Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

January 29, 2018

In third week after end of ELN ceasefire, violence intensifies

Talks in Ecuador between the government and the ELN made no progress more than two weeks after the non-renewal of a 100-day cessation of hostilities, which ended on January 9. Last week, events on the battlefield made the situation worse.

In the early morning hours of January 27, an explosive device killed five police and wounded forty-three more as they began their day at a post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city. A second bomb went off on January 28 near a police post in another Barranquilla neighborhood, wounding two police and three civilians. Also on January 27, a bomb in Santa Rosa del Sur, in the northern department of Bolívar, killed two police. The ELN retweeted a statement from an urban bloc (account since suspended, but it was here) claiming responsibility for the Barranquilla attacks. The government reported capturing a suspect: a man who, authorities allege, had a notebook with a map of one of the bombing sites.

The week also saw combat between Colombia’s army and the ELN in Valdivia, Northern Antioquia, while four ELN members died in an army-air force-police attack in Chitagá, Norte de Santander.

Following the Barranquilla attacks, rightwing candidates for Colombia’s May presidential elections called on President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend or end talks with the ELN. “The government can NOT restart negotiations with the ELN in these conditions, it must react with determination and authority,” tweeted Germán Vargas Lleras, who had served as Santos’s interior minister and vice president. The candidate of ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, Iván Duque, tweeted, “when terrorism is given advantages, it feels free to attack with cowardice.”

Former FARC launch campaign but are increasingly vulnerable to attack

The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party descended from the FARC guerrillas, launched its 2018 election campaign at a January 27 event in Ciudad Bolívar, a sprawling low-income neighborhood in southern Bogotá. (And one of a handful of Bogotá districts where a majority voted “no” against the FARC peace accord in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.) Led by maximum leader and presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño (previously known as “Timochenko”), the new political party introduced a political platform including a proposed guaranteed basic income for all Colombians.

The peace accords give the former guerrillas an automatic 5 seats in a 107-seat Senate and 5 in a 172-seat House of Representatives. The new party is running 23 candidates for Senate seats and 51 in the House. That places the FARC 12th among all Colombian parties in number of House candidates, and 13th in number of Senate candidates. “We’re very optimistic and confident that we will win more than 10 seats,” said top leader Carlos Antonio Lozada. That is far from certain: the ex-guerrillas’ past of human rights abuses, most of which remain unacknowledged for now, make them quite unpopular in mainstream Colombian opinion. The peace accord also holds out an awkward possibility of FARC officeholders standing trial for serious war crimes.

Meanwhile, threats and attacks against the FARC political organization are worsening. About 33 former guerrillas have been killed since the final peace accord was signed in November 2016. The past week saw armed men raid the FARC party headquarters in Quibdó, the capital of the northwestern department of Chocó. FARC party member Johana Poblador was beaten in Bogotá by armed men who threatened to kill FARC leaders. Two FARC members in Medellín received death threats from the “Gaitanistas” or “Urabeños” neo-paramilitary group, which has already threatened to attack FARC party offices around the country.

Violence and displacement around the country

Last week it became evident that, between only the 17th and 20th of January, violence forced more than 1,000 people to leave their home communities. The Urabeños, the ELN, and FARC dissident groups—all of them fighting to occupy vacuums left by the demobilized FARC—were involved in all cases. Violence continued, and perhaps worsened, this week.

  • About 172 people were displaced by fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents in the La Voz de los Negros Community Council of Magüi Payán, Nariño, southwestern Colombia.
  • In Cumbal, Nariño, fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents forced many to flee into neighboring Ecuador.
  • Just to the north, in Argelia, Cauca, at least 11 armed men opened fire on a festival, killing three people.
  • Further north, in Buenos Aires, Cauca, a roadside attack killed two members of a mining cooperative. “We’re feeling the fight for territorial control, with the exit of the FARC from municipalities that have to do with narcotrafficking. In addition are those affected by illegal mining,” said Cauca governor Óscar Campo.
  • An “unidentified armed group” forced 425 people to flee five hamlets and an indigenous reserve in San José de Uré, in the northwestern department of Córdoba. This area, the southern part of the department, sits along a key corridor for trafficking cocaine to the Caribbean coast. The government human rights ombudsman (Defensoría) reports that Urabeños have been increasing their presence, patrolling in camouflage-clad groups of 15 to 30 combatants in zones that used to be FARC-dominated.
  • Just to the south, in the coca and cocaine-producing Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, three armed men entered a bar on January 21 in the town of Yarumal, indiscriminately opened fire with Mini Uzis and killed seven people. A similar massacre took place in the same municipality in December.
  • Elsewhere in the Bajo Cauca region, in Cáceres and Caucasia municipalities, violence forced about 400 more people to flee. Here, the identity of the armed group isn’t clear: “It’s that we don’t know who they are, they don’t identify themselves, they don’t wear labels,” a local witness told Medellín’s daily El Colombiano. “We’ve only seen them several times around here, armed, wearing camouflage, it was about 30 men.” The zone has a presence of both ELN and Urabeños. (Also in Caucasia last week was U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, paying a visit to observe U.S.-supported coca eradication and substitution programs.)
  • Fighting between the security forces and the ELN displaced several families in Paya, Boyacá.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Displacement, Elections, ELN Talks, Weekly update

