Author: Adam Isacson

Colombia peace update: April 4, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Fighting continues between Venezuelan military and 10th Front dissident group

Nearly two weeks since Venezuelan security forces attacked a FARC dissident group in Apure, along the border with Colombia, unusually intense combat continues, displacing large numbers of civilians.

On March 21, Venezuelan armed forces carried out bombings and land raids on six sites used by the 10th Front, an ex-FARC group. The New York Times called it “several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades.” Venezuelan forces also carried out house-to-house raids in border towns like La Victoria and El Ripial, terrorizing the population.

The 10th Front, made up of a few former FARC guerrillas and many new recruits, is affiliated with the 1st Front headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” Colombia’s largest network of ex-FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilize. It is one of three Colombian armed groups active inside Venezuela in this part of the border zone. Venezuela’s military operations have not affected the other two: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and a second dissident group, the “Nueva Marquetalia,” which is led by Iván Márquez, who had headed the FARC’s negotiating team during 2012-16 peace talks.

The 10th Front has retaliated repeatedly. It has attacked a local office of Venezuela’s taxation agency, knocked out electrical power, attacked Army road checkpoints, and destroyed a Russian-made armored personnel carrier with either a rocket-propelled grenade or an improvised explosive device. “That civilian and military facilities are being damaged is something we had not seen to date,” Fr. Eduardo Soto, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela, told Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

Estimates of the combat’s toll are high. Venezuelan officials cite nine dead, including four soldiers, along with 32 arrests and nine guerrilla dissident camps destroyed. The 10th Front denies that any of its fighters have been captured or killed.

Venezuelan human rights group statements, and press interviews with refugees who have crossed the river into Colombia’s also-conflictive department of Arauca, reveal many testimonies of Venezuelan soldiers and members of the notorious Police Special Actions Forces (FAES) unit raiding homes, looting possessions, dragging people into the street and beating them, forcing people to hold weapons while photographing them, detaining people and holding them incommunicado, and massacring a family in El Ripial, presenting the dead as combatants. The guerrilla dissidents, meanwhile, are accused of widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines and explosives.

On March 31 Venezuelan forces detained two reporters with the NTN24 news network, along with two members of the FundaRedes human rights group. They were released after 24 hours, without their cameras, mobile phones, or other equipment. A statement from Venezuela’s Defense Ministry mentioned “media scoundrels that deploy their dirty manipulations to fuel violence” in the region. “The role that NGOs are playing in this operation is striking,” it added.

As of March 31, Colombia’s migration agency had counted 4,741 people displaced by the fighting, who had taken refuge in 19 shelters in Arauquita, Colombia. That represents more than 10 percent of Arauquita municipality’s estimated population of 44,000. About 40 percent are children. At least several hundred of the displaced have Colombian citizenship but had settled on the Venezuelan side of the border. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is in Arauquita helping with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks. An unknown number of people have also displaced to other parts of Venezuela.

It is not clear why Venezuela has chosen to confront the 10th Front to the exclusion of other Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory, or why it has done so now. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, claims that Nicolás Maduro’s regime “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business” and that it “orders that one narco-criminal group be combated selectively.” Most educated guesses do point to a corrupt relationship between Venezuelan security forces and organized crime.

Caracas may have decided to favor the “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group, or perhaps, the Washington Post posits, “the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.”

An unnamed expert cited in El Espectador had a lengthy hypothesis:

An expert consulted by this newspaper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that drug trafficking in the area involves “paying extortion, or a bribe, to public entities, particularly to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). According to the expert, since 2019, both the dissidents of the Segunda Marquetalia, as well as those of Gentil Duarte, began to default on payments. “That undoubtedly generated a series of tensions with the FANB that escalated.”

…The expert added that the 10th Front began to increase the volume of drug trafficking passing through the route. “Then more members of the FANB began to charge and raise the rates. That’s when ‘Ferley’ appeared, he is the finance chief of the 10th Front and he began to have disputes with people in the FANB,” this person added.

The same article cited Sebastiana Barráez, a Venezuelan journalist, contending that “the sympathies that have been expressed, even by Nicolás Maduro himself, have been towards Iván Márquez, not towards Gentil Duarte.” Still, the Segunda Marquetalia presence in the region is less notable. “They have a strange presence because it is not so clear to identify who their combatants are, at least in Arauca and Apure,” researcher Naryi Vargas told El Espectador.

At the moment it is impossible to predict whether the violence will die down or escalate. The dissidents are showing a much greater willingness to keep attacking the Venezuelan forces than they do in Colombia, where attacks on military targets are usually followed by lengthy retreats.

The dissidents are reportedly calling for negotiations that might lead to a truce with the Venezuelan regime. Over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan organizations sent a March 31 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres asking him to name a special envoy to mediate, since the Colombian government and the regime in Venezuela have almost no remaining contacts with each other.

The two governments continue to ramp up bellicose rhetoric. While Colombia’s defense minister alleges Caracas is colluding with the Nueva Marquetalia, Venezuela’s defense minister insists that the Colombian armed groups “cross the river, make their skirmishes and return to Colombia with the protection of their authorities.” A Venezuelan Defense Ministry communiqué even sought to bring the United States into the picture:

They [the armed groups] are sponsored by the Colombian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is why their incursions into the Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque, since he provides them with logistical and financial support, creating a criminal corridor on the border with the advice of the U.S. Southern Command.”

Though the probability of escalation into inter-state conflict remains low, it can’t be discarded. “This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” an unnamed human rights worker told the Guardian. The paper went on: “The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. ‘I would say it is making it worse.’”

Car bombing raises concern about Cauca’s deteriorating security situation

The department of Cauca, in southwest Colombia, remains one of the most conflictive parts of the country. On March 26, a car bomb detonated in the center of Corinto, in the northern part of the department not far from Cali. Last week also saw the murder of a judicial police investigator near Corinto, and the forced displacement of 2,000 people in Argelia, in the department’s south.

The car bomb went off next to the mayor’s office in Corinto, wounding 43 people including 11 municipal employees. President Iván Duque said that a FARC dissident group powerful in the area, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, was responsible. The Dagoberto Ramos, like the 10th Front in Arauca and Venezuela, is believed to be part of the dissident network headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the 1st Front. Led by a former mid-level FARC leader named Johany Noscué alias “Mayimbú,” the unit has carried out some bloody high-profile attacks, including the 2019 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality. The dissidents and the armed forces had been fighting in a nearby village in the days leading up to the bombing.

The Dagoberto Ramos unit is also believed responsible for the March 27 kidnapping and murder of Mario Fernando Herrera, an investigator with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Herrera was taken on March 26 at a roadblock that the dissidents had set up on the road between Corinto and the northern Cauca municipality of Santander de Quilichao. HIs body was found the next day.

Further south in Argelia, fighting remains intense between the ELN and another dissident group purportedly aligned with “Gentil Duarte,” the Carlos Patiño front. (To make things more complicated, this region also has a dissident group aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia, and the two have poor relations: Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses observed last year that Argelia may be the only zone where units of the two dissident networks are fighting each other.) ELN-dissident firefights have left residences riddled with bullets and shrapnel in the middle of the town of El Plateado, Argelia. Starting on March 27, 2,000 residents fled “at great speed.” Most headed for the county seat of Argelia, where many are gathered in the main church and the soccer arena.

Cauca has only about 1.35 million people, but has always been over-represented in measures of violence. It is strategically located for narcotrafficking, with coca fields, laboratories, and routes leading to Pacific transshipment points. Northern Cauca is also a center of Colombia’s illicit marijuana trade, with grow lights dotting the region’s hillsides at night. Illicit mining is common, especially near the Pacific. It is one of Colombia’s most ethnically diverse departments, but indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have historically been poor and excluded from political power, which has concentrated in the hands of a European-descended elite. Its topography is complex: Colombia’s three Andean mountain chains all converge there in what’s called the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif).

Cauca leads the country in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since 2016. So far in 2021, the department has suffered four massacres. The homicide rate in 2020 was 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than all but four or five U.S. cities. The ELN, three dissident units, a fragment of the EPL, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group all operate in Cauca, as do smaller regional organized crime groups.

Argelia social leader Walter Aldana described the situation to El Espectador:

What we have today in the department of Cauca is the presence of eight or ten illegal armed groups that exercise power and dominion in the territories. They fight among themselves for territorial control. But whoever is there at the time is the authority in the territory. For more than a year, since before the pandemic, we have had a curfew from 7 o’clock at night—depending on the armed group and how they want to handle things.

In response to all this, “the government has recurred to old formulas,” wrote Santiago Torrado at Spain’s El País, “such as holding a security council meeting, announcing the deployment of 2,000 uniformed personnel in addition to the 8,000 already in the department, and offering rewards for the ringleaders.”

“The improvisation, the lack of planning, the lack of systematic persecution of crime is very evident,” wrote Alfonso Luna Geller, of the group Proclama del Cauca, at El Espectador. “The military and police are always surprised. It seems that there is no military or police intelligence, no strategic or tactical operations, because they have been replaced by useless security councils. … The National Government only appears to make bombastic and opportunistic declarations on the smoking streets of our towns.”

“The only way to transform these conditions is with transformations driven by the State as a whole,” former human rights ombudsman Carlos Negret told Torrado. “With long-term policies and not with circumstantial projects; with sustainable and durable decisions, and not with fire extinguishers that sooner rather than later use up their loads. I believe that implementation of the peace agreement has many of these elements”.

Links

  • 25 U.S. and Colombian organizations sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to cease funding for aerial herbicide fumigation in territories where farmers grow coca, before Colombia’s government re-starts the suspended program.
  • From Vorágine and Connectas, a new accusation that the government’s coca eradication statistics are artificially inflated: eradicators “arrived at the coca fields to negotiate with the landowner. This was a ‘pact’ in which the eradicators only completed half of their task or did it badly on purpose: they did not uproot the bush from its roots, but only stripped it halfway down its stem.”
  • Mutante, Baudó AP, and La Liga Contra el Silencio published an investigation alleging that nine farmers were killed in the context of coca eradication operations in 2020. The total death toll for coca eradication in 2020, then, was 25, since the Defense Ministry reported 16 eradicators or security-force escorts killed last year.
  • The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy published a “Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One,” which places emphasis on access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and “a collective and comprehensive response” to supply reduction in Latin America. It does not specifically mention forced eradication of illicit crops.
  • The State Department’s annual human rights report draws attention to some of the more notable abuses that took place in 2020, while noting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo that the JEP’s estimate of 6,402 victims of military “false positive” killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 “is a figure that seeks to create a negative image of our Armed Forces and extort the real debate, the one we need so that this country can have forces with greater legitimacy.”
  • An InsightCrime investigation into armed groups’ recruitment of children finds “the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca [Antioquia] and the Amazon state of Vaupés.”
  • It has been a year since Salvatore Mancuso, once a top leader of Colombia’s national AUC paramilitary network, completed a criminal sentence for narcotrafficking in the United States. He remains in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, seeking to prevent his deportation to Colombia, either by staying in the United States under the Convention Against Torture, or being removed to Italy, as he is a dual citizen. By video, Mancuso has been sharing information with the JEP and the Truth Commission. He is revealing names of military officers and civilian third parties who aided and abetted the right-wing groups that, at the conflict’s peak in the late 90s and early 00s, committed the majority of killings and forced displacements.
  • Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, a longtime personal friend of President Iván Duque, drew criticism this week for indicting one of the opposition-party candidates with highest poll numbers ahead of March 2022 presidential elections, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. The Fiscalía is accusing Fajardo of a 2013 case of contracting irregularities: approving a loan to the Antioquia government that was denominated in dollars, without first performing a risk study.
  • Fiscal General Barbosa paid a visit to the United States this week, where he met with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Marshals representatives, among others. Barbosa’s delegation included Gabriel Jaimes, the prosecutor in the super-high-profile witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe. Jaimes has asked to drop the charges in Uribe’s case, and will present arguments before a judge on April 6. Investigative journalist Daniel Coronell points out that the majority of witnesses on Uribe’s behalf in this case have some relationship with the Oficina de Envigado, an organized crime structure descended from the old Medellín cartel.
  • Without Catholic Church-led organizing and a 1993 law recognizing Afro-descendant communities’ collective landholdings, the jungles of Chocó “could have been destroyed by the logging interests of the time,” says Quibdó Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto in an interesting interview with La Silla Vacía. “If it weren’t for that work, we would have this forest full of monocultures and agribusiness.”
  • The Colombian government appears determined to move ahead with a US$4.5 billion purchase of 24 F-16 fighter jets. This is controversial because the contract, equivalent to more than 1 percent of GDP, comes at a time when resources are lacking for other priorities, like peace accord implementation.

Tags: Weekly update

April 4, 2021

25 Organizations Call for an End to U.S. Support for Aerial Herbicide Fumigation in Colombia

(Leer en español)

Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.

March 26, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Biden,

We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated.  It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.

Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.

Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.

Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.

Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.

They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste. 

These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:

  • Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
  • Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
  • After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
  • Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
  • Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
  • Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
  • Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.

In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.

This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.

Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do. 

Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.

This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.

It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.

Sincerely,

  • Amazon Watch
  • Center for International Environmental Law
  • Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
  • Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
  • Colombia Human Rights Committee
  • Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
  • Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
  • Drug Policy Alliance
  • Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
  • Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
  • Healing Bridges
  • ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
  • Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
  • Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
  • Latin America Working Group
  • Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
  • Missionary Oblates
  • Oxfam America
  • Oxfam Colombia
  • Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
  • Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
  • United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
  • Washington Office on Latin America
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

Tags: Coca, Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy

March 29, 2021

Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents

On March 21, residents of Arauquita, across the Arauca river from Venezuela, “woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation” on the other side of the border, the northeast Colombian municipality’s mayor told the Associated Press. In La Victoria, in Venezuela’s state of Apure, armed forces were carrying out an intense ground and air offensive against Colombian guerrilla dissidents, firing from helicopters and dropping bombs from aircraft.

Combat began on the 20th, according to a statement from the Venezuelan armed forces. That day, two Venezuelan officers taking part in border-wide military maneuvers called “Bolivarian Shield”—a major and a first lieutenant—were killed, apparently by landmines, a rarity in Venezuela. The statement claimed that government forces captured 32 people and destroyed 6 encampments while seizing drugs and war materiel, and killing a FARC dissident leader known as “Nando.” An opposition legislator, Karim Vera, said that about 20 Venezuelan troops were wounded.

Details are sketchy, in part due to power outages in La Victoria, but fighting continues. FARC dissidents attacked a Venezuelan military post on the night of March 23.

La Victoria, Venezuela is north and west of the river; Araquita, Colombia is south and east. (From Google Maps)

Civilians are being hit hard. As of March 25, 3,961 residents of La Victoria had fled across the border into Arauquita. “People we have spoken with are terrified and fear for their lives,” Dominika Arseniuk, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Colombia, told the Associated Press.

Those who fled the Venezuelan side say that government forces—including the feared police Special Actions Force (FAES), rarely active outside cities—have been raiding homes, looting possessions, and beating people. FAES may have massacred a family in El Ripial, just east of La Victoria, and may have dressed the bodies in uniforms. Anderson Rodríguez, president of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca, told the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación that other families are presumed disappeared and some bombings were indiscriminate.

Three different Colombian armed groups, all of them nominally guerrillas or guerrilla-descended—are active on both sides of this part of the Colombia-Venezuela border. To varying degrees, they profit from extortion, taxing cross-border contraband, skimming from local treasuries, illicit mining of precious metals including the mineral coltan, and trafficking cocaine—though the ELN has prohibited most coca or cocaine production in Arauca, Colombia. Armed groups have also stepped up recruitment of Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the border, especially of minors.

The presence of armed groups in this lightly governed zone goes back to well before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election; as has happened in all countries bordering Colombia, Venezuelan forces tended to leave Colombian armed groups alone as long as they avoided violence (what Caracas Chronicles calls “a sort of laissez-passer secret policy”). The armed group presence has increased in recent years, though.

The three groups active now are:

  • The National Liberation Army (ELN), whose powerful Frente de Guerra Oriental (FGO) is the region’s largest and longest established. It has been operating in Arauca since the 1980s and expanded in Apure, Venezuela for more than 10 years “with the permission of the Chavista regime,” according to Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime. The FGO’s leader, alias “Pablito,” is a member of the ELN’s five-member Central Command and spends much of his time inside Venezuela. The ELN does not appear to be a party to the past week’s violence.
  • The Venezuelan forces’ target this week, the 10th Front, a structure led by members of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. There are two main networks of FARC dissident bands active in Colombia right now, and the 10th Front appears to be affiliated with the largest: the “1st Front” group led by Miguel Botache alias “Gentil Duarte,” a former mid-level FARC commander most active in south-central Colombia. (InsightCrime’s McDermott says he has doubts about this affiliation.) The 10th may have as many as 800 fighters active in Arauca and Apure. Alias “Nando,” the leader whom Venezuelan forces claim to have killed on March 22, may have been the brother of the 10th Front’s finance chief. The 10th Front and Venezuelan forces have confronted each other in the past, but never on anything near the scale of last week.
  • Members of the Segunda Marquetalia, the other main FARC dissident network. This band was founded by FARC leaders who demobilized in 2017 then rearmed in 2019, led by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the 2012-16 peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The group, named for the site where the FARC began following a 1964 military attack, is smaller than Gentil Duarte’s organization, but may enjoy closer political relations with the government in Caracas. (Iván Márquez appeared with Hugo Chávez on the presidential palace steps in 2007, during a brief moment when Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, authorized Chávez to help broker a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.) McDermott says Márquez “has had ties to the highest levels in Venezuela, including the presidency, and many of those ties are still in place.”

These three groups together may have 2,000 or more members inside Venezuelan territory—only some of them in Apure—but have avoided fighting each other. “They are not together but they are not fighting either, it is like a toxic relationship,” Kyle Johnson of Conflict Responses told a forum last week, “but we must remember that the ELN is very present in that area. The ELN believes it owns Apure and makes people think that those who operate there do so because they allow it. I am not entirely convinced of conflicts between these groups as such.” Conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told La Silla Vacía, “In Apure there is a relationship of coordination, and in some cases collaboration, between the Segunda Marquetalia and the 10th Front. There is no rivalry.” The two dissidences “appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship on the border,” tweeted analyst Bram Ebus, who has written a few much-cited studies of this region.

The Colombian government frequently accuses Venezuela of allowing ELN and FARC dissident fighters to operate safely on its soil. “The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the [peace] agreements by sheltering criminals such as [Nueva Marquetalia leaders] Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, alias El Paisa, and alias Romaña,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, told Reuters on March 23.

