with the Santos government, and that new negotiations would require a new agenda. Duque continues to emphasise further unilateral permanent gestures by the ELN as conditions for negotiating, especially hostage release and cessation of criminal activities, in line with his government’s key slogan, “peace with legality”.
The ELN tends to reject unilateral gestures, claiming that the government does not see them as a gesture of a strong group willing to make concessions and pave the way to peace collaboratively between two antagonists, but rather as a show of weakness. The ELN’s gesture is thus suggestive of a possible shift towards a consensus at least on seeking a way to alleviate humanitarian suffering. The compliance of all the ELN’s Fronts with the ceasefire so far (between 1-22 April there were zero attacks by the ELN) is also positive, considering the ELN’s geographical fragmentation and non-vertical hierarchy, and is indicative of the COCE’s capacity of command and control. The Colombian army has not instigated any attack since 12 March, which suggests that the government is likewise prioritising the response to the Coronavirus crisis. This convergence of unilateral strategies has materialised in a tacit truce, which could nurture a virtuous cycle of decisions that lead to long-term de-escalation of the conflict. Many sectors of civil society and the international community have welcomed the positive impact of the ceasefire in the lives of war-torn communities.
However, this cannot be misinterpreted as a step towards the opening of a negotiation table, and a shift within the ELN towards a consensus for a negotiated peace. On the contrary, the geopolitics around Venezuela offer a ripe context for a radicalisation of the ELN. Donald Trump’s constant threats to the Maduro regime and Duque’s confrontational approach to Venezuela reinforce the ELN’s self-perception of being a bastion of resistance against global neoliberalism and fascism. The unilateral ceasefire thus could also be read as a move to regain international legitimacy in the global context of failing neoliberal democracies, and position themselves as standing against Trump.
The Duque administration’s gesture of reinstating Torres and Galán as peace promoters suggests of a willingness within at least one sector of the government to take tangible steps towards peace, responding to the many calls by pro-peace sectors of Colombian civil society and the international community for the government to seek a “complete peace” – one that encompasses all illegal armed groups in the country. Just as an insurgency has harder and more moderate positions internally, which fluctuate in power and visibility according to the unfolding political present, so does a government. The intensifying violence of the conflict with the ELN, and the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan migrants arriving in Colombia, have now been compounded by the coronavirus crisis. Pro-peace elements within the government now have the opportunity to elevate the protection of life as the central mandate of the Duque administration, beyond the scrabbles of right/left sectarianism which have thus far dominated its political narratives, in which it has been stuck since coming to power on the basis of opposing Santos and his peace process.
Possibilities and Challenges for Peace: Opening the Window of Opportunity
Peace is not a linear process. Even if these two unilateral gestures do not immediately bring the parties to a negotiation table, they give oxygen to pro-peace elements in the government, in the wider political establishment, among Colombian civil society and in the international community.
We see four interdependent and mutually reinforcing conditions as essential for a future Duque-ELN negotiation. First, the Duque government needs to show both sufficient political will and political capital to engage successfully in peace negotiations. Second, the ELN must build sufficient consensus internally to commit to a negotiated solution to the conflict, and accepting that this may have to look different to what they envisaged when they committed to negotiating with the Santos administration. Third, the growth in support in Colombian public opinion for an end to violence in the country. Fourth, a favourable geopolitical environment for fostering a sustainable peace in Colombia, which had been adversely affected by the Trump administration’s disdain for the 2016 Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and the worsening of the Venezuela crisis.
The Coronavirus pandemic is radically reshaping our world. As governments worldwide are extending lockdowns, might not the ELN similarly reconsider, and extend their ceasefire? Might increased political and citizen support crystallise around a government mandate for protecting life? And might the government continue to abstain from military engagement with the ELN, and offer an explicit unilateral gesture of de-escalation? Might the outcome of the coming US elections create a more favourable geopolitical context for future negotiations with the ELN? The transformations of political identities around the world under coronavirus will change global trends on everything from neoliberal economic policies, state welfare, populism, and community solidarity. These transformations could redefine how the Duque government and the ELN see themselves and each other, and how Colombian society feels about a negotiated solution to the conflict. The window of opportunity remains to be opened.
