WOLA’s latest urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
WOLA’s latest monthly urgent update on the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
On November 5, the Cooperation Space for Peace, which WOLA forms part of, published a statement to reject the stigmatizing claims against the Humanitarian Caravan to Cañón del Micay in the Cauca department.
Between October 29 and November 2, Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities from Cañón del Micay, a region located between the municipalities of Argelia and El Tambo in the Cauca department, organized a Humanitarian Caravan that sought to raise awareness of and reject the violence experienced by these communities.
However, according to the statement, the work of these social movements and the lives of these individuals are at risk due to the stigmatizing declarations made by Emilio Archila, Presidential Counsellor for Stabilization and Consolidation. He referred to the Caravan’s actions as “pure politicking” from sectors that “use violent acts to continue dividing Colombians.”
The Cooperation Space for Peace notes that the stigmatization of human rights defenders, based on their advocacy work, increases the risk of attacks and violations targeted against them. The statement calls on the State to assume measures to investigate these cases and bring the intellectual and material authors of the incidents, denounced by the Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations and populations in the region, to justice.
It asks the international community to urge the Colombian government to take comprehensive measures in coordination with the communities to address the structural causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Cauca department, and to urge Colombian government officials to refrain from making defamatory statements that increase the life-threatening risks to social leaders and human rights defenders.
This past July, in a powerful show of force, 94 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo outlining grave concerns about the status of Colombia’s peace process.
The letter’s message, and the sheer number of signatories on it, sent shockwaves through Colombia. Shortly thereafter, in an interview in The Hill, Colombian President Iván Duque responded to congressional alarm by dismissing it as a product of U.S. electoral politics. His cavalier response underscored the point of the letter: Colombia’s peace is disintegrating because the Duque administration is failing to protect those working to sustain it.
The social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders doing the grassroots work of building peace in Colombia’s marginalized communities are being systematically targeted and assassinated. More than 400 social leaders have been killed since the signing of the peace accords, including 170 so far this year according to Colombian NGO Indepaz. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose data the Colombian government prefers, has identified a lower number of social leaders killed this year—but pending deaths that need verification, it notes a potential 70 percent increase in murders in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.
Among those killed this year is Marco Rivadeneira. He was assassinated while promoting voluntary coca substitutions programs—a key facet of the peace accords and a shared goal of the United States and Colombia—in a community meeting. His relentless efforts to implement these programs in Putumayo, a region where cocaine trafficking groups dominate, earned him credible death threats. He requested help from Colombia’s National Protection Unit, an agency that protects threatened social leaders. He never received it.
Four months after Marco Rivadeneira’s murder, no one has been brought to justice. What’s more, the Duque administration has engaged in policies that undermine Mr. Rivadeneira’s work. Rather than protect and support the 99,097 Colombian families who have signed up for voluntary coca substitution programs, the Duque administration is trying to restart an ineffective aerial eradication program that could decimate the health and sustenance of entire communities. Many of these communities are earnestly interested in voluntary eradication, but live without basic services.
Marco Rivadeneira’s story is a microcosm of peace in Colombia today.
Social leaders are pushing for voluntary coca substitution programs in regions controlled by cocaine traffickers. They’re seeking land, labor, and environmental rights in communities where extractive industries like mining operate. They’re finding justice for the millions of human rights abuses committed during Colombia’s 52-year conflict. Every day, their work directly challenges the power of violent interests in Colombia.
The Duque administration can support the work of social leaders by prioritizing the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal. It can better protect them by bringing those responsible for ordering attacks against social leaders to justice. Instead, the Duque administration is undermining them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, threatened social leaders have reported that their government-provided protective details have withdrawn, leaving them exposed to credible danger. Last year, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office launched 753 active investigations into threats against social leaders; only three resulted in convictions.
The Duque administration has also made social leaders’ work more difficult. Institutions tasked with uncovering human rights abuses during the Colombian conflict and guiding the truth and reconciliation process face drastic budget cuts. A critical development vehicle designed in conjunction with impacted communities—called Development Plans with a Territorial Focus—is operating at a fraction of its cost.
The reality on the ground is clear: since signing its historic peace accords, Colombia’s grasp on peace has never felt so tenuous.
The 94 members of Congress who signed the letter to Secretary Pompeo expressed legitimate alarm about peace in Colombia. The U.S. House of Representatives was right to act on that concern by generously funding peace implementation in the 2021 Foreign Operations appropriation, and by including amendments in the National Defense Authorization Act to defund aerial fumigation operations in Colombia and investigate reports of illegal surveillance by Colombian military forces.
It is critical that the United States Congress take a further step. It must proactively work with the Colombian government to aggressively protect social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders. Without their grassroots work securing land reform, labor rights, environmental rights, and justice, peace in Colombia is not possible.
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 6, 2020 — Today, Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA), Chairman of the House Rules Committee and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Mark Pocan (D-WI), Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led a group of 94 Members of Congress urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press the Colombian government to commit to peace and stop the escalation of violence against Colombian human rights defenders.
Since a 2016 peace accord brought an end to decades of conflict in Colombia, over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered, including 153 in only the first six months of 2020. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked.
“This is not the first time Congress has demanded the U.S. and Colombian governments protect human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia. Yet the assassinations continue to mount, and the pandemic has made them even more vulnerable. Enough is enough. Whatever the Colombian government thinks it’s doing, it’s simply not getting the job done. It should spend less time downplaying the statistics, and more time providing protection and, more importantly, hunting down, arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning those who order, carry out, and benefit from these murders. That’s what the peace accord calls for, and nothing less will do,” said Congressman McGovern. “The brutal murders of those working for peace and basic human dignity in Colombia is not only a tragedy for Colombians, it hurts all people around the world who care about human rights. The United States has an obligation speak out and demand an end to this unrelenting violence.”
“Three years after a historic peace accord was signed, human rights defenders, union leaders, land rights activists and indigenous leaders continue to face violence as the Colombian government looks the other way,” said Congressman Pocan. “Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of these peace accords. Secretary Pompeo must condemn this violence and urge the Colombian government to safeguard the lives of these defenders, prosecute the intellectual authors of these attacks and dismantle the structures that benefit from this violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these leaders more vulnerable to attack, and we must ensure U.S. assistance to Colombia is used to ensure these peace accords are implemented—not continue to allow these acts of violence to occur with impunity.”
Violence appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders who are being murdered in their homes and workplaces, out of the public eye and with impunity. Before the pandemic, large-scale demonstrations had taken place throughout the country demanding protection for human rights defenders and community leaders as Colombia confronts the greatest number of assaults and killings in a decade.
For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira. He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos.
This letter follows on recent revelations of illegal surveillance by military intelligence of journalists, human rights defenders and judges; the rape of an indigenous girl by several Colombian soldiers, reflecting a pattern of abuses by the military; and an in-depth memorial by El Espectador daily newspaper citing the names of 442 human rights and social leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accord.
The Members’ letter was also backed by several prominent human rights organizations which advocate for peace and social justice in Colombia.
“The peace accords offer Colombia a roadmap out of a violent past into a more just future. But there are no shortcuts. The Colombian government and international community must recommit to full implementation. Not one more human rights defender should lose their life while peace founders,” said Lisa Haugaard, Co-Director of the Latin America Working Group.
“Social leaders are the most important people in bringing peace and democracy to Colombia. The United States, which is Colombia’s top donor, must do everything it can to stop the systematic killing of social leaders and ensure justice on cases of murdered activists. A consolidated peace in Colombia is in the best interest of the United States, and social leaders are how we achieve that peace,” said Gimena Sanchez, director for the Andes, at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Until the government of Colombia adopts a security policy that prioritizes the protection of the lives and rights of indigenous and community activists, particularly in the former conflict areas, the promise of the peace accords for peace and justice will remain illusory,” said Mark Schneider, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Listen to the podcast above, or download the .mp3 file.
As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.
This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”
In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.
Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.
Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.
We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings.
On March 16, the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz – ECP) published a statement, signed by 17 international civil society organizations, urging the Colombian government to guarantee protections for social leaders throughout the country.
Social leaders are vital to the communities they represent. The statement argues that in its process of consolidating peace, Colombia cannot tolerate violence against leaders who work in their communities to improve living conditions and protect natural resources.
The statement calls on the Colombian government to provide adequate safety guarantees, ensure justice is enforced, and implement policies that dismantle the criminal groups responsible for the bloodshed against social leaders and their communities. Below is the English text of the statement:
STATEMENT TO THE PUBLIC AND A CALL TO THE COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT INTERNATIONAL CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS
Bogotá, March 16, 2020. The international civil society organizations signed onto this statement express with deep pain and concern the persistence and increase of threats, attacks, harassment, and murders against individuals and human rights organizations who endorse the peace agreement and, in the process of reincorporation, move from a past of war to a future of reconciliation and peace.