Several sources cited by Caracas Chronicles hypothesize that Nicolás Maduro’s regime, in seeking to mediate, regulate, or “triangulate” among the Colombian groups active in the region, has decided that the 10th Front is out of line and must be reined in. “One unconfirmed interpretation of the flare up,” Ebus tweeted, “is a business dispute that escalated quickly when it hit political sensitivities. F10 [10th Front] has irritated Venezuelan military authorities before for failing to pay a cut. Their visible presence in Apure may have been a bridge too far.”

A frequent hypothesis advanced in media coverage contends that Venezuela’s government is favoring the Segunda Marquetalia. “The Venezuelan National Guard has generals in its service who protect the Second Marquetalia,” said former Colombian chief organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla. “There is a sector of the National Armed Forces kneeling at the orders of Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez,” said Venezuelan opposition legislator Gaby Arellano. “Some weeks ago we reported in our PRR [Political Risk Report] that, according to our sources, Iván Márquez was being moved to a more secure location, far from the border, to protect him from eventual operations by Colombian forces,” noted Caracas Chronicles. “The Venezuelan military operations have not touched the operations of the Segunda Marquetalia, which are especially robust in the state of Apure,” McDermott told La Silla Vacía, adding, “The offensive responds to growing reports in Venezuela that the 10th Front had dominance in the area. And it could open a space for Márquez’s dissidents to expand later.”

Cited in Venezuela’s Tal Cual, McDermott also found it notable that Venezuela deployed the brutal police FAES unit to Apure. “Apparently Maduro does not trust the military in the Apure area, the military does not have the capacity to confront the Colombian dissidents, or the military on the border is very corrupt and its capacity has been eroded.”

A statement from a 10th Front leader known as “Arturo” insists that “we weren’t the ones who initiated this confrontation,” vows to keep fighting Venezuelan forces, but also offers to withdraw units if the Venezuelan government sends a “top-level commission to clarify truths.”

Serious incidents like this raise concerns about an outcome that, one hopes, all would wish to avoid: a hot inter-state conflict between Colombia’s and Venezuela’s government forces. The Colombian government announced that it is reinforcing military presence along the Arauca border by about 2,000 troops, and Colombian media report that, though there is no official information, “there is speculation that the Maduro government is enlisting 2,000 men of the Armed Forces to be sent to the border with Arauca.” In Caracas Chronicles’ estimation, “We have no reasons to fear for a war between Colombia and Venezuela, but we can’t forget that Venezuela is protecting public enemies of Colombia (the FARC dissidents), and that this is always a source of risks.”

Ebus sounded concerned, too, on Twitter: “Herein lies the danger: now that the confrontation has escalated, there’s no turning back. The dispute between Chavistas and the guerrillas is out in the open and it will be hard for either side to back down. In a moment like this, the grave risks of the lack of communication between Caracas and Bogotá are painfully evident. Political leaders have limited recourse to calm tensions, leaving the cauldron of border tensions to play out for itself.”

Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility

The lead story in last week’s update covered the case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court of Jineth Bedoya, a journalist abducted, raped, and tortured by paramilitares while doing her job in 2000. Bedoya, whose long quest for justice is the first Colombian case of sexual violence ever heard by the Inter-American Court, saw her virtual hearing interrupted and postponed on March 15, when government lawyers accused the Court’s judges of bias and abruptly exited the proceedings.

The hearing resumed on March 22 and 23, after the Court rejected the government’s objections. A few hours in, the government’s lead attorney, Camilo Gómez, read a statement partially recognizing the Colombian state’s responsibility:

On behalf of the Colombian State, I recognize international responsibility for the failures of the judicial system, which did not carry out a criminal investigation worthy of the victim, by collecting twelve statements, and ask Jineth Bedoya for forgiveness for these facts and for the damage they caused her. The State recognizes that these actions violated her rights to personal integrity and judicial guarantees, in relation to the obligation to guarantee the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

This apology covers the Colombian judicial and prosecutorial system’s failures since the 2000 crime, in a case that has only seen the convictions of three low-level paramilitaries, and then not until 2016 and 2019. “Of the nearly 20 people involved in the process, only three have been prosecuted,” Bedoya told the Court. “Three convictions against material perpetrators, partial justice. Masterminds, none.”

The apology does not cover the Colombian executive branch’s failure to protect Bedoya even after she reported earlier threats and attacks, and in the face of evidence that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction. Gómez, the government’s lawyer, said that his team will respond to those charges in writing.

The government told the Court’s judges that in 1999, after Bedoya and her mother were attacked, the Presidency’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) studied her risk and offered her a bodyguard. Bedoya, they said, “did not make the necessary arrangements to obtain the accompaniment.”

Bedoya explained she could not do her job as an investigative journalist under such conditions, noting that agents of the DAS—which has since been disbanded after a series of scandals—were working with paramilitaries at the time. “Over time, it was demonstrated that this entity carried out illegal espionage, stigmatization, intimidation, leaking of sensitive information to paramilitary groups, and acts of intimidation,” Jonathan Bock of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation said at a subsequent press conference. “Therefore, the lack of protection for the journalist generates state responsibility for failure to comply with the duty of prevention.”

The Colombian government attorneys’ theory that it is not responsible for Bedoya’s lack of protection and prevention “is especially chilling,” said her lawyer, Viviana Krsticevic of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “because it advances a theory according to which Jineth is to blame for what happened to her. The State uses part of the factual information in a rigged way and omits saying important things.”

Jineth Bedoya called the government’s partial recognition of responsibility “one more slap in the face. To only recognize that on 12 occasions they made me testify about my rape, that there was no investigation into the threats, and that they do not admit the reparations that I have sought—it is like the cases that I denounce every day, where a husband beats a wife and the next day says ‘forgive me, I love you but I was in a bad mood’. That is what the State has done with me before the Court.”

The journalist, who is now the deputy editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, said that she continues to receive frequent death threats. She requested protection for her mother, who also receives constant threats and has no bodyguard. If it treats a person like her, a well-known journalist who has access to the media, in such an undignified manner, she concluded, “imagine how the state treats an anonymous victim, who does not have that possibility.”

Links

  • A car bomb detonated outside the mayor’s office in Corinto, in conflictive northern Cauca department, on March 26. Seventeen people were wounded, including eleven municipal employees.
  • Polarizing politics, approaching elections, a slow vaccine rollout, a regressive tax reform, street protests, worsening insecurity, Álvaro Uribe’s judicial case, and the Truth Commission’s upcoming report combine to make Colombia a “powderkeg,” writes Javier Lafuente at Spain’s El País.
  • A New York Times cover story dives deeply into the March 2 bombing of a FARC dissident site in Calamar, Guaviare that killed two minors whom the group had recruited. A new detail: one of the victims, 16-year-old Danna Liseth Montilla, had worked last year with Voces del Guayabero, a local media collective that published much-circulated reports and videos documenting violent government tactics during mid-2020 coca eradication operations. Last week soldiers found another 16-year-old girl who had fled the bombing and spent the next three weeks alone, lost in the jungle. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued new charges of child recruitment, and arrest warrants, against FARC dissident leader “Gentil Duarte”—whose group had recruited the children killed on March 2—and key subordinates.
  • 75 people who led coca substitution programs in the framework of the peace accords have been killed, according to a report from Somos Defensores, Minga, and Viso Mutop.
  • “In Colombia we continue to speak of the existence of at least five non-international armed conflicts, whose actors continue to affect the dignity and lives of the civilian population,” reads the annual Colombia report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, released last week.
  • An analysis in La Silla Vacía finds that the commission that the peace accord set up to manage protection of FARC ex-combatants is moribund, with the government ignoring suggestions and treating it as a forum to present already-crafted policies. Meanwhile, the number of FARC ex-combatants who have been killed since the accords went into effect stands at 261. Protection was among the principal concerns voiced in a letter that the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño, sent to the U.S. Congress on March 23.
  • So far this year, as of March 7, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) reported that 3,119 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. “1,311 families have fled their lands to safeguard their lives and physical integrity.”
  • The case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed by a policeman’s “nonlethal” weapon in downtown Bogotá in November 2019, remains before the military justice system. An amicus brief that Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court argues that the military system “fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case.”
  • A new U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Colombia, as well as to Honduras and Panama, later this year. This unit’s first deployment in mid-2020, which involved dozens of trainers providing instruction to Colombian military personnel in a few conflictive parts of the country, generated controversy in media and among opposition legislators.
  • Retired Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was imprisoned for working with paramilitary groups that carried out massacres in northwestern Colombia during the 1990s, appeared before the JEP and, to the disappointment of victims, denied any links with paramilitary groups. Del Río is free from prison for the moment pending his case before the JEP.
  • The Washington Post published a poignant profile of Gonzalo Cardona, an environmental defender who dedicated his life to saving the endangered yellow-eared parrot in often-conflictive southern Tolima department. Cardona, 55, was shot to death in January.

Tags: Weekly update

March 28, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: March 20, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Jineth Bedoya’s Inter-American Court case delayed as government “walks out” of hearing

One of Colombia’s most emblematic human rights cases suffered a momentary but confounding setback, as government representatives abruptly withdrew from a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This Court is an OAS-affiliated body, based in Costa Rica, that hears cases when signatory nations’ judiciaries have proved unable to win redress for victims. It was holding a virtual hearing on March 15 for oral arguments in the case of Jineth Bedoya, a prominent journalist who was abducted, raped, and tortured, with security forces’ involvement, in 2000.

That year Bedoya, then a reporter at El Espectador, was investigating networks of arms trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activity linking paramilitaries, guerrillas, organized crime, and members of the security forces. These networks centered on Bogotá’s La Modelo prison, which both then and now has been a violent place. (A year ago, on March 21, 2020, guards killed 24 prisoners there, apparently shooting to kill, while putting down a riot.) “La Modelo was the ‘office’ from which all crime in the country was connected,” reads an account from Bedoya reproduced this week by journalist Cecilia Orozco.

In May 2000, Bedoya was receiving threats from paramilitaries as she investigated a massacre of 32 prisoners at La Modelo. On the morning of May 25, 2000, she showed up at the prison gate—which is not far from the Chief Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) and the U.S. embassy—for an arranged meeting with paramilitaries who had been threatening her. “It was a trap,” Bedoya recalls. She was abducted from the front door of the prison and driven out of the city, tortured, and repeatedly raped. “Then I don’t know what happened. I was left abandoned on a road, almost dead.”

Even as a respected reporter from mainstream media outlets (she later moved to El Tiempo), and even as a 2012 State Department “International Woman of Courage,” Jineth Bedoya has been unable to win justice for what happened to her. Only three of her attackers—low-level actors—have been sentenced. The Fiscalía mysteriously lost key evidence. “For 11 years the prosecutor who was in charge of the case would call me to suggest that I investigate, and give the results to him.” The Fiscalía forced her to narrate, and relive, what was done to her on 12 different occasions. One of her sources was killed an hour after meeting with her. She learned that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction.

She went to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which issued recommendations to Colombia for her case. These went unmet. The next step was to go to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which took her case in May 2019. It reached its oral arguments phase, with hearings set to begin on March 15, 2021. The Guardian hailed what appeared to be a big step toward justice:

“To bring my case before an international court not only vindicates what happened to me, as a woman and a journalist,” Bedoya said in a video shared on Twitter. “It opens a window of hope for thousands of women and girls who, like me, had to face sexual violence in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict.”

That’s not quite what happened. The hearing, held virtually due to COVID-19, began with justices asking Bedoya questions. After a while, the government’s representative asked to speak.

That representative was Camilo Gómez, head of the National Agency for the Legal Defense of the State (ANDJE) in President Iván Duque’s government. From 2000 to 2002 Gómez was the high commissioner for peace—the government’s chief negotiator—for then-president Andrés Pastrana’s failed effort to negotiate peace with the FARC.

Instead of addressing what happened to Bedoya, Gómez charged that the Court’s six judges were “pre-judging” Colombia during the day’s questioning, and called for all but one of them to be recused. The government’s legal team then abruptly exited the virtual hearing. The judges heard from one more witness, then suspended the Court’s proceedings while they determined what to do next.

Condemnation of the government’s response came quick. “The Colombian government’s decision to effectively stomp out of the Inter-American Court hearing shows the authorities’ shocking disregard for the violence inflicted on Jineth Bedoya, and is a slap in the face to every Colombian journalist—especially women journalists—fighting impunity,” said Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I have been litigating before the Inter-American Court for 25 years, said Bedoya’s lawyer Viviana Krsticevic, the director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “and this is unusual, unheard of, we are surprised that the State of Colombia is doing what even really authoritarian governments like Fujimori’s government in Peru, Ortega’s in Nicaragua, Maduro’s in Venezuela, did not do.”

On March 17 Camilo Gómez sent Bedoya a letter, which he made public on Twitter, suggesting an out-of-court settlement. Such offers have happened before, said Jonathan Bock of the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), but they have merely been offers of monetary payments without the government recognizing its responsibility for what happened to Bedoya. Bedoya’s legal team refused, adding that making the letter public was “an act of harassment and malicious litigation.”

On March 18 the Court’s judges, led by the one justice whom Gómez had not called to be recused, rejected the Colombian government’s request for new judges. Jineth Bedoya’s hearing is set to restart on March 22 as though nothing had happened.

Numerous activists and analysts voiced puzzlement at the Colombian government’s behavior, showing insensitivity to a high-profile victim while inviting a legal defeat. Santiago Medina-Villarreal, a former lawyer at the Inter-American Court, fears that the government is playing a long game, sending a message ahead of future cases scheduled to go before the Court. “With this attitude, the State intends to undermine with doubts the judges’ appearance of impartiality.” An effort to de-legitimize the Court, Krsticevic told El Tiempo, “would be very serious for Colombia and the region.”

“They killed me on the morning of May 25 [2000],” Jineth Bedoya writes. “I believed that words are the best way to transform pain. But my life is over: having to see the marks of sexual violence and torture on my body every day is something that does not allow me to close this cycle definitively.”

U.S. officials point to outlines of Biden approach to coca and peace

While eradicating record amounts of coca manually, Colombia continues to move toward restarting a U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where the plant is grown. Citing health concerns, the government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this program in 2015. As past weekly updates have noted, the new Biden administration is not opposing continued U.S. support for “fumigation.” In fact, February and March State Department documents hailed the Duque government’s efforts to relaunch the program.

On March 14, El Tiempo’s longtime Washington correspondent, Sergio Gómez, shed a bit more light on the Biden administration’s thinking, excerpting views on eradication and peace accord implementation from interviews with several officials. In general, these officials and legislative staff told Gómez that they don’t see fumigation or forced eradication as keys to long-term reductions in coca-growing. Instead, they voiced a preference for implementation of the 2016 peace accord and increasing government presence in long-abandoned rural territories.

Here are a few highlights indicating how official thinking may be evolving:

  • ”A senior U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá authorized to speak on this issue: “Essentially, our idea is that the territorial transformation that would come from the full implementation of the accords is the best long-term security strategy and the most promising and sustainable solution to the problem of illicit crops.”
  • Another U.S. Embassy official: “The clearest lesson from the period from 2012 to 2017, when cultivation went from its lowest point to its highest in just 5 years, is that Colombia was successful in reducing crops, but not in sustaining those gains. … The best way to sustain them is to increase the presence of the state and offer economic opportunities in rural areas. You can’t just eradicate and attack criminal groups.”
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who voiced disappointment with a February State Department document praising fumigation: “We want to help Colombia reduce coca production and cocaine trafficking, but as we have seen over the years sustainable progress is not measured in the number of hectares eradicated. Government presence—in the territories most affected by this problem—is not achieved simply by sending in armed forces. Nor do we see evidence that illegal armed groups are being dismantled, especially when so many social leaders are being threatened and killed.”
  • A senior legislative aide, who said that the State Department’s recent written praise for forced eradication “seemed ‘outdated’ or the work of some Trump administration holdover”: “We want to see progress in coca reduction, but we don’t see anything that gives us confidence that the Duque government has a sustainable strategy to achieve it.”
  • Another congressional staffer: “When Plan Colombia kicked off in 2000, the goal was to reduce coca cultivation by half in 5 years. And here we are, 20 years later and there is still the same or more drugs than two decades ago with a ‘new plan’—agreed between Duque and Trump—that again seeks to reduce crops by half in another 5 years.”

Sen. Leahy’s office told El TIempo “that the Senator ‘would oppose the use of U.S. funds to finance aerial spraying’ when it resumes,” which could mean a fight if the Biden administration decides to keep supporting the controversial herbicide spray program.

The ELN and Ecuador’s elections

The candidate who led February 7 first-round voting for Ecuador’s presidential election is vehemently denying allegations that his campaign received support from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Andrés Arauz, the candidate favored by left-populist ex-president Rafael Correa, is threatening legal action.

On October 25, a Colombian Army raid in Chocó killed Andrés Felipe Vanegas, alias “Uriel,” a mid-ranking ELN leader who had a high profile because he gave frequent interviews. At the site of the raid, soldiers reportedly recovered computers and other data devices with over 3 terabytes of information.

On January 30, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana received some of that information from official sources. An e-mail from Uriel to two other ELN members, presumed to be contacts in Ecuador, appeared to refer to a US$80,000 “investment” in “supporting hope.” Andrés Arauz’s political coalition is called the “Union for Hope.”

On February 12, a few days after Arauz led first-round voting with 32.7 percent, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (FIscal), Francisco Barbosa, paid a quick visit to Quito to hand over to his Ecuadorian counterpart all evidence from “Uriel” pointing to links between the ELN and Arauz.

Last week Arauz enlisted the aid of a Colombian jurist, former Fiscal Eduardo Montealegre, an opponent of Colombia’s current ruling party whose term coincided completely with the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. As El Colombiano explains, the Ecuadorian candidate granted Montealegre power of attorney “to investigate and file a complaint for falsehood and procedural fraud against Colombia due to allegations linking him to the ELN.”

Arauz called the allegations a “crude setup.” He argued that “Uriel” operated far from Colombia’s border with Ecuador, and questioned the Colombian armed forces’ honesty, arguing that they have engaged in a cover-up of thousands of extrajudicial executions—the so-called “false positives” human rights scandal. He added that he sees Colombia’s conservative government engaging in “a state policy to delegitimize and undermine governments with progressive tendencies.” The ELN, for its part, also rejects the allegations, calling them “fake news.”