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

January 22, 2018

ELN and government negotiating new ceasefire?

The frequency of ELN attacks appeared to slow in this, the second full week after a 100-day ceasefire ended between the guerrilla group and the Colombian government. The days since January 9 have seen at least 24 events, most of them small-scale guerrilla attacks on energy infrastructure or ambushes of military or police personnel. ELN fighters kidnapped an oil worker in Saravena, Arauca, damaged the TransAndino oil pipeline in Nariño, and killed a soldier in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander.

The UN verification mission in Colombia, taking note of this reduced tempo of ELN attacks, called on the guerrillas and government to resume negotiations that went dormant after the bilateral ceasefire’s end. The Colombian government’s head negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell, is returning to Quito, Ecuador, the site of the talks. Instead of the agreed negotiating agenda, these talks are likely to focus on conditions for a renewed ceasefire.

Transitional justice system launches

President Juan Manuel Santos swore in 30 magistrates who will adjudicate cases in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the new justice system set up by the peace accords. The JEP will consider cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Another eight magistrates remain to be sworn in. A few are still in the process of leaving current judicial posts. Several others are currently disqualified, as Colombia’s Congress added language to the law establishing the JEP that bars judges who did any human rights work in the past five years. Most participants and observers expect that Colombia’s Constitutional Court will strike down this prohibition when it reviews the JEP law. The Court’s decision is likely before May.

Another part of the JEP, the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, still awaits launch. The Unit is part of the Justice Ministry, within the executive branch. Its director, human rights lawyer Luz Marina Monzón, says frustratedly that she is awaiting a decree allowing the Unit to operate, but there is no clear timetable.

Last year, the embryonic JEP had a budget of US$4.7 million, covered mainly by foreign donors, especially the UN Development Program. In 2018, the system will require 230 billion Colombian pesos (about US$82 million).

To date, 3,534 ex-FARC members have agreed to face this justice system, which will hand out lighter penalties, with no prison time, to those who fully confess crimes and provide reparations to victims. Another 1,729 members of the security forces, including 3 generals, have also signed up. Twenty-one civilians currently imprisoned for human rights crimes, including a former mayor of the city of Cúcuta who worked with paramilitary groups, have also registered.

Threats and attacks against former FARC fighters

Two former FARC fighters were shot to death in the town of Peque, Antioquia while campaigning for FARC congressional candidate Wilmar de Jesús Cartagena. (Congressional elections are in March, with the FARC running candidates as a political party.) “This is the great worry that we have,” Cartagena—who missed the campaign event for medical reasons—told El Espectador. “We don’t see any security guarantee that the government has the commitment to offer us. We don’t know what actions the government might take to facilitate our party’s participation in politics.” A statement from the UN verification mission expressed “serious concern” over the killings, “which constitutes the first mortal attack within the framework of the 2018 electoral process.”

The FARC party headquarters in Cali received a threatening pamphlet signed by the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia,” a thousands-strong organized crime group commonly called the “Urabeños” or “Clan Úsuga.” The document declared the group’s intention to “blow up” the FARC office in Cali, as well as those of other leftist movements: the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, the Marcha Patriótica, and the Congreso de los Pueblos.

“While there hasn’t been any serious incident within the training and reintegration zones [where the FARC underwent demobilization] thanks to the security forces’ protection measures, the number of killings outside those zones is an issue of growing concern in the last few months,” said Jean Arnault, chief of the UN verification mission in Colombia.

The Marcha Patriótica political movement counts 54 ex-FARC members or relatives killed between November 13, 2016 and January 18, 2018. These murders took place in Nariño (15), Antioquia (11), Cauca (6), Caquetá (5), Putumayo (4), Chocó (3), Bolívar (2), Meta (2), Norte de Santander (2), Boyacá (1), Tolima (1), Arauca (1), and Valle del Cauca (1).

