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 Timescalled 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 Postposits, “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 alloperate 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”.
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 toldEl 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.
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.
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
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
Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
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.
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 Chroniclescalls “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 Chronicleshypothesize 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 hypothesisadvanced 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,” notedCaracas 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.”
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 Timescover 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-circulatedreports 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.
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 Guardianhailed 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 toldEl Tiempo, “would be very serious for Colombia and the region.”
“They killed me on the morning of May 25 ,” 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 Semanareceived 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 Colombianoexplains, 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.
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 Tiemporeported 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 Sigloreported 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,” Semanareports. 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.
The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.
Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.
Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.
Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.
Hostages and human rights violations
The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.
Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.
This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party).
The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.
But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.
Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.
Rural communities under pressure from criminals
OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.
This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.
Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.
They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.
Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.
The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.
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, beganalleging 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 toldEl 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, legalexpertsinterviewed 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, tellingEl 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, toldEl 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.”
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 Silencioreported 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.
In a March 11 statement addressed to members of the U.S. Congress, the Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group explains the context of the ongoing violence being experienced in the Catatumbo region—located in the North Santander department, which borders Venezuela. The Working Group has closely monitored the 2016 peace accord’s implementation, and alongside the Catholic Church and other sectors of civil society, has continuously appealed to the Colombian government to advance a direly needed humanitarian accord in Catatumbo.
The national government’s strategy to deploy more than 10,000 soldiers in the area and to institute Catatumbo as a Zona Futuro, has not provided opportune and effective responses. On the contrary, it has contributed to persistently high rates of violent actions against the civilian population, as evidenced by the increase in numbers of homicide, forced recruitment of minors, and sexual violence; as well as the expansion of paramilitary structures, and according to 2020 figures: 6 massacres, 17 social leader and former combatant homicides, 1,180 internally displaced persons, and 33,627 confined persons. Likewise, there are records of 5 extrajudicial executions by the public force in the framework of forced illicit crop eradication operations and the reinforcement of the presence of paramilitary groups such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas in Tibú and the metropolitan area of Cúcuta.
The Working Group also invites U.S. Congressional offices to an event to be hosted by WOLA, alongside the affected communities and the Catholic Church, on Wednesday, April 7th at 10:00 a.m. EDT. The event seeks to help the international community understand the dynamics of conflict in Catatumbo and the true state of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation.
The Working Group requests U.S. congressional support for the humanitarian agreement to help shield the civilian population from ongoing conflict. Likewise, the Working Group requests U.S. aid and assistance before the Colombian Government to carry out concrete actions to increase the urgent humanitarian development needed.
Read the full, English statement here. Read the original, Spanish statement here.
In recent weeks, ethnic groups throughout Colombia have urged for necessary advancements in the peace process including, but not limited to: the fulfillment of the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter, establishing the Special Peace Electoral Constituencies in Colombia’s Congress, and addressing the critical humanitarian situation in Alto Baudó, Chocó department.
Below are synopses of these recent statements and access to full versions in both English and Spanish.
Fulfill the Ethnic Chapter Now!
On March 1, the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) published a statement that outlined the lagging implementation of the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter. They also point to obstacles for ethnic participation in the transitional justice system and the urgent need to address the humanitarian crises in Chocó department, the city of Buenaventura, and on the Caribbean coast. The statement also urges the national government to resume peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the translated English version here.
The Special Peace Electoral Constituencies are an Opportunity to Strengthen Colombia’s Democracy. “Delivering for the Victims”.
In this March 1 statement, Colombia’s Ethnic Commission for Peace and Territorial Rights gives an overview of the effects of ongoing conflict in ethnic and rural territories in the past year. The Commission urges for proactive action by the state and demands the immediate creation of the Special Peace Electoral Constituencies in Colombia’s Congress—a mechanism devised in the 2016 peace accord. The Special Peace Electoral Constituencies seek to create representation in Colombia’s House of Representatives, promoting democracy and participation among sectors of Colombian society that have been historically excluded from political and economic life.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the translated English version here.
Humanitarian Mission in Alto Baudó, Chocó Department
A March 1 statement by an Alto Baudó humanitarian mission delegation—composed of regional and international entities—corroborates the critical security situation of the Baudó people. Several human rights violations and breaches of International Humanitarian Law were documented and the delegation made appeals to the national government, the Chocó Governor, the Alto Baudó municipality, political leaders and the ruling class, the Attorney General and Comptroller’s offices, the Prosecutor’s office, the Constitutional Court, and the international community.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the translated English version here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 Vacíareports, 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.