We are unlikely to learn what really happened before April 11, when Ecuadorians vote in the presidential runoff election. Polling is sparse, but the race appears close between Arauz and center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso.

Links

  • WOLA hosted a discussion on March 18 about the Colombian military’s “false positives” killings, which the transitional justice system (JEP) revealed in February to have likely been more extensive than most knew. On March 17, the Mothers of False Positives (MAFAPO) presented a report to the Truth Commission.
  • In May 2019, the New York Times had triggered an outcry by reporting that Colombia’s Army leadership was returning to “body counts” as a measure of success, setting numerical goals for units to meet. The Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) just completed an investigation begun that month, exonerating the Army’s commander at the time, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, of “pressuring or requiring” generals “to meet minimum targets for casualties, captures or demobilizations.”
  • El Tiempo reported that coroners have identified the bodies of eight of the ten people killed in a March 2 bombing raid on a FARC dissident site in Guaviare. One of the eight was a 16-year-old girl. (El Nuevo Siglo reported that coroners determined a second girl, age 15, was also killed in the attack, but the El Tiempo story makes no mention of this.) As noted in last week’s update, charges that child combatants were among the dead led Defense Minister Diego Molano to make some very crude remarks about child combatants.
  • Colombia’s Congress briefly faced a legislative proposal to extend President Duque’s term by two years, along with those of members of Congress, mayors, governors, high court judges, the chief prosecutor, and other top officials. The initiative quickly collapsed after news of it emerged, and 15 legislators withdrew their signatures.
  • “In the coming months, negotiations will be concluded for the acquisition of 24 new, state-of-the-art fighter planes,” Semana reports. The purchase could total US$4 billion.
  • The next step for the witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe will take place on April 6, when a judge will consider the Fiscalía’s request to drop the charges. (See the overview of the case in our March 6 update.)
  • The JEP’s “top-down” investigation of the FARC’s mass kidnappings, which featured the indictment of eight top leaders in February, is moving down the chain of command, with three mid-level leaders providing grim testimony of the inhuman treatment to which they subjected their kidnap victims.

Tags: Weekly update

March 22, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: March 13, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

At least one child killed in March 2 bombing raid on FARC dissidents

An entry in the “Links” section of last week’s update noted that Colombia’s armed forces had reported “neutralizing” 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare, on March 2. (Guaviare, in south-central Colombia, is an agricultural frontier department with a history of armed group presence.) “Duarte,” once a mid-level FARC leader, had exited the peace process before the peace accord’s 2016 signing, and now leads the largest network of armed “dissidents.” Since at least January 2019, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has warned that Duarte’s group recruits many underage combatants.

On March 9 some left-leaning media, citing families and local human rights associations, began alleging that as many as 12 of those killed in the March 2 attack could have been children. As of March 12, one child was confirmed to have been killed at the dissidents’ site. A trusted source tells WOLA that two other children arrived wounded at the hospital in nearby San José del Guaviare municipality.

Danna Lizeth Montilla was 16 years old. Her father told El Tiempo that he had not seen his daughter since December 2020, when she left home in Puerto Cachicamo, a village in San José del Guaviare, to live with relatives at a site where a better internet signal might allow her to attend school during the pandemic. They lost contact with Danna in January. Her father feared that she had been recruited by an armed group. “It’s something that has become common,” he told El Tiempo. “But I never thought it would happen to my daughter.”

This is not the first time that child combatants have died in a bombing raid on dissidents. An August 2019 operation in the nearby municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, killed eight minors at an encampment—but the Defense Ministry failed to report that detail. When opposition senators revealed the deaths in November 2019, accusing a cover-up, the defense minister at the time, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign.

The current defense minister is not covering up the March 2 bombing outcome. Diego Molano acknowledged that children may have died, including Danna Lizeth Montilla, though the actual number is unknown since forensic investigations continue. He placed blame for what happened on the dissident groups recruiting children, and insisted that the armed forces, lacking intelligence indicating that children were present, carried out the March 2 operation in accordance with international humanitarian law.

While further investigation is needed to confirm that, legal experts interviewed in Colombian media agree that it’s possible the armed forces’ March 2 operation did not violate international humanitarian law. While IHL prohibits recruitment of children under 18, armed child recruits 15 or over may be considered combatants, or legitimate military targets, under some circumstances.

Minister Molano didn’t stop there, though. In interviews on March 9 and 10 he caused an uproar in Colombia, using language attacking the children themselves. Some examples:

  • “Even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.”
  • “We’re not talking about young people who didn’t know what they were doing.”
  • “It’s not like they were studying for their college entrance exams.”
  • “This operation targeted a narco-terrorist structure that uses young people to turn them into war machines.”

Criticisms of Molano’s statements poured out. “There’s no such thing as minors acting out of free will in an armed conflict,” said Javeriana University law professor Yadira Alarcón. “The war machine is the one that kills kids, minister,” opposition Senator Iván Cepeda wrote on Twitter. “This is a message of war against children, a message of war against the vulnerable populations that today are being victimized,” said prominent human rights defender Francia Márquez, one of 23 signers of a letter condemning Molano’s statements. “For the Minister of Defense, children aged 13, 14, and 16 have been turned into ‘war machines.’ It is very sad that kids are called that,” said Danna Lizeth Montilla’s father.

Indigenous community retains soldiers in Chocó

The commander of the Colombian Army’s 7th Division denounced on March 8 that members of an indigenous community disarmed, bound the hands of, and retained nine soldiers in Carmen de Atrato municipality, in Chocó department. (In Colombia’s northwest corner, Chocó is the country’s poorest department, and one of its most violent.) Government officials are vowing to pursue kidnapping charges against members of the local Indigenous Guard, a disciplined public order force—armed only with ceremonial staffs—that is common in many indigenous territories.

Details about the incident are confusing. Soldiers claim they were investigating shots fired near a main road. Indigenous Guard members in the El Consuelo Parte Baja community claim that the soldiers lacked recognizable insignia. Neither side alleges that force was used. On the next day (March 9), the community turned the nine soldiers over to a committee from the Defensoría.

The Army vowed to file criminal kidnapping charges against the Chocó indigenous leaders. President Iván Duque’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, voiced rage, telling El Tiempo: “Things must be called by their names. They were not detained, they were kidnapped! And those who did it should be condemned for that crime. They should be sentenced for that crime to prison terms between 40 and 45 years, the maximum that the penal code establishes for that case.”

Guarín, a longtime conservative security intellectual and columnist, sees a larger nationwide plot. “It is an unarmed violent mobilization—at least not with firearms, in most cases—that seeks to prevent the capture of criminals, the eradication of illicit crops, the destruction of drug processing laboratories, operations against the illicit extraction of minerals, and even the fight against organized armed groups’ structures.”

Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) rejected Guarín’s words, including allegations that the Chocó community engaged in kidnapping. ONIC’s peace and human rights counselor, Gustavo Vélez, told El Tiempo, “These people [soldiers] were not assaulted, they were not outraged, they were only held… They were taken to a place where they did not even go without water, and they were handed over to… the Defensoría.”

“As a national organization we categorically reject this type of assessment by Dr. Guarín,” Vélez continued, “because this type of assessment stigmatizes the Indigenous Guard, stigmatizes men and women who today are displaced and confined. At no time has the Indigenous Guard been used by armed actors for illegal purposes.”

Letter from UN rapporteurs on fumigation

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made public a December 17 letter from seven of its rapporteurs, urging the Colombian government not to restart a program that would eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

Between 1994 and 2015, with heavy U.S. support, contract pilots and Colombian police sprayed glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares of the country’s territory, achieving modest and quickly reversible reductions in coca cultivation. The program was suspended in 2015 after a World Health Organization study found glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While the Duque government is vowing to re-start fumigation, Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set several health, safety, consultation, and other requirements that the government must meet before doing so.

The December letter is signed by the UN rapporteurs for Toxic Substances, Afro-Descendant Communities, Environment, Food, Physical and Mental Health, Human Rights Defenders, and Indigenous Communities. It contends that resuming glyphosate fumigation would “carry enormous risks for human rights and the environment, while it will not comply with the conditions established by the Constitutional Court or international obligations.” It warns that renewed fumigation might violate the terms of the 2016 peace accord. It advises renouncing fumigation, and asks the government for information about compliance with the Constitutional Court’s requirements and other risk mitigation measures.

“The letter was sent after we in civil society requested that the rapporteurs activate this mechanism, and thus help restrain the Government’s insistent announcements about the possible resumption of the PECIG [glyphosate spray program],” notes a statement from the Colombian legal NGO DeJusticia and several other groups, including WOLA.

The Colombian government’s February 17 response to the UN rapporteurs also became public last week—and it was a flat refusal. Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations Adriana Mejía told the rapporteurs that their “urgent call…does not comply with the requirements set forth in the code of conduct governing the performance of your mandate.” In other words, that the rapporteurs were outside their proper lane, and thus would not get a response to their letter’s claims.

The UN letter was not the only public declaration last week in opposition to renewing fumigation. More than 150 academics from Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere signed a letter urging President Joe Biden “to reconsider your support for aerial spraying.” WOLA’s Adam Isacson published a column in El Espectador voicing hope that, once it becomes more consolidated with the addition of key officials, the Biden administration may be convinced to abandon the spray program.

For now, the fumigation program remains suspended. Defense Minister Molano, though, reiterated on March 2 that, with the Court’s conditions met, the program would restart in April. A judge in Nariño department, in southwest Colombia, continues to hold up a component of the restart with a finding that Afro-Descendant and indigenous communities must be consulted first. A government filing alleges that the judge’s “omissive” action runs counter to “maintaining national security.”

Links

  • President Duque held a rare meeting on March 10 with Comunes (ex-FARC) party leader Rodrigo Londoño to discuss protection of demobilized ex-combatants. On March 18, Londoño is to appear before the Truth Commission jointly with former top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is currently in an ICE facility in Georgia contesting his deportation, after serving a U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking. Meanwhile, in an eight-page document Londoño frankly discussed the Comunes party’s difficulty joining coalitions for the 2022 presidential and legislative elections, as well as divisions within the party.
  • U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a March 10 phone conversation with Defense Minister Molano and Presidential Chief of Staff Maria Paula Correa. According to the White House readout, topics covered included climate change, “a peaceful and negotiated outcome to” Venezuela’s crisis, peace accord implementation, and “the importance of upholding human rights.”
  • Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, sparked controversy with another in a series of public comments blaming Venezuelan migrants for some crime in the city. As the first woman and first LGBTI mayor of Bogotá, her words drew expressions of consternation from several of her center-left political allies.
  • A regular Universidad de los Andes poll of Colombian public opinion found that support for the FARC peace accord surpassed 50 percent for the first time—51 percent, up from 41 percent during a 2016 version of the poll.
  • The investigative website La Liga del Silencio reported that the Truth Commission had sent the Defense Ministry a letter last October noting that the armed forces had not responded satisfactorily to 38 different information requests submitted over the previous year. The Liga report reveals that a 2015 fire at a military facility destroyed 17 years of Army records in a major conflict region, the Magdalena Medio.
  • The Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), which since 2019 has been directed by a conservative disliked by much of the country’s human rights community, is again embroiled in controversy. It faces allegations that its leadership “drastically” censored the content of a museum exhibit that Center staff had developed with several indigenous groups’ participation and consent. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), citing indications of prior censorship from fifty witnesses, asked the CNMH to turn over e-mail communications between Director Darío Acevedo and the leadership of the historical memory museum effort.
  • Writing for Mongabay, Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses finds that Colombia’s military-led environmental protection campaign has done little to confront those most responsible for profiting from and financing Amazon basin deforestation, nor does it resolve land tenure issues that underlie the problem.

Tags: Weekly update

March 15, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: March 6, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Prosecutor asks to acquit Álvaro Uribe

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) recommended on March 5 that former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) not be prosecuted for allegations of witness tampering. The case had Uribe, the founder of President Iván Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, under house arrest between August and October. It now goes to a judge, whose decision about whether to drop charges is certain to be appealed.

Here is a quick overview of what has happened:

  • In 2012 ex-president Uribe accused a political opponent, then-representative Iván Cepeda, of visiting imprisoned former paramilitary leaders and bribing them to give false evidence tying Uribe to paramilitary groups. Cepeda, whose senator father was killed in 1994 by paramilitaries working with an official who would take a leading position in Uribe’s presidential intelligence service, was investigating Uribe’s possible links to the rightwing armed groups.
  • Because the accusation was against a sitting member of Congress (Rep. Cepeda later became a senator, along with Uribe, in 2014), Colombia’s Supreme Court took up the case investigation.
  • In 2018, the Supreme Court determined that Iván Cepeda had neither paid nor pressured the former paramilitaries with whom he had met, exonerating him. Instead, in a bombshell finding, the Court turned the tables and announced it would be investigating Álvaro Uribe and his attorney for “procedural fraud and bribery”: essentially, offering bribes to a cast of characters of minor ex-paramilitaries in exchange for false testimony. The charges could carry a prison term of up to 12 years.
  • On August 12, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered Senator Álvaro Uribe placed under house arrest at his ranch in Córdoba. It issued a 1,500-page document laying out evidence against Uribe and his attorney, Diego Cadena, including videos, audios, intercepts, and WhatsApp transcripts. A February 28 column by investigative journalist Daniel Coronell recalls some of the incriminating conversations.
  • On August 18, Uribe resigned his Senate seat, which placed him outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. On September 3, the Supreme Court handed the case over to the Fiscalía, which since January 2020 has been headed by Francisco Barbosa, a friend of Iván Duque’s since college. The Fiscalía had six months to decide whether to proceed with the case, a term that expired last week. The prosecutor put in charge of the case, Gabriel Jaimes, had worked in the past as “right-hand man” for one of the most conservative figures in Colombian politics, former inspector-general, current OAS Ambassador, and Uribe supporter Alejandro Ordóñez.
  • Uribe was released from house arrest on October 10.
  • On March 5, Gabriel Jaimes asked the judiciary to terminate (or “preclude”) the investigation against Álvaro Uribe, writing that Uribe’s conduct didn’t “have the characteristic of crime,” and that any crimes that may have been committed didn’t involve Uribe.

“Thank God for this positive step,” Uribe tweeted. Uribe’s attorney Jaime Granados, who has defended several politicians and military officers accused of human rights crimes, told media that Jaimes’s request to drop the case “was the only possible conclusion the investigators could reach.”

Sen. Iván Cepeda retorted that “Prosecutor Jaimes practically became Uribe’s lawyer… the positions of the Prosecutor’s Office are a mirror of Uribe’s arguments and his defense.” Cepeda’s attorney, Reinaldo Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, called Jaimes’s decision “reckless. The road to impunity continues its course, but it can be stopped, we hope, by the judges of the Republic.”

The prosecutor’s request to drop the case must now go before a judge, which is supposed to happen within five business days but may take longer. If the judge grants the request to end the investigation, Sen. Cepeda—who is classified as a “victim” in this case—can appeal it. If the judge finds that the investigation should continue, the Fiscalía can appeal it.

An appeal will take months. If the appeals judge agrees with the Fiscalía, then the Uribe case is over. If the appeals judge finds ground to continue Uribe’s prosecution, then the Fiscalía must either come up with new arguments (out of a short list of allowed arguments) to drop the case, forcing the courts to do this all over again—or it must prosecute Álvaro Uribe, apparently against its prosecutors’ will.

The Uribe case is likely to drag on, then, for many more months, steadily overlapping the campaign for Colombia’s March 2022 presidential elections.

Illicit crop eradication the subject of several notable new documents

Two State Department reports that became public last week congratulated Colombia’s government for its aggressive approach to illicit crop eradication and its movement toward reinstating a controversial program to eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

On February 23, the State Department delivered to Congress a required report, which became public on March 1, certifying that Colombia is following a strategy to cut coca production by 50 percent by 2023. This document notes a “historic level of manual eradication despite challenges from the COVID-19, a dramatic increase in coca grower protests opposing manual eradication, and a rise in violent attacks against eradicators. Significant progress has also been made to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program that meets the administrative and oversight requirements established by the Colombian constitutional court.” (Colombia suspended aerial herbicide eradication in 2015, citing public health concerns.)

On March 2, the Department issued its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a global overview. Its Colombia section laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

Both documents came as a surprise to some Colombian analysts who expected the Biden administration to adopt the more critical approach to forced eradication laid out in the December report of a bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. That body, whose members included some individuals considered close to the new administration, wrote that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Even if it does intend to adopt such a new tone on eradication, the six-week-old Biden administration, which still lacks officials in many key positions, may not yet have the bandwidth to do so.

Five documents issued since February 26 are sharply critical of the U.S. and Colombian governments’ current approach to coca. All conclude that forced eradication, especially when not paired with alternatives, exacerbates violence and weakens governance in rural areas that badly need it.

  1. A February 26 research report from the International Crisis Group found that “security operations that pay far greater heed to the need to protect civilians and invigorate rural reforms would be more effective.” Principal author Elizabeth Dickinson presented her findings at a joint event with WOLA on March 5, and in a column at NPR that same day.
  2. 22 U.S. and international civil society organizations, including WOLA, sent a March 1 letter to President Biden encouraging him to make implementation of the 2016 peace accord a central tenet of U.S. policy toward Colombia. “We urge the United States not to restart the aerial spraying program, which will be seen as undermining the accords and will drive farmers and communities away from cooperating,” the letter reads.
  3. A multimedia series published on March 1 by El Espectador, “The Battle to Substitute Coca,” tells the story of post-peace accord eradication and crop substitution from the perspective of San José del Fragua, a municipality in Caquetá. It thoroughly explores the complexities surrounding the increasingly frustrating experience of the peace accords’ neglected crop substitution program.
  4. Also in El Espectador, Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published a March 4 column arguing that aerial fumigation “is condemned to failure and will increase violence and set the country aflame.”
  5. Longtime drug policy scholar Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz published a detailed paper that he had written in 2020 to inform the work of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. (English here.) Garzón found that “the current approach by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the right one; however, in practice it has come up against the inertia of anti-drug policy, in which the reduction in coca crops—measured in number of hectares eradicated—is considered the main indicator of success.” He adds, “The image of a plane spraying hectares of coca is useful to show that the state is acting rigorously and promptly, but it clearly falls short if the goal is to create fundamental change. The benefits of this tool are limited to the very short term, while the costs in terms of state legitimacy and the relationship with local communities last a very long time.”