On April 17, WOLA participated in the Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos La Paz Colombia, DLP) webinar that explored the prospects for peace with the ELN. Following the guerrilla group’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire due to the global pandemic, hope was reawakened that this temporary truce could serve as a stepping stone for restarting peace dialogues with the ELN. DLP, of which WOLA forms part, released a statement commending the ELN for paying heed to the UN Secretary-General and Colombian civil society’s calls for ceasefires. The Government of Colombia announced that two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Carlos Velandia, would serve as “peace promoters”. The DLP statement emphasizes that these steps serve as an opportunity to consolidate a full peace by opening a much-needed space for exploratory dialogues with the ELN. DLP urges the Colombian State and illegal armed groups to agree to a multilateral ceasefire in order to advance peace and as a response to the public health crisis.
The findings of the latest report by the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos, CERAC) were presented. This noted that (as of April 17) the ELN had not engaged in armed actions and that no military offensives against the ELN were initiated. Clara López, representing DLP, stated that the public health crisis should not reduce efforts for consolidating peace and that the Iván Duque administration should increase its political will to foster dialogue with the rebel group. Former Senator and Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando stated the CERAC report’s main finding- the positive developments between the Colombian government and the ELN – were not getting media attention because the pandemic was dominating the headlines. Given this, proponents of peace had to adapt their advocacy and be strategic so as to guarantee that both issues, peace promotion and the health crisis, get attention. To help mobilize efforts by civil society in support of advancing peace with the ELN, it was necessary that positive developments obtain visibility.
Senator Roy Barreras argued that the Duque administration continues to carry out warmongering acts against the ELN that generate obstacles for advancing dialogue with the rebel group. Violence committed by the group, fuels fear in Colombian society and the administration takes advantage of this to justify its military actions. Further, Senator Barreras noted that humanitarian emergencies weaken governmental plans and this is also used to explain away poor leadership. The pandemic allows governments in general to reframe political narratives in their respective countries, which can unfortunately result in assaults against critical rights. The Senator believes that the Colombian government should take advantage of this unprecedented public health emergency to reframe the political narrative around peace with the ELN. The speakers closed by asking that Colombia’s government fully implement the 2016 Peace Agreement with FARC and start peace dialogues with the ELN.
Speakers went on to emphasize that civil society participation is crucial to any peace process. César Sandino from Paz Completa said that civil society needs to be treated like an actor at the negotiating table because they are the ones directly affected by the conflict and are essential to guaranteeing a sustainable peace. Diana Sánchez added that continued oversight and support by the United Nations’ was needed.
Afro-Colombian leader and Bojayá massacre survivor from Chocó Leyner Palacios emphasized that guarantees of non-repetition are needed and that victims are central to peace negotiations. A multilateral ceasefire is needed in order to protect innocent civilians throughout Colombia. At the current juncture, communities in the Pacific face infrastructure issues, institutional neglect, and armed conflict. The health crisis is compounding all of these structural issues. Leyner pleaded that the government take action to protect the territories of ethnic minorities now affected by the pandemic. Throughout the discussion, it was pointed out that the communities affected by the ELN’s armed actions are the same that are likely to be most negatively affected by the pandemic. Despite the national quarantine, forced coca crop eradication operations continue and armed actors are murdering social leaders. Marylen Serna, a social leader from Cauca, and Ediver Suárez, an activist from Catatumbo, pointed out that the government was not implementing the 2016 peace agreement. They recommend that it be fully implemented and that negotiations with the ELN are prioritized.
Cali’s Monsignor Dario Monslave of Cali urged the ELN to free any hostages it has in its possession. He asked that the ELN respect the territories and communities it typically operates in. When doing so, the rebel group needs to be environmentally conscientious, as its operations are detrimentally impacting ecosystems. U.S. Reverend Douglas Leonard from the Global Council of Churches spoke of the importance of peace, particularly during the Easter season.