FARC dissidents attack police in Meta

FARC dissidents attacked police in two different parts of Meta department, in south-central Colombia. Six members of a column of rural police were injured when fighters detonated an explosive as they passed by, then fired upon them, in Mesetas, western Meta. The attack, blamed on remnants of the FARC’s 3rd Front, happened days after two police were injured by a thrown grenade in Puerto Concordia, south-central Meta.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, ELN Talks, Transitional Justice, Weekly update

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

January 15, 2018

We’d like to post these all year without missing a week. Travel plans may complicate that, but we’re going to try.

ELN ceasefire breaks off

For 102 days, while peace talks proceeded in Quito, the Colombian government and ELN guerrillas mostly honored a cessation of hostilities. That period saw 33 possible ceasefire violations committed by the ELN—of which 12 were verified—killing 26 noncombatants and involving the kidnapping of 13 people and forced recruitment of 14. Still, this was a much lower tempo of violence than normal. And there were zero incidents of combat between the ELN and Colombia’s security forces.

The cessation of hostilities ended on January 9, when the parties failed to agree to extend it. Overall analysis of the non-renewal placed most blame on the ELN, which appeared to lack internal consensus, or even unity of command, about whether to continue the truce.

The ELN’s standing in public opinion plummeted further as the group immediately launched a series of attacks on security forces and infrastructure, mostly in the northeast of the country. The week saw approximately 13 attacks, leading to the deaths of at least two police and at least three bombings of the 485-mile-long Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.

The Colombian government pulled its negotiating team from Quito, and appeared to suspend talks until the ELN agrees to a new ceasefire. This is a reversal of the 2012-16 FARC negotiations, when the guerrillas repeatedly demanded a bilateral ceasefire but the government preferred to keep fighting while talks proceeded.

France, the European Union, the “guarantor countries” of the ELN talks (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway, and Venezuela), and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño all called on the parties to return to the table and agree on a new cessation of hostilities. The UN noted that it cannot keep its monitoring and verification structure in place very long with no ceasefire to monitor.

The U.S. government issued a travel warning for four departments where the ELN is most active: Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, and Norte de Santander.

Other coverage: Washington Post, New York Times, El Tiempo

Visit of UN Secretary-General

The need to restart the ELN talks and ceasefire was a main message of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a January 13 visit to Colombia. Guterres visited Bogotá and Meta to get a sense of how implementation of the FARC accord is going, to give political support to the ELN process, and to support the work of the UN verification mission in Colombia.

That mission’s latest 90-day report to the Secretary-General, made public on January 5, voiced concern about the government’s implementation of the FARC accord: “Overall, the implementation of the peace-related legislative agenda has progressed unevenly, compounded by events relating to the presidential and parliamentary elections, to be held in the first semester of 2018.”

Military sets up giant task force in Nariño

Colombia’s Defense Ministry has set up a joint task force, “Hercules,” with about 9,800 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and police stationed in Nariño, on the Pacific coast in the southwestern corner of the country. Nariño is Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department and a heavily used corridor for cocaine shipments into the eastern Pacific. It has very active FARC ex-militia dissident groups and a growing presence of the ELN. Not all of the 9,800 personnel are new: many are already stationed in Nariño but now form part of this joint command structure.

“This plan has had a big media deployment in the region and in Bogotá,” writes Laura Soto in La Silla Vacía. “But four sources who know the zone (members of the Tumaco mayor’s office, two human rights defenders who have worked closely with Caritas, and a social leader) aren’t hopeful that the panorama will approve, at least not in the short term.”

Lowest homicide rate in 40 years

President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated that Colombia’s 2017 homicide rate reached the lowest point in 42 years: 24 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants (about the same as Washington DC). Security analyst Hugo Acero cast some doubt on the statistics, though the overall trend points to declining homicides.

Nastiness between Santos and Maduro

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro told his countrymen that “thousands of Colombian patients cross the border to get operated on here, to treat a flu, to clear up a cataract, to seek medicines in Venezuela” where the health system is “free.” (Venezuela in fact suffers from severe shortages of most medicines, while Colombia’s healthcare system is also theoretically free.) President Santos called this comment “cynical,” pointing out that the reverse phenomenon is happening with Venezuelans recurring to Colombia’s border-zone hospitals. “President Maduro, don’t try to use the Colombian people to hide the enormous shortcomings of your failed revolution,” he said. Maduro responded that Santos “has his country in chaos” and isn’t complying with the FARC peace accord.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: ELN Talks, Weekly update