The JEP rejects two “para-politicians” and keeps one

A small number of civilian leaders serving criminal sentences since the 2000s for supporting paramilitary groups—so-called “para-politicians”—has agreed to cooperate with the post-conflict transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). This week, the case of one advanced, while the post-conflict tribunal is kicking out two others.

Álvaro “El Gordo” García was a senator and powerful political boss from Sucre, a small department on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It is among the poorest third of the country’s 32 departments. García was sentenced to 40 years in prison for helping to organize the AUC paramilitary confederation’s bloc in the Montes de María region, which carried out some of the bloodiest massacres of the entire conflict during this century’s first years. The JEP is trying Sen. García, who directed the 2000 Macayepo massacre, as a paramilitary member—not as a third-party supporter.

The JEP has agreed to take García’s case, which could earn him a shorter sentence under non-prison conditions, as long as he tells the full truth about what happened in the Montes de María and provides reparations to his victims. If he reveals what he knows, La Silla Vacía reports, García could take down with him a large number of people. “Nothing moved in Sucre without ‘Gordo’ knowing about it. If he starts to tell everything he knows, there will be no one left with a head,” a “person who worked in politics with Garcia for several years” told the investigative website. “Those guys (the paramilitaries) took over the department and the municipalities with the complacency of the police, the DAS [disbanded presidential intelligence agency], the Fiscalía and the judges,” added “a politician who was in office during those years.” For now, “El Gordo” García remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison.

Another Sucre politician from that era is on the verge of being ejected from the JEP’s jurisdiction. Salvador Arana was the department’s governor during the early 2000s, then went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Chile before the justice system caught up with him and found him guilty of colluding with paramilitaries, including to kill political rivals. The JEP has refused to release Arana from his Barranquilla prison pending trial, and last week threatened to suspend him from the transitional justice system within 30 days if he failed to show more commitment to tell the truth and recognize his victims. So far, the JEP contends, Arana “has simply accused the victims of being collaborators of the FARC, of administrative corruption, and of manipulating witnesses.”

A third “para-politician” is out: Ramiro Suárez Corzo, the 2003-07 mayor of the busy Venezuelan border city of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, has been ejected from the JEP’s purview after three years, and will not get an opportunity for a lighter sentence. Like Arana, Suárez has been in prison for colluding with paramilitaries, who killed at least one of his political rivals. Like Arana, the JEP accuses him of failing to make significant new contributions to the truth about his case, instead denying his guilt and accusing his accusers.

Links

  • WOLA is pleased to launch a new multimedia resource and toolkit for protecting Colombia’s threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. Visit our Con Líderes Hay Paz campaign.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update summarizes numerous alarming cases brought to our attention in recent weeks.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) plays an important role in the Urabá region of northwestern Colombia, where paramilitaries displaced thousands of farmers during the conflict, and large-scale farmers appropriated their land. El Espectador and Verdad Abierta revealed that the new Defensoría representative in Urabá, José Augusto Rendón, is a lawyer who aggressively defended the region’s new landowners against victims’ efforts at land restitution. On several occasions Rendón predicted that violence would result if victims got their land back. Several national human rights organizations received the nomination “with absolute bewilderment and dismay.”
  • The latest bimonthly Invamer Gallup poll of urban Colombian public opinion shows only 6 percent of respondents believing that the security situation is improving, tied for a record low along a time series going back to 2008. President Iván Duque’s approval rating remains at 36 percent, where it was two months ago. By a two-to-one margin, respondents opposed Duque’s offer of legal status to Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, which was well received internationally.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano reported that the armed forces killed (or in his term, “neutralized”) 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte” by bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare.
  • The Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which as noted above saw horrific massacres during the 2000s, was relatively peaceful in the 2010s. Troublingly, El Espectador and the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris published reports from the region documenting an increase in threats against social leaders and indications that paramilitary-descended “Gulf Clan” is making inroads.

Tags: Weekly update

March 7, 2021

Colombia peace update: February 27, 2021

Annual UN human rights report

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has maintained an office in Colombia since 1996 with presences in Bogotá and nine regions. Early each year, it produces a report summarizing Colombia’s human rights situation during the prior year. The Colombia office issued its latest report on February 23. Among its topline findings for 2020:

  • Colombia suffered 76 massacres, defined as “three or more persons executed in a single incident or during incidents related by responsibility, place and time,” involving 292 deaths. “The number of massacres has grown constantly since 2018, with 2020 recording the highest number since 2014.”
  • 73 demobilized ex-FARC members were killed, amounting to a year-end total of 248 since the peace accord’s November 2016 signing (which has since risen to 259).
  • The UN office received allegations about 42 cases of government security forces arbitrarily killing a total of 73 people. While most involved police, 11 cases “occurred when the military were participating in prevention and law enforcement activities, executing arrest and search warrants, or engaged in the eradication of illicit crops and the fight against criminal groups.”

The UN High Commissioner counted up to 133 killings of human rights defenders, though as of publication it had been able to verify only 50 due to pandemic restrictions. “Of the verified cases, 25 per cent were reportedly committed by criminal groups, 15 per cent by FARC dissident groups, 13 per cent by ELN, and 4 per cent by the police or military.” Colombian authorities achieved 20 convictions in 2020 against killers of human rights defenders.

The day before the UN report launched, the Colombian presidency issued its own brief report. Presidential Human Rights Advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez claimed that the government and the UN human rights office had counted 66 murdered social leaders, with 63 remaining to be verified. The reason for the discrepancy with the UN is unclear.

The UN and government estimates are on the low end. The government’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counted 182 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2020, and 753 in the five years since 2016. The non-governmental Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (Indepaz), which includes names and places but does not verify each case, counted 310 murders in 2020.

The UN report faults the Colombian government for the continued lack of a stated public policy for dismantling paramilitary successor criminal organizations, as foreseen in the 2016 peace accord. It finds a “lack of a comprehensive State presence” in conflictive parts of the country, which “limits the State ́s capacity to comply with its duty to protect the population.” Juliette De Rivero, the director of the High Commissioner’s Colombia office, told Verdad Abierta, “After the accords’ signing, there was about a year and a half of breathing space in these territories. But then the State didn’t occupy the space—and armed groups began to arrive and exert very strong social control.”

The UN report, as well as press comments by De Rivero and High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, voiced strong support for Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system. They especially upheld its Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which has taken bold moves in recent weeks against ex-guerrilla kidnappers and military personnel responsible for “false positive” killings, and which often finds itself under political fire from allies of President Iván Duque’s government. Bachelet shared her concern about “declarations against the transitional justice system, including legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”

U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg met with the JEP’s President, Eduardo Cifuentes, on February 26. This was a notable show of support for an institution that some U.S. officials over the years had avoided praising, out of concern that it might end up failing to punish perpetrators.

JEP to investigate pressure on military “false positives” witnesses

As reported in last week’s update, the JEP surprised the country by announcing that it is investigating a much higher than anticipated number of military murders of civilians who were then falsely presented as combat kills. The Special Jurisdiction said its review of existing databases led it to estimate 6,402 of these “false positive” killings between 2002 and 2008 alone.

As an analysis by La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León shows, that number could increase or decrease as the transitional justice system proceeds with its “bottom up” strategy of starting with the perpetrators in order to arrive at the most responsible military commanders. Cifuentes, the JEP’s president, told El Espectador that the next steps involve collecting more testimonies from perpetrators and victims in order “to charge those identified as most responsible.”

This has some top current and former military commanders concerned. Articles last week in El Espectador and Verdad Abierta name some of the officers most frequently cited for commanding units that committed the most “false positive” killings. These include several generals who were promoted to lead Colombia’s army in the 2000s and 2010s.

The JEP’s method of starting with lower-ranking military perpetrators in order to arrive at the top commanders puts pressure on those lower-ranking defendants, who make up most of the 1,860 security-force members who agreed to have their cases heard in the JEP. Nineteen of them had reported being threatened or followed, according to a September 2020 document from the government’s Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

On February 2, the JEP sent a letter to the Specialized Technical Defense Fund for Members of the Security Forces (FONDETEC), a sort of public defender service for members of the military and police accused of crimes. The letter asks for information about the advice that FONDETEC lawyers may be providing to low-ranking military defendants in the JEP system.

Some of these defendants have alleged that their public defenders strongly encouraged them to avoid implicating senior commanders in their JEP testimonies. “FONDETEC conditions our testimonies to improve the defense of those above us,” a military witness told the JEP, according to El Espectador investigative columnist Yohir Akerman.

“What evidence do you have to link General [Mario] Montoya, commander of the Army? The situation could turn around against you,” a FONDETEC lawyer called “Doctor Vargas” apparently told defendants at the military’s detention center in Facatativá, Cundinamarca. Akerman identifies him as Fernando Antonio Vargas Quemba, a FONDETEC attorney with ties to far-right, even paramilitary-linked, groups.

Colombia’s politically powerful associations of retired military and police officers issued a communiqué opposing the JEP’s information request regarding FONDETEC activities, viewing it as part of an “unprecedented offensive against our military and police, with the purpose of demoralizing and discrediting those who selflessly serve the country.”

The commander of the Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, appeared to go further. The day after the JEP’s revelation of its estimate of 6,402 murders, the general posted to his Twitter account nature footage depicting snakes, interspersed with Bible excerpts, and a vow that “we will not let ourselves be defeated by poisonous and perverse vipers that want to attack us, accuse us, or weaken us.”

“How frightening that these gentlemen are still there [in command]. We are not poisonous snakes. We are victims of the Army,” responded the Association of Mothers of False Positives. A La Silla Vacía analysis, noting Gen. Zapateiro’s “impulsive” nature, observed that the commander is under pressure from the hardline retired officers’ associations. An unnamed “high government official who works with the Army” insisted that the General’s position is not the Army’s institutional stance.

New military command to fight armed groups and organized crime

On February 26 President Duque visited the Tolemaida base in Tolima to inaugurate a new Colombian Army Command against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats (CONAT). This 7,000-person unit’s objective will be “breaking, striking, and subduing the structures of drug trafficking and transnational threats, linked to the illegal exploitation of minerals, trafficking of species and people, and, of course, any transnational form of terrorism,” reads a Presidency release.

The CONAT’s commander is Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, a former commander of the Colombian Army’s National Training Center who served a recent tour in Miami as the commander of the U.S. Southern Command’s J7/9 Exercise and Coalition directorate.

It is not immediately clear how much about the CONAT is new, other than its command and organizational structure. Colombia’s Army already had Counter-Drug Brigades; these are now being combined under the CONAT with a counter-illicit mining brigade and aviation units. Reporting about the unit doesn’t specifically speak about new capabilities, equipment, or personnel increases.

Defense Minister Diego Molano said the new command will prioritize “areas identified as being highly influenced by drug trafficking such as Catatumbo, Cauca, and Putumayo.” Catatumbo is along the Venezuelan border, which drew the notice of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In response to an earlier announcement by President Duque about the CONAT, Maduro had called on Venezuela’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need.”

A Caracol Noticias report by noted investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón—who was part of an unfortunate recent exodus from Semana magazine—cited videos and emails indicating an ever closer relationship between Venezuelan security forces and members of the ELN and FARC dissident groups on Venezuelan soil. “Today we are in full support of the commander, comrade Nicolás Maduro, so that this government may continue, so that he may continue to lead this ship,” a video depicts “Julián Chollo,” a commander in the dissident group headed by former FARC leader “Gentil Duarte,” telling residents of the town of Elorza, deep within Apure, Venezuela. The Caracol report finds, “According to internal ELN communications, Venezuela may have become the scene of a ‘war among guerrillas’ in which each side has the support of different [Venezuelan] military units.”

Links

  • A new report from the International Crisis Group questions the Duque government’s contentions that the coca crop lies at the root of Colombia’s violence challenges, and that forced eradication can bring peace. Looking into the origins and current reality of the country’s coca economy and attempts to attack it, the report concludes that “an approach based on forceful eradication of coca, which the U.S. has stoutly backed, tends to worsen rural violence, while failing to reduce drug supply.” WOLA will be co-hosting an online event with this report’s principal authors on March 5.
  • Meanwhile, El Tiempo offered some geographic intel on manual eradication: “Operations…have been concentrated mainly in the Zonas Futuro of Pacific Nariño, Bajo Cauca and Sur de Córdoba, Catatumbo, and Putumayo.” Citing the Colombian Presidency, it reported that forces manually eradicated 4,574 hectares of coca in January—more than January 2020 but behind pace to match 2020’s total of 130,171 hectares eradicated.
  • The Financial Times published an in-depth look at Colombia’s efforts to eradicate coca, and the probably imminent restart of an aerial herbicide spraying program that was suspended, due to public health concerns, in 2015. RCN Noticias reported on efforts to renew fumigation, pending fulfillment of requirements set out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court: “Eight modern planes with two teams of 16 pilots” are ready “to start spraying, a task that awaits ‘D-day’ to start the mission,” adding that “canisters full of glyphosate [herbicide] are already in special hangars,” and that “Guaviare is where aerial spraying will start again.”
  • At least eight, or at least eleven, people were massacred over the February 20-21 weekend in Tumaco, Nariño near the Ecuador border. The perpetrators are believed to be “Los Contadores,” one of several criminal and guerrilla dissent groups operating in this zone of heavy coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.
  • A video from the town of Siberia, Orito, Putumayo shows heavily armed members of the “Comandos de la Frontera” paramilitary group entering a bar and announcing their intention to kill “people who commit vice (viciosos), drug addicts, and thieves.” An early warning document from the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría) calls the group a “mutation” of an earlier group active in Putumayo, the “Sinaloa Mafia,” that can trace its command DNA back to the old AUC paramilitaries.
  • After recording three ELN “offensive actions” in each of three consecutive months, the think-tank CERAC, which maintains a detailed conflict database, counted nine ELN offensive actions in January. A February 23 ELN attack killed two soldiers and wounded 11 in Tibú, near the Venezuela border in Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region.
  • Retired Gen. Eduardo Herrera Berbel, who participated in past peace talks with the ELN, told Semana that in his view, talks can only restart if the ELN agrees to cease kidnapping and other criminal behavior as a precondition. Citing past peace talks’ signed protocols, Herrera disagrees with the Duque government’s pressure on Cuba to extradite ELN negotiators who have been on the island since a January 2019 Bogotá bombing forced an end to talks.
  • La Silla Vacía looks into “Operación Artemisa,” the Colombian armed forces’ ongoing (though not constant) effort to combat deforestation in environmentally fragile areas. It finds that many in the military are unhappy about taking on this non-combat role: “You don’t use special forces to stop a peasant with a chainsaw.”
  • President Duque and other leading government officials participated in a nearly 6-hour video discussion on February 24, in which they made the case that the current administration is implementing the peace accord. They sought to respond to, as they put it, “those who seek to ignore the progress achieved and promote a hateful division between supposed friends and enemies of peace.”
  • “Colombia has an absolutely obscene concentration of land and it is a concentration of land that is rarely spoken of. Not only is it socially unjust, but it is also a tombstone on the country’s development possibilities. No country with the agrarian structure that Colombia has has emerged from underdevelopment. It is as simple as that.” — Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, director of the National University’s Lands Observatory, in an unusually thorough Caracol analysis of land tenure in Colombia.

Tags: Weekly update

February 28, 2021

Colombia peace update: February 20, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

JEP finds a large number of “false positive” killings

Colombia’s post-conflict justice system (JEP) issued a dramatic order on February 18, explaining how it plans to investigate and prosecute its “Macro-Case 03: Deaths illegitimately presented by state agents as combat casualties.” These war crimes, called “false positives,” involved security-force (usually Army) personnel killing civilians, then presenting the dead as armed-group members killed in combat, in order to earn rewards.

The JEP’s most surprising finding was its topline number. Security forces murdered at least 6,402 civilians, the tribunal contends, in the seven years between 2002, the first year of Álvaro Uribe’s presidential administration, and 2008, when a scandal involving 19 murdered young men from a poor neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts broke the scandal open.

6,402 is equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed between 2002 and 2008. It is nearly triple the 2,248 cases, dating from between 1988 and 2014, that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) had shared with the JEP. Colombian human rights organizations called the Fiscalía’s undercounting “infuriating.”

The actual number is probably higher than 6,402; the JEP “is still receiving reports to contrast” with its database, La Silla Vacía reports, adding, “For each, the JEP has already identified the name, surname and identity card number,” and each appears in at least three of four governmental and non-governmental databases the tribunal consulted. In addition, some FARC members who demobilized during that period may have been killed later and counted as combatants. And many more cases may still be in the files of the military justice system, not the civilian Fiscalía.

On January 28, the JEP had indicted seven top FARC leaders for their role in kidnappings, with the intention of moving down the chain of command to on-the-ground perpetrators. The false positives investigation, though, is to go “bottom up,” starting with soldiers and officers, then moving up the ladder to top commanders who, today, deny any responsibility for the killings. (The FARC leaders, by contrast, appear poised to accept responsibility for kidnappings.)

That means proving that the practice of killing civilians to receive rewards, a phenomenon that the UN and other human rights monitors began denouncing around 2004, was systematic—a claim given new credibility by the startlingly high number of 6,402 cases. With this order complete, the JEP is to focus its investigations on Antioquia, the Caribbean coast, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, and Meta.

Ex-president Uribe, calling the JEP order “another outrage,” denied responsibility for the killings, saying that while of course he placed strong demands on the military, “effectiveness is not an excuse to violate the law.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and some NGOs and victims’ groups, hailed the JEP’s action. A statement from several groups worried, though, that the JEP’s “bottom up” approach might go too slow, failing to touch the military’s top ex-commanders before the tribunal’s 10-year mandate ends in 2028.

Opposition legislators’ report finds peace accord implementation slipping behind

Fourteen Colombian legislators from the political opposition, spanning six parties, issued the latest in a series of data-rich reports monitoring the government’s compliance with commitments made in the 2016 peace accords. The driving force behind these reports is Green Party Representative Juanita Goebertus, who was a member of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.

The official most responsible for accord implementation in President Iván Duque’s government, High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, challenged some of the legislators’ claims with a point-by-point Twitter thread, to which Rep. Goebertus then responded with a point-by-point rebuttal thread.