In sum, these are challenging times for communities facing on-going armed conflict and now a pandemic. Senator Iván Cepeda closed the meeting by underscoring the need to uphold democracy during these times. He stated that democracy should not be seen as an obstacle but rather a vital part of the solution to pandemic. Senator Cepeda called on other armed groups including the Gulf Clan to lay down their weapons. He said: “Facing the pandemic is a war in itself. Peace is fundamental to civilian security and is the only path forward.”
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General toldEl Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
This is an English translation of a statement signed by the U.S. and European human rights and humanitarian aid organizations whose logos appear above. (PDF en español)
International civil society organizations warn of the serious risk that misuse of state intelligence systems represents for peace and democracy in Colombia
The international civil society organizations that sign this communiqué express their solidarity with the more than 130 people, including journalists, members of political parties, NGOs defending human rights, and trade unionists who, according to Semana magazine investigations, have been victims of a new episode of illegal interceptions, through the implementation of a computer monitoring program, executed by several units of the national Army. These intercepts, which include even high officials of Iván Duque’s government, call into question the guarantees of constitutional and democratic principles in Colombia.
The results of this journalistic investigation are worrying: the surveillance took place in response to the publications, by the New York Times in early 2019 on the return of extrajudicial executions, and the investigation by La Liga Contra el Silencio and Rutas del Conflicto in July 2019 about agreements between extractive companies and the Ministry of Defense.
Freedom of expression is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in Colombia it is a constitutional right (article 20) and it is essential, as stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its chapter VIII, for the development of democracy and for the full exercise of human rights.
As highlighted by the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state intelligence systems should be used for the protection of human rights, and not to violate them. In this sense, we urge the Colombian State to take concrete measures to regulate these intelligence systems .
It is urgent that the Colombian State, in an exercise of transparency with the Colombian people and with the international community, carry out the pertinent investigations to clarify the origin of these actions and bring to the competent authorities those responsible for this very serious aggression against the work of human rights defense, freedom of the press, and guarantees to the political opposition in Colombia.
The Colombian State must, likewise, provide sufficient guarantees for life and integrity and the right to defense of individuals and organizations defending human rights in general and in particular of those who have been exposed with this illegal practice.
As international civil society organizations, we warn of the high risk of the sustainability of the peace process in Colombia, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with this type of persecution of the political opposition, added to the increase in murders of human rights defenders and ex-combatants from the Farc, which so far in 2020 already number more than 100, according to the records of Indepaz.
Intelligence systems must respect human rights and be subject to strict civil and judicial controls
Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.
Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.
In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
Here is an English translation of an April 27 letter to the chief of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia from Defendamos la Paz, a broad coalition of peace advocates.
Letter addressed to Carlos Ruiz Massieu Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General Verification Mission in Colombia
Bogotá, April 28, 2020
We are writing to you to share our concern and, through you, to alert the Secretary General and the members of the Security Council about attacks against the implementation of the Peace Agreement in Colombia in times of coronavirus.
As the Defendamos la Paz movement, we raise our voice of protest against the instrumentalization of the pandemic to undermine the Peace Agreement. The health crisis does not only hide the inaction of the Government. More importantly, it fuels the governming party’s campaign against peace implementation.
Defendamos la Paz is against designs aimed at making reforms to the Peace Agreement, which the Government and the ruling party failed to obtain through legislation, become reality through the back door, while citizens remain focused on the pandemic.
We call the attention of the Verification Mission, the General Secretariat and the Security Council to the events listed below.
1- THE INCREASE IN MURDERS OF EXCOMBATANTS AND SOCIAL LEADERS
We are approaching the number of 200 ex-combatants killed. The Verification Mission has registered 197 homicides since the signing of the Peace Agreement. To this number must be added 39 assassination attempts and 13 disappearances of former Farc-EP members.