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.
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, toldVerdad 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, toldEl 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 Noticiasreport 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.”
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 Tiempooffered 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, toldSemana 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 Vacíalooks 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 Caracolanalysis of land tenure in Colombia.
On February 24, over 25 international civil society organizations, including WOLA—through the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz—published a statement commending the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) for its February 18 order on how it plans to investigate and prosecute the at least 6,402 extrajudicial executions it has identified in macro-case 03.
The original Spanish-language statement is here. The English-language version of the statement is below.
The undersigned international civil society organizations welcome the progress made by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). On February 18, 2021, through Auto 033 of 2021, the JEP made public its prioritization strategy within Case 03, known as “false positive” extrajudicial executions. According to information gathered by the Chamber for the Acknowledgment of Truth and Responsibility (Sala de Reconocimiento de Verdad y Responsabilidad), “at least 6,402 people were illegitimately killed to be presented as combat casualties throughout the national territory between 2002 and 2008”.
The courageous and rigorous work of Colombian human rights and victims’ organizations has been key in clarifying the truth about these painful events, which the Colombian people continue to mourn and must be prosecuted. Seeking to reduce the JEP’s work as an attempt to “discredit” the leader of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) political party, not only constitutes an affront, but it is also untrue and puts at serious risk, once again, the lives and work of human rights defenders, whose truth is key to definitively overcoming the conflict in Colombia.
We reject this new stigmatization and alert the state and the Government of Colombia about the serious security consequences it may have on the victims and defenders who have been denouncing these cases for years.
It is important that the JEP does not falter in its work, which, as stated by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssel, “is taking important steps in the fight against impunity, which will help Colombia to address past serious violations of international law and prevent the recurrence of such violations”.
As international civil society organizations that have accompanied Colombian human rights organizations for many years, we reiterate our support for their legitimate work, which we consider essential for consolidating peace and strengthening the rule of law in Colombia.
All sectors and actors should refrain from issuing stigmatizing statements that put lives at risk and further polarize Colombia. We encourage all to contribute with determination from their different roles and mandates to the definitive overcoming of the conflict in Colombia.
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 Vacíareports, 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) toldEl 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.
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 Vacíareports.
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.
On November 18, 2020, we the undersigned and representatives of civil and academic organizations who participated in the discussion about the status of the civic strike agreements organized by the University of Florida and the University of Arizona, publicly insist that the Colombian government headed by President Iván Duque prioritize the implementation of the agreements signed between the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee and Colombian government entities. The U.S. Congress, a political and commercial ally due to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, should force its counterpart to keep its word to the people of Buenaventura.
First, we express our deep concern for the physical security of leaders who are part of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee and the accompanying and allied organizations of this process in Colombia.
In particular, we are very concerned that at least three members of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee are facing complex situations of insecurity and that the State’s response has been insufficient to guarantee their physical integrity. These leaders include Leyla Andrea Arroyo and Dañelly Estupiñán, leaders of the Black Communities Process (PCN), John Janer Panameño, president of the Isla de la Paz neighborhood community action board, and Adriel Ruiz Galván, coordinator of the Foundation Spaces of Coexistence and Social Development (FUNDESCODES).
Ms. Arroyo recently received a death threat from unknown men while she was eating at a restaurant. Mr. Panameño has recorded surveillance of her person and received death threats on her phone. Ms. Estupiñán has also recorded surveillance, received death threats, and the situation deteriorated to the point that she had to travel internally to guarantee her safety. On November 2, Mr. Galva received numerous death threats via the WhatsApp application.
Due to the murder of the historic Afro-Colombian leader Temistocles Machado, known by the nickname “Don Temis,” and constant attacks against members of the civic strike, we urge the governments of the United States and Colombia to:
Ensure that the Attorney General’s Office investigates and punishes all those responsible (both material and intellectual authors) linked to these attacks against social leaders and civil society involved in the work of the Buenaventura Civic Strike.
Implement, in a consulted and concerted manner with the beneficiaries, protection measures that are effective to guarantee the lives of the people in question and their families, in a way that integrates an ethnic and gender differentiation.