The report finds the Colombian government falling further behind in implementing the accord, especially its provisions related to rural governance and crop substitution. Among its numerous findings:

  • Colombia’s Congress has yet to pass 38 percent of laws required to implement the accord, including 21 of 36 laws required to carry out its first chapter on rural reform and territorial governance, a vital element given the heavily rural nature of the conflict. This chapter is estimated to comprise 85 percent of the total cost of implementing the accord.
  • The Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs), a core strategy meant to bring governance and development to 16 conflict-battered regions over 15 years, are running badly behind schedule. The government is spending less than 2 percent of what it should be to maintain a 15-year pace on the largest item, infrastructure projects. While Archila insisted that these projects are being completed at a healthy pace, Goebertus said that pace slowed by 46 percent in 2020.
  • In only 3 of 16 PDET zones has the government completed a promised “roadmap” document needed to speed up investments, and no PDET projects have begun in the highly conflictive central Pacific coast region.
  • The government is formalizing smallholders’ land properties at 29.5% of the pace that fulfillment of the peace accord’s promised 7 million hectares would require, and only 4 of 170 PDET municipalities have yet had landholdings mapped out in a promised cadaster.
  • The accords’ crop substitution program promised assistance with productive projects, starting 12 months in, for families who eradicated all their coca. In year four, only 5.3% of families have received productive project support.
  • 54.5 percent of guerrilla ex-combatants have not received government support for productive projects. Archila says that 6,172 people—about half of ex-combatants—have benefited from productive projects, and “1,214 people, who still haven’t formulated a project, have jobs.”

Draft decree outlines resumption of aerial herbicide fumigation

Since taking power in August 2018, President Iván Duque and his government have vowed to re-start spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft to eradicate coca. A U.S.-backed “fumigation” program, a significant part of the “Plan Colombia” strategy, operated from 1994 to 2015.

Public health concerns forced the program’s suspension that year. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court then laid out a series of six health, environmental, consultation, and safety requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the program. One of those steps is the emission of a decree laying out how fumigation would operate. The government produced an 11-page draft decree in December 2019, but never issued a final document. On February 15, the Justice Ministry produced a new, 20-page, draft decree.

This document prohibits spraying in “the National and Regional Natural Park Systems, strategic ecosystems such as páramos, Ramsar category wetlands and mangroves, bodies of water, and population centers.” It does not mention indigenous reserves or Afro-Descendant community council lands. As the Constitutional Court requires, it calls on Colombia’s National Health Institute (INS, roughly similar to the CDC) and environmental authority (ANLA) to sign off on the spray program’s safety after performing studies, which have been underway since at least early 2020. The Counternarcotics Police would have to provide monthly spray reports to the ANLA, the Ministry of Health, and other oversight agencies.

Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano, recently insisted that all conditions for re-starting spraying might be met by late March, but experts interviewed in Colombian media see approval being delayed for months more. “This decree won’t accelerate the process,” María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drug Studies (CESED) told El Espectador.

The draft decree is just one of several unmet criteria, including the INS and ANLA sign-offs and a green light from the multi-agency National Drugs Commission (CNE). Via the Colombian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia learned that, as of September, the INS health study had only completed work in 7 of 14 departments where fumigation was expected to occur. The ANLA approval, meanwhile, is being delayed by two court challenges seeking to uphold vulnerable communities’ ability to participate in the process.

Should the Duque government meet all of the Constitutional Court’s requirements to restart fumigation, there will be legal challenges—and it’s not certain whether the Court will approve of the program’s design. Its rulings have noted that glyphosate spraying, as the 2016 peace accord explains, is meant to be a last resort after other options have received higher priority, like voluntary crop substitution and manual eradication. The draft decree does not mention this prioritization. Nor does it mention prior consultation with indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, an omission that the Constitutional Court may object to, Vélez contends.

Links

  • In public statements, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro criticized Colombia’s decision to grant a legal status to Venezuelan migrants inside Colombia, calling it a “clown show” and accusing President Iván Duque of using it to “clean up his image.” Maduro also said he’d told his country’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need,” in response to Duque’s announcement of a new elite army unit to go after armed group leaders who spend a lot of their time in Venezuela.
  • The Colombian government submitted a report to the JEP finding that the former FARC is lagging badly behind its commitments, under the peace accord, to turn in illegally obtained assets. The Comunes party replied that the government’s imposed deadline of December 31, 2020 was “impossible to meet due to legal and physical constraints,” like security conditions in areas where the ex-FARC assets are located.
  • Two Colombian think tanks, CINEP and CERAC, which play a formal role in verifying implementation of the peace accord, issued their eighth in a series of data-heavy reports.
  • The ambassador to Colombia of Norway, which along with Cuba was a guarantor nation for peace talks with the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, voiced perplexity that Colombia’s government did not respond positively to Cuba warning of intelligence pointing to a possible ELN attack in Colombia. Meanwhile, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry put out a communiqué noting a tense meeting with Cuba’s ambassador and reiterating a demand that Cuba provide more information about the purported imminent attack.
  • Writing for Razón Pública, four analysts from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz disputed claims that the ELN might be in danger of collapsing under its own internal divisions.
  • Colombia’s left-of-center political parties have been reluctant to enter into coalitions with the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, for the March 2022 presidential and congressional elections, La Silla Vacía reports.
  • Fighting between FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan Neo-paramilitary group displaced more than 250 people from the rural zone of the chronically violent municipality of Ituango, in north-central Antioquia.
  • Colombia’s GDP contracted 6.8 percent during 2020 due to the pandemic—the worst year since records began in 1905—though it expanded 6 percent during the final quarter of the year.

Tags: Weekly update

February 21, 2021

Colombia peace update: February 13, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Colombia offers documented status to Venezuelan migrants

In November 2020, the Interagency Platform for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM) estimated that 1.71 million migrants from Venezuela were living in Colombia: 770,246 documented, and 947,106 with “irregular migration status.” They are part of a flow of 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the collapsing country since 2015.

In a surprise February 8 move, Colombian President Iván Duque decreed that all Venezuelans who arrived in the country before January 31 may receive a “Temporary Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV) allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years, to work legally, and to access health and education services, including COVID-19 vaccines. Implementation of the new status could take up to a year, Ligia Bolivar of Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andrés Bello told The New Humanitarian, starting with the creation of a register of all undocumented Venezuelans.

Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Bogotá for the announcement and called it “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the Americas since the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” (Angélika Rettberg of the Universidad de los Andes told the BBC she also saw “a kind of gesture towards the new U.S. government, because it shows that their [Colombia’s] policy towards Venezuela is not just ‘stick,’ but also humanitarian ‘carrot,’ something that may be more in line with Joe Biden’s administration.”)

President Duque highlighted that Colombia will need more international aid to assimilate a community equivalent to nearly 4 percent of Colombia’s population, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Duque, the announcement was a sharp reversal from his earlier position of refusing vaccinations to undocumented Venezuelans. While Colombia has not suffered major outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan violence, analysts worry about worsening xenophobia, especially among informal and low-wage workers who perceive themselves as competing for scarce jobs with the new arrivals. Such tensions, MercyCorps’ Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told the New Humanitarian, “have been on the rise.”

“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America, we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said. Colombia’s move comes at a time when Peru and Ecuador have sent armored military vehicles to their common border to interdict migrants, and Chile has returned Venezuelans to their country on air force planes.

Cuba notifies Colombia of an imminent ELN attack

El Tiempo revealed a February 6 communication that the Cuban embassy in Colombia shared with the Colombian government, the chief of the UN Verification Mission, and two Catholic Church representatives. It reads: “Our embassy received information, whose veracity we cannot assess, about an alleged military attack by the Eastern War Front of the ELN in the coming days. We have shared this information with the ELN peace delegation in Havana, which expressed total ignorance and reiterated the guarantee that it has no involvement in the organization’s military decisions or operations.”

The “Eastern War Front” (FGO) is the ELN guerrilla group’s largest unit, based in the northeastern department of Arauca and over the border in Venezuela. Its commander, Carlos Emilio Marín alias “Pablito,” a 40-year member of the group, may be its most powerful member. The FGO carried out the January 2019 truck-bomb attack on Colombia’s police cadets’ school that killed 22 people and ended slow-moving peace negotiations in Havana. Several ELN negotiators have remained in Cuba since the talks’ breakdown; “experts assert that the alert to Colombia could be interpreted as Cuba distancing from its uncomfortable guests,” El Tiempo speculates.

High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz used the occasion to reiterate a demand that Cuba extradite the ELN leaders stranded in Cuba. The Havana peace talks’ protocols, signed by the Colombian government and international guarantors in 2017, made clear that if negotiations broke down, the ELN leaders would return to clandestinity in Colombia. The Duque government ignored these protocols, calling them a non-binding commitment made by the prior administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.

As a result, the ELN leaders remain in Cuba. Their continued presence was the principal reason the outgoing Trump administration cited for its January 11 re-addition of Cuba to the State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

On February 7 El Tiempo revealed an internal, encrypted ELN communication, leaked from a government source, that appears to reveal internal division within the guerrilla group. Disagreements allegedly center on some units’ involvement in narcotrafficking and presence in Venezuela. The document also expresses frustration with ELN negotiators being “physically trapped” in Cuba.

High Commissioner Ceballos cited the document as proof that the ELN’s internal divisions make them impossible to negotiate with. From Havana, ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, who had headed the negotiating team stranded in Cuba, insisted that the document was fake. Later in the week, the ELN leadership called the Cuban government’s warning about an imminent attack a “false positive,” saying that such an attack “is not part of the ELN’s military plans.”

In other leaked ELN document news, Semana revealed in late January a document retrieved from computers captured during an October military raid that killed Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” a vocal mid-level ELN leader, in Chocó. Using indirect language, the document appears to point to an $80,000 loan to the presidential campaign of Andrés Arauz, who led in February 7 voting in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections. (Arauz is the candidate aligned with Rafael Correa, the populist president who governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017.) On February 12 Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito to furnish this evidence to Ecuadorian counterparts.

Buenaventura’s population protests against violence, government inaction

In Buenaventura, the port that accounts for 70 percent of Colombia’s import-export activity, a paramilitary-derived gang that briefly dominated criminality in the city, “La Local,” underwent a December schism into two factions, the “Chotas” and the “Espartanos.” Daily street fighting has ensued, leaving much of the city’s 400,000 people in the crossfire. Estimates of the toll so far in 2021 range from 20 to 52 killed, and 112 to 1,700 families displaced.

Youth groups led days of protest against the situation during the week of February 1. These continue, using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura. When they manage to block port cargo transport for even a few hours, these protests get national attention.

The national government responded with a February 8 visit from Interior Minister Daniel Palacios. The minister promised increased rewards for information leading to the capture of gang leaders, the arrival of 120 more police, and “two detachments of Army Special Forces and a Navy reconnaissance platoon to assist with urban surveillance, adding up to more than 1,200 men from the security forces in Buenaventura.” The government also promised an increase in security cameras, a measure also being adopted in Buenaventura’s Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, a district whose organized population bans weapons and seeks to exclude members of all armed groups.

These security measures are not what the #SOSBuenaventura movement is demanding. “There’s already a police presence here, for many people they do not represent security,” Leonard Rentería, a youth leader and vocal protest organizer, told El Espectador. “People continue to be afraid because they do not see the police providing guarantees to protect their lives.”

The bishop of Buenaventura, Msgr. Rubén Darío Jaramillo, went further:

The people feel that there’s no authority, that the authority is the bandits who are in the street with their guns dominating the territories. They are the authority here… The security forces are supposed to defend citizens in their honor, their property, and their lives. But many make the mistake of allying themselves with criminals. They buy them with money. The bandits know that by buying the police they win, and there is nothing the people can do about it.

Thousands of Buenaventurans, dressed in white, lined the narrow port city’s main thoroughfare on February 10, forming a 21-kilometer (13-mile) human chain. Prominent participants in the protest included Bishop Jaramillo and Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal, who is starting his second year in office.

Vidal is Buenaventura’s first mayor who is not the product of a big political machine. He was a leader of the “Paro Cívico,” a social movement that shut down much of the city with three weeks of peaceful protests in mid-2017, demanding state investment in a city that, though the main port, is one of Colombia’s poorest. Paro Cívico members were threatened and killed in the ensuing years; given the forces arrayed against it, Vidal’s late-2019 election victory was remarkable.

As La Silla Vacía and Pares noted, though, the Paro Cívico has not been in the vanguard of the current anti-violence protests. While the movement has been supportive, it appears more focused on governing. Much of the new energy has come from youth leaders like Rentería, who described the Paro as “deactivated from the role it had assumed.”

Links

  • Next week, President Duque is likely to have his first phone conversation with President Joe Biden since the U.S. election, La Silla Vacía reports, noting that the three-month delay “has no precedent in the contemporary U.S.-Colombia relationship.”
  • An annual report from Frontline Defenders, released February 9, found that 53 percent of murders of human rights defenders worldwide occurred in Colombia in 2020 (177 of 331). Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on February 10 finding serious fault with the Colombian government’s efforts to protect human rights defenders and social leaders. On February 11 U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We are concerned about ongoing violence against human rights defenders who play a vital role in building a just and lasting peace in Colombia. Reducing this violence and prosecuting these crimes is a top priority.”
  • With the murders of Antonio Ricaurte in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, and Juan Carlos Correa in San Andrés de Cuerquia, Antioquia, 257 former FARC members have been killed since the 2016 peace accord went into effect. Eight so far this year.
  • Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the former FARC political party Comunes, wrote a strikingly worded letter to former president Juan Manuel Santos, voicing alarm at ex-guerrillas’ security situation and asking for help getting a meeting with President Iván Duque. Santos responded that while he would try, Duque has not responded to his past overtures.
  • In Londoño’s at times tearful testimony and exchanges with victims last week before the transitional justice tribunal (JEP), La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez optimistically see “an opportunity… to process the truths of the conflict with a grammar that recognizes the emotions that are surfacing in the spaces of transitional justice, and processes them through a restorative justice that allows the country to clarify facts of the past and build a common future.”
  • “2020 deepened the deterioration of the media and the state of freedom of expression in the country,” reads the annual report of Colombia’s Free Press Foundation (FLIP). “Violence against the press occurs with the same systematicity and permissiveness as it did in past decades, during Colombia’s darkest years.”
  • Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano (profiled by Andrés Dávila at Razón Pública), told Reuters that U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, suspended since 2015, could restart “as early as next month.” The government, he says, will meet a series of safety, environmental, and consultation conditions set by the Constitutional Court “by the end of March.” Molano’s rapid fumigation timetable is not a sure thing, as legal challenges continue. Molano repeated the Duque government’s diagnosis that drug trafficking is “the biggest threat we have.” Cases of military corruption or human rights abuse, he told Semana, are “individual and isolated.”
  • President Duque said that Colombia’s Army will soon inaugurate an elite counter-drug unit or “specialized command” meant to carry out a high-value targeting strategy against the heads of Colombia’s main drug trafficking organizations.
  • WOLA laments the February 13 death, from COVID-19 complications, of our longtime colleague Luis Fernando Arias, head of Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous Peoples (ONIC).

Tags: Weekly update

February 14, 2021

Colombia peace update: February 6, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

2021 began with a wave of massacres, and security analysts are pessimistic

A new WOLA alert details more than 30 attacks on social leaders, journalists, opposition political leaders, and communities since late December. Colombia’s security situation continues to worsen in territories that were conflictive before the 2016 FARC peace accord. The first 35 days of 2021 saw 13 massacres kill 50 people in 7 of Colombia’s departments, according to the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (PARES).

“It’s as though we’ve gone back years in a spiral of violence,” wrote PARES’s deputy director, Ariel Ávila, at El Espectador. Ávila sees three differences from the pre-accord past: more violence along the Pacific coast, a government that seems “paralyzed” with the military “closed up in its barracks,” and a fragmented flux of criminal groups changing names, appearing and disappearing. He cites a boom in coca and gold prices creating criminal incentives, and worries that violence will get much worse as Colombia’s 2022 election campaign approaches. Ávila faults the ruling party—led by Álvaro Uribe, who as president oversaw a period of security gains—for “fighting the last war,” choosing incapable defense ministers, and ideologizing the strategy.

Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) also finds a jump in prices offered for coca (counterintuitive, since cultivation remains historically high), and fragmentation of armed groups. This fragmentation, he notes, calls into question the effectiveness of “high value target” strategies that pour resources into taking out easily replaced criminal-group leaders. Garzón adds that corruption in the security forces is “a serious problem, rarely denounced, but frequently reported in areas where illegal economies are highly prevalent.” His analysis, in La Silla Vacía, also highlights the “consolidated influence” that armed groups, especially the ELN and “Segunda Marquetalia” FARC dissidents, have in Venezuelan territory.

Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses, writing for the Universidad de los Andes’ 070, join Garzón in questioning the Duque government’s insistence that attacking drug supplies—especially eradicating smallholding farmers’ coca crops—is the key to easing the larger security crisis. Colombia’s government manually eradicated and seized record amounts of coca and cocaine in 2020, yet “some of the regions hardest hit by the FARC conflict are at risk of returning to the levels of violence experienced before negotiations began in 2012. That is, they may lose the security gains generated by the peace process.” Johnson and Vélez call for more emphasis on territorial governance, especially implementing the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET) foreseen in the peace accord’s first chapter. They criticize the Duque government’s flagship territorial governance strategy, called “Zonas Futuro,” for only strengthening military presence.

Over the past week, several stories in Colombian media documented security deterioration in specific regions.

  • El Espectador profiled Los Caparros, a paramilitary-descended group whose power is rising in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia, even though its nominal leader was killed in November.
  • Just to the north of Bajo Cauca, PARES reported on the neighboring Nudo de Paramillo region, where FARC dissidents are fighting the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.
  • Further north and east, conditions are worsening in the Montes de María region, which was hard-hit by paramilitaries and guerrillas 20-plus years ago but had since become less violent, La Silla Vacía finds.
  • A massacre of four young men from Policarpa, Nariño, drew attention to bitter fighting between dissident groups, and with the ELN, near the Pan-American Highway in northern Nariño and southern Cauca.
  • In the urban core of the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura, a group that dominated most criminality, La Local, broke into two factions late last year, and now tens of thousands of residents are caught in a bloody crossfire. Other armed groups are fighting in the municipality’s vast rural zone. Numerous civil-society groups have issued an “SOS,” citing “perverse alliances between illegal armed groups and the security forces.”
  • In the far south, in Putumayo, fighting between guerrilla dissidents and paramiltary-descended criminals, compounded by forced eradication in the department’s robust coca fields, has brought a jump in attacks on social leaders.
  • In the northeast, near the Venezuela border, Norte de Santander department is in bad shape. There are two hotspots. In Catatumbo, the country’s largest coca-growing zone, the ELN is the strongest of many armed groups, with the Gulf Clan making new incursions. In the outskirts of Cúcuta—at half a million people, the largest city on the Colombia-Venezuela border—the ELN (perhaps with Venezuelan support) weakened a local paramilitary-descended group, Los Rastrojos, last year. But now the Gulf Clan is moving in, La Silla Vacía reports.