As for human rights defenders, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified 108 homicides in 2019 and registered 56 more denounced cases for 2000 as of March 24.
The Government remains silent in the face of this attack on peace, there are no initiatives to stop the bleeding and the pandemic has served to camouflage its passivity. The security forces do not react, the Attorney General’s Office does not advance enough and the instruments provided by the Peace Agreement, such as the National Commission for Security Guarantees, are not convened by the Government.
You yourself pointed it out before the Security Council: “No efforts must be spared with regard to those facing specific risks, given their roles in the promotion of human rights and the implementation of the peace agreement, and those who laid down their weapons and remain committed to the peace process.”
Defendamos la Paz requests, once again, the immediate convocation of the National Commission for Security Guarantees, the Commission for Monitoring, Promotion and Verification of Implementation and the tripartite Attorney General-FARC-Verification Mission commission.
2- THE GOVERNMENT’S PLANS
In the latest management report of the Presidential Advisor for Stabilization and Consolidation, which covers the period August 7, 2018 – March 31, 2020, the Government revealed intentions to evade compliance with the Peace Agreement and national regulations and jurisprudence. We mention:
1- The expulsion of FARC members from Congress
The Government insisted on the withdrawal of senators and representatives from the FARC until they carry out the sentences dictated by the Special Peace Jurisdiction. This proposal was the subject of a defeated draft legislative act in Congress, a process later studied by the Constitutional Court. In the view of Defendamos la Paz, this point was settled both in the legislative and judicial branches and there can be no modifications.
2- Loss of transitional justice benefits
The Government has warned that it will seek the removal of transitional justice benefits for ex-FARC-EP combatants who have not turned over their declared assets by July 31. The ex-FARC-EP combatants reported that they handed over the inventory and, once disarmed, they lost the ability to guard some of the assets in conflict zones. Several of them have been occupied by third parties. Defendamos la Paz believes that this obligation of the Peace Agreement must be fulfilled as soon as possible in the framework of dialogue and good faith and warns about the danger of its politicized use to unleash de facto reforms not obtained in Congress.
3- Glyphosate spraying
The Government continues planning to spray with glyphosate. From the governing party and allied sectors, calls for the start of fumigations during quarantine have been reinforced. The Constitutional Court has conditioned spraying on the fulfillment of a list of requirements related to the Peace Agreement. Several of these cannot be met during a period of social distancing. Defendamos la Paz reiterates its rejection of glyphosate fumigation, especially in times of isolation when families depend on basic food crops.
3- PAROLE DURING THE PANDEMIC
Decree 546 of 2020, which authorizes house arrest during the pandemic, leaves out members of the security forces and the FARC-EP. Defendamos la Paz states that this exclusion not only lacks the slightest humanitarian sense, but also constitutes a violation of the Agreement, which establishes conditional liberty for those who accept the jurisdiction of the Special Justice for Peace.
4- DEMANDS TO DEFUND PEACE
The pandemic serves as an excuse to demand the reduction of funding for peace. The governming party proposed that part of the funds for the implementation of the Havana accords be reprioritized toward Covid 19 health needs, for basic food, and to save small and medium-sized companies. Defendamos la Paz believes that the health of Colombians in the midst of war cannot be guaranteed and, therefore, the commitment to peace is part of the health response. Rather, we call for speeding up the implementation of health projects in the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET).
Mr. Ruiz Massieu, you, the Secretary-General, and the Security Council must know that the country has not escaped the authoritarian discourses that go against the separation of powers. For example, a governming party spokesperson called for the closing of Congress during the pandemic. The natural head of this political force, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, called for its reduction, on the verge of a ruling by the State Council that could make the 16 seats for peace [temporary congressional seats for victims’ organizations] contemplated in the Peace Agreement a reality. The Government has not rejected these proposals.
The Secretary General was right when he called for a global ceasefire. At Defendamos la Paz, we believe, like him, that the more we’re in a pandemic, the more we need peace.
