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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

What was the human toll of the operation?

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

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

Were four additional people captured?

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

Were those killed combatants, or civilians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the security situation in Putumayo?

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

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

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

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

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

Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?

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

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

Was the scene tampered with?

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

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

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

What happened to the money and the whiskey?

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

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

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

Are credible investigations happening?

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

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

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

What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Putumayo

April 14, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 18, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Indigenous Communities

March 18, 2022

Victim Seats in Congress Could Help Advance Peace in Colombia

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

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 14, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 31, 2022

Social Investment is the Path to Peace in Arauca, Colombia

By: Matthew Bocanumenth, WOLA Program Associate

(Twitter / Mayerly Briceño @mayeb96)

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

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

Decades of Violence in Arauca

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Security Situation Foreshadowed

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

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

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

Dialogue with the ELN is Crucial for Colombia’s Peace

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

The Need to Prioritize Social Investment

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

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

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

Tags: Arauca

January 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Arauca, Armed Groups, Human Rights

January 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 19, 2022

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

“Defend the Peace”

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

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

An English-language translation of the statement is below:

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

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

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

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

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

January 4, 2022

Advance the Promises of the 2016 Peace Accord: Civil Society Perspectives on Peace in the Chocó

Read the full report

Between February 2021 and May 2021, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) worked with Colombia-based consultants and partners to gather the perspectives of people at the community level about their experiences with the implementation of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.

While there are good academic, statistical, and investigative reports on different aspects of Colombia’s peace, WOLA gathered perspectives on how various civil society actors were viewing the implementation of the 2016 peace on the ground. For peace to be properly consolidated on the ground, understanding how those most affected by the conflict is key and their viewpoints are vital to guaranteeing that peace is successful. Colombia’s regions are each unique with their own historical, cultural, geographic and ethnic differences and the conflict has played itself out differently throughout the country, which has resulted in distinct dynamics on the ground.  

Our research covered four different regions of Colombia—Arauca and Catatumbo in the northeast, Chocó in the northwest, and northern Cauca in the southwest. For people to speak candidly without fear of reprisals, there is no direct attribution of the sources of the information in this report.

The report, “Advance the Promises of the 2016 Peace Accord: Civil Society Perspectives on Peace in the Chocó,” summarizes the findings of WOLA’s work with partners in Chocó and includes recommended actions voiced by the communities themselves. This collaboration also sought to identify recommendations for the United States’ and international community’s support for the peace accord and its implementation.

When persons interviewed were asked what can the U.S. government and civil society organizations do to support peace efforts in the region, the following proposals were made:

Recommendations

1)    Support the creation of a Commission that can dialogue directly with U.S. policymakers

The U.S. government and civil society organizations should support the creation of a binational commission that serves as an interlocutor with U.S. policymakers to advance peace accord implementation in the Chocó. The Commission would include the U.S. government, Chocoan civil society, U.S. civil society and experts chosen due to their expertise). By helping create this commission, the international community can ensure the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter is prioritized, and that peace is implemented in Chocó with a differentiated ethnic, gender, and disability approach. This commission should also incorporate the peace-related demands from various social movements that have formed in the department to petition the government. These include civic strikes (paro civicos) and Indigenous collective peaceful protest actions known as Mingas, all of which urge for the Ethnic Chapter’s comprehensive implementation.

2)  Closely monitor the implementation of the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs)

The full and comprehensive implementation of the PDETs, a central commitment of the peace accord’s first chapter, can help transform the structural obstacles to consolidating peace in Colombia. For these plans to function as envisioned by the peace accord, international actors need to closely monitor and advocate for their implementation to help guarantee their advancement and to address complications that may arise. All proposals and projects related to the PDET Chocó must fully integrate an ethnic and gender approach and include the full participation of beneficiary communities. An ethnic approach does not mean superficially placing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous individuals in key positions; rather, only by integrating ethnic communities into all levels of participation and governance at the national level can the PDET truly address on-the-ground realities. As for implementing a gender approach, women and LGBT+ individuals from the territories must be included in the PDET as designers, implementers, and beneficiaries. Finally, the PDET must seek to activate local economies by supporting economic projects proposed by the community councils and the cabildos.  Supporting the projects designed by the communities themselves will transform the rural countryside and foment peacebuilding among receptor communities.

