During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Biden and Duque speak
“Why won’t Biden call Duque?” conservative former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams asked in a June 22 Council on Foreign Relations blog post. Colombian media had been pointing out that Joe Biden and Iván Duque had not had a phone conversation since Biden’s November 2020 election. Some speculation centered on reports that members of Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, favored Donald Trump and Republican candidates in the 2020 campaign.
On June 28, Biden and Duque had their first phone conversation. The trigger was not Elliott Abrams’ prose as much as news that the helicopter in which Duque was traveling had been hit by gunfire while over Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on June 25. The two presidents spoke for 25 minutes; in the room with Duque was Vice President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, Chief of Staff María Paula Correa, and the recently named ambassador to the United States, Juan Carlos Pinzón. El Tiempo reported that Biden asked Duque to send his greetings to Duque’s three children.
The White House and the Colombian Presidency both published brief readouts of the call. Both noted that Biden pledged to donate 2.5 million COVID vaccines, and that the two presidents discussed topics like security cooperation, climate change, and the situation in Venezuela.
The White House statement notes, “President Biden also voiced support for the rights of peaceful protestors, underscored that law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of accountability, and condemned wanton acts of violence and vandalism.” The Colombian document omitted any mention of the protest movement that has rocked the country since April 28, or of the security forces’ heavy-handed response.
“Colombia is a symbol of the challenges that the Andean region is experiencing. The economic challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic because people have lost jobs and family members,” Juan González, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told Colombia’s La W radio after the two presidents’ conversation. “Our interest,” he added, “is to help Colombia overcome this. It is important that the country can be a safe place. We recognize that the situation in Venezuela has been one of the reasons for the lack of security. Colombia is a country with many inequalities, so alternatives to crime and drug trafficking must be created.”
U.S. House drafts 2022 foreign aid bill
On July 1, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee, by a 32-25 vote, approved its version of the “State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs” appropriation—that is, the foreign aid bill—for fiscal 2022. It would provide $62.2 billion for diplomacy and assistance worldwide, a 12 percent increase over 2021 levels.
The House bill, which tends to reflect the priorities of the chamber’s Democratic Party majority, would provide Colombia with $461.375 million in assistance during 2022, about $7.5 million more than the Biden administration requested and identical to the amount in the 2021 appropriation. This does not count $2.5 million for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Colombia, an unspecified amount to assist the Venezuelan migrant population in Colombia, and an unspecified amount of military and police assistance through Defense budget accounts (which totaled $55.4 million in 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service).
We estimate that 51 percent of U.S. assistance would go through accounts that provide economic and civilian institution-building aid, 18 percent would go through accounts that provide military and police aid, and 31 percent would go through accounts that might pay for both types of aid. So unlike the “Plan Colombia” period, aid to Colombia would be less than half military and police assistance. Economic aid, the Committee’s narrative report accompanying the bill specifies,
should include support for the presence of civilian government institutions in former conflict zones; the reintegration of ex-combatants; the development and basic needs of war-torn areas; civil society organizations that promote truth, justice, and reconciliation; advocacy for victims’ rights; protection of human rights defenders; verification of peace accord implementation; civic education for a culture of peace; and comprehensive rural development that advances the agrarian chapters of the peace accords.
As in past years, the bill includes human rights conditions: language holding up a portion of military aid until the State Department certifies that Colombia is doing more to hold accountable human rights violators, protect social leaders, and protect Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. In recent years, these conditions held up 20 percent of aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a program of mostly military aid that has usually provided about $38 million per year.
The 2022 House bill makes an important change to the conditions: applying them to police assistance as well. The amount held up pending certification would increase from 20 to 30 percent, and the conditions would apply not just to FMF but to International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), a much larger State Department-run program that is the largest source of aid to Colombia’s National Police. If this language appears in the final bill, it would be the first time in many years that human rights conditions would apply to police aid. The change is a result of mounting evidence of human rights abuses committed by police in the context of social protests in November 2019, September 2020, and since April 28, 2021.