Mr. Ruiz Massieu, there is no doubt; in Colombia, a pandemic is being used to dodge peace commitments; the disease of coronavirus cannot lend itself to strengthen the disease of war. We ask you, Secretary-General Guterres and the members of the Security Council to help us avoid this.
We’ve added a fifth resource to this site’s page of “Explainer” documents: a graphics-heavy overview of the growing network of FARC “dissident” groups around the country. These are armed groups founded by, and mostly comprised of, fighters who either rejected the 2016 peace accord outright, or demobilized in 2017 only to take up arms again. The Explainer covers the groups’ origins and estimated size, their illicit revenue streams, their poor human rights record, the two main national dissident confederations, and some regions in which dissidents are embroiled in violent territorial disputes.
The following April 23, 2020 statement is cross-posted from wola.org. We are alarmed that Colombia is not only going ahead full-throttle with manual eradication operations in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but that eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.
Washington, D.C.—On Wednesday, April 22, in an Indigenous community in southwest Colombia, public security forces killed one person and injured three others who were peacefully protesting a police operation to manually eradicate coca plants. Members of the police eradication team fired into a group of Awa Indigenous people, who were attempting to talk to them about why Indigenous authorities hadn’t been consulted about the planned eradication, as required by law. The death is the second related to manual coca eradication operations since Colombia went into national quarantine in late March.
Even while imposing a strict national quarantine, the Colombian government has launched more intense and aggressive coca eradication operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These operations, which often require the deployment of public security forces without appropriate protective equipment, have sparked long-standing tensions in six Colombian departments. In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 due to the deployment of eradication forces, the aggressive eradication campaign has ignored key elements of the historic 2016 peace accord.
In the operation that led to the death of one Indigenous community member and three wounded in southwest Colombia, the government had failed to consult with the community prior to the operation. Additionally, in many of the other municipalities targeted in the last month, the Colombian government has systematically failed to deliver payments and other productive project support for crop substitution programs as laid out by Chapter 4 of the peace accords.
The Duque administration’s push to intensify coca eradication has largely responded to an aggressive pressure campaign from the Trump administration. Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.
Beside increasing coca eradication operations during the nationwide lockdown, Colombia has seen no slowdown in the pace of attacks and threats against social leaders, including those who are advocating for implementation of the peace agreement’s illicit crops chapter. On April 22 alone, three people at a local community council in southwest Nariño department were killed by dissident fighters from the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group; another social leader, who formed part of the leftist Marcha Patriótica political movement, was killed in Cauca department; and two more were killed elsewhere in Cauca. Various Afro-Colombian communities in Cauca and Chocó department have also expressed concern about eradication operations and threats by armed groups in their area. According to Colombian think tank Indepaz, at least 71 social leaders were killed during the first three months of 2020; at least another dozen have been killed since Colombia’s national quarantine began.
The Colombian government needs to rigorously and promptly investigate the killings of social leaders, securing convictions for those who carried out and those who ordered the crime. Additionally, instead of a drug policy that emphasizes forced eradication of coca, the Colombian government should uphold its commitments in the 2016 peace agreement and promote rural land reform, sustainable development, and the establishment of state presence in coca cultivation areas. Finally, given the number of leaders from farmers’ association the National Agrarian Coordinator (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) and the Marcha Patriótica who have faced violent attacks and threats, all armed actors—including FARC dissident groups and government forces—should avoid involving civilians in armed conflict.
Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences is a scholar of violence and politics who has done most of her work in Colombia. She is the author of Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War (2017, Cornell University Press).
In this episode, she discusses her work in Apartadó, in Colombia’s Urabá region, which saw forced displacement by paramilitary groups intensify after Colombia began direct local elections and leftist parties performed well. She calls what happened “political cleansing” or “collective targeting”: the paramilitaries targeted entire communities for displacement based on election results.
Steele explains this and other findings, particularly how communities have organized to resist the onslaught. She has a sharp analysis of the challenges that continue for the displaced—and for communities and social leaders at risk of political cleansing—today, in post-peace-accord Colombia.