3)    Send resources directly to civil society organizations

At the moment, resource allocation is at the whim of who holds political office, which often results in alleged embezzlement practices. Civil society organizations have noted suspicious instances where funds are channeled to individuals who actively supported the political campaigns that elected those who hold political office. Therefore, to ensure resources and funds truly meet the needs of implementing the peace accord, international resources to support Colombia’s peace should be administered directly by communities in the Chocó who uphold the well-being of the community. This means empowering civil society organizations to administer resources. These organizations, made up of and elected by the communities themselves, have a wide breadth of experience working to solve the department’s challenges.  As such, they hold a deep understanding of the needs of the communities and are beholden to them. Directly allocating much-needed resources to these civil society organizations provides stronger guarantees of transparency and accountability, increasing the likelihood that the resources will be used as intended and preventing their diversion when changes, inevitable in a politicized local context, occur in municipal and departmental governments. 

4)   Help develop an alliance among victims, ex-combatants, and civil society to demand and monitor the peace accord’s implementation 

To advance peace accord implementation at the departmental level, a transformative pedagogy of peacebuilding is required. This strategy must move beyond its current emphasis on university professors and students. It should prioritize the participation of victims of the internal armed conflict, former combatants who are signatories of the peace accord, and diverse sectors of civil society like territorial leaders, social leaders, women, LGBT+ leaders, and youth representatives. 

These different sectors already exist in some form. However, they must unify their efforts by forming an alliance that advocates for the peace accord’s full implementation. For such an alliance to form, and for it to be effective, these sectors should join together in solidarity and ensure their communities understand what the peace accord stipulates and how they can demand the implementation of what the state is obligated to fulfill.  This alliance should carry out broad-based education campaigns about the stipulations of the peace accord and how state institutions, including the National Police and the judicial and legislative branches, can be used as tools to guarantee short- and long-term compliance to what was agreed to in the 2016 peace accord. 

5) Advocate for the Humanitarian Accord Now Chocó!

To sustain the 2016 peace accord and for it to be fully implemented, the other illegal groups operating in the region need to be addressed. The optimal solution would be for them to be addressed via a politically negotiated solution and/or disarmament. Since such solutions have not advanced in the past decade, Chocoan civil society is proposing that all armed groups support the humanitarian minimums found in the Humanitarian Accord Now Chocó!. This Accord seeks to place limits on the internal armed conflict and violence linked to illegal armed groups.  It guarantees better protection for civilians stuck in the middle of all these groups and respect for international humanitarian law. It is an effort by coalitions of local civil society organizations and religious entities to step in where the government has failed to ensure guarantees for the lives and physical integrity of civilians living in the area. Its intent is to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians and to help pave the way for future and continuing dialogues. However, for such an accord to be realized it requires support from the international community, in particular the United States. 

Tags: Chocó, Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Security Deterioration, Transitional Justice, U.S. Policy

December 17, 2021

Patriarchy in Action: The Struggle to Center Women’s Experience in Colombia’s Armed Conflict

By: Yadira Sánchez-Esparza, Fall 2021 Mexico & Colombia Intern

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Photo by Ryan Brown via Flickr

Women accounted for a significant percentage of victims of the violence from Colombia’s armed conflict—an unequal distribution of pain and overall suffering. Even 40% of the FARC guerrillas ranks were women, yet they remained excluded from the initial negotiations that led to Colombia’s 2016 peace accord. This intentional silencing reflects a larger pattern of structural violence that existed prior to the armed conflict, which is taught in the home, reinforced in society, and ultimately legitimized by the state. Yet, despite this oppressive status quo, women in Colombia have been active participants in advocating for themselves, their communities, and the peace process by institutionalizing their respective emotions.