In terms of what was agreed between the Colombian authorities and the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee, we see it important that both prioritize the implementation of the following:
3) The legal clarification of the territory. To advance with what was agreed with the Territory, Housing and Infrastructure working group, it is necessary to resolve the issue of the territorial rights of Black and Indigenous ethnic peoples and to advance with the titling of individual properties and public assets – INURBE.
4) Review the affairs of the Dragados Bahía and Aguacate and San Antonio estuaries. The meetings of the Environment, Productivity, Employment and Territory, Housing and Infrastructure working groups did not take place. The details of the dredging projects of the access channel to Buenaventura Bay and the Aguacate and San Antonio estuaries were not publicized. The working groups did not have the opportunity to analyze these infrastructure projects. Therefore, they advanced without institutional and community input of the possible effects and environmental damage caused. There was no verification of said works with the affected ethnic communities and their fundamental right to prior consultation and participation for said works was violated. In summary, the government signed contracts to dredge the access channel to Buenaventura Bay and the San Antonio Estuary, completely ignoring the civic strike agreement. As a result of this, these projects must be put on hold until due process is fully carried out with the organizations and communities whose rights have been violated.
5) The District POT Formulation of Buenaventura. In accordance with what was negotiated with the Territory, Housing and Infrastructure working group, the district mayor’s office has not asked the Ministry of the Interior to initiate prior consultation for the POT. According to the Committee, the mayor’s office and the Ministry of the Interior are unaware of the prior consultation agreement and promote a path for citizen participation with community councils. The Ministry of the Interior and the DNP have not convened the construction session of the proposed route for prior consultation of the formulation of the District POT. The governments of the United States and Colombia must insist that these entities comply with this obligation.
6) The development of a public policy of access to justice and rural energization. In accordance with the working group on access to Justice, Victim, Protection and Memory, advances are required in both things.
7) Approval and implementation of collective protection measures for 4 priority collective subjects within the framework of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Movement. To date, only the measures of one of the collective subjects have been approved. The Human Rights, Guarantees and Protection working group emphasizes the need to approve and implement these measures.
8) Investigation of the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation on the facts of violation of human rights by ESMAD. In three years, the Prosecutor’s Office has not made official results of the investigation into the victimizing events that occurred during the 22 days of the civic strike and subsequent days. To guarantee non-repetition and ensure justice for the victims, it is essential that such an investigation be initiated with prompt results.
9) Advance with the IACHR’s Visit to Buenaventura to verify the status of the right to participation in the framework of social protest. In three years, the Foreign Ministry has not processed the Colombian government’s invitation to the IACHR to visit Buenaventura. The U.S. government should urge the Duque administration to move forward with this expert visit.
10) Construction, provision and commissioning of the new headquarters of the Centro Náutico Pesquero – CNP – SENA. This work was projected for 18 months, started in 2017. Three deadlines have been scheduled, without meeting. (This agreement is from 2014 – Shock Plan – March to bury violence and live with dignity).
11) Creation of a legal commission to lead regulatory processes, adjustments of existing regulations and formulation of legislative initiatives and presentation to the Congress of the Republic of Colombia.
12) Transfer to FONBUENAVENTURA of the resources of the prioritized agreements effective 2019, not executed by the Ministries and decentralized entities. More than 18 months after FONBUENAVENTURA was established, it has not started its operation and most of the resources not executed from prioritized agreements from the 2017 to 2019 terms have not been transferred.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Dr. Carlos de la Torre, Director, Center for Latin American Studies, The University of Florida* Dr. Marcela Vásquez-León, Director, Center for Latin American Studies, The University of Arizona* Dr. Joel Correia, Assistant Professor, Center for Latin American Studies, The University of Florida*
Dr. Anthony Dest, Assistant Professor, Lehman College*
*Asteriks indicate that they are signing in their personal capacity and that affiliation is for identification purposes only.
We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Luis Fernando Arias, the Mayor Counselor of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC). We offer our deepest condolences to Luis Fernando’s family and the Indigenous movement.
Luis Fernando was a champion in defending the rights of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples. He was a forceful advocate for the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in Colombia’s 2016 peace accords, safeguarding the rights of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. During the peace negotiations in Havana, he was the leading Indigenous voice in ensuring that the accords accounted for the heavy impact that Colombia’s 50-plus years of conflict with the FARC had on Indigenous communities. WOLA staff worked with Luis Fernando over many years in efforts to elevate the voices of the victims of Colombia’s conflict, uphold Indigenous rights and to ensure that the U.S. government plays a positive role in helping secure a lasting peace for Colombia. He will be missed by his colleagues in D.C., and throughout Latin America.
