On June 2, 2020, EarthRights and 15 other international and Colombian civil society organizations, including WOLA, published a statement condemning the murder of Indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of the ancestal U’wa territory.
Joel Aguablanca Villamizar was murdered on May 31, 2020 in the Department of North Santander during a Colombian military operation against fronts of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN). The Indigenous community has adamantly stated that their leader had no link to the armed group.
The militarization of the territory has had a detrimental impact on the indigenous U’wa population. The organizations demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future.
Below is the text of the statement:
Human rights organizations condemn the murder of indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of ancestral U’wa territory
Washington D.C, June 2, 2020: Last Sunday, indigenous leader Joel Aguablana Villamizer was murdered by the Colombian army in the Chitagá municipality of Norte Santander, Colombia. Joel was an indigenous leader and education coordinator for the U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Cabildos (ASOU’WA). The army murdered Joel as part of a mission to capture Darío Quiñonez, alias Marcial, third leader of the Efraín Pabón Pabón Front and commander of the Martha Cecilia Pabón Commission of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earthrights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa issued the following statement in response:
“In carrying out this operation, the Colombian National Army and the ELN did not respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law, threatening the life and security of the U’wa civilian population, including five minors.
“The military operation that resulted in Joel’s murder was carried out in close proximity to the U’wa United Reservation, which is part of the U’wa Nation ancestral territory. This highlights the impacts that the Colombian government’s fight against armed forces still has on the indigenous U’wa population. The U’Wa have been declared an endangered group by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.
“The organizations below stand in solidarity with the U’wa voices who denounced this heinous act and who stated that ‘[they] are not going to allow this unfortunate situation to be considered a false positive for the Colombian State, since the murdered U’wa brother was never linked to the ELN insurgent group (A SOU’WA Communiqué).’
“We are concerned and outraged at the frequency of events such as this one. According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (Ascamcat), with the death of Joel Aguablanca there have already been three cases of extrajudicial executions in the department of Norte Santander in 2020 (El Tiempo, 2020).
“We demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future. Likewise, we will bring the situation to the awareness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. EarthRights is currently supporting the U’Wa in a long-standing land rights case at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights”
Alma y Corazon (USA)
Amazon Watch (USA)
Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) (Regional-Americas)
Colombia Human Rights Committee (USA)
Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia)
EarthRights International (Amazon)
Indigenous Environmental Network (USA)
Mujer U’wa (USA)
Perifèries del món (Spanish State)
Rainforest Action Network (USA)
Rete Numeri Pari (Italy)
University of California Irvine Community Resilience Projects (USA)
On May 12, the Department of State notified Congress that Cuba and other countries were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015. In its statement, the State Department referred to Cuba’s denial of Colombia’s request for the extradition of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) leaders who are stranded in Havana after broken-off peace talks, and the presence of fugitives wanted by U.S. authorities who have lived in Cuba for decades. These politically motivated charges, aimed at pleasing U.S. political constituencies, undermine existing U.S.-Cuba security cooperation as well as the possibility of peace negotiations in Colombia and potentially elsewhere.
The sanctions attached to the “non-cooperation” designation—a prohibition on the sale or export of defense equipment and services to the designated country—do not have practical consequences for Cuba, since U.S. embargo regulations already prohibit the sale of defense-related equipment and services. However, this designation further poisons the diplomatic atmosphere between Cuba and the United States.
Designating Cuba as “non-cooperative” might be one step short of returning the country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba was officially removed from the list in 2015). The rationale cited by the State Department for labeling Cuba as “non-cooperative” is similar to the justifications previous administrations invoked for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.
Since Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, the U.S. government and Cuba have deepened security cooperation on issues of mutual interest for mutual benefits. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in the signature of a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement issues, where both governments committed to expanding operational collaboration on counter-terrorism, illicit drug traffic, cybercrime, and cybersecurity, among other issues. In addition, both governments established specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases including counterterrorism.
The most recent public technical meeting took place in January of 2018 between the Cuban Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, who highlighted the importance of cooperation in these areas and agreed to continue the technical meetings in the future.
One of the factors cited by the State Department for Cuba’s 2015 removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list was Cuba’s critical role in the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In May 2018, Colombia’s government, the ELN guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host peace talks between Colombia and the ELN, which had been taking place in Ecuador. Cuba and Norway were serving as “guarantor countries” for those talks, aimed at ending a conflict that began in 1964.
In April 2016, at the outset of the talks, all involved —including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These stated clearly that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was much more skeptical about peace talks. In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police academy, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government did not honor the protocols governing a breakdown of talks. It demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves continue to demand to be allowed to leave Cuba, as detailed in the protocols that Colombia’s government signed.
The communities where the ELN operates have consistently pleaded with the Colombian government to engage in exploratory peace talks with the guerrilla group, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These recent actions by the U.S. and Colombian governments disregard the security and well-being of afro-colombians, indigenous, and rural farmers who have no alternative but to deal with the negative implications of illegal groups like the ELN that operate in their territories. Rather than create obstacles to consolidating peacemaking efforts, the Colombian government should be taking all possible steps to create the conditions needed to reinstate dialogue and work towards establishing a durable peace.
It sends the message that if a state agrees to host peace talks, and doesn’t violate its word, that state could still face severe consequences for its contribution to global peace and security. In Colombia, as reprehensible as the ELN’s actions were, this sends a perverse message to any group that might decide to enter into a future peace process with the government.
Ultimately, this step by the Trump administration undermines ongoing cooperation on national security and law enforcement cooperation between Cuba and the United States, while undercutting effective international diplomacy.
By Gwen Burnyeat and Andrei Gomez-Suarez at Rodeemos el Diálogo on April 25, 2020. Cross-posted with permission.
There has been recent speculation about whether the COVID-19 pandemic might offer a window of opportunity for reigniting negotiations between