In the past week, Astrid Conde Gutiérrez (March 5) and Edwin de Jesús Carrascal Barrios (March 10) were assassinated. Thus far, according to the FARC’s political party, these killings amount to 15 former combatants of the FARC killed since the beginning of this year and 190 former combatants killed since the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016. Additionally, the corporation Legal Solidarity (Solidaridad Jurídica) has also reported threats and harassment against other former political prisoners.
On March 11, a new threat from the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) against an extensive list of lead social organizations and social leaders became public. It included the Wayuu Women’s Force (Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu)—a human and territorial rights organization that won the 2017 National Human Rights Defense Award and has been working for ethnic and territorial rights in La Guajira since 2006.
The lack of protections for social leaders and the lack of comprehensive implementation of the Peace Agreement put the sustainability of the process and the search for new paths towards peace in Colombia at serious risk. Thus, it is urgent for the State, who is responsible for the life of all Colombians, to:
- Provide sufficient guarantees for those who actively work towards peace and defend human and territorial rights so they can carry out their legitimate work in an enabling environment.
- Ensure that justice is enforced and that those responsible are identified, investigated, and brought before competent authorities. In doing so, a strong message in favor of peace would be expressed through Colombia’s institutions, currently governed by Iván Duque.
- Rapidly advance the design and adoption of public policies to dismantle criminal organizations that are responsible for killings and massacres or attacks on human rights defenders, social movements, or political movements. Such criminal organizations include paramilitary groups, successor groups, and their support networks (3.4.3 of the Peace Agreement). Civil society organizations have already submitted proposals about this matter.
The international civil society organizations signed onto this statement and members of the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz) reiterate concern about these incidents and the lack of strong action by the Colombian State to clarify and finally stop this bloodshed in Colombia.
A country that genuinely aims to consolidate peace cannot tolerate violence against citizens of any kind, particularly against those in civil society who work to improve living conditions and protect territories and natural resources.
On March 30, 2020, the Action for Change (Acciones para el Cambio – APC) coalition published a letter addressed to the Colombian government urging it to stop forced coca eradication operations amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. The letter encourages the government to instead enforce quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus among vulnerable farmer communities.
Despite calls to follow quarantine measures, the Government of Colombia has continued forced coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. These operations, the letter states, violate voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities within the framework of the peace accord.
The letter also highlights the increased use of force and violence against farmers and condemns the murders of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Here is the English text of the letter:
THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION CALLS ON THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT TO SUSPEND FORCED ERADICATION OPERATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS TO GUARANTEE THE RIGHTS OF RURAL POPULATIONS
The COVID-19 pandemic places the Colombian State in a unique situation, in which it must implement rigorous measures to contain the spread of the virus and guarantee its citizens the right to life, health, and survival.
Despite the measures implemented by the national government to address the emergency, several organizations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo have denounced intensified forced coca eradication operations, specifically in municipalities where collective agreements were signed under the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). To date, the national government has not fully complied with these agreements. Such noncompliance, coupled with uncertain isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days caused a number of violations to rural populations’ rights.
Amid the national quarantine on March 19, Marco Rivadeneira was assassinated in the Nueva Granada territory, located in Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo. Marco was a prominent leader who promoted the substitution of crops in the department and sought alternatives for those who had been left out of crop substitution programs. According to data from the Coordinator for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM), Marco Rivadeneira’s murder raises to 60 the total number of people killed for leading crop substitution processes in Colombia. Three days after that, on March 22, the arrival of state forces was denounced, as they began to fumigate coca crops with glyphosate using manual spray pumps.
According to public complaints from the COCCAM and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales, Ambientales y Campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC), since March 23 in Caquetá, members of the National Army have carried out forced eradication operations using force and gunfire against farmers. Despite the public health crisis, these operations are occurring in the Palestina, Inspección Unión Peneya territory in Montañita municipality.
Finally, according to information from the Peasant Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) and the COCCAM, Alejandro Carvajal was killed by members of the National Army in the context of forced and violent eradications last Thursday, March 26. This assassination occurred in the territory of Santa Teresita, La Victoria, which forms part of Sardinata municipality in Norte de Santander. The National Army has already assumed responsibility for said killing.
Faced with the aforementioned context, the APC coalition urges the Colombian government to:
- Investigate the incidents and punish those responsible for the killings of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Additionally, investigate and punish the members of the National Army who use threats and force against rural populations in Catatumbo, Caquetá, and Putumayo.
- Implement the mandatory, preventative measures ordered by the President and suspend forced eradication efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rural population is already at risk and its right to health and food security needs to be guaranteed.
- Respect and advance compliance with voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities.
THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION
On March 25, over 21 international civil society organizations signed a letter calling on the Government of Colombia to investigate the assassination of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader from Putumayo, Colombia. Social leaders like Rivadeneira – who strive to fully implement the 2016 Peace Accords – continue to be targeted for working valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities. Sadly, Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where he was discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.
The letter urges the Colombian government to effectively investigate and prosecute the assassinations of social leaders, especially amid the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also calls on the U.S. government to vigorously support the Peace Accord implementation in Colombia. You can read the English version of the letter below. (Versión en español).
International Civil Society Organizations Call for the Colombian Government to Investigate Killing of Marco Rivadeneira and to Protect Human Rights Defenders
March 25, 2020
We are grieved to learn of the death of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader in Putumayo, Colombia. Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where Rivadeneira and other community members were discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.
Rivadeneira was a human rights defender, a promoter of the peace accords, and a proponent of voluntary coca eradication efforts in his rural community. He was a leader of the Puerto Asis Campesino Association and a representative to the Guarantees Roundtable (a process intended to protect human rights defenders). Rivadeneira was also the representative of his region for the national network of 275 Colombian human rights groups known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Coordinación and its members are close partners of many of our organizations.
This killing “underscores once again the lack of security guarantees for the work of human rights defenders and the lack of political will on the part of the Colombian government to dismantle the criminal structures and paramilitary organizations that continue to attack social leaders and those who defend peace in the countryside,” as Coordinación asserts. The Coordinación urges the government to act decisively to ensure that “enemies of peace” do not use the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 virus to continue to exterminate social leaders.
107 social leaders were assassinated in 2019, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia. One out of three human rights defenders killed in 2019 (documented by Frontline Defenders) was from Colombia. 2020 has started off with a wave of violence against them.
We urge the Colombian government to ensure this crime is effectively investigated and prosecuted and to communicate what steps are being taken to bring the perpetrators to justice. We also urge the Colombian government to provide effective guarantees for human rights defenders, social leaders, and those working to build peace in Colombia. This starts with the vigorous implementation of the 2016 peace accords in Colombia, including convoking the National Commission of Security Guarantees to create and implement a plan to protect communities and social leaders at risk.
We urge the U.S. government to vigorously support peace accord implementation in Colombia. This includes adhering to the drug policy chapter of the accord which mandates working closely with farming communities to voluntarily eradicate and replace coca with government assistance, rather than returning to ineffective and inhumane aerial spraying programs.
Colombia must not lose more leaders like Marco Rivadeneira who have worked so valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities.
On December 26, 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, released a report on the challenges that rights defenders are facing in Colombia. The report concluded that social leaders are in grave danger, and that the risks they face have increased in the three years since the signing of the Peace Agreement. The report provides analysis and recommendations that the Colombian government should follow to safeguard vulnerable communities throughout the country. The Government of Colombia, however, vehemently disagreed with Forst’s findings. It produced a 20-page response to the report, submitting it to the UN Human Rights Council. In the response, the government blames non-state armed actors for the attacks on defenders, takes issue with numerous phrases in Forst’s report, and claims that the report’s data is incomplete, limited, and biased.
Forst’s report, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ February 25 report on the country’s 2019 overall situation, caused tensions between the government of President Iván Duque and the United Nations. Forst was barred from entering the country in 2019 to complete research, which prevented him from presenting a more up-to-date version to the Council. High government officials continue to downplay the gravity of the security situation faced by social leaders—including Interior Minister Alicia Arango, who said on March 3 that more people are killed in the country for cellphone thefts than for being social leaders or human rights defenders.
What is in the report that so angered the Colombian government? Below are five main points from Special Rapporteur Michel Forst’s document.
- Assassinations and other attacks on human rights defenders are constant.
Assassinations of human rights defenders and social leaders—who work actively to implement the 2016 Peace Agreement—are constant and continue to escalate at alarming rates. According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, as of June 30, 2019, the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has reported over 486 assassinations since 2016. Other international observers and civil society organizations have reported different statistics on the total number of assassinations using distinct methodologies; however, rather than debating the methods of documentation, the report stressed that efforts should focus on understanding how to bolster the security situation for human rights defenders in Colombia.
2. Impunity provides an incentive to continue carrying out violations.
There is a high level of impunity for killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. In his report, the Special Rapporteur notes that cases that remain “with no establishment of guilt” exceed 89%, indicating a lack of recognition and justice for the victims and their families. The report suggests that this lack of recognition for victims provides a clear incentive for perpetrators to continue attacking social leaders.