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 toldThe 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 Tiemporevealed 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 Tiempospeculates.
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 Tiemporevealed 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, Semanarevealed 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, toldEl 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.”
Next week, President Duque is likely to have his first phone conversation with President Joe Biden since the U.S. election, La Silla Vacíareports, 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 toldSemana, 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).
Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura.This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
Support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign:
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 Espectadorprofiled 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 Vacíafinds.
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 Vacíareports.
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 Espectadorpoints 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.”
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,” predictsLa 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 Noticiasalleges, 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 Semanainvestigation 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 Espectadorworries 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.
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:
“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.
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.”
On January 21, a coalition of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and Campesino communities represented by the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) published a statement addressed to the Biden-Harris administration outlining recommendations for peacebuilding priorities in Colombia.
The recommendations include: a full commitment to the agreed terms of the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), resume peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and advance humanitarian minimums, dismantle illegal armed groups following community input, enforce agrarian reform, implement illicit crop substitution programs, and strengthen rural judicial institutions.
Below is the full English translation of the statement. The original Spanish statement is here.
January 21, 2021
Dear President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris,
We send a respectful greeting and our best wishes that the exercise of your mandate during these four years will be the beginning of a process of new horizons for humanity and planet earth in brotherhood, solidarity, and justice.
We write to you a day after your possession in the hope that our concerns can be received by you and taken into account in the political, economic, environmental, and labor decisions you are going to make in relations with our country.
Our Black, Indigenous, and Campesino communities live in remote parts of Colombia, that for more than 40 years, have lived in the midst of armed confrontation for political and social reasons. Today, we continue to suffer old and new violence. Persecution, torture, murder, enforced disappearance, displacement and violent dispossession of land, sexual violence, stigmatization, and forced to remain silent or we will be killed. New slavery.
More than 900 social, peace, and environmental leaders have been killed, and more than 200 peace signers have been killed. The Peace Agreement signed by President Santos in 2016 is today in crisis due to the series of breaches to what was agreed
We believe that peace is built on dialogue and compliance with agreements on social inclusion, on the cessation of discrimination and on respect for sources of life such as water and forests.
Neither investment nor development in the world nor in Colombia can be based on misery, exclusion, environmental devastation and armed violence, yes in respect for human rights, in the peace agreed, in reconciliation and respect for the land and all its wealth and a neat and respectful public force of rights.
In the midst of the pandemic, the undersigned wrote to President Duque to ask him for a cease-fire, in the face of what was to come, that illegality would consolidate his armed control, sadly protected by sectors of the Military Forces. We never received a precise answer. Today everything is more serious. We also sent this message to the ELN guerrillas and other new guerrillas. Also to the groups inherited from the paramilitaries such as the AGC, Comandos de Frontera, Los Caparrapps, La Local and Los Bustamante to a Global Humanitarian Agreement. The president ignored us, as well as United Nations Security Council resolution 2356 and Pope Francis’ call for peace.
We respectfully invite you to take into account in your agenda of cooperation with Colombia the following aspects:
1. Invitation to the government of President Duque to complete compliance with what was agreed with the FARC signatories.
2. A resumption of rapprochement with the ELN guerrillas on humanitarian agreements and the development of the six-point agenda for dialogue towards peace. 3. A public policy built from the territories and with the communities for the gradual and comprehensive dismantling of all armed structures
3. A public policy built from the territories and with the communities for the gradual and comprehensive dismantling of all armed structures inherited from paramilitarism.
4. An agrarian reform that makes it possible, with the provision of land, to clean up property, to create guarantees for the inhabitants of the territories and, in particular, for women, for those investors who wish to approach these territories in accordance with respect for human rights, democratic principles and principles of respect for the environment. Avoiding the implementation of any model of development that excludes direct dialogue with the legitimate owner inhabitants, which destroys vital sources of life such as water and forests necessary for the survival of humanity.
6. Implementation of an illicit crop substitution policy agreed with communities with international oversight.
7. Institutional inclusion in territories with civil State presence in our remote areas through justice houses with the presence of the Office of the Comptroller, the Office of the Attorney General’s Office and socio-environmental care units with a focus on human security and restorative law.
Without social and environmental inclusion, without respect for human rights, it will be difficult for the military solutions and investments to generate well-being and authentic contributions to new international relations at a time when global warming is accelerating, when COVID-19 continues, of cocaine trafficking.