Now that it is out of committee, the 2022 foreign aid bill will go to the full House of Representatives, which may approve it before the August congressional recess. The Senate, whose Appropriations Committee is evenly split between 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, will probably consider its version of the bill in September, though it’s possible it could begin work in late July. Once the House and Senate pass their versions, they must reconcile differences in the two bills, approve the final product, and send it to the President. The U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year starts on October 1, 2021.
Duque proposes an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” law
Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests have largely subsided, though concentrations persist in neighborhoods in Bogotá, Cali, and elsewhere. Ahead of the July 20 launch of a new congressional session, President Duque is telegraphing that his administration plans to introduce an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” bill in that legislature.
The law would increase prison sentences for vandalism, blocking roads, or attacking police, all of which are currently offenses under Colombian law. The law “already includes jail sentences of around eight years for obstructing public highways, violence against public servants and property,” Reuters reported.
Duque called for the new law at a June 30 promotion ceremony for the chief of Colombia’s embattled National Police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, who received his fourth star. Such a law is needed, he told the mostly police audience, “so that those who promote these practices do not try to get away with circumventing the rights of Colombians with impunity.” He called for a “clear and responsible” discussion of “what peaceful protest is and should be.” While he noted that most protest has been peaceful, there are many “vandals.”
Duque cited what happened to Camilo Vélez Martínez, a motorcyclist killed on June 25 when protesters stretched a cable across a street in southwest Bogotá. A protest leader in northwest Bogotá admitted to El Espectador’s Mónica Rivera that episodes like this point to a loss of discipline as public concentrations persist. “What we have seen is that they are infiltrating us and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to control the people. We control the compas, those who are with us, but we still have people who come to disturb the scene and then leave and go away.”
The political opposition saw in Duque’s statements an anti-democratic call to criminalize protest. “President Iván Duque announces an ’anti-riot law’ to legally shield the violent repression of young people,” said Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino. “Duque suffers from a serious mental and cognitive problem of connection with reality.”
The proposal comes at a time when opposition analysts like Laura Gil, director of La Línea del Medio, warn of increasing concentration of power in the executive branch. “The unthinkable is becoming a reality: the formal breaking of the rules of the game,” Gil writes. In that context, there is reluctance to give Duque’s governing Centro Democrático party greater power to decide who is a peaceful protester and who is a “vandal.”
Data about the Paro Nacional
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, the transitional justice tribunal set up by the 2016 peace accord) issued a report on July 1 warning that the Paro Nacional protests, and the government’s response, have affected the work of the post-conflict justice and truth system.
“The situation is worrying, since between April 28 and May 30, 2021, armed conflict events and affectations of civilians increased in 111 municipalities of interest for the Comprehensive System for Peace,” the JEP states. In those municipalities of interest, it has counted 13 conflict events and 89 “affectations,” way up from an average of 18 affectations during the same period in 2017-20. “This is evidenced by an increase in death threats, homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and massive events of forced displacement.” The JEP also notes a sharp increase, in the context of the protests, of “groups of armed civilians” carrying out violence against protesters.
It adds new and troubling statistics: “Colombia has been the country with the second highest rate of violent deaths per day of protest in the world (one death every 36 hours), and the 2021 national strike has the highest number of violent deaths of people who have participated in social protest scenarios in the last 44 years [in Colombia].”
As of June 28, the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz, which have closely monitored human rights abuses in the context of the protests, counted:
- 75 killings in the framework of the national strike, of which 44 were allegedly committed by the security forces. Through June 26, Temblores reported that “13 are in the process of clarifying whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the security forces,” and that “4 are attributable to armed civilians in which there are indications of possible involvement of members of the security forces.” A June 30 communiqué to the UN Human Rights Council from over 300 worldwide NGOs cites different numbers: “83 homicides have been reported, including at least 27 civilians killed by ordinary and riot police.”
- The communiqué from 300 NGOs cites a large number of missing or disappeared people: “327 people are still unaccounted for, with the authorities denying that about half of these disappearances ever took place.”
- 83 victims of “ocular violence”—damage to protesters’ eyes, usually by fired projectiles.
- 28 victims of sexual violence. As of June 26, Temblores also reported 9 victims of gender-based violence.