Government may make “official” the lowest existing estimate of social leader murders

On February 3 President Iván Duque announced a new “inter-sectoral table” to “unify information” about persistently frequent murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. Alarmed, critics pointed out that Duque was proposing to adopt the smallest available estimate of these killings, and that the move may be a sign of weakened checks and balances.

As several local leaders fall to assassins every week, different entities maintain varying estimates of how severe the problem is. While all are still verifying their 2020 numbers, estimates through 2019, laid out in a graphic in El Espectador’s good coverage of the “inter-sectoral table” proposal, come from:

  • The NGO Indepaz, which counted 805 murders between November 24, 2016 and the end of 2019.
  • The government’s human rights ombudsman, Defensoría del Pueblo, whose Early Warning System counted 571 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019. By July 2020, El Espectador reports, this had risen to 662.
  • The NGO Somos Defensores, which counted 465 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.
  • The government’s chief prosecutor’s office, Fiscalía, which employs statistics gathered by the Colombia field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which in turn counted 398 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.

President Duque’s new “unification” policy adopts as “official” the lowest of those estimates, the one used by the Fiscalía. Yet this figure, El Espectador points out, is artificially the lowest “because, as the UN office itself has acknowledged, they are partial reports, as it does not have sufficient presence in territory to cover all cases.”

By subsuming the human rights ombudsman’s larger number to the Fiscalía’s, President Duque’s plan would throw out about 200 cases and seek to “silence” the Defensoría, worried Leonel González, the main data-keeper at Indepaz. The move also raises concerns about separation of powers. In Colombia’s system, the Fiscalía, Defensoría, and the internal-affairs office or Procuraduría are separate branches of government, beyond the executive’s control. But President Duque has managed to place close colleagues at the head of these agencies, especially the Fiscalía and Procuraduría, calling their independence into question. Lourdes Castro of Somos Defensores voiced concern in El Espectador about “the implications for democracy of this co-optation of the control bodies by the administration.”

Two big networks of Colombian human rights organizations, the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos and the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, quickly put out a statement rejecting Duque’s move as “a serious step backward.” They criticized Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa’s claims to have “clarified” a growing percentage of this smaller universe of murders, citing “misinterpretation…of the term ‘clarification,’ understanding it as any procedural advance.” The groups called out the Fiscalía for prosecuting trigger-pullers “without reaching the intellectual authors [masterminds] of the aggressions, much less dismantling the armed structures behind them.”

Meanwhile, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Bogotá, Juliette de Rivero, rightly recalled that a focus on statistics about murders is misplaced. “It would be a mistake to believe, given what is happening in the country, that the main objective should be to agree on figures. The important thing is to prevent killings, attacks, and threats against human rights defenders and social leaders, whether it be 10, 20, or 100 cases.”

Links

  • The likely nomination of Brian Nichols, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Colombia, to be the Biden administration’s first assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs “will be good news for issues such as the protection of social leaders and the implementation of the Peace Accord,” predicts La Silla Vacía. “Not necessarily for Duque and his circle of power.”
  • Diego Molano is Colombia’s new minister of defense, replacing Carlos Holmes Trujillo, who died of COVID-19 complications on January 26. Molano headed the big-budget “Acción Social” cash-transfer program during the Álvaro Uribe government, and had been serving as Iván Duque’s chief of staff.
  • “The Elders,” a group of former presidents, UN secretaries-general, and other retired luminaries, issued a statement—put forward by Colombian ex-president Juan Manuel Santos—calling on Joe Biden to revoke the Trump administration’s last-minute addition of Cuba to its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries. The principal reason for Cuba’s addition was its refusal to extradite ELN leaders who were present in the country for peace talks, when a vicious January 2019 ELN bombing led to those talks’ end. For Cuba to turn the negotiators over to Colombia would violate the talks’ agreed protocols. U.S. pressure “may make countries more hesitant to act as facilitators in the future.”
  • The human rights NGO Temblores published a compelling report documenting recent National Police human rights abuses and the need for meaningful police reform.
  • A new paper by four noted U.S. and Colombian analysts dives deeply into “gang rule” dynamics in Medellín, with the counterintuitive finding that “state efforts to expand services, crowd out gangs, and establish a monopoly on protection could have the opposite effect, driving gangs to increase rule.”
  • Sometimes, a report at Caracol Noticias alleges, coca eradication teams “go to the fields where, according to the reports [from ‘diverse sources consulted’], they make agreements with the coca-growing communities. The owner of a plot may be told, for example, to allow them to uproot 50 bushes, and then they report having cut down three or four hectares of coca. It’s a win-win situation.” Last July, a Semana investigation made similar allegations about eradicators inflating their results.
  • With the impending exit of Roberto Pombo, the director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper El Tiempo, columnist Cecilia Orozco at El Espectador worries that “the El Tiempo-Semana-RCN media axis, in the hands of Uribismo, might guarantee the electoral triumph of a more violent and annihilating ultra-right wing than we have suffered so far.”
  • UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi will visit Colombia next week. Obtaining international support for vaccinating Venezuelan migrants will be a main topic of discussion. President Iván Duque has said in the past that Colombia won’t offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans, but appears to be walking that back a bit.

Tags: Weekly update

February 7, 2021

Colombia peace update: January 30, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Transitional justice tribunal issues first indictment of FARC leadership, for kidnapping

Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.

The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.

The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.

The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)

The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.

If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.

Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibility that a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)

The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-level FARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.

From U.S. diplomats, a new tone on peace accord implementation

The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.

During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:

  • Tweets on the U.S. embassy’s account (1) (2) (3).
  • A conversation between just-confirmed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Claudia Blum.
  • Interviews in Colombian media with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.

“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:

  • On peace accord implementation: “We’ve seen some progress, but we’ve also seen some problems with implementation, including opposition from illegal groups.”
  • On social-leader killings and security: “This problem of massacres and attacks against certain groups and leaders is something that needs much more attention. …The government is fighting them [illegal armed groups], but evidently it has not set a policy to prevent the problems they cause.”
  • On aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas: “This time, the fumigation, the aerial spraying, will be the total responsibility of the Colombian government. We’re going to help them in certain aspects, but they’re going to buy the glyphosate, they’re going to control the planes, it’s not contractors, as before. So now it will be completely different.”
  • On governing party members’ meddling in the U.S. election: “If there are some frictions as a result of that, we’re going to overcome it. It wasn’t President Duque or his cabinet, but some politicians.”

U.S. returns paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo, a voracious child rapist

On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.

Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.

Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, died of COVID-19-related pneumonia on the evening of January 26. Trujillo was a leading contender to be the ruling Centro Democrático party’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election.
  • The FARC political party, recognizing that its acronym is a political liability (see kidnapping discussion above), officially changed its name to Comunes (“common people”).
  • Between January 1 and 24, the JEP counted “14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the security forces, 13 death threats against social leaders, 6 massacres, 5 assassinations of former combatants of the FARC-EP, 14 homicides of social leaders, 3 attacks and 7 armed confrontations between illegal groups.”
  • As of November, there were 1.71 million Venezuelans in Colombia (over 3% of Colombia’s population), of whom 770,246 had “regular migration status,” according to the latest situation update from UNHCR.
  • A report from the Peace Accords Matrix program at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute finds implementation of the peace accord’s ethnic provisions to be lagging. “Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun implementation.”
  • “We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living,” reads a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris from Francia Márquez, a Cauca-based Afro-Descendant environmental leader and winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
  • El Espectador hosted a worthwhile panel on implementation of the peace accord’s vital rural reform chapter, with two top officials, the lead author of a critical January report from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), a Kroc Institute expert, and an activist from Caquetá. Video here, summary here.
  • The newspaper also produced an excellent multimedia feature on women searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
  • With Panama’s border closed due to COVID-19, about 1,000 U.S.-bound migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and several African countries are stranded in makeshift tents on a beach in Necoclí, in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region, according to AFP.
  • Threats and killings—most likely by the ELN, although other armed groups are present—forced 11 town council members to flee the municipality of Argelia, in southern Cauca department.
  • The latest bimonthly Gallup poll, whose time series for some questions goes back to the late 1990s, shows growing discontent on many issues. La Silla Vacía shares the full poll as a Google Doc. Favorability ratings for the military and police have recovered a bit after scandals, though they remain low in part because of enforcement of pandemic lockdowns. Joe Biden has a 60%-11% favorable-unfavorable rating. By a 69%-24% margin, respondents see peace accord implementation as “on the wrong track.”

Tags: Weekly update

January 31, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: January 23, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

U.S. inauguration spurs reflections about the bilateral relationship

As President Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump, Colombian media speculated about how the bilateral relationship might change.

One of the most likely shifts is renewed U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which Trump, in the final weeks of the campaign, derided as “the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels.” Biden, by contrast, had counseled President Iván Duque, at a 2018 event in Bogotá, that “the peace agreement was a major breakthrough and should not be minimized or ignored.”

In the new administration’s first days, the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave remarks strongly supportive of the accord’s implementation (discussed below), and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, along with the Bogotá embassy’s Twitter account, made clear that the accord’s implementation is once again a key U.S. priority.

President Duque, whose party, the Centro Democrático, opposed the accord in 2016, did not refer to it specifically in remarks congratulating Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. He noted “the defense of democracy, the fight against transnational crime, against drug trafficking, against terrorism; of course, cooperation, comprehensive development, the commitment to renewable energies and to confront the vicissitudes of climate change and, of course, to continue strengthening investment ties.”

Much media speculation surrounds the possibility of cooling relations amid accusations that members of the Centro Democrático improperly favored Donald Trump and other Republican candidates during the U.S. campaign. “Joe Biden has spoken, after the elections, with Latin American leaders, such as those of Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, but not with Ivan Duque,” noted El Espectador.

“The interference of some Colombian political figures in the U.S. election was inappropriate and not very strategic, and has left its mark especially among members of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority,” Michael Camilleri, a State Department official during the Obama administration, told the paper. Added WOLA’s Adam Isacson at Caracol, “the bilateral relationship will remain just as close, but relations between the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático are not going to be the best.”

Opposition Senator Antonio Sanguino called for the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, who was accused by his cousin, former President Juan Manuel Santos, of improperly favoring Trump. The Ambassador attended Biden’s January 20 inauguration ceremony.

Biden’s arrival “opens space for citizen diplomacy,” said much-cited conflict analyst Luis Eduardo Celis, adding, “we must prepare the messages and mechanisms to tell the new President of the United States that there is a peace to be built in Colombia.” Letters asking for more explicit U.S. support for peace accord implementation came from the Defendamos la Paz coalition, and from 110 Afro-Descendant, indigenous, campesino, and victims’ organizations.

UN Security Council meets to discuss peace implementation

The Security Council met virtually on January 21 for a quarterly review of Colombia’s peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission, which produced its most recent report at the end of December.

“2021 is year five of the 15-year timeframe envisioned for the implementation of the entirety of the Peace Agreement,” said the UN Special Representative in charge of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu. “It is incumbent to ensure 2021 is remembered as the year in which bold steps were taken to bring to fruition the full promise of sustainable peace enshrined in the Agreement.”

The UN mission director said his office has been warning repeatedly about budget shortfalls in the Colombian government agency charged with providing physical protection to threatened social leaders and former FARC combatants. “More than 550 vacancies for bodyguards remain and over 1,000 requests for close protection are still pending review” at the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit, he said. These numbers far exceed results presented by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Blum, who highlighted “more than 200 schemes to protect former combatants” in 2020, along with 24 sentences handed down for killing ex-combatants, 40 cases under investigation, and 48 arrest warrants issued.

The Security Council should find it “intolerable that more than 250 ex-combatants—signatories to the Peace Accord—have been killed since its signing,” said Norway’s UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who called for strengthening the National Protection Unit and three bodies created by the peace accord: the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the Special Investigative Unit of the Fiscalía, and the Comprehensive Program of Safeguards for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders.

Even during the Trump administration, U.S. representatives at Security Council meetings tended to give statements generally supportive of Colombia’s peace process. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador, was explicitly supportive, signaling an early change in tone with the arrival of the Biden administration. “What can often be often lost, I think, in the specifics of our discussions in this topic is the magnitude of the peace agreement, and the profound impact it has already had on Colombian society,” Mills began. He went on to voice strong concern about attacks on social leaders and ex-combatants, urging Colombia’s government to increase its presence in rural areas and to punish those responsible.

Ambassador Mills also voiced support for Colombia’s “truly innovative” transitional justice system, a topic on which U.S. diplomats have generally avoided comment. In 2019, the U.S. ambassador at the time even supported President Duque’s unsuccessful efforts to weaken this system.

Community leaders threatened in El Salado, a town that suffered an emblematic massacre

The village of El Salado, in El Cármen de Bolívar municipality, in the once-conflictive Montes de María region a few hours’ drive from Cartagena, is known throughout Colombia for the massacre and displacement its residents suffered at the hands of paramilitaries between February 16 to 21, 2000. About 450 AUC members killed 60 people amid days of uninterrupted torture and rape, while the security forces failed to respond.

The name “El Salado” evokes the worst moments of Colombia’s armed conflict. Those memories revived this week as 11 community leaders received a written death threat. A flyer circulated by the so-called “Black Eagles” on January 18 reads, “The people who appear on this list, whose pictures or names are here, leave, or we will come for you at any time.” El Salado social leaders have also received text messages reading, “Either you leave or you die. We know where you are,” “this is how we started 21 years ago,” and “we already know where every family member lives.”

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) responded by sending a delegation to El Salado, led by Vice-Ombudsman Luis Andrés Fajardo. 2019 and 2020 “early warning” reports from the Defensoría point to a growing presence of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization, which moves cocaine through the Montes de María en route to the Caribbean coast. The National Police stated that it was sending an elite team along with representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía).

The name “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras) frequently appears on death threats sent to human rights defenders and social leaders around the country. But the group does not seem to have visible leadership or hold any territory. “The Black Eagles don’t exist,” said Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. “These are people, surely not among those wanted by the law, who use the ‘Black Eagles’ emblem to threaten. The authorities, led by the Fiscalía, must determine the threats’ origin. The problem is that this is never investigated.”

Links

  • As the FARC political party begins an “extraordinary assembly” meeting that some key leaders are skipping, leader Rodrigo Londoño declared an intention to abandon the name “FARC,” in order to ease formation of coalitions and to distinguish the group from armed dissidents. Fundación Paz y Reconciliación analyst Ariel Ávila told El Tiempo that a name change “would help the Farc party to get off the list of terrorist organizations.”
  • Two prominent Colombians are hospitalized with severe cases of COVID-19: Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Luis Fernando Arias, leader of the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC).
  • The Inter-American Human Rights Commission ordered precautionary measures for Ricardo Calderón, an intrepid investigative journalist who, during his longtime tenure at Semana magazine, revealed several major corruption and human rights scandals in Colombia’s armed forces, particularly in military intelligence. Calderón is one of many reporters who left Semana after a recent management change, but he continues to receive threats.
  • Judicial proceedings have begun for Bogotá police accused of killing civilians during a violent citywide police response to anti-police brutality protests last September, in which police killed 13 people over two days. Defense lawyers are seeking to have officers John Antonio Gutiérrez, José Andrés Lasso, and Andrés Díaz Mercado tried in the military justice system instead of the regular criminal justice system, arguing that their role in four of the killings was an “act of service.”
  • El Espectador took brief looks at the activities in southeastern Colombia of Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) criminal group, and at those of Mexican organized crime throughout the country.
  • Vorágine looks at the grim human rights and security situation in southern Chocó’s San Juan River valley, a major narcotrafficking corridor with very little government presence beyond sporadic sweeps from security forces and coca eradicators.

Tags: Weekly update

January 24, 2021

Colombia peace update: January 16, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Trump administration, citing the ELN talks’ outcome, puts Cuba on the U.S. terrorist sponsors list

On January 11, with nine days left to the Trump presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government was once again designating Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” alongside North Korea, Syria, and Iran. President Barack Obama’s administration had removed Cuba from this “terrorist list” in 2015.

The measure carries penalties, like bans on assistance and arms sales, that already apply to Cuba through other laws. The Biden administration can remove Cuba, American University’s William LeoGrande explains, by submitting “a presidential report and certification to Congress, which then has 45 days to reject the certification before it goes into effect.”

The main pretext cited for re-listing Cuba involves Colombia. In May 2018 Colombia’s government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host ELN-government peace talks. At the talks’ April 2016 outset, all involved—including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These made clear that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was skeptical about peace talks.

In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police Cadets’ School, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government rejected the protocols: it demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves demand to leave Cuba as detailed in the protocols.

Critics of the State Department decision pointed out that Havana is being punished for assisting a peace process and obeying its rules. “They felt they were doing what they were asked to do, then being accused of being terrorists themselves,” said a source whom The Washington Post described as “a former senior U.S. official familiar with Latin American policy.”

Condemnation came from many quarters, including WOLA.

  • “Efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable,” read a letter from nine Democratic senators, led by incoming Appropriations Committee Chairperson Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont.)
  • “I am outraged,” said the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York).
  • “If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts,” read a statement from the government of Norway.
  • The Colombian government’s two lead negotiators during the FARC peace process warned “that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments.”
  • On the other side, legislators from Colombia’s ruling rightist Centro Democrático party signed a letter calling on President Duque to consider breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba. And Colombia’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, tweeted that “The Government of Colombia will be forceful against diplomats who attempt to act and interfere within the country.”

Presidency peace and stabilization official reports results, responds to critics

The Colombian Presidency official who oversees most peace accord implementation, Emilio Archila, told El Espectador that he doesn’t know why critics accuse his government of focusing too exclusively on certain aspects of the accord, like the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). “A very small part of it,” he surmised, “is that it is in the political opposition’s interest that we arrive at [the election year of] 2022 with the idea that not enough is being done, and perhaps the opposition has done better than me.”

Archila had choice words for Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco, who upon the release of HRW’s annual worldwide report said that “in Colombia you turn over a stone and a sicario comes out,” while accusing the government of “a fundamentally military response” to human rights problems. “This is an insulting statement regarding Colombia,” the presidency official replied.