Thanking you for your attention, with hope, from all consideration.
On January 22, Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient and renowned Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez published a statement to the newly sworn-in Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris. In powerful words echoing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia, the letter underscored how peace has yet to reach ethnic territories and “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations”. Márquez expressed profound concerns about structural racism, the ongoing assassinations of community social leaders and former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the operations of illegal armed groups, environmental exploitation, militarized counternarcotic policies, police brutality, and an “indolent government” that has failed to respond to the countless recommendations it has received from ethnic communities.
Márquez requested direct communication with Vice President Harris to help ensure the United States’ continued commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia. Support from the United States can help manifest the collective rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have acutely suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.
Below is the full English translation of the letter. The original Spanish-language letter is here.
Santiago de Cali, January 22, 2021
Mrs. Kamala Devi Harris Vice President of the United States
I would like to begin by congratulating you on the historic step you just took. Becoming the first African-American woman Vice President of the United States is an achievement that brings hope to many women and people around the world. We recognize that this great moment is in part due to the historic efforts initiated by anti-racist social movements, and in particular, by women like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and many others who paved the way for a more just, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal society. I wish you and President Joe Biden every success in your administration, hoping that you will implement policies focused on the quality and care of life that guarantee human dignity and world peace.
My name is Francia Elena Márquez Mina. I am an Afro-Colombian woman and grew up in the Cauca department, in an ancestral territory located in the Pacific region of Colombia. Sadly, the region is stricken by armed conflict, structural racism, and lethal policies imposed by political leadership that has governed with its back to the most vulnerable communities in the country. The elite that rules and governs this State has obtained its wealth from the death, corruption, misery, and fear it has sown into Colombian society, maintaining us in the shameful status as the most unequal country in the region. Inspired by the struggle of my ancestors to fight for freedom, to recover their “stolen dignity”, and to protect and preserve their territory as a living space, I became an environmental activist and human rights defender, alongside the Black Communities Process of Colombia (PCN) and the elders of the communities who have taught me that “dignity has no price” and that “to resist is not to endure”.
Currently, I am President of the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Coexistence, a platform for ongoing dialogue and civil society participation. The platform serves as an advisory and consulting body to the National Government on these serious matters, as well as safeguards human rights protections. We have made countless recommendations to President Iván Duque Márquez to protect the lives of social and environmental leaders and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who have been systematically murdered in Colombia. Likewise, we have recommended that he provide collective protection assurances for rural and ethnic communities, seek negotiated solutions to the armed conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and advance the dismantlement of paramilitarism and all armed groups that continue to put the lives of our people at risk.
I am convinced of the need to make proactive and well-needed efforts to protect our lives, human rights, peace, and our country’s environment. Today, I dare to write you this letter, in the hope that it will be read by you, in order to establish a conversation that will allow us to coordinate the necessary actions to take care of life from a place rooted in maternal love and a common instinct of empathy.
For decades, the United States has invested in Colombia’s anti-drug policy with programs such as Plan Colombia, which have visibly resulted in increased human rights violations. Policies of forced eradication have been failures, as they have only served to worsen the humanitarian conflict in the country, primarily, in the territories of Afro-Colombians, Indigenous and impoverished peoples. 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, voluntary illicit crop substitution programs, and autonomous communities who courageously decided not to plant coca in their territories despite pressure from armed groups.
Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations, and of seeing our rivers and lands become cemeteries and mass graves. We do not want to live confined or banished from the territories where we were born. Even in the midst of the pandemic that affects humanity today, the “stay-at-home” orders have not been an option for hundreds of families who have had to flee due to armed conflict in their communities.
As a social leader, it hurts to witness the daily assassinations of leaders, who like me, have raised their voice against the state of affairs. Through the work carried out by the Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento), it has been painful to witness the testimonies of Black Indigenous women who were not only sexually violated by armed men but also branded as was done in the time of slavery. It has been painful listening to mothers sing praises and write poetry to ease the pain of losing their children to the armed conflict. It is painful to know that economic conglomerates partner with illegal armed groups to banish and eliminate us.
I am sure that the majority of the people who voted for you and for President Biden did so in hope of taking the knee off of the necks of African Americans in your country. Police brutality is prevalent in our countries and needs to be eradicated with decisive actions that can be enforced under our leadership. As Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, we suffer the same situation; those who have imposed armed conflict, lethal politics, gender-based violence, structural racism––they keep their knees on our necks. They do not let us breathe. They murder us every day.