Women’s groups across Colombia are leading peacebuilding efforts to bring to light the disproportionate, gendered impact of the internal armed conflict’s violence. For instance, Colombian feminist organization Casa de la Mujerin collaboration with a series of other organizations, published their recent report entitled TruthIs: Politicizing Women’s Pain and Emotions. The report, filled with sobering testimonies and concerted recommendations by victims of gender-based violence, was submittedtothe Truth Commission—an entity that forms part of Colombia’s tripartite transitional justice system and is responsible for clarifying the truth of what occurred during Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict. Three of Colombia’s departments—Meta, Córdoba, and Cauca—have dedicated chapters in the report, as they are home to many Indigenous and Afro-descendants who were disproportionately affected by the conflict. With the report’s submission to the Truth Commission, these women’s groups are contributing to implementing the 2016 peace accord’s trailblazing gender provisions, urging they be used as mechanisms for justice.

Women and the Peace Process

Reports like TruthIs are possible because of the efforts placed forth to include a gender approach in the peace process. The inclusion of the peace accord’s innovative gender provisions was no easy feat. When peace negotiations began between the Colombian state and FARC guerrillas, women were not granted a seat at the table to participate and it took the intentional efforts of about 450 women’s organizations to push then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to allow for two seats. In September 2014, a gender subcommittee was launched that included five members in total from the FARC and the government. But nonetheless, the gender provisions that resulted from the subcommittees’ contributions received significant pushback, mainly due to an opposition movement that labeled the recognition of LGBTQ+ and women rights as a “gender ideology”. This push came mainly from evangelical factions who sought to hinder advances in protecting different gender identities and sexual orientations. Unfortunately, this opposition movement succeeded in helping deter support to the peace accord and help the plebiscite fail, resulting in the “no” vote succeeding by a margin of less than 1 percent.

Despite these setbacks, women’s eventual integration allowed them to play an essential role in the delegations of victims, where women represented 60% of the members. This integration has led the Colombian government and the FARC to release statements that reflected positively on women’s rights, inclusivity, and diversity. The largest impact can be seen in legislation around sexual violence in which many agreements have a gender focus and sexual violence is listed as a crime that can not be amnestied under the accord. Essentially, the peace process without women is not adept to face the dynamic problems that face civil society and the Colombian government.

Women’s lives before the armed-conflict

The report brings attention to the continuum of violence that existed prior to the known inception of the armed conflict. The pre-established systems of oppression against women were deeply ingrained from interpersonal relations and into the larger structure of financial, economic, and physical oppression in Colombian society. The harmful ideology of machismo upholds and perpetuates a traditional expression of masculinity and femininity, which is simultaneously tied to a rigid gender binary in which women are inferior to men.

“Habia una buena relación, las mujeres eran sumisas porque el que mandaba era el marido”145

“There was a good relationship, the women were submissive because the husband was in charge “145

Beyond this, machismo minimizes and normalizes violence against women often becoming internalized in men and women. Throughout the interview process, women shared that they found their relationships to their spouses, families, and communities to be generally positive in terms of their quality of life. However, In the same recounting of events they would include anecdotes of violence within families, partners, and insecurity for women in general:

“En alugnas familias había conflictos ecónomicos y pasionales cuando un hombre cela a una mujer, también en las familias había maltrato y violencia…no dejaban salir a la mujer por celos y golpes” (145, TruthIs)

“In some families, there were economic conflicts and conflicts of passion when a man was jealous of a woman, in families, there was mistreatment and violence…they did not let the woman go out because of jealousy and beatings” (145, TruthIs).

Additionally, there was an extreme division of labor and enforced subordination in which women had no rights to education or entrepreneurship. This, in turn, would not only confirm the biases against women but limit women to vulnerable socio-economic situations. The intentional retraction of resources was a manifestation of how little value women held in Colombian society thus making it easier for perpetrators to dehumanize and enact intimate and familial violence on them. The TruthIs report provides insight that before the conflict these girls and women had already been reduced to public commodities instead of dignified humans. Sexual violence was already systematically being practiced by perpetrators who exploited the physical and bodily autonomy of women:

[…] “antes de llegar los paramilitares, los ricos compraban a las niñas, la gente que tenía plata compraba a las niñas a sus padres: dos, tres vacas; tres, cuatro, diez mil pesos por una niña, y entonces se la llevaban a vivir uno, dos meses, y ahí la dejaban y salían y compraban otra.” (Narrativa de líder de Córdoba-68).