3. Stigmatization and criminalization are common.
Political leaders, public officials, and other influential figures stigmatize and criminalize human rights defenders and social leaders, often characterizing them as guerrillas, guerrilla sympathizers, or anti-development terrorists. The report specifically points to a public declaration from the Governor of Antioquia, who stated, “Criminal gangs with close ties to the Gulf Clan illegal armed group and individuals linked to the National Liberation Army (ELN) were behind the miners’ strikes in Segovia and Remedios in 2018.” The report also highlights previous statements by the Minister of Defense that conflate public protests with organized crime activity. Mr. Forst argues, “Such statements undermine human rights defenders and expose them to greater risks and violations.”
4. Rural, ethnic, environmental, and women human rights defenders are among the most targeted.
Leaders in Colombia’s rural territories are among the most frequent targets of violations and assassinations. In its recommendations, the report highlighted the need to fortify security for social leaders who defend land, environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights. The report also notes a disproportionate number of attacks and assassinations of members of community action councils, ethnic leaders, victim’s rights defenders, farmers, land restitution claimants, and human rights lawyers.
5. Public and private companies continue to contribute to the human rights crisis.
National and international corporations operating in rural communities are adversely affecting the human rights situation in Colombia. Business interests and activity have resulted in the intimidation, criminalization, forced displacement, and killing of social leaders in their own communities. According to the report, 30% of recorded attacks occurred in areas with large-scale mining projects, while 28.5% took place in areas where palm oil, banana, and sugar cane agribusinesses operate.
On March 4, unknown individuals killed Afro-Colombian Arley Hernan Chala, the bodyguard of prominent human rights defender and Afro-Colombian leader Leyner Palacios Asprilla. Leyner currently serves as the secretary general for the Interethnic Commission for Truth in the Pacific Region (Comision Interétnica de la Verdad de la Region Pacifico, CIVP) and is an active member of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and Ethnic Commission. In our urgent action dated January 9, we urged U.S. policymakers and others to act to prevent harm from being done to ethnic leaders from the Bojayá region of Chocó Department in Colombia’s Pacific.
We highlighted the deteriorating security situation faced by Leyner Palacios Asprilla and numerous other cases in a monthly urgent action alert on WOLA’s website.
Here is the text of a letter to the editor, published in the March 3 Washington Post, that WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli wrote in response to an earlier op-ed from Colombian President Iván Duque.
Helping Venezuela’s Refugees
Colombian President Iván Duque’s op-ed, and his subsequent meeting with President Trump, focused on calling on the international community to support efforts to alleviate the Venezuelan migration crisis. But the international community must also take note of a pressing issue conveniently not mentioned by Mr. Duque: the systematic killing of social activists and human rights defenders in Colombia.
More than 40 social activist leaders have been killed in Colombia this year, adding to the hundreds killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accords. These individuals are often the only people working to implement peace in the regions of the country where the conflict was most violent.
Mr. Duque’s administration has failed to address threats against social leaders, identify the intellectual authors of these killings and implement key points of the Colombia peace accords. The impact of these failures has been felt acutely in Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, which have experienced rising insecurity and forced internal displacement.AD
The Venezuelan migration crisis deserves attention and resources. But in providing that assistance, the international community must recognize that it simultaneously needs to pressure Mr. Duque’s administration to protect social leaders. After all, if Mr. Duque’s government can’t commit to protecting the very people it needs to sustain Colombia’s long-sought-after peace, how will it fare in providing for the security of Venezuelans in vulnerable situations?
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Washington
The writer is an advocate for human rights in Colombia.
On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.
The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”
This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.
Here are some highlights from the report:
On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders
In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.
The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.
Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.
Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.
OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.
On the government’s response to these attacks
OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.
The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.
The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.
The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.
OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.
On the military and human rights
OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.
OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.
On blurring the lines between military and police
OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.
On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.
In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.
On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories
Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.
The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.
In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).
[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.
On illicit crop eradication and substitution
Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.
OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.
When trying to understand the complexities of peace accord implementation, security threats, and human rights in Colombia, we rely heavily on numbers to explain what’s happening. Whether you’re explaining reintegration of ex-combatants, pointing to coca cultivation trends, or advocating for more prosecutions of those masterminding social leaders’ murders, you often need numerical data. And the most current numbers can be hard to find.
In response to that need, a new section of this site just went live: a compendium of current numbers and statistics about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Each number has a link to the source document where we found it; the links are color-coded to indicate whether the source is an official document.
Right now, the page includes 85 individual bits of data, covering the following topics:
- Attacks on Social Leaders
- Child Combatants
- Coca and Eradication
- Crop Substitution
- Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
- Dissident Groups
- FARC Political Future
- Protection of Ex-Combatants
- Public Security
- Stabilization and Rural Governance
- Transitional Justice
This page will never be “done.” It will need constant updating. It will also receive additions: there are some basic bits of public information still missing, and some topics will get added to this list. But at this point, the “numbers” page is good enough to share.
Here, for instance, is what the page’s “Attacks on Social Leaders” section looks like right now. Visit the page to view all topics.
- As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified 303 murders of human rights defenders and social leaders between the signing of the FARC peace accord and the end of 2019.
- The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counts a higher number: 555 social leaders killed between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019. That is 133 cases in 2016, 126 cases in 2017, 178 cases in 2018, and 118 cases in 2019.
- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted up to 120 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2019: as of January 14, 2020, 107 cases were verified and 13 more were undergoing verification.
- Of these 107, 98% happened “in municipalities with illicit economies where criminal groups or armed groups operate.” 86% occurred “in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.”
- In 2018, the UN High Commissioner’s office counted 115 killings.
- More than half of 2019 social-leader killings occurred in 4 departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Caquetá, though UN High Commissioner counted murders in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
- “The single most targeted group,” the UN High Commissioner reports, “was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.”
- The UN High Commissioner’s office counted at least 10 killings during the first 13 days of January.
- The NGO INDEPAZ counts 51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
- INDEPAZ counted 23 murders of social leaders in the month of December 2019.
- On December 17, 2019, the Colombian Presidency’s human rights advisor, Francisco Barbosa (who is now Colombia’s Prosecutor-General) said that 84 social leaders were murdered in 2019, which he said was a 25% reduction from 2018.
- As of January 2020, 59 participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).
WOLA’s Defense Oversight Director Adam Isacson talks about Colombia with WOLA Andes Program Director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. Isacson and Sánchez-Garzoli talk about what they saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.
Social Leader Killings Begin Getting Mass Attention
At least four local social movement leaders were killed during the week:
- Felicinda Santamaría in Quibdó, Chocó
- Luis Barrios in Palmar de Varela, Atlántico
- Margarita Estupiñán in Tumaco, Nariño
- Ana María Cortés in Cáceres, Antioquia
The latter two had worked on the presidential campaign of left-of-center candidate Gustavo Petro.
The fresh wave of murders turned intense media attention on the post-conflict vulnerability of independent civil-society leaders, especially in territories from which the FARC withdrew after the 2016 peace accord. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) counts 311 leaders and human rights defenders killed between January 2016 and June 2018, about one every three days. The think-tank INDEPAZ, working with the Marcha Patriótica and Cumbre Agraria civil-society groups, issued a report counting 123 murders between January 1 and July 5, 2018—that is, two every three days.
According to INDEPAZ, 80.5 percent of this year’s victims have been members of campesino organizations, Community Action Boards (local advisory committees set up by a 1960s law), or ethnic community organizations. The report estimates that 13 percent of murders had something to do with coca crops—either participation in crop substitution or opposition to forced eradication. It finds that 83.2 percent had something to do with disputes over land, territory, or natural resources.
Violence against social leaders and human rights defenders has reached the level of “a humanitarian crisis,” said Carlos Guevara, coordinator of Somos Defensores, an organization that seeks to protect social leaders. Guevara contended that the killings seek to close spaces for citizen participation that opened up after the peace accord. “The violent arms [brazos violentos] want to shut that up, to stop people from participating politically, on the Community Action Boards, demanding land restitution, defending labor rights.”
“We went to the Atlantic coast, the southwest, center-west, Arauca, Meta, Guaviare, and what human rights defenders tell us is that the security forces have a plan tortuga [a ‘turtle plan’ or deliberate work slowdown] that allows things like these to happen in the territories. The Early Warning System works to locate the Gulf Clan [the “Urabeños” or “Gaitanistas” neo-paramilitary group] in a place, but it seems that they [the security forces] are not then doing everything possible to confront them.”
Social leaders fear “a militarization of peace,” Guevara told Semana magazine, which interpreted that to mean “that the next government’s policies once again empower the security forces, placing them above mayors and thus diminishing participation spaces for social organizations.”