We face an indolent government that promises not only to shatter the dream of allowing those of us who suffered the consequences of war to live in peace, but that also refuses to hear the desperate cries of children like the son of social leader María del Pilar Hurtado, who was murdered in front of him in 2019. We consider 8 million victims enough to turn the page of violence and achieve a complete, stable and lasting peace with social justice. Our children and grandchildren deserve a Colombia in peace.
“Restoring the moral leadership of the United States around the world”, as you put it, implies a U.S. commitment to guaranteeing peace, the protection of social leaders, the eradication of racism and patriarchy, and the protection of the environment in Colombia and the world. We are aware of the support under the vice presidency of today’s President Joe Biden to the peace accord during its negotiations in Havana, Cuba. This U.S. support was realized through the Colombia Peace Plan and defined the Ethnic Chapter of the accord. However, given the State’s omission to peace accord implementation, we request that this be a priority for you, in order to manifest the collective rights of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have historically suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.
I kindly request to establish permanent communication and conversation with you, on behalf of civil society organizations in Colombia, in order to contribute to the unification of peace in Colombia.
I am because we are (“Soy porque Somos”) Francia Elena Márquez Mina Lawyer National Award as Human Rights Defender 2015
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,” notedEl 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 Defensoríapoint 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.”
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 toldEl Tiempo that a name change “would help the Farc party to get off the list of terrorist organizations.”
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.”
Voráginelooks 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.
After a year of massacres, police brutality, political upheaval, a worsening pandemic, and more in Colombia, peace feels more tenuous than ever before. Hundreds of social leaders have been targeted, threatened, and killed in the last year. 90 massacres—the highest number since before the 2016 Peace Accord—were carried out, largely in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.
In response and in partnership with social leaders in Colombia, WOLA is launching a digital advocacy campaign, Con Líderes Hay Paz. The campaign aims to protect Colombia’s activists who are building peace in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities all over the country. In the last few months, WOLA has been working with social leaders—documenting their stories and boosting their voices—in order to raise awareness of the crisis Colombia faces today.
To pave the way towards a more peaceful, just, and equal society, the Colombian government must bring to justice those who threaten them and their communities, while increasing protections and supporting the work of social leaders. The international community—including the U.S. government, the European Union, the United Nations, and civil society groups—must play an important role in pushing the Colombian state to take prompt action in carrying out these efforts.
We encourage you to join the story. By subscribing to the campaign, you will receive exclusive access to the stories of courageous social leaders, advocacy materials and resources, and previews of the campaign’s upcoming documentary podcast REBUILDING PEACE—premiering February 2021.
Support their work. Protect their lives.
Únete a la historia: Con Líderes Hay Paz
Después de un año de masacres, brutalidad policial, agitación política, una pandemia que sigue empeorando y más en Colombia, la paz se siente más tenue que nunca. Cientos de líderes sociales han sido atacados, amenazados y asesinados en el último año. Hubo 90 masacres en el país, el número más alto desde antes del Acuerdo de Paz del 2016. Las masacres se concentraron en gran parte en comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas.
En asociación con líderes sociales en Colombia, WOLA está lanzando una campaña de promoción digital, Con Líderes Hay Paz. La campaña tiene como objetivo proteger a los activistas de Colombia que están construyendo la paz en las comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas de todo el país. En los últimos meses, WOLA ha estado trabajando con líderes y lideresas sociales—documentando sus historias y amplificando sus voces—con el fin de crear conciencia sobre la crisis que enfrenta Colombia hoy.
Para allanar el camino hacia una sociedad más pacífica, justa e igualitaria, el gobierno colombiano debe llevar ante la justicia a quienes amenazan a los líderes sociales y a sus comunidades, al tiempo que aumenta las protecciones y apoya su trabajo. La comunidad internacional, incluido el gobierno de Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea, las Naciones Unidas, y los grupos de la sociedad civil, debe desempeñar un papel importante para presionar al Estado colombiano para que tome medidas rápidas para llevar a cabo estos esfuerzos.
Te animamos a unirte a la historia. Al suscribirte a la campaña, recibirás acceso exclusivo a las historias de valientes líderes sociales, materiales y recursos de incidencia, y avances del próximo podcast documental de la campaña REBUILDING PEACE/CONSTRUYENDO LA PAZ, que se estrenará en febrero 2021.