In interviews and in the release of monthly results reports, Archila pointed to a Defense Ministry “intelligence bubble” to follow up on risks and threats against ex-combatants “which has saved the lives of several.” Presidency documents cite 1,134 mostly small development projects delivered in the PDETs’ 170 municipalities (counties). Archila rejected criticism that delivery of these projects has not been as consultative as the accords envisioned. To criticisms that the projects have been too small to bring fundamental change in rural Colombia, he responded that larger projects, like tertiary roads, are coming but take longer.

FARC party spokesman Pastor Alape Lascarro told El Espectador that the PDETs “are not responding to the expectations of the communities, carrying out works that are not within the framework established in the Peace Agreement.” He questioned the long-term sustainability of economic projects offered to ex-combatants, while recalling that 253 of 13,185 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the accords’ signature.

Environmental defender Gonzalo Cardona is assassinated

On January 11 the Fundación ProAves, which seeks to protect birds and other wildlife in Colombia, announced the murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, coordinator of a ProAves preserve in Tolima department that provides refuge for the endangered yellow-eared parrot. ProAves had reported Cardona missing on January 8, and confirmed a few days later that he had been killed.

Cardona was a founding member of the environmental group , working in Roncesvalles municipality in west-central Tolima since 1998 to save a bird species whose population in Colombia’s central cordillera, by then, had fallen to 81. His work there during some of the conflict’s most intense years placed him in periodic danger, as rural Tolima was a key battleground between the FARC and government forces. But it made a difference: a late 2020 census counted 2,895 yellow-eared parrots in the preserve.

Cardona’s likely killers are not known. “It is outrageous that the second most biodiverse country on the planet continues to lose its great defenders to violence,” read a statement from Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute.

In more dismaying news, Francisco Javier Vera, an 11-year-old environmental activist in Cundinamarca, received a grisly threat of death and torture this week in a comment posted to his Twitter account.

Links

  • Sign up for Con Líderes Hay Paz, WOLA’s new digital advocacy campaign in support of Colombia’s threatened Afro-descendant and indigenous social leaders and human rights defenders.
  • Iván Márquez, the FARC leader who headed the guerrillas’ negotiating team in Havana then rearmed in 2019, released a video endorsing the idea of a recall vote to remove President Duque. At the request of Colombia’s National Police, Twitter shut down Márquez’s account, and that of his longtime dissident collaborator Jesús Santrich. YouTube followed suit. National Security Advisor Rafael Guarín tweeted that Márquez will be “taken down” like Pablo Escobar.
  • The Duque government is inexplicably removing the Interior Ministry security detail for Iván Velásquez, the former auxiliary magistrate who suffered extensive illegal surveillance while investigating the “para-politics” scandal, then went on to head Guatemala’s CICIG anti-corruption body.
  • The restart of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing regions, which was likely to begin in the first months of 2021, may be delayed for weeks or months further. A judge in Nariño accepted an injunction (tutela) filed by Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, alleging that required prior consultations have been insufficient.
  • El Espectador produced worthwhile sets of infographics about the reintegration of ex-combatants and implementation of the PDETs.
  • Sixteen women were killed in Colombia during the first thirteen days of 2021, a sharp rise in the rate of femicides.
  • President Duque reiterated his government’s refusal to offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans in Colombia, saying it would cause “a stampede.”
  • At War on the Rocks, Andrew Ivey explores “integral action” as a direction for the Colombian military’s post-conflict role. While we don’t share his conclusion that the military should play eminently civilian roles like carrying out development projects, Ivey presents detailed information about the evolution of the armed forces’ thinking.

Tags: Weekly update

January 18, 2021

Statement by former Colombian government peace negotiators

In response to the Trump administration’s addition of Cuba to the U.S. government’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, here is an English translation of a statement published on January 15 by the leaders of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.

STATEMENT BY FORMER COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT PEACE NEGOTIATORS

In view of the decision by the outgoing U.S. administration to include Cuba on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and the call by Colombia’s ruling party, the Democratic Center, to “review” relations with that country and make “substantive decisions”, we wish to say the following, based on our own experience in Cuba:

  1. During the nearly five years (2012-2016) that the Colombian government delegation was negotiating in Havana with the FARC, we enjoyed the strong support of the Cuban government, which used its best resources to ensure the success of the talks, together with Norway. In a situation that was not exactly one of abundance, Cuba made available to us a multiplicity of houses, conference rooms and—much more importantly—its most experienced diplomats, in Havana and Bogotá, to facilitate the negotiations in the best possible way. We say with total certainty: without Cuba’s commitment and contribution there would have been no peace agreement in Colombia.
  2. During this time, Cuban authorities exercised special vigilance over the FARC delegation, to ensure that their presence in Havana was in keeping with the purposes of the peace process. As a joke, they once told us: “We don’t even let the FARC exercise together, so that no one will think that they’re setting up a camp here”. They always made clear that the FARC was in Havana to negotiate peace, and for nothing else. As representatives of the government of Colombia, despite all the differences that we may have with the regime of Cuba, we are obliged to recognize and thank the generous spirit and the professionalism that Cuba deployed in favor of peace in Colombia.
  3. It is thus an outrage and an act of unequaled state ingratitude with the Republic of Cuba that, in the framework of similar negotiations with the ELN, the government of Iván Duque demanded that Cuba surrender members of that delegation to Colombian authorities. To do so would go against the protocols signed by the government of Colombia and the international guarantors, which called for the return of the ELN negotiators to their places of origin should the talks break down. The fact that the ELN committed an atrocious act of terrorism at the National Police Cadet School in Bogotá—which we condemn most vehemently—and that the government, as is its right, abandoned the negotiation, does not change the terms of what was formally agreed upon by Colombia in the framework of the peace process.
  4. Like the members of the FARC delegation at the time, all members of the ELN delegation were authorized by the Colombian government to participate in the negotiations, and their outstanding arrest warrants had been lifted. The current government preferred to ignore Colombia’s international obligations and to play along with an ideological strategy of the outgoing U.S. administration, which from the beginning had the objective, as was easy to foresee, of putting Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
  5. Now the Democratic Center, the ruling party, is calling with characteristic incoherence for “decisions” to be taken against Cuba, forgetting that its leader Alvaro Uribe, when president of Colombia, had asked Cuba to receive an ELN delegation to begin exploratory peace talks. Between 2005 and 2007, there were eight unsuccessful rounds of negotiations in Havana between the Uribe government and the ELN, for which the government authorized as representatives, among others, the ELN’s military commander, Antonio García, and the current head of the delegation in Havana, Pablo Beltrán, as well as countless civil society organizations.
  6. In those same years the ELN kidnapped 236 civilians, according to official figures, and did not release any. And yet the Uribe government probably never thought of demanding the extradition to Colombia of the ELN peace delegation to answer for those acts, because it knew that would mean breaking the rules of the game that allow for negotiations.
  7. What is at stake, then, is not only peace with the ELN or U.S. relations with Cuba, but the very possibility of carrying out peace negotiations. As the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs said a few days ago, if countries that facilitate peace efforts run the risk of ending up designated as sponsors of terrorism, from now on they will think twice before committing to such efforts.
  8. Who would believe that the United States might ask Qatar to extradite the members of the Taliban peace delegation, who are negotiating in Doha, because of the terrorist acts that the Taliban are still committing in Afghanistan today, and which the United States itself is denouncing? In the case of Afghanistan, the attitude of the outgoing U.S. administration has been exactly the opposite: in the agreement it signed with the Taliban, it even committed itself to removing them from the list of terrorist organizations without their having signed any peace agreement with the Afghan government, much less laying down their arms.
  9. Beyond coherence, the heart of the problem is that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments. The Duque government preferred to lend itself to the Trump administration’s ideological agenda, bringing Colombia’s international relations to a new low. Now that the Trump administration is ending its term by attacking its own electoral process and violating its own constitution, it is time for Colombia to turn around and seek a new, more constructive relationship with the United States.
  10. We strongly encourage the incoming administration of President-Elect Biden to review the decision to include Cuba on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries as a result of its facilitation of Colombia’s peace process, and we stand ready to testify about our experience.

Humberto de la Calle, Former Head of Government Negotiating Team
Sergio Jaramillo, Former High Commissioner for Peace

Bogotá / Brussels, January 15, 2021

Tags: Counter-Terrorism, Cuba, ELN Peace Talks, U.S. Policy

January 15, 2021

Colombia peace update: January 9, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.

U.S. Congress passes 2021 foreign aid bill

On December 27 Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s budget for 2021, including the foreign aid appropriation (see “Division K” here). As in nearly all of the past 30 years, that bill makes Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The law appropriates $461,375,000 in State Department and USAID-managed aid for Colombia this year, about $30-40 million more than the past few years’ laws and about $50 million more than the Trump White House had requested in February.

The proportions between programs and priorities are similar to prior years. Our best estimate (derived here) is that 47% of the $461 million will go to economic and civilian institution-building aid programs; 18% will go to strictly military and police aid programs; and 34% will go to programs, mainly counter-drug programs, that can pay for either type of aid but for which we don’t have a breakdown.

In addition to the $461 million in the foreign aid bill, a significant but unknown amount of military and police aid will come from the Defense Department’s $700 billion-plus budget. In 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service, Defense accounts contributed another $55.39 million or more to benefit Colombia’s security forces.

As in previous years, the law includes human rights conditions holding up about $7.7 million in military aid until the State Department can certify to Congress that Colombia is holding gross human rights violators accountable, preventing attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society leaders, protecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, and holding accountable senior military officers responsible for “false positive” killings.

After some very concerning military intelligence scandals in 2020, the law includes a new condition on the $7.7 million: the State Department must also certify that Colombia is holding accountable those responsible for “illegal surveillance of political opponents, government officials, journalists, and human rights defenders, including through the use of assets provided by the United States.”

Killings of former FARC combatants accelerate

The UN Verification Mission’s latest quarterly report, dated December 29, voices strong concerns about “248 killings of former combatants (six women), including 21 during the reporting period (two women, three of indigenous origin and two Afro-Colombians) and a total of 73 during 2020.”

The problem is worsening. Five demobilized FARC combatants were murdered over a 12-day post-Christmas period.

  • Rosa Amalia Mendoza Trujillo and her infant daughter were among several victims of a December 27 massacre in Montecristo, Bolívar.
  • Manuel Alonso, killed on December 27 on the road between Florida, Valle del Cauca, and Miranda, Cauca.
  • Yolanda Zabala Mazo, killed on January 1, together with her sister, on January 1 in Briceño, Antioquia.
  • Duván Armed Galíndez, shot on January 2 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
  • Diego Yule Rivera, who had been displaced from Caloto, Cauca after receiving threats, was shot in Cali on January 7.

This, according to the FARC political party, brings the number of assassinated ex-combatants to 252 since the peace accord went into effect.

The chief prosecutor’s office’s (Fiscalía’s) Special Investigative Unit has managed 289 cases of killings and other attacks on ex-combatants, the UN report informs. Of these, the Unit has achieved convictions of responsible parties in 34 cases, while 20 cases are on trial, 38 are under investigation, and an additional 49 have arrest warrants issued.

The report notes that conditions are most perilous for ex-combatants in the zone surrounding the triple border between Meta, Caquetá, and Guaviare departments in south-central Colombia. This area, once the rearguard of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, is now under the strong influence of the largest FARC dissident organization, the 1st and 7th Front structure under alias “Gentil Duarte.”

Coca eradication hits record level as a restart of fumigation nears

In an end-of-year security declaration, President Duque announced that Colombia, with U.S. backing, had met its 2020 goal of eradicating 130,000 hectares of coca. This is a manual eradication record, the first time Colombia has exceeded 100,000 hectares and an area “roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles” according to AFP. The 130,000-hectare goal will remain in place, Duque added, for 2021.

(Any discussion of eradication statistics must mention mid-2020 allegations from former officials and contractors, who contend that eradication teams may have inflated their results by as much as 30 percent.)

Duque added that Colombian forces had seized 498 tons of cocaine in 2020, which would shatter the 2017 record of 434.7 tons.

We probably won’t find out how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2020 until the U.S. government and UN Office on Drugs and Crime release their estimates in mid-2021. In the meantime, the Colombian government continues to move closer to relaunching a program, suspended in 2015 for health concerns, that would eradicate coca by spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft.

On December 19 and 20 Colombia’s environmental authority (ANLA) held a virtual public hearing on one of the main requirements that must be fulfilled to relaunch fumigation: the National Police’s application to modify its environmental management plan to allow aerial glyphosate spraying. This hearing was delayed for months, as communities in remote areas with poor internet service objected to holding a “virtual” consultation due to pandemic restrictions.

At the hearing, National Police Gen. Julio Cesar González presented a summary of the force’s proposed modifications to the environmental management plan (available here as a large trove of Google documents). “We’re going to go to areas that are already deteriorated, so we don’t expect to affect them further. This is based on technology, and aerial spraying will focus on large plots.” The General insisted that the spray program’s technology has advanced over what it was before, allowing greater accuracy over the area to be sprayed and the amount of herbicide to be applied. More than 60% of the spray mixture will be conditioned water, glyphosate will be 33% (less than some commercially available mixtures), and the rest will be a mineral coadjuvant.

Diego Trujillo, the delegate for agricultural and environmental issues at Colombia’s inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría), voiced concerns about the proposed renewal of spraying. He argued that it runs counter to the peace accord’s commitments, and relies on purchases of Chinese-produced glyphosate that, according to El Espectador’s summary, “led in 2015 to an investigation into corruption in the this herbicide’s acquisition, which was was not recommended by health and environmental authorities.”

Mauricio Albarracín of the legal NGO DeJusticia objected to the process, citing a lack of prior and informed participation of possibly affected communities who were being asked to consider an environmental management plan “that consists of more than 3,000 pages, contains language that is not accessible to the possibly affected population, and suffers a lack of transparency in information.” Albarracín added that information about harms and risks is “insufficient, poorly structured and biased,” and that the spraying plan fails to meet the obligation to implement the 2016 peace accord in good faith. (The accord sets aside aerial spraying as a last resort, when coca growers who have been offered help with alternatives persist in growing the crop, and when conditions on the ground are too dangerous for manual eradication.)

María Alejandra Vélez, director of the University of the Andes’ CESED (Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), argued that fumigation is not cost-effective and could carry unacceptable health and environmental risks. Vélez, an economist, found fault with the police proposal’s methods and quality of information.

Following the hearing, the daily El Espectador published a tough editorial titled “insisting on the useless.”

Presidency officials are investing their time complying with the requirements imposed by the Constitutional Court to resume an ineffective and insufficient activity that destroys ties with communities in the most affected areas. One would think that after decades of failure, the political consensus in Colombia would show signs of reflective capacity. But this is not the case. The useless is presented as the magical solution.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s homicide rate fell 4.6% in 2020 to a rate of 23.79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest level since 1974. However, the country suffered a jump in massacres—killings of three or more people at a time—with 89, claiming 345 victims.
  • President Iván Duque said that his government has no intention of providing COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “Of course they won’t get it,” he told Blu Radio. “Imagine what we would live through. We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”
  • La Silla Vacía wades through the Fiscalía’s record on bringing social leaders’ killers to justice, and finds 30 percent of cases have reached the indictment stage but only 7 percent have concluded with a conviction. Meanwhile, WOLA published a second alert, just before Christmas, about threats to social leaders, a week after warning of a large number of urgent situations. And on January 1 Gerardo León, a community leader in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, became the first murdered Colombian social leader of 2021.
  • Colombia expelled two Russian diplomats, accusing them of espionage. The Putin government followed suit, expelling two diplomats from Colombia’s Moscow embassy.
  • As of December 22, Joe Biden still hadn’t given a call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his post-election congratulations. If a call has taken place since, the Colombian government hasn’t announced it. Governing-party officials’ meddling in the U.S. campaign is the most likely explanation for the presidential ghosting.
  • Colombia has a new National Police chief. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, an officer with an intelligence background and the son-in-law of 1990s chief Gen. Rosso José Serrano, replaces Gen. Óscar Atehortúa, whose tenure was marked by protests against brutality and allegations of corruption. An El Espectador editorial urges the new chief to carry out badly needed reforms to the force.
  • Hernán Giraldo, a former top paramilitary leader from northern Colombia whose name is synonymous with systematic rape of young girls, is being extradited back to Colombia nearly 13 years after being sent to the United States to serve a sentence for another crime, drug trafficking.
  • Retired military officers are becoming more politically active. La Silla Vacía reports on a late October meeting at which former soldiers and police agreed to form a political party to run candidates in 2022 national elections, in order to counter what they see as “a radical left.” Meanwhile retired Gen. Jaime Ruiz, president of Colombia’s hardline association of former officers (ACORE), shared with El Nuevo Siglo his view that, largely because of the FARC peace accord, “2020 was not a good year for the security forces.”
  • December 31 was the deadline the government set for the FARC to hand over all illegally obtained assets, as mandated by the peace accord. The ex-guerrillas appear to have fallen short on turning over land and property, but claim that they face security and legal obstacles to doing so. El Espectador explains the “ABC” of the controversy.

Tags: Weekly update

January 9, 2021

The Truth Commission’s end-of-year message

Here is an English translation of the stirring end-of-year message published by the President of Colombia’s Commission for Clarification of the Truth, Father Francisco de Roux.

“From the encounter with thousands of survivors of Colombia’s armed conflict who carry the memory of the kidnapped and false positives; from the pain of the soldiers, police and former guerrillas without legs; from destroyed villages, displaced peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendant people dispossessed of their territories, abused women, children driven to kill, families searching for the disappeared, and thousands who fled into exile; and also from the pain left by COVID-19; we extend the most sincere embrace on behalf of the Truth Commission.

The tragedy of the conflict contains the truth of hatred, caused by power and greed, that broke us as a human community and calls us to change. We build Colombia together, from our cultural, ethnic, political, gender, and generational differences, or there will be no peaceful future for anyone.

We invite you to look directly at where we went wrong when we soaked the human and ecological wealth we have in blood and vengeance, when we made it natural to live among war, lies, corruption, injustice, and cocaine.

We urge, from the cries of victims on all sides, the ELN, the FARC dissidents and the Second Marquetalia of Ivan Marquez, Romaña and Jesus Santrich, to lay down their arms. Sixty years of war have made it clear that armed confrontation does not make social revolution, but causes suffering and terror for a people who cry ‘stop that war, stop it on all sides, stop it now.’