“We don’t have a state response,” Guevara said. “There is a massive violence situation, I can’t say that it’s generalized or that it’s systematic, because at the moment we can’t prove it, but it is certainly massive.”
On the evening of July 6, thousands of Colombians gathered in cities and town squares to demand a halt to the killings. The murder that seems to have inspired the most mobilization was that of Ana María Cortés, killed on July 4 by gunmen as she dined in a cafeteria in Cáceres, in Antioquia department’s conflictive Bajo Cauca region. Cortés had coordinated Gustavo Petro’s campaign in Cáceres, and the defeated candidate, now opposition senator, tweeted his outrage. Petro also tweeted that Cortés had been threatened by the police commander of Cáceres. Antioquia police said they opened an investigation.
Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, claimed (but did not present) “irrefutable and categorical” proof pointing to the “Caparrapos,” a gang that has splintered off from the Gulf Clan, with about 100-150 members, as Cortés’s killers. The Caparrappos and Gulf Clan are violently contesting control of the Bajo Cauca, a strategic zone for coca cultivation and cocaine production and transshipment. Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera alleged that the Caparrapos are killing social leaders in order to draw the authorities’ attention and thus avoid direct confrontation with the much larger Gulf Clan.
Luis Eduardo Llinás, who worked with Cortés on the Petro campaign in Cáceres, told El Tiempo that she had been receiving threats and intimidation since March. She had denounced the threats before the municipal ombudsman and was “very concerned and tense.”
Guevara, of Somos Defensores, was among those criticizing the government’s sluggish reaction to the new wave of killings. “It would seem that the institutions became silent after the [June 17] elections, and they’e watching from the sidelines as these social leaders and human rights defenders are being killed.”
By July 5, President Santos tweeted that he would convene a July 10 meeting of the government’s National Security Guarantees Committee, adding, “The Fiscalia has important results. I repeat my instruction to act with full force against those who attack social leaders. We won’t let our guard down.” Santos called on the security forces to increase their presence in zones where killings have occurred.
Interior Minister Rivera said that those responsible for the killings “are clearly organizations dedicated to narcotrafficking, dedicated to illegal mining and to theft of land,” and recognized that more effective efforts are needed to protect people. He refused to say that the social-leader killings are “systematic,” which according to Colombia’s Supreme Court would mean that there is a carefully orchestrated national plan behind them. “If recognizing a systematic nature could avoid the killing of social leaders, we would have recognized it a long time ago,” Rivera said. Instead, he said the government should focus on how to improve physical protection of threatened leaders.
The official protective response to threats has been plagued by delays. The Constitutional Court ordered the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP) to resolve social leaders’ protection requests within 30 days, and noted that protection “should go beyond that offered by the UNP.”
The UN verification mission in Colombia issued a statement making clear that it “vehemently rejects and condemns the killings of human rights defenders and community and social leaders.” The new director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Colombia, Alberto Brunori, published a July 7 column in El Espectador, and an interview in El Tiempo, calling for urgent action to protect leaders and identify the killings’ masterminds.
The U.S. embassy made no public comment on the issue.
“Censurable discourse is becoming louder in the country,” reads an El Espectador editorial,
“stating, from social networks, that we need not lament the death of murdered social leaders, associating them with the guerrillas. Are we once again going to commit the historic error of stigmatizing those who work to give voice to the marginalized? It should be enough to look at the story of every victim to find that they are people committed to democracy and struggling, in clearly hostile environments, for their communities’ rights.”
Petro called on his erstwhile opponent, President-Elect Iván Duque, to denounce the killings. “Your silence allows the empowerment of the assassins.”
Tweeting from Washington, where he was on a several-day visit, Duque stated “I categorically reject the violent acts that have presented themselves in recent days in Colombia with social leaders and the violence seen against people who carry out political leadership.” From Spain later in the week, he tweeted, “We have to guarantee security for social leaders. No citizen should be intimidated by violence. We call on the authorities to advance investigations and bring to justice these crimes’ authors.”
Duque Finishes Washington Visit
The President-Elect spent the first several days of the week finishing a lengthy (June 27-July 5) visit to Washington, a city where he lived for many years. Before the July 4 holiday, Duque had a face-to-face meeting with Vice President Mike Pence.
In this and other official meetings (detailed in last week’s update), Duque reportedly heard a great deal of concern about Colombia’s increasing illicit coca crop and about the crisis in Venezuela. It is less evident that he heard many concerns about implementation of the 2016 peace accord.
Duque has been vocally critical of Venezuela’s regime. His messaging in Washington, though, was colored by an Associated Press report, published July 5, revealing that President Donald Trump had repeatedly brought up the possibility of military action in the neighboring country during conversations in August and September 2017. “I’ve never spoken of military interventions, or of encouraging military interventions,” Duque told reporters. “What must be done is to exercise diplomatic pressure against the dictatorship.”
Duque called for Latin American governments to support OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro’s hard line on Venezuela, including his finding, in a May report, that “a reasonable foundation” exists to accuse Maduro and ten other Venezuelan officials of crimes against humanity and to bring them before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
In July 2017, then-Senator Duque led an effort to denounce Venezuela’s regime before the ICC. If he persists in this claim as president, it will be the first time since the Court’s 2002 founding that one state has denounced another before the ICC.
Duque expressed to his reporters a desire that Almagro and the OAS become the main vector for Western Hemisphere diplomatic pressure on Venezuela. He called for Colombia’s exit from UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, a body dating back to the mid-2000s that today is moribund due to sharp ideological divisions across the continent. “UNASUR has really been an organization that has converted into an accomplice of the Venezuelan dictatorship,” Duque said. In April, six UNASUR member states (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru) suspended their participation.
Duque said he invited Vice-President Pence to attend his inauguration on August 7, and that he got no positive or negative response. “We want the United States to have the highest possible representation at our inauguration,” he added.
The President-Elect’s visit was also colored by the White House’s June 25 release of estimates showing yet another annual increase in Colombia’s coca crop in 2017. The topic of Colombian coca and cocaine production came up frequently in his meetings with U.S. officialdom.
In his remarks before reporters, Duque endorsed the outgoing Santos administration’s plan to increase forced eradication by employing low-altitude herbicide-spraying drones. He sought to make clear, though, that this would be one of a series of tools his government would employ. He referred specifically to financing productive projects for coca-growing families—but without referring to implementing Chapter 4 of the 2016 peace accord, which is already serving as a framework for financing such projects (although implementation of these projects is lagging badly behind).
While he did not offer specifics about all of the tools his strategy would use—or how that strategy might differ from what the peace accord foresees—Duque said he told U.S. officials that it would take about two years to begin showing concrete results. He said that the Americans were supportive: “Instead of talking about commitments in terms of numbers of hectares, what I received was a great show of support for our security agenda, and our agenda to confront illicit crops in Colombia.” He added that he would ask the U.S. government to increase its annual aid outlay, both for counternarcotics and for accord implementation.
Duque would not commit to re-establishing a program, suspended in 2015, to spray herbicides with aircraft. Doing so would require reversing a Constitutional Court sentence banning this practice, with the herbicide glyphosate, as too inaccurate and thus posing a potential health risk.
On July 5 Duque left for Spain, where he attended a conference about technological and economic innovation that also featured former U.S. president Barack Obama. Duque and Obama met, according to Duque’s Twitter account, and talked “about our country’s security and economic development challenges.”
Seven People Massacred in Southern Cauca
Unknown assailants dumped the bodies of seven men, roughly 25 to 35 years of age, on the side of a dirt road in the municipality of Argelia, Cauca, in the pre-dawn hours of July 3. They had apparently been killed in adjacent El Tambo municipality. Those responsible for the massacre are unknown, but its scale drew attention to Argelia, a troubled municipality of 12,000 people in south-central Cauca, along the border with Nariño department, that had been strongly under FARC influence during the armed conflict.
Cauca is the number-two department, after Antioquia, for killings of social leaders. A week earlier in Argelia, a group calling itself the “People’s Cleansing Command” circulated a pamphlet threatening to kill anyone who sells or uses drugs. This is the second large-scale killing in Argelia so far this year; masked men killed four people at a liquor store in January.
On July 4, Colombia’s National Police announced that two of the bodies had been identified as those of demobilized FARC members: one who had abandoned the FARC disarmament zone in Policarpa, Nariño, not far from Argelia; and one who had abandoned training to be a FARC bodyguard with the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit.
Argelia sits in a geographically strategic zone for organized crime, along a corridor between Cauca’s mountain highlands and Pacific-coast piedmont. About 3,500 hectares of coca are grown there, making it Cauca’s second most heavily planted municipality. Armed groups active there include the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan or Urabeños neo-paramilitary network.
Transitional Justice System Calls on FARC to Appear in Kidnapping Hearing
The Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), the body established by the peace accord to judge war crimes committed during the armed conflict, is beginning to work in earnest. With a preliminary hearing on July 13, it is to launch Case 001, covering kidnappings committed by the FARC between 1993 and 2012. The JEP’s Recognition of Truth Chamber has called on 31 former FARC leaders to appear.