[…] “before the paramilitaries arrived, the rich people bought girls, those who had money bought the girls from their parents: two, three cows or three, four, ten thousand pesos for a girl. They took her to live with them for one or two months. They would leave her there and go out and buy another one.” (Narrative of a leader from Córdoba-68)

Ultimately, the qualitative research provided in the report demonstrated the extent of the normalization of violence in communities that would later be appropriated by various armed actors to use women as pawns for dominance.

Women’s experiences in the armed conflict

The TruthIs report highlights that the larger struggle during the armed conflict is impossible to understand without understanding how women experienced gender-based violence, a reality supported by the Constitutional Court’s report that sexual violence was a ‘systematic, habitual and generalized practice’ appropriated by all armed groups in the Colombian conflict. Estimates include that armed groups were responsible for the rape of 12,809 women, the forced prostitution of 1,575, the forced pregnancies of 4,415 women, and the forced abortions of 1,810 women. Both the falsehood of security and the unstable security vanished leaving only extreme direct violence, a reality that became unavoidable from the youngest child to elderly mothers. This new milieu instilled fear that did not allow them to live their lives as they had before, new biopolitics was being forcibly instilled in communities across Colombia.

“Mi mamá no me hizo fiesta de quince porque decía que eso era darles aviso a los hombres armados de que ya se lo podían comer a uno.”36

“My mother didn’t throw me a quinceañera because she said that would be a warning to the armed men that they could have me. “36

The TruthIs report highlighted how Afro-descendant and Indigenous women were disproportionately impacted not only because of the regions in which they live but the many dimensions of discrimination that they face. And so, Colombia’s history with slavery and oppression of bodies continued to burden those who have historically been disregarded. Sexual violence was used to control and dominate physically, culturally, economically, and territory for the larger perceived purpose of the conflict. For example, guerrillas have used sexual violence in the forced recruitment of girls as combatants, girls as sex slaves, and as payment to protect other family members.

“Ya el pensamiento era de oder que la mujer conquistara al que tiene el poder…cuando empezaron a llegar los grupos armados, más que todo los paramilitares y los soldados…ya no se buscaba marido por amor sino alguien que nos protegiera”. 38

“The idea was that the woman should conquer the one in power…when the armed groups began to arrive, especially the paramilitaries and the soldiers…they were no longer looked for a husband for love, but for someone who would protect us. “38

State Security Forces’ have been distinctively damaging as the civilian population has no mechanism for justice. These militias’ essential position is to protect and support civilians’ rights to a life free of violence. However, as described by many victims, these entities often took advantage of the chaos to extend harm on vulnerable populations exercising violence against women on a mass scale. Unlike FARC or ELN groups targeted by the government, the State Security Forces were never held accountable for their actions since they operated as the rule of law in these sometimes remote areas. The impunity surrounding State Security Forces has protected many individuals and battalions from being held accountable for the crimes committed against their civilians.

The significance of a report like TruthIS being presented to the Truth Commission

  • It’s innovative, it highlights not only the perseverance of women’s resistance but how women in these communities utilized their pain and emotions to contribute to the peace process. This report refutes the machismo mindset, that normalizes victim-blaming, and minimizes the suffering of women instead highlighting how women can strengthen peacebuilding efforts.
  • It’s intentional, the report is taking advantage of the gender provisions in order to create a historical record nationally and internationally affirming the violence committed against women in the context of the armed conflict. It demonstrates how important it is for women to be integrated into the peacebuilding process since their participation also promotes gendered provisions. The regional focus on the Pacific Coast is to emphasize that Afro-descendant and Indigenous women were impacted in specific and targeted ways.
  • It’s an example, using testimony as an integral component in communicating the differentiated impact the internal conflict had on women. These individuals’ experiences centered on sexual and physical violence but also brought to light how women experienced forced disappearances, forced displacement, forced recruitment, and psychological trauma. The report also includes the experiences of trans individuals and those with different sexualities which as previously discussed are realities that are often overshadowed.