58 of the 75 killings occurred in the southwestern department of Valle del Cauca; that department’s capital is Cali, where 43 of the killings occurred.
An ongoing series at El Espectador is producing biographical profiles of some of those killed in the protests. “Most of them went out to demonstrate, and in response to their discontent they were met with bullets.”
As of July 2, Colombia’s National Police counted 3 of its members killed and 1,548 injured. It added that investigations of police personnel were underway for 16 cases of possible homicide, 40 cases of physical aggression, and 105 cases of abuse of authority. On 8,783 occasions in the context of protests, police had carried out “transfers for protection,” a controversial form of short-term custody of up to 12 hours, usually without charges, foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 police law. While being “transferred,” human rights groups claim that those in custody suffer abuse or are held in inappropriate locations.
- The House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a two-hour-plus July 1 hearing about Colombia’s recent protests. Commission Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) repeated his call for a suspension of U.S. police assistance to Colombia.
- The International Crisis Group published a thorough analysis of Colombia’s National Strike and what may come next. “In the short term,” it reads, “the government should embark on comprehensive police reform, support efforts at national and local dialogue, and invite international observers to negotiations as a trust-building measure.” The report disputes government claims that armed or criminal groups played important roles in the protests, but does indicate that such groups’ increasing activity—things “getting out of hand”—is a key reason why local protest leaders began to stand down in early June.
- The UN Verification Mission in Colombia published its latest quarterly report on implementation of the 2016 peace accord. Between late March and late June, “the Mission verified 16 homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported 49 killings of human rights leaders and defenders.” About half of 13,589 accredited former FARC combatants are now involved in individual or collective productive projects. The Bogotá-based think tanks CINEP and CERAC also produced their ninth report on verification of peace accord implementation as the “Technical Secretariat of the International Verification Component.”
- Úber Banquez Martínez, the former paramilitary leader who under the name “Juancho Dique” led a terror campaign in the Montes de María region 20 years ago, talked to El Espectador about his relationship with the region’s military leaders. Notably, Banquez is too scared to talk openly about the region’s political and economic leaders’ support for paramilitarism. “It is more dangerous to talk about the political system than about the Armed Forces, because they have a lot of power. They are alive, they are still alive and they are very dangerous.”
- Colombia’s National Police released composite sketches of two men believed responsible for shots fired on June 25 at a helicopter in which President Duque was traveling over Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. The sketches’ crude quality inspired ridicule on social media. Defense Minister Diego Molano hypothesized that the attack was the work of “a possible criminal alliance between the ELN’s urban front and the FARC’s dissidents of the 33rd front.”
- “The media most often show the anti-riot squads in their Darth Vader getups, the beatings and the shootings and the tear gas bursting into the air in great clouds. What appear less often are the ecstatic marches that are also celebrations of being alive after a year of Covid fear and loss,” writes veteran journalist Alma Guillermoprieto at the New York Review of Books.
- Colombia’s medical examiner’s office (coroner) counted 4,986 homicides in the first five months of 2021. This is 27 percent more than the first five months of 2020. Seven percent of the victims were women. “The gradual reopening after quarantines” may be a reason for the increase, security analyst Henry Cancelado told El Tiempo.
- Javier Tarazona and members of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes denounced on June 30 that former Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín has been collaborating with Colombia’s ELN guerrillas, and that the government maintains “safe houses” in Venezuela for ELN and ex-FARC dissident group members. FundaRedes often alleges Venezuelan government ties to Colombian armed groups and has been a key source of information about recent border-zone fighting between Venezuelan forces and ex-FARC dissidents. Two days after this denunciation, Venezuelan police arrested and imprisoned Tarazona and three colleagues.
- The armed forces reported seizing six tons of cocaine at a “complex of laboratories” in Samaniego, Nariño. The Defense Ministry claims that the site was run by the ELN, which has long been active in Samaniego.
- “Colombian President Iván Duque made the war against drugs one of the priorities of his administration,” reads a Defense Ministry document reproduced at the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website. It commits Colombia to eradicating another 130,000 hectares of coca in 2021 “but this time considering the option of resuming aerial spraying.”