The ex-guerrillas—or their legal representatives if they are unable to appear in person—are to be notified about the beginning of the case, and will be given copies of evidence against them, much of it in a report, “Illegal Retention of Persons by the FARC-EP,” that the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) compiled from case files. The information covers between 2,500 and 8,500 kidnappings or extortions that the FARC committed during these 20 years. The Fiscalía report includes 312 sentences for kidnappings that the regular judicial system has already handed out. Of these, 68 involve members of the ex-guerrillas’ Secretariat and General Staff. The JEP is also working off of reports from the Free Country Foundation, an NGO focused on anti-kidnapping, and the governmental but autonomous Center for Historical Memory.
Among the 31 guerrillas called to appear are 6 who are to be legislators in the congressional session that begins on July 20. Also among them will be maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias Timochenko.
After the hearing, according to the chamber’s president, Julieta Lemaitre, “The accused will be given a prudent amount of time to prepare, and then we will call them to give voluntary confessions to provide a report on what they received. The chamber is also considering a hearing with victims.” In the case of kidnapping-disappearances, the JEP hopes that ex-combatants will help identify where remains are located.
Presumed Dissident Ex-FARC Leader “Rambo” Captured in Caquetá
Luis Eduardo Carvajal, alias “Rambo,” could be the second FARC leader subject to extradition to the United States for crimes allegedly committed after the peace accord went into effect. (The first is former top negotiator Jesús Santrich, currently imprisoned in Bogotá and wanted in New York for allegedly conspiring to ship 10 tons of cocaine.)
Police and Fiscalía personnel captured Carvajal in Puerto Rico municipality, in the southern department of Caquetá, sometime before July 4. He was wanted by U.S. authorities since before the peace accord went into effect, as he headed the powerful Daniel Aldana Mobile Column, which was particularly active in the southwestern department of Nariño. Nariño leads all Colombian departments in coca production and probably cocaine production.
Carvajal spent 35 years in the FARC, 15 of them commanding the Daniel Aldana. He controlled much, or most, illegal activity in the Pacific port of Tumaco and nearby zones along the Colombia-Ecuador border, which is the busiest cocaine transshipment corridor in the country. Authorities accuse his unit of shipping about 90 tons of cocaine per year, and of inviting Mexican narcotraffickers to operate in Tumaco. He and 300 other fighters disarmed and demobilized in Nariño during the first half of 2017. On January 18, 2018, he registered his case with the JEP, the transitional justice system.
It was widely suspected by 2018 that “Rambo” had gone rogue and joined FARC dissident groups active in the region’s cocaine trade. But his profile was very low, far lower than that of Walter Arizara alias “Guacho,” leader of the so-called Oliver Sinisterra Front FARC dissident group active in and around Tumaco. Guacho attracted enormous attention earlier this year when his men kidnapped and killed two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver. But Carvajal’s whereabouts and activities were a mystery.
“Rambo’s risk of criminalization was extremely high,” reports Insight Crime. “He allegedly returned quickly to criminal activities well-armed with strategic knowledge about contacts, modus operandi and drug trafficking routes. But this time he seems to have sought more benefits for himself.” The next step in his case is for the JEP to certify that the allegations against him cover a time period after the December 2016 ratification of the FARC peace accord. Upon that certification, Carvajal could be subject to extradition to the United States.
Framework Accord Implementation Plan Crosses Another Bureaucratic Hurdle
Eighteen months after the peace accord’s ratification, the Colombian Presidency’s National Planning Department has produced a document, called a CONPES, that is an essential step to commit the government to spending long-term resources on its implementation. Based on a Framework Implementation Plan issued in March, the CONPES divides responsibilities among government agencies for activities whose cost could add up to about 129.5 trillion Colombian pesos (US$44.5 billion) by 2031, 15 years after the peace accord’s ratification.
Another CONPES approved in late June covers the reintegration of former FARC members. It commits the government to 6.3 trillion pesos (US$2.2 billion) in spending on reintegration by 2026. According to El Tiempo, as of June 13 there were 4,082 former FARC members still residing in 24 “Territorial Training and Reconciliation Spaces (ETCRs),” the sites where they turned in their weapons and began their reintegration, plus about 1,000 family members. (This is out of 7,126 who entered these zones and disarmed there.) These individuals presumably seek to demobilize collectively, staying together. Another 6,044 former guerrillas, including militias and those released from prison, have shown an interest in demobilizing individually. The government was scheduled to stop providing food to residents of the ETCRs on June 30, but this has been extended until the end of August.
The CONPES on reintegration commits government agencies to report every six months on compliance with their assigned tasks. “Unlike the earlier reinsertion policy, this takes very much into account not just the strengthening of individual capacities, but also the collective aspect,” said Mauricio Restrepo, an advisor to Colombia’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency (ARN), who helped draft the document. Another ARN advisor, Alfredo Gómez, told El Tiempo that the new policy “has a particular emphasis on rural areas, due to ex-guerrillas’ interest in carrying out agricultural tasks, since the majority are of campesino origin.”
The incoming government of Iván Duque can issue new CONPES documents altering these spending commitments. Unless it does so, however, Colombian law requires this and future governments to carry out the activities laid out in the CONPES that were published this week and in late June.
- Carolina Avila Cortes, “‘La Farc Ha Honrado su Palabra de Trabajar en la Sustitucion de la Coca’: Eduardo Diaz” (El Espectador (Colombia), July 5, 2018).
- Carolina Mila, “Mujeres Cocaleras: La Historia No Contada de Este Cultivo en Colombia” (DeJusticia, El Espectador (Colombia), July 5, 2018).
- Andrés Bermúdez Liévano, “¡Que Llegue la Luz!: El Pedido de Campesinos Que Salen de la Coca” (Pacifista (Colombia), July 5, 2018).
- Olga Patricia Rendon Marulanda, “Las Guerras Vivas Que Enfrentara Ivan Duque” (El Colombiano (Medellin Colombia), July 4, 2018).
- Colette Rausch, Thomas Stevenson, “Colombia’s Problematic Peace Accord: Time to Swallow Some Frogs” (War on the Rocks, July 3, 2018).
- Adelaida Avila Cabrera, Laura Soto, “Estas Son las Disidencias Que Recibe Duque en el Pacifico” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), July 3, 2018).
- F. Manetto, S. Torrado, “‘Somos un Tribunal de Paz Con Vocacion de Reconciliacion’” (El Pais (Spain), July 3, 2018).
- “La Crisis Hace Que Venezolanos Integren Grupos Ilegales en Colombia” (El Tiempo (Colombia), July 3, 2018).
- Yamid Amat, “General Naranjo No Comulga Con Acabar la Dosis Minima” (El Tiempo (Colombia), July 2, 2018).
- Daniela Amaya Rueda, “La Montanita Es de Mostrar en Sustitucion y Aun Asi Va Lento” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), July 2, 2018).
- Cecilia Orozco Tascón, “‘No se Trata de Intercambiar Impunidades’: Gustavo Gallon” (El Espectador (Colombia), July 2, 2018).
- “La Zozobra Sin Fin de los Indigenas Nasa” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), July 2, 2018).
- “¿Quienes Son los Congresistas Condenados por Paramilitarismo?” (El Espectador (Colombia), July 1, 2018).
Citing insecurity, FARC suspends election campaign
The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party formed by the former Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrilla group, announced on February 10 that it was suspending its campaigning for Colombia’s March 11 legislative elections and May 27 presidential elections. Party leaders cited a wave of threats and violence against its candidates, including its presidential nominee, former maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias Timochenko.
The FARC clarified that it is not abandoning these candidacies: Londoño and 74 House and Senate candidates are still running, but they are staying off the campaign trail. “We’ve decided to suspend our campaign activities until we have enough [security] guarantees,” read a statement.
One of the promises of the November 2016 peace accords was that the FARC, or any other leftist opposition movement, would be able to participate in politics without fear of violence. The New York Times remarked that “their sudden departure from the campaign—on the grounds that it is not safe—casts doubt on whether the conflict is over yet.”
Days before the suspension, Colombia’s vice president, Oscar Naranjo, and vice-prosecutor general, María Paulina Riveros, reported that since the signing of the peace accord, 28 FARC ex-combatants have been murdered. Another 12 relatives of ex-combatants and 10 leaders of social organizations “associated with the FARC party,” they reported, have also been killed, bringing the total to 50. On February 6 assassins, apparently from the still-active National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, killed ex-FARC member Kevin Andrés Lugo Jaramillo on the premises of the former guerrilla demobilization site (ETCR) in Montecristo, Bolívar.
Less lethal—so far—but still concerning has been a series of incidents in which angry mobs have descended on FARC campaign events. In most cases, ex-guerrilla candidates have been met with shouted epithets and chants of “murderer,” organized by victims of the guerrillas or, at times, local right-wing politicians.