The struggle to end sexual violence continues

While this report is an exceptional demonstration of how far women’s engagement has come in terms of their healing, liberation, and role in the peace process, it can’t begin to entirely eclipse the intricacies of trauma that remains in the wake of the armed conflict. The recent webinar hosted by Oxfam, WOLA, and the Latin America Working Group provided space for women to share in their own words how they experienced violence and the intergenerational trauma felt in their families and communities. The sheer courage displayed moving and the overall message that the fear and continued instability are incredibly prevalent. The women shared a general desire for their daughters and sons to live in reality free of violence, a dream that seems almost unattainable in the current reality.

Presently, the Pacific Coast home to the Cauca and Cordóba departments continue to be disproportionately impacted by violence against women as the demobilization of guerrillas and the increase of militarization in areas previously abandoned by the state has maintained the armed conflict’s violence continuum as young women are still forced into armed prostitution and sexual abuse. Nationally, UN Women reported that 37% of women in Colombia will experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime, and over 50% of Colombian men surveyed for a 2010 UN study admitted to abusing their female partners. This violence has continued to be exacerbated following COVID-19 the FISCALIA reported 60.581 cases of domestic violence across the country.

Women’s Resistance

The silencing of women’s voices and experiences has been constant before, during, and after Colombia’s armed conflict. However, new forms of advocacy and resistance have forced attention onto wounds that many responsible and complacent actors would rather ignore. Of these actors, the Colombian state should grant a public apology to victims of sexual violence experienced by girls, women, and those with different sexual orientations and gender identities. In addition, the international community should hold the Colombian state accountable for implementing the gender provisions of the 2016 Peace Accord that focus on women’s rights, gender, and their social and political participation. Ultimately, the resistance of female victims and community non-profits such as Casa de la Mujer is integral in pushing forward narratives deserving of public attention and justice. Therefore, defending and amplifying the voices and experiences of women that have endured Colombia’s armed conflict is not only a peace mechanism but an active step towards protecting women’s dignity and autonomy.

“Bueno yo pienso que al principio pues no éramos visibles, éramos invisibles para todo el mundo porque la mujer no se tenía en cuenta para nada, pero a raíz de todo lo que nos pasó yo creo que reaccionamos y dijimos que Dios nos dejó por algo, y yo pienso que tenemos que dejar una huella de bien en la comunidad, en la sociedad, en nuestra familia, que nos empoderemos en muchos espacios y en muchas cosas. Ver tantas mujeres asesinadas, desaparecidas y uno que ha logrado superar esas cosas es una razón para que otras mujeres vivan a través de nuestra experiencia, que se den cuenta [de] que sí vale la pena luchar y cambiar este país. Los grupos, fundaciones y todo eso nos ayudan a superarnos emocional y económicamente, y si lo hacemos unidas, mejor.” (Narrativa de mujer del Meta-143).

“Well, I think that at the beginning, we were not visible. We were invisible to everyone women were not taken into account at all. But as a result of everything that happened to us, I think we reacted, and we said that God left us for something, and I think that we have to leave a mark of good in the community, in society, in our families, and our world. We empower ourselves in many spaces and in many things. Seeing so many women murdered, disappeared, and even one woman who has managed to overcome these despite it all is a reason for all of us to overcome. It is a reason for other women to live despite our experiences, to realize so that they realize [that] it is worth fighting and changing this country. The groups, foundations, and all that help us overcome ourselves emotionally and economically and help us better ourselves emotionally and financially, and if we do it united, all the better.” (Narrative of a woman from Meta-143)

Tags: Gender Perspective, Human Rights, Transitional Justice, Victims

December 17, 2021

The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

This article appeared December 6 at the Colombian analysis site Razón Pública as “¿Qué implica que las FARC ya no estén en la lista de terroristas de Estados Unidos?