We ask the government not to stop extending a truly effective hand of peace to the insurgents, because we do not despair of the human being within them. We also ask it to go beyond the serious implementation of the PDET (Territorial Development Plans), to assume the totality of the peace and comprehensive rural reform, and to surround with political and ethical protection the mission of the institutions of the System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, and particularly the demanding task of the JEP.

We invite the institutions to put themselves at the service of the life and human greatness of each person, to the inclusion of all without borders.

We propose a dialogue to transform security. Not to reverse the steps taken by the Military Forces when they tried to change the objective of the war to that of an Army at the service of peace, despite the fact that there are still guerrilla and criminal groups. We invite to a security created by trust: when citizens believe in each other and trust in their institutions. The exaltation of weapons from all sides creates mistrust and provokes war, it does not give security.

We urge politicians on the campaign trail to move away from the marketing of votes and to have the audacity to listen in order to seek together the non-repetition of the tragedy, so as not to allow the intolerable to happen again.

In the new year, may lies and fears fall, and let us set in motion, from the truth, a future of hope, reconciliation and brotherhood in which we rescue the dignity we deserve as the people of Colombia.”

Francisco de Roux.

Tags: Politics of Peace, Truth Commission

January 4, 2021

Colombia peace update: Week of December 13, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Consultation puts a restart of fumigation on the front burner

On December 19 Colombia’s environmental authority, the ANLA, is holding a long-awaited public hearing about resuming coca fumigation. The term refers to a U.S.-backed program that uses aircraft spraying the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca. The hearing is a step toward ANLA’s deciding whether to award the controversial program an environmental license, one of several prerequisites that Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set for its restart.

Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years and over 1.8 million hectares sprayed, following a World Health Organization literature review’s finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Since then, the government was slow to implement an alternative—whether on-the-ground eradication or building state presence and services in coca-growing zones—and coca cultivation surged.

The December 19 public hearing centers on the 4,000-page modification that the National Police—which runs the spray program—is proposing to the ANLA’s environmental management plan for the spraying. The hearing responds to a March request from four NGOs, Acción Técnica Social, Elementa, Viso Mutop, y Dejusticia. The pandemic has delayed it: courts ruled that communities in remote areas far from internet access could not be consulted “virtually.” A higher court overruled that in October, however, finding that virtual consultations could go ahead.

The groups that called for the hearing contend that the spray program is risky and ineffective. DeJusticia’s co-founder, Rodrigo Uprimny, notes, “The argument against fumigation is simple: it is not effective, it has serious negative effects, its legal viability is precarious, and there are better strategies.” María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs (CESED) contends that fumigation causes “a loss of state legitimacy,” a “balloon effect” as coca cultivation moves elsewhere, and conflict with the peace accords’ offer of help with crop substitution.

Should this process lead to a restart of spraying, we can expect Colombian organizations—including those that called for the December 19 hearing—to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. An analysis from DeJusticia advocates finds “poor transparency and access to information in the process, weak evidence, and failure to comply with constitutional orders,” while little is known about the health study that Colombia’s equivalent of the CDC (the INS) has been required to carry out. A joint letter from numerous Colombian organizations found that “the government is not complying with the legal and constitutional mandate to respect consultation and free, prior, and informed consent in eradication plans in ethnic territories,” and demanded that the December 19 hearing be suspended.

Coca fumigation has been the subject of numerous WOLA reports and commentaries, a November 30 joint letter with Colombian partners, and an event we co-hosted on December 9.

International warnings about massacres and social leader killings

“I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence,” reads a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that counts 375 people murdered in 2020 by massacres and targeted social leader killings. A summary of the statement was featured for at least two days this week on the main page of the United Nations’ website. During the past week, strong concerns about massacres (defined as the killing of multiple people at a time) and social leader murders also came from:

  • The 29th semi-annual report of OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA), drawing attention to “illegal armed groups’ territorial and social control.”
  • A Verdad Abierta resource that allows a reader to view brief biographical and geographical information about 602 social leaders killed between January 2016 and September 2020, selecting for year, region, and stage of judicial investigation.
  • WOLA’s monthly alert about the human rights situation, which “cannot stress enough that international actions are required to stop the human rights rollbacks occurring as a result of the inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace accord.”

Two reports warn about security along the Colombia-Venezuela border

Two high-credibility security think tanks released reports raising alarms about worsening security conditions at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Even as pandemic measures stop all legal border crossings, violent organized crime activity has increased, in a way that mixes dangerously with the neighboring governments’ poor diplomatic relations.

“In the 24 border municipalities of Colombia, during 2020, 472 people have been assassinated, 63 of Venezuelan nationality; 24 have been massacred; 1,365 persons have been forcibly displaced and 13 have been kidnapped,” reports the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación in a 55-page report on The Situation of Security and Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela Border. “On the Venezuelan side,” however, the Foundation could obtain “no known figures that would allow us to specify” how bad the situation is.

“Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings,” reports the International Crisis Group’s Disorder on the Border: Keeping the Peace between Colombia and Venezuela. “High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.”

Both reports find the Rastrojos, a paramilitary-derived organized crime group, losing ground to the ELN along the border between Norte de Santander, Colombia and Táchira, Colombia: a more densely populated part of the border especially coveted by smugglers. The Rastrojos were found to have helped Venezuelan Assembly President (recognized by several dozen countries as Interim President) Juan Guaidó to cross overland into Colombia in February 2019. Since then, Venezuela’s security forces have cracked down on the group, along with the ELN, which moved quickly to fill the vacuum and to consolidate its dominance on the Venezuelan side on the border.

The Venezuelan government appears to have aided and abetted the ELN, the Crisis Group notes, as Caracas officials “view the ELN as a supplement to the state’s border defenses and seem willing to overlook occasional clashes between its fighters and the Venezuelan military.”

Other groups, like FARC dissidents, remnants of the EPL guerrillas, Venezuelan gang networks, and Mexican cartel middlemen, are also very active, adding to the chaos. “The Colombian army, for its part, is under orders not to rock the boat” in order to minimize the likelihood of conflict, the ICG finds.

Links

  • The Fiscalía is investigating 2,314 cases of “false positive” cases involving 10,949 members of the Army, including 22 generals, involving 3,966 victims, according to a September document that the prosecutor’s office sent to the International Criminal Court.
  • Despite the sharp rise in massacres and social leader killings, Colombia’s 2020 homicide rate to date is 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents, which Colombia’s Police say is the lowest in 46 years.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses take issue with government claims that nearly all 250 killings of ex-FARC guerrillas are related to narcotrafficking.
  • “Of the 75 municipalities with the most coca or substitution leader killings…there were specialized judges in only 3 (Puerto Asís, Tumaco, and Cúcuta) and criminal judges in 6. There were judicial police in 11 and specialized prosecutors in 7,” reads a La Silla Vacía analysis of the justice system’s absence.
  • Prominent center-left columnists Ramiro Bejarano, María Jimena Duzán, and Cecilia Orozco continued to question former Fiscal General Néstor Humberto Martínez, whom they accuse of plotting with the U.S. DEA to entrap participants and supporters of the peace process between 2017 and 2019.

Tags: Weekly update

December 20, 2020

Urgent call for non-reactivation of glyphosate fumigation in Colombia

Colombian officials are forecasting that within two months, a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones—suspended for public health reasons in 2015—will restart. A major step along the way, a nationwide consultation with communities, is scheduled to start on Saturday.

Here is a letter that WOLA and five Colombian organizations sent to legislators in both of our countries explaining why we oppose the re-start of fumigation. (A PDF version is here. Una version en español está aquí. Una versión PDF en español está aquí.)

Bogotá D.C. November 30, 2020.

Honorable Congressmen of the Republic of Colombia
Honorable Members of the Congress of the United States of America
Social organizations defending human rights and environmental rights

Re: Urgent call for non-reactivation of glyphosate fumigation in Colombia.

Cordial greetings,

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Elementa DDHH, Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo, La Red en Movimiento[1], Corporación Viso Mutop, and Consultoría para los derechos humanos y el desplazamiento (CODHES), write to express deep concern about the imminent reactivation of glyphosate fumigations in Colombia, ignoring the guidelines given by the Constitutional Court in Ruling T-236 of 2017, as well as the historical and documented serious impact on health and the dire consequences in terms of the environment and forced migration in the country.

The national government of Colombia, through various mechanisms, has expressed its determined interest to reactivate glyphosate fumigations for crops of illicit use; a decision motivated, in part, by pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump within the framework of the war on drugs.

Despite the various stages that must be carried out based on the guidelines given by Colombia’s Constitutional Court regarding an eventual reactivation of fumigations, like modifying the Environental Management Plan (PMA) and carrying out hearings with communities, these have not been fulfilled, since campesino and indigenous communities and civil society organizations have not been able to participate in virtual hearings with the government. On the contrary, the national government, through the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, announced in October of this year that aerial spraying will be resumed to combat drug trafficking.

Glyphosate spraying has been shown to be risky to human health, to negatively affect ecosystems, to threaten indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and their sacred territories, as well as the campesino economy and its efforts at alternatives to coca cultivation. The consequences in terms of food insecurity and the loss of productive capacity in rural areas have generated massive displacement within and outside of Colombia, with humanitarian impacts widely documented since 2000 by international organizations and governments of neighboring countries.

Glyphosate was classified by the WHO in 2015 as probably carcinogenic, and has been proven to cause death in animals essential to the preservation of the ecosystem, as well as in nearby water sources. Likewise, by affecting other non-illegal crops, it puts the food security of communities at risk and increases economic precariousness in these regions, thus generating forced internal and cross-border displacements and conflicts between public forces and the population, affecting the legitimacy of the state in these territories. All these consequences show how aerial spraying with glyphosate is a practice that leads to violations of the right to life, integrity and dignity of the population living in these regions, since it has also been proven to be correlated to respiratory diseases and miscarriages.[2]  

In addition, the Final Peace Agreement between the National Government and the former FARC-EP guerrilla group, which is part of the constitutionality bloc, in Point 4 on “Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs”, agreed to a Comprehensive National Program of Substitution of Illicit Crop Use -PNIS, which incorporates voluntary eradication and plans for immediate family care, which would be hindered and affected by the reactivation of glyphosate fumigation. It should be noted that glyphosate spraying has proven to be unsustainable over time, since it does not offer economic alternatives to the cultivating families, and its use is followed by a high percentage of replanting—the opposite of the case of voluntary substitution, for which it has been demonstrated that very few families return to illicit crops.

As if the adverse effects of glyphosate were not enough, the return to these practices makes even less sense when analyzing these methods’ effectiveness compared to their economic costs, since according to figures given by UNODC and the government itself, eradicating a hectare of crops with glyphosate costs 80% more than complying with a family’s voluntary crop replacement plan. In fact, the total estimated cost of carrying out voluntary crop substitution processes with 80,438 families is 2.8 trillion Colombian pesos, while between 2005 and 2014, 79.9 trillion were spent on aerial spraying with glyphosate[3].   

For this reason, community, ethnic, human rights and environmental rights organizations reject the reactivation of glyphosate fumigation and call on the Congress of the Republic of Colombia, the Congress of the United States, and interested organizations to support alternatives to eradication and glyphosate fumigation, taking into account the innumerable scientific and community contributions that demonstrate the serious effects in terms of human and environmental rights, as well as the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs.

We share as an annex to this communication a brief but profound analysis of the serious consequences on the rights to life, integrity and dignity of the population in case of reactivation of glyphosate spraying in the country.

Sincerely,

WOLA – The Washington Office on Latin America
Elementa DDHH
Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo
Red en Movimiento: investigación y acción en migraciones
La Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el desplazamiento (CODHES)
Corporación Viso Mutop


[1] Red en Movimiento: Investigación y acción en migraciones is a network of academics from different universities and social organizations in Colombia that seeks to make a social and political impact on the public agenda and opinion around the phenomena of migration in the city and the country. It is integrated by researchers, professors and activists from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Universidad de Los Andes, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Universidad Externado de Colombia, and Universidad Santo Tomás.

[2] Today there is a complaint against the Colombian state before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the use of glyphosate that led to a campesino woman’s miscarriage. Meanwhile Monsanto (through its parent company Bayer) has been compelled by US courts to pay damages on several occasions for the causal relationship between the use of Roundup (a herbicide whose main component is glyphosate) and the development of cancer in several people, some of the most emblematic of whom are the cases of Dewayne Johnson, Edwin Haderman, and Alva and Alberta Pillod.

[3] Source: – UNODC. 2020. Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops – PNIS (report n° 21). Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/colombia/2020/Mayo/INFORME_EJECUTIVO_PNIS_No._21.pdf and Response of the Directorate for the Substitution of Illicit Crops to a freedom of information request of the House of Representatives. October 2018.

Tags: Coca, Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy

December 17, 2020

Colombia peace update: Week of December 6, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fumigation is coming

Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, told the Blu Radio network that a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation might restart in as little as “between a month and a half and two months.”

Five years ago, citing health concerns, the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos suspended this program, which used aircraft to spray the controversial herbicide glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015. The current government of Iván Duque is working to restart the program, with U.S. funding and exhortations from Donald Trump: “you’re going to have to spray.”

That requires meeting a series of requirements laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, among them consultations with communities and studies of environmental and health impact. The consultations had been slowed by the pandemic: a court in Nariño found that “virtual” exchanges were impossible with communities in remote areas far from internet coverage. That decision, though, was reversed by an October higher-court ruling. Now, 17 consultations are ongoing, and the environmental licensing authority, ANLA, will hold a final national consultation beginning on December 19.

Though Minister Ruiz’s maximum-two-months is on the fast end of estimates we have heard for when fumigation might restart, it is not implausible.

At a December 9 event WOLA hosted with five experts from around Colombia, speakers warned about potential damage that a renewed aerial glyphosate spraying might cause: to human health, to the environment, to indigenous cultures, and to nearby crops needed for food security. Speakers warned that a fumigation program would be costly, would cause forced displacement, and, under most circumstances, would violate the peace accords’ fourth chapter. They warned that a renewed fumigation program could inspire a wave of protest in coca-growing zones, especially if carried out under current conditions of insufficient prior consultation and few opportunities to receive crop substitution assistance.

FARC dissident activity around the country

Concerning reports from around the country point to increasing activity of FARC dissident groups. These are armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who rejected the peace accord in 2016, ex-guerrillas who demobilized but later rearmed, and new recruits. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación’s (PARES) latest report on the country’s security situation estimates that about 30 such groups, totaling perhaps 2,600 members, are active in 113 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). It places them in three categories:

  • Those networked under the 1st and 7th Front structure headed by Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who refused to demobilize in 2016. PARES estimates that 65% of dissidents are in this network.
  • The “Nueva Marquetalia” network headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks but rearmed in 2019.
  • Smaller, “dispersed” groups, often headed by very young people.

After Iván Márquez and several other top ex-FARC leaders launched their “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group in August 2019, Gentil Duarte’s larger dissident network appeared to rebuff their outreach. Now, “Police say there is a war to the death in the areas [the two dissident networks] aspire to control, such as Putumayo, Nariño, Catatumbo, and Cauca,” according to a December 10 story in El Espectador, which relies heavily on National Police information.

That story warns that Nueva Marquetalia is moving into the heartland of Gentil Duarte’s group, seeking to traffic cocaine along the Guaviare River between Meta and Guaviare. A December 7 half-ton cocaine seizure in Puerto Concordia, Meta, may indicate that Iván Márquez may have sent a powerful emissary to do this: Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” who twenty years ago was one of the most feared FARC members because he pioneered ransom kidnappings along main roads out of Bogotá. Much of the cocaine produced in Meta and Guaviare goes through Arauca into Venezuela, then by air or boat to Central America and Mexico, or on to Europe.

To the west of Puerto Concordia, in La Macarena, Meta, dissidents are believed to be behind the murder of Javier Francisco Parra, the director of Cormacarena, the Colombian government’s regional environmental body. Parra was known as a defender of Caño Cristales, a tourist destination famous for its uniquely colored algae. The site’s accessibility was widely hailed as a tangible benefit of the peace accord.

Another feared member of the Nueva Marquetalia, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa”—who headed the FARC’s brutal, elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Column—was dispatched to Putumayo. There, he made an alliance with that department’s most powerful regional organized crime group, called “La Constru” or occasionally “La Mafia Sinaloa,” and with remnants of the FARC’s 48th front. All are fighting the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group, which is aligned with Gentil Duarte, for control of Putumayo’s lucrative trafficking routes through Ecuador and out to the Pacific, and down the Caquetá river into Brazil and on to Europe.

Colombian press reports from the past week also find a worsening humanitarian situation in Nariño’s Pacific coastal region. In the busy port of Tumaco, “where, curiously, there are hundreds of Mexicans these days,” Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador about the wave of violence that followed the September collapse of a two-year truce between two local dissident groups, the Frente Óliver Sinisterra and the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico.

Several hours north and inland from Tumaco, in the violent Telembí Triangle region, La Silla Vacía reports on fighting between the Óliver Sinisterra, the Gentil Duarte-tied 30th Front, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, for control of the Patía River’s trafficking routes. Violence broke out six months ago, during the pandemic, and has been worsening ever since. Further north along the coast, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA alerted about combat between dissidents and other groups causing mass displacements in Iscuandé, Nariño.

In all of these reports, a common theme is the near-total absence of Colombia’s state. Usually, the only government presence is military—and in places like coastal Nariño, there is only so much even a corruption-free armed forces could do. In La Silla Vacía, the general heading the local armed forces task force “recognizes that the Patía River is too extensive and connects with a maze of smaller rivers that are impossible for the security forces to control in their entirety.”

Links

  • Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his first overseas trip as chairman will be to Afro-descendant regions of Colombia , a country he knows well (and, some contend, controversially).
  • Colombia’s Senate approved a round of 19 military promotions, including those of Army Generals Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo and Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sánchez, who commanded units during the 2000s alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings.
  • Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian from Caucasia, in northeastern Antioquia’s convulsed Bajo Cauca region. Verdad Abierta also focused on the Bajo Cauca region, publishing a threepart series, with some striking photos, about armed group activity and social leaders’ precarious situation.
  • At a virtual hearing of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, representatives of Colombia’s Truth Commission denounced obstacles that the government has placed in the way of their work, such as security forces’ refusal to turn over requested documents. Colombian government representatives declined even to participate in the hearing.
  • A UNDP-PRIO-Universidad de los Andes poll of 12,000 residents of the 170 post-conflict “PDET” municipalities found reduced overall perceptions of armed-group control, and 80% support for programs that reintegrate former FARC combatants.

Tags: Weekly update

December 12, 2020