In Armenia, the capital of Quindío department, a mob damaged the car in which Londoño was traveling. In Cali and nearby Yumbo, in Valle del Cauca, a crowd hurled vegetables and objects at Londoño and attacked his supporters and security guards, injuring several members of a local labor union. In Cali, Londoño had to be escorted from a neighborhood by members of the riot police (the ESMAD, a unit most often associated with heavy-handed repression of protests). In Pereira, Risaralda, protesters kept FARC organizers and candidates from leaving the cooperative where they were holding a campaign meeting. Senate candidate and former chief negotiator Iván Márquez had to cancel campaign events in Caquetá and Huila.
Activists from the Democratic Center, a right-wing political party led by former president Álvaro Uribe, were seen on video egging on some of the protests. Another protest organizer is Herbín Hoyos, who during the conflict hosted a radio show that allowed relatives to broadcast messages to kidnap victims whom the FARC were holding in remote jungle camps.
Suspending the campaign will further dampen the electoral prospects of the FARC party, which already appeared low, with Londoño consistently polling well below 5 percent. Regardless of outcome, however, the peace accord grants the FARC five automatic seats in each house of Colombia’s Congress for the next eight years.
Secretary of State Tillerson visit
On the afternoon of February 6, Bogotá was a stop on U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s five-country tour of Latin America. In his public remarks alongside President Juan Manuel Santos, Tillerson had nothing to say about Colombia’s peace process or about attacks on social leaders. He focused on coca cultivation and on Venezuela.
The Secretary’s visit came days after President Trump, in a meeting with Homeland Security officials, mused about cutting aid to drug-producing countries.
“And these countries are not our friends. You know, we think they’re our friends and we send them massive aid. And I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them — we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us. So I’m not a believer in that. I want to stop the aid. I want to stop the aid. If they can’t stop drugs from coming in — because they could stop them a lot easier than us. They say, “Oh, we can’t control it.” Oh great, we’re supposed to control it.
“So we give them billions and billions of dollars and they don’t do what they’re supposed to be doing. And they know that. But we’re going to take a very harsh action.”
“I don’t think that President Trump was referring to Colombia because Colombia is not laughing at the U.S.,” President Santos said. “On the contrary, we think we’re working together in a problem and a challenge that needs cooperation from both countries.”
For his part, Secretary Tillerson took a much more conciliatory tone than his boss.
“We did discuss our concerns about the surge in coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, but the president also gave me a very good report of the steps that are being taken, the progress that’s being made, and he just spoke to much of that. And we are quite encouraged by what we hear.”
Santos offered some statistics about Colombia’s post-conflict coca eradication and substitution effort.
“So far this year we have forcefully eradicated 54,000 hectares, which is more than the goal we had set, and by the end of this year we hope to have cleared 150,000 hectares.
“As far as voluntary substitution is concerned, for the very first time we have a greater likelihood of being successful, and that has led us to sign agreements with 124,000 families that say that they have over 105,000 hectares of illegal crops. This is almost 30,000 of these families today are currently substituting their illegal crops.”
In March 2017, the U.S. government estimated that 188,000 hectares of coca were growing in Colombia in 2016, more than double the 2013 figure.
Tillerson also praised Colombia for being “a key player in the hemisphere’s efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela,” adding, “we had a very extensive exchange on how we can work together, along with others in the region, through the Lima Group, ultimately through the OAS, to restore democracy.”
Venezuela migration crisis
Meanwhile, citizens from shortage and inflation-plagued Venezuela are pouring into Colombia in ever greater numbers. The official number of Venezuelans moving to Colombia just in the last half of 2017 was 550,000, a 62 percent increase over a year earlier. Colombian officials cited by The Guardian “believe more than 1 million Venezuelans have moved to Colombia since the economic crisis took hold in 2015.” With Red Cross and UN assistance, Colombia opened up a “Temporary Service Center” in the border city of Cúcuta that can care for 120 migrants at a time for up to 48 hours. President Santos also banned the entry of Venezuelans without passports or border-crossing permits, and ordered 2,000 military personnel to the Venezuelan border to clamp down on illicit crossings.
ELN could be distributing Venezuelan government food rations on the Venezuelan side of the border
Across the border in Táchira, Venezuela, the Venezuela Investigative Unit at InsightCrime reported that ELN guerrillas may have been given a role in distributing food to Venezuelan citizens.
“Javier Tarazona, director of the Venezuelan non-governmental organization Fundación Redes, reported on February 6 that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the largest active guerrilla group in Colombia, is distributing boxes of food in the Venezeulan border states of Táchira, Apure and Zulia by way of the government-run Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción – CLAP).
Tarazona says that the boxes are delivered with propaganda for the ELN’s Carlos Germán Velasco Villamizar Front. They also promote one of their three radio stations broadcasting in that region of Venezuela.”
InsightCrime speculates that the Colombian guerrillas “may be seeking a rearrangement that lets continue to operate in Venezuelan territory, while consolidating its position in case the peace talks with the Colombian government collapse.”
With dialogues frozen, ELN calls an “armed blockade”
The ELN continued a wave of violent actions that began after January 9, when guerrilla and government negotiators in a slow-moving negotiation process could not agree on terms to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.
On February 7 the group announced a three-day “armed blockade” around the country, warning Colombians to abstain from travel between February 10 to 13 because of increased attacks on social leaders and “the government’s refusal to continue the fifth cycle of conversations” at the negotiating table in Quito, Ecuador. While the 2,000-person ELN lacks the capacity to attack travelers in most of the country, incidents were reported on roads in areas under its longtime influence, like Cesar and Arauca.
The government negotiating team remains absent from Quito, pending a display of goodwill from the ELN. However, two politicians with a longtime history of playing a good offices role in guerrilla negotiations, Senator Iván Cepeda and former mining and energy minister Álvaro Leyva, continue to seek to broker a solution. Public calls on the ELN to restart the bilateral ceasefire, and the negotiations, came from a group of artists and intellectuals, and from the National Peace Council, a multi-sectoral government advisory body.
Demining plan in Putumayo
Putumayo department, in southern Colombia bordering Ecuador, will be the site of an ambitious plan to remove landmines, carried out by Colombia’s army, the Colombian Campaign Against Mines, and the HALO Trust. The goal is to clear mines from 2,757,000 square meters of territory—equal to Bogotá’s colonial La Candelaria neighborhood—across 10 of Putumayo’s 13 municipalities. During the conflict, landmines, mostly laid by guerrillas, have killed 110 Putumayans and wounded another 335.
Tribunal calls for investigating ex-president Uribe for paramilitary ties
The Superior Court of Medellín released a finding citing the existence of “sufficient elements” to investigate former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe for supporting paramilitary groups during Uribe’s 1996-99 tenure as governor of Antioquia, the populous department of which Medellín is the capital. During Uribe’s term, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary organization expanded rapidly in Antioquia, carrying out emblematic massacres. The Medellín high court asked Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to investigate the popular but controversial former president for possible responsibility for two of these massacres, in El Aro (1997) and La Granja (1996), and for the 1998 murder of human rights lawyer Jesús María Valle.
Three weeks before he was killed, Valle told a Medellín prosecutor:
“I always saw that there was something like a tacit agreement or an ostensible behavior of omission, cleverly plotted between the commander of the [Army’s] 4th Brigade, the Antioquia Police commander, Dr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Dr. Pedro Juan Moreno [Uribe’s chief of cabinet, who allegedly served as a go-between to the paramilitaries], and [paramount AUC leader] Carlos Castaño. The power of all of these ‘self-defense groups’ has been consolidated through the support they have had from people tied to the government, to the military class, the police class, and the wealthy cattlemen and bankers of Antioquia department and the country.”
The Medellín tribunal’s finding stated, “The military, police, and security forces, the Antioquia governor’s office, groups of cattlemen, businessmen, industrialists, and a good quantity of people who were victims of guerrilla actions, allied with these self-defense groups or paramilitaries.”
It’s not clear what the next judicial steps might be, as Colombia’s prosecutor-general’s office may be in no rush to order an investigation. Senator Uribe, for his part, rejected the court’s allegation as a campaign-season maneuver.
Social leaders: failure to follow up on an early warning
In Tibú, Norte de Santander, authorities found the body of rural community leader Sandra Yaneth Luna, who had disappeared after armed men took her from her house in September 2017. Investigators believe her killing was a response to non-payment of an extortion demand. Still, Luna’s murder is one of well over 100 killings of social leaders that took place around Colombia last year.
The country’s human rights ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), Carlos Negret, called into question the government’s commitment to protecting social leaders. Negret alleged that, between March and July 2017, the Interior Ministry “held on to” a report demanding that it take early-warning measures to protect leaders in several parts of the country. The report, the ombudsman said, cited “up to 500 citizens under threat, among them Víctor Alfonso Castilla and Bernardo Cuero who were later killed.”
Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera rejected Negret’s accusation of inaction, tweeting a March 2017 email that he had sent to the government’s Early Warning System, which is meant to manage the deployment of protection measures. In turn, Negret, the ombudsman, said that the minister’s e-mail proved nothing. It “doesn’t constitute an early warning, not even the evaluation of one. It is a request that the corresponding authorities verify the information in order to proceed later to evaluation” of an early-warning operation.
“The Ombusdman’s Office,” Negret’s statement continued, “notes with concern that the Minister of Interior considers that a reaction and immediate response to a warning about a serious human rights situation would be the simple sending of an e-mail.”
In a column, Rodrigo Uprimny, a former Supreme Court auxiliary magistrate and founder of the DeJusticia think-tank, called the wave of attacks on the country’s social leaders “a historical anti-democratic pattern in Colombia, in which any democratic openings are violently closed by a jump in violence against social leaders, usually deployed by paramilitary groups.” Uprimny called for “massive rejection to those crimes, through a pact between all political forces without regard to their orientation, that condemn those crimes, without regard to whether or not the victims’ political sensibilities were the same as ours.”
- Julia Symmes Cobb, “Glimmers of Hope for Families of Colombia’s Missing” (Reuters , February 9, 2018).
- “Informe Anual 2017: Un Estado Depredador de la Libertad de Prensa” (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (Colombia), February 9, 2018).
- Leonardo Botero Fernandez, “La Mesa Con el Eln No Es Solo para el Cese al Fuego: Presidente del Consejo Nacional de Paz” (El Espectador (Colombia), February 8, 2018).
- “Disidencias de las Farc ¿Cuales Son, Donde Estan, Que Hacen?” (Fundacion Ideas por la Paz (Colombia), February 8, 2018).
- Maximo Anderson, “Choco, Epicentro de los Conflictos Sociales y Ambientales en Colombia” (Mongabay Latam, Semana (Colombia), February 8, 2018).
- Olga Patricia Rendon M., “Un Ano de Dialogos Oxigenó al Eln” (El Colombiano (Medellin Colombia), February 7, 2018).
- Juanita León, “Las Cinco Cosas Que Revela el Abucheo a los de la Farc” (La Silla Vacía (Colombia), February 6, 2018).
- Ricardo L. Cruz, “La Guerra se Recicla en el Bajo Cauca Antioqueño” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), February 6, 2018).
- “Diez Años de los Falsos Positivos de Soacha” (RCN (Colombia), February 6, 2018).
Wave of violence intensifies
Violence involving guerrillas, guerrilla dissidents, or organized crime forced 2,560 people to flee their homes in January, according to CODHES, an NGO that tracks forced displacement. Of the displaced, 230 were forced out in mass events, a big increase over the 100 such displacements measured in January 2017.
- The Antioquia Indigenous Organization (OIA) warned that 400 Senú people are in imminent risk of forced displacement because of nearby combat in in the Bajo Cauca region municipality of Caucasia.
- Army troops killed Embera indigenous leader Eleazar Tequia Bitucay in Chocó on the night of January 26. The Army at first claimed that Tequia, a leader of the local Indigenous Guard, was killed while trying to disarm a soldier during a peaceful protest over delayed education funds. However, the community said he was shot for no reason. Five days later, the Army admitted responsibility and asked forgiveness of the community.
- Elsewhere in Chocó, in the Chagpien Tordó indigenous reserve of Litoral de San Juan municipality, Colombian security forces wounded a minor while carrying out a bombing raid on suspected ELN targets. The Defense Ministry insisted that the joint military-police operation was planned and carried out within the framework of international humanitarian law.
- Six Colombian employees of the UN Office on Drugs and crime were robbed, apparently by members of a FARC dissident group, in a rural area of Paujil municipality, in Caquetá. The UNODC is verifying that families participating in the crop substitution program mandated by the peace accord are truly eradicating their coca. Two truckloads of verifiers were stopped by armed men who took their vehicles, cell phones, and GPS devices. The assailants said they opposed the crop substitution program. The incident has suspended the ONDCP program in this area.
- The human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) warned that a longstanding pact has broken down between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a geographically limited but locally strong guerrilla group. The office issued an “early warning” alert about probable violence in southeastern Cesar department and the western part of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region. The EPL appears to be expanding into this zone of increasing coca cultivation.
“Don Temis” and the plight of social leaders
On the evening of January 27, two armed men shot and killed Temístocles Machado outside his house in the Isla de Paz neighborhood of Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. The 58-year-old Machado, known widely as “Don Temis,” was a member of the Black Communities Process (PCN, a national Afro-Colombian rights association). He had been receiving threats for more than 10 years.
In Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port city, Machado had led efforts to save his neighborhood. Isla de Paz is under threat from business interests and aligned armed groups who would eject residents to make room for new cargo warehouses and truck lots for the expanding port. Machado was also at the forefront of efforts to petition the government to provide basic services to his neighborhood. In May 2017, he was among the most visible leaders of a 21-day peaceful protest that brought the city to a halt.
Juan Diego Restrepo, editor of Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative website, had sat down with Machado last October. “Through the civic stoppage” of last May, “Don Temis” told him, “we now have interlocution with the national government. But Buenaventura is a town without law, nothing works, the oversight and accountability entities don’t work.”
“Theft of land in Buenaventura,” he added, “is carried out by the very same public officials, starting with the national government, to the municipal, through its illegal armed groups.… Whenever there’s a ten or fifteen-year plan for a new economic project, the armed groups come first, generating terror, intimidation, fear, to displace the people and later grab the land and sell it. I don’t believe the armed groups come here alone. Without consent. It’s not a coincidence. They are armed apparatuses used by politicians, businessmen. Government authority doesn’t function here.”
Despite frequent threats to his life, Machado had not accepted protection from the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Program. An official of the program told La Silla Vacía, “He said only God protects him.” Berenice Celeyta, longtime head of the local human rights group NOMADESC, rejects that. “It’s not that he didn’t want protection, but that he wanted collective protection [for the neighborhood], more than just a bodyguard and bulletproof vest for one person.”
Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) stated that Machado’s killing was likely related to his community work, and that it is prioritizing bringing his case to justice. Just days before his murder, Machado had met with the Office’s number-two official, Vice-Prosecutor General María Paulina Riveros, to discuss his security situation.
That same night of January 27, assailants on motorcycles in Villavicencio, Meta attacked and wounded María Cecilia Lozano, a victims’ leader and survivor of the 1998 paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, Meta.
Throughout Colombia, the Fiscalía has counted 101 homicides of human rights defenders, social leaders, political leaders, and community leaders between 2017 and so far in 2018. Counts vary so far for January 2018: the Somos Defensores organization denounced 12 murders, the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) counts 18 murders, and the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) has identified 21.
According to Somos Defensores, murders of social leaders in 2017 happened the most in Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, with notable increases in Chocó and Cesar. “We thought that after 2017 things would calm down,” Carlos Guevara of Somos Defensores told El Espectador, “but it seems like the closer we get to elections this is going to get even worse.”
An analysis by the DeJusticia think-tank of data from the ¡Pacifista! website found that 31% of social leaders killed in 2017 were leaders of local Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), 23% were leaders of peasant farmer organization; 14% were indigenous leaders; 12% were Afro-Colombian leaders; 6% were union leaders; and 3% were trying to reclaim stolen land.
ELN violent activity worsening
President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiating team not to go to Quito, Ecuador to start a fifth round of talks with the ELN. The President cited the guerrilla group’s lack of “coherence” after the January 28th bombing of a police post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city.
The guerrillas continued a wave of violent attacks that began after a 100-day bilateral ceasefire ended on January 9. The Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline (which the U.S. government provided $104 million in military assistance to protect in 2003) has been out of service for 23 days after 22 different attempted or actual attacks in Arauca, Boyacá, and Norte de Santander.
Arauca has been the hardest-hit department by ELN attacks since the ceasefire ended, concentrating 46 percent of attacks according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) think-tank. The ELN has been aggressively assuming control of parts of Arauca that had been under FARC dominion. This, FIP reports, has meant the ELN applying its “norms of social control and conduct” in former FARC areas and increased “pressure against social and political leaders who are either FARC-aligned or contrary to ELN policies.”
The ELN structure in Arauca, the Domingo Laín column, is the group’s largest. It’s leader, Gustavo Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito,” is viewed as the member of the group’s five-man Central Command who most opposes peace talks with the government. Other ELN fronts’ actions “have been reduced compared to those of the Domingo Laín,” FIP notes. That could indicate that “this structure may be showing its internal dissent with respect to the Quito dialogues an the slow implementation of the FARC accords.”
In response, the Colombian military’s “Vulcan” Task Force announced an increased deployment of troops from its Energy Operational Command, which consists of three battalions totaling 1,800 troops, to guard pipeline and oil infrastructure.