The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

At least in the 20 years since “Plan Colombia,” it’s been rare to see the U.S. and Colombian governments disagree in public about something. Even during the worst days of police abuses during the Paro Nacional protests earlier this year, Washington’s expressions of concern were remarkably mild.

That’s why it was surprising to hear President Iván Duque express disagreement with a step that the Biden administration took to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. “We understand and respect this information from the United States, but we would have preferred a different decision,” he said on November 29, the day before the State Department removed the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The removal of the FARC, or rather the ex-FARC, should be uncontroversial. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on the U.S. list doesn’t exist, and hasn’t since August 2017. Of its 13,600 members who underwent demobilization, more than 90 percent haven’t carried out an act of organized violence in more than five years. They are playing by the rules and integrating themselves into civilian life.

A few continue to engage in violence against civilians. These are mainly members of Colombia’s two main ex-FARC dissident networks, the one headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the one known as “Nueva Marquetalia,” which either refused to demobilize in 2016 or abandoned the process later. Most of these groups’ members are new recruits with no guerrilla background; many weren’t even adolescents yet when the peace accord was signed. The Biden administration added these groups to the State Department’s list, in the FARC’s place.

The step taken on November 30, then, was less a “removal” of the FARC than an updating of the terrorist list to reflect reality.

As the list was being interpreted, “Gentil Duarte” and “El Paisa” were in the same category as former fighters now raising children and going to schools, starting their own businesses, or participating in competitive rafting teams. That was absurd.

But that was the reality. Under the “material support for terrorism” provisions in U.S. law, as they were being interpreted, it has been a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any demobilized FARC members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

The U.S. government was interpreting this very strictly. It has literally been illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less include them in development meetings or—as in the case of Humanicemos, a group of ex-FARC deminers who were unable to get any U.S. aid—to instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

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

The delay in removing the FARC not only undermined U.S. programming, though. It made the U.S. government look out of date, unaware that the FARC on the list didn’t exist anymore. It even made the U.S. government appear actively hostile to the entire peace process, echoing the notion—expressed this year by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum and Defense Minister Diego Molano—that the Comunes party and the dissident groups (which, in fact, often target Comunes members) are somehow linked. Either way, the message Washington sent by keeping the FARC on the list was toxic.

It is great news that this step has finally been taken. But the Biden administration certainly could have rolled it out better. News of the impending decision leaked to the Wall Street Journal very early, on November 23, perhaps from an individual who opposed removing the FARC from the terrorist list. The explanation, with fuller context, did not come from the State Department and White House for days afterward, in part because November 25 was a major national holiday in the United States.

As a result, the initial reaction from many colleagues and journalists in Colombia was confused. Those of us who work on Colombia policy here in Washington got a lot of questions. Here are answers to a few of them.

Why did it take so long to take the FARC off the list, especially if it was causing so many problems for U.S. programming? There is no great answer to this, other than that while it is easy to add a group to the State Department’s list—all you need is a few attacks on civilian targets—it is hard to remove it. Revocation of a “terrorist” status requires a deliberative process within the State Department in which all interested actors have to reach consensus. The AUC formally demobilized in 2006 but remained on the list until 2014. Peru’s MRTA barely existed after the 1997 Japanese embassy fiasco, but was on the list until 2001. The Washington Post reported that each group’s terrorist designation usually gets reviewed every five years, and that the FARC had last been considered in April 2015. A fresh review of the FARC didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Does this mean FARC leaders are no longer wanted by U.S. justice? Nothing changes about extradition requests for FARC members. They are wanted in U.S. courts either for sending cocaine to the United States or for kidnapping or killing U.S. citizens. These are specific crimes, not the vague charge of “terrorism.” Those processes continue, so former FARC leaders wanted by U.S. justice still face risks if they travel internationally. Because he was arrested in Ecuador in 2004 while apparently serving as an intermediary for talks about three U.S. citizen defense contractors whom the FARC was holding at the time, Simón Trinidad remains imprisoned in the state of Colorado for his role in that specific case.