A communiqué from the FARC political party denounced on February 1 that the ELN kidnapped four of its members, killing three, in Santa Cruz de Guachavez, Nariño. According to the FARC’s count, as of January 23 ex-combatants and party activists had suffered 49 attacks, with 36 killed, since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord. Unknown assailants also killed a demobilized FARC militia member last week in Caquetá.
Armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía meanwhile alleged that in Chocó, Nariño, Arauca, and Catatumbo the ELN is recruiting not only children but impoverished Venezuelan migrants.
In a statement responding to President Santos’s freezing of peace talks, the ELN leadership pointed out that it never agreed to a permanent ceasefire with the government.
Polls for May presidential election
It’s very early and things may change. Also, polls don’t take into account shady get-out-the-vote machinery that may boost turnout for candidates who appear unpopular today. But right now, polling for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election is hinting at a leftward or anti-corruption direction.
Several top local media outlets sponsored an Invamer poll of 1,200 Colombians in 41 municipalities (out of 1,100) in 26 departments (out of 33). It found two left-of-center former mayors in the lead. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who had a stormy 2012-2015 tenure as mayor of Bogotá, leads a crowded field with an intended vote of 23-plus percent. Sergio Fajardo, a center-left former mayor of Medellín, is just behind with 20-22 percent depending on the likely matchups. Also high in the running are two right-of-center candidates, former defense minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras.
Taken together, candidates who support the FARC peace accord and its implementation total about 62 percent of voters’ intentions. The FARC candidate himself, Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko), is at the bottom with less than 2 percent.
The “Gran Encuesta” poll seems to show Fajardo besting Petro and all others in hypothetical second-round matchups. But either candidate would have to get there first. Despite his low showing in the poll, Vargas Lleras will be a hard candidate to beat. The former vice-president broke with President Santos after spending nearly seven years in his administration, and is now critical of the FARC peace accord. He has assiduously courted local power brokers around the country who are adroit at getting voters to show up and do what they’re told at the polls.
- Fabio Arenas Jaimes, “Hay Paz en Marquetalia, Pero No Hay Servicios Publicos” (El Tiempo (Colombia), February 2, 2018).
- Laura Soto, “Las 3 Cosas Que Revela la Guerra del Eln en el Pacifico” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), February 1, 2018).
- Manuel Rueda, “What Elections Mean for Colombia’s Peace Process” (Americas Quarterly, February 1, 2018).
- Gustavo Gallón, “Alertas Tempranas Sin Lugar a Dudas” (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, El Espectador (Colombia), February 1, 2018).
- “Rearmados de Toda Clase Amedrantan a los Indigenas de Suarez” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), February 1, 2018).
- Kyle Johnson, “¿Que Pasa Con el Eln?” (International Crisis Group, La Silla Vacia (Colombia), January 31, 2018).
- Juanita Vélez, Tatiana Duque, “Los Recolectores, el Cabo Suelto de la Sustitución” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), January 30, 2018).
- Joe Parkin Daniels, Nicholas Casey, “In Colombia, Two Rebel Groups Take Different Paths” (The New York Times, January 30, 2018).
- Santiago Martinez Hernandez, “‘No Hay Voluntad Politica para Encontrar a los Desaparecidos’: Comite de la Cruz Roja Internacional” (El Espectador (Colombia), January 30, 2018).
- “La Historia de 19 Soldados Que se Negaron a Cometer Falsos Positivos” (Semana (Colombia), January 29, 2018).
- “El Clamor de las Comunidades Afectadas por la Guerra Con el Eln” (El Espectador (Colombia), January 29, 2018).
ELN and government negotiating new ceasefire?
The frequency of ELN attacks appeared to slow in this, the second full week after a 100-day ceasefire ended between the guerrilla group and the Colombian government. The days since January 9 have seen at least 24 events, most of them small-scale guerrilla attacks on energy infrastructure or ambushes of military or police personnel. ELN fighters kidnapped an oil worker in Saravena, Arauca, damaged the TransAndino oil pipeline in Nariño, and killed a soldier in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander.
The UN verification mission in Colombia, taking note of this reduced tempo of ELN attacks, called on the guerrillas and government to resume negotiations that went dormant after the bilateral ceasefire’s end. The Colombian government’s head negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell, is returning to Quito, Ecuador, the site of the talks. Instead of the agreed negotiating agenda, these talks are likely to focus on conditions for a renewed ceasefire.
Transitional justice system launches
President Juan Manuel Santos swore in 30 magistrates who will adjudicate cases in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the new justice system set up by the peace accords. The JEP will consider cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Another eight magistrates remain to be sworn in. A few are still in the process of leaving current judicial posts. Several others are currently disqualified, as Colombia’s Congress added language to the law establishing the JEP that bars judges who did any human rights work in the past five years. Most participants and observers expect that Colombia’s Constitutional Court will strike down this prohibition when it reviews the JEP law. The Court’s decision is likely before May.
Another part of the JEP, the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, still awaits launch. The Unit is part of the Justice Ministry, within the executive branch. Its director, human rights lawyer Luz Marina Monzón, says frustratedly that she is awaiting a decree allowing the Unit to operate, but there is no clear timetable.
Last year, the embryonic JEP had a budget of US$4.7 million, covered mainly by foreign donors, especially the UN Development Program. In 2018, the system will require 230 billion Colombian pesos (about US$82 million).
To date, 3,534 ex-FARC members have agreed to face this justice system, which will hand out lighter penalties, with no prison time, to those who fully confess crimes and provide reparations to victims. Another 1,729 members of the security forces, including 3 generals, have also signed up. Twenty-one civilians currently imprisoned for human rights crimes, including a former mayor of the city of Cúcuta who worked with paramilitary groups, have also registered.
Threats and attacks against former FARC fighters
Two former FARC fighters were shot to death in the town of Peque, Antioquia while campaigning for FARC congressional candidate Wilmar de Jesús Cartagena. (Congressional elections are in March, with the FARC running candidates as a political party.) “This is the great worry that we have,” Cartagena—who missed the campaign event for medical reasons—told El Espectador. “We don’t see any security guarantee that the government has the commitment to offer us. We don’t know what actions the government might take to facilitate our party’s participation in politics.” A statement from the UN verification mission expressed “serious concern” over the killings, “which constitutes the first mortal attack within the framework of the 2018 electoral process.”
The FARC party headquarters in Cali received a threatening pamphlet signed by the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia,” a thousands-strong organized crime group commonly called the “Urabeños” or “Clan Úsuga.” The document declared the group’s intention to “blow up” the FARC office in Cali, as well as those of other leftist movements: the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, the Marcha Patriótica, and the Congreso de los Pueblos.
“While there hasn’t been any serious incident within the training and reintegration zones [where the FARC underwent demobilization] thanks to the security forces’ protection measures, the number of killings outside those zones is an issue of growing concern in the last few months,” said Jean Arnault, chief of the UN verification mission in Colombia.
The Marcha Patriótica political movement counts 54 ex-FARC members or relatives killed between November 13, 2016 and January 18, 2018. These murders took place in Nariño (15), Antioquia (11), Cauca (6), Caquetá (5), Putumayo (4), Chocó (3), Bolívar (2), Meta (2), Norte de Santander (2), Boyacá (1), Tolima (1), Arauca (1), and Valle del Cauca (1).
FARC dissidents attack police in Meta
FARC dissidents attacked police in two different parts of Meta department, in south-central Colombia. Six members of a column of rural police were injured when fighters detonated an explosive as they passed by, then fired upon them, in Mesetas, western Meta. The attack, blamed on remnants of the FARC’s 3rd Front, happened days after two police were injured by a thrown grenade in Puerto Concordia, south-central Meta.
- “Norte de Santander, una Frontera Que Quieren Silenciar” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), January 19, 2018).
- Francisco Gutierrez Sanin, “Un Problemon” (El Espectador (Colombia), January 19, 2018).
- Luis Eduardo Celis, “¿Por Que el Eln Sigue Con la Guerra?” (Las 2 Orillas (Colombia), January 19, 2018).
- “¿Que Dejan 10 Dias Sin Cese al Fuego Con el Eln?” (Fundacion Ideas por la Paz (Colombia), January 19, 2018).
- Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney, “Dirty Gold Is the New Cocaine in Colombia — and It’s Just as Bloody” (The Miami Herald, January 16, 2018).
- Jeremy Mcdermott, “Gamechangers 2017: Is Colombia’s Farc Really Gone?” (InsightCrime, January 16, 2018).
- Erick C. Duncan, “Falsos Positivos: «Hoy Hace Diez Anos Comence a Buscar el Cuerpo de Mi Hijo»” (Semana Rural (Colombia), January 16, 2018).
- Nelson Ricardo Matta Colorado, “El Desafio Que Traen las Bandas para 2018” (El Colombiano (Medellin Colombia), January 15, 2018).
- Sergio Jaramillo, “La Inclusion Politica Garantiza Que No se Repita la Violencia” (El Tiempo (Colombia), January 15, 2018).