Is this an insult to the FARC’s victims? Annette Taddeo, a Democratic Party state senator in Florida, emigrated from Colombia when she was 17, after the FARC kidnapped her father. “For me and many of us, this is painful and very personal,” she tweeted. The FARC upended the lives of thousands of Colombians; many of them, and their loved ones, are no doubt outraged to see any sign of conciliation like a U.S. recognition that those leaders are no longer behaving as terrorists. The fact, though, is that the top non-dissident ex-FARC leadership appears truly to have renounced terrorism. They remain guilty of many things, and must answer to their victims and the transitional justice process. But the “terrorist” label no longer sticks.

What about Sen. Marco Rubio’s complaint that any U.S. money that benefits ex-FARC members should go through the Colombian government? The Colombian government “doesn’t want the delisting,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida), who is close to Uribismo, told U.S. radio. “What they wanted was, to the extent that you’re going to provide assistance to these people who abandoned the guerrilla fight, laid down their weapons, become politically engaged, we want you to run that assistance through the democratically elected government of Colombia, not unilaterally.” This argument is confusing. Most US assistance with ex-combatants’ participation—reincorporation, rural development, demining—would go hand-in-hand with the efforts of Colombian government agencies. U.S. aid almost never goes to such agencies directly as cash payments.

Why is Cuba still on the list of state sponsors? Before leaving office in January 2021, the Trump administration re-added Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The main reason cited was Cuba’s refusal to extradite ELN leaders who had been in the country for peace talks with the Colombian government, a move that would have violated those talks’ protocols. That the Biden administration hasn’t taken steps to remove Cuba, even as it removes the FARC, probably owes more to the politics around U.S.-Cuban relations. It would be very difficult to take Cuba off of the list—or perform any other act of engagement—in the weeks after Cuba’s government aggressively suppressed a citizen protest movement.

Why was the announcement rolled out this way? When we heard that the FARC were being taken off, why didn’t we know right away that the dissident groups would be added? There is no great answer to that. The impending decision was leaked, possibly by a hostile party. But for days, the Biden administration offered no new context, so many actors were left think that all of the FARC was being taken off of the list, and even that FARC leaders were no longer wanted by U.S. justice.

The rollout of this news was not graceful. In today’s climate, when a lie travels around the world before the truth can even get its running shoes on, that does damage. Still, there is only so much that the Biden administration could have done. Many sectors of our societies will always be determined to believe what they want, regardless of the facts we present to them.

There is a communications lesson here, though—one that recalls the plebiscite debacle of 2016. It is crucial to get out ahead of a story as much as possible, so that when it breaks, the response can be nimble, and people who are open to the truth—the majority of people, still—can get the context quickly.

Tags: Counter-Terrorism, U.S. Policy

December 8, 2021

WOLA Report: A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years

November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.

The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.

For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.

Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.

It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.

That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.

10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost.
2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate.
3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021.
4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011.
5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits.
6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.”
7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020.
8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups.
9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women.
10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.

Read the report

In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”

The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.

  • The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
  • The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
  • The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
  • The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
  • The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.

Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.

Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.

The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.

Tags: Coca, Human Rights, Implementation, Stabilization, U.S. Policy, WOLA Statements

November 24, 2021

Podcast: Colombia’s peace accord at five years

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

Colombia’s government and largest guerrilla group signed a historic peace accord on November 24, 2016. The government took on many commitments which, if implemented, could guide Colombia away from cycles of violence that its people have suffered, especially in the countryside, for over a century.

Five years later, is the peace accord being implemented? The picture is complicated: the FARC remain demobilized and a transitional justice system is making real progress. But the countryside remains violent and ungoverned, and crucial peace accord commitments are going unmet. WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez joins host Adam Isacson for a walk through which aspects of accord implementation are going well, and which are urgently not.

Download the episode (.mp3)

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

Tags: Human Rights, Implementation, Podcast

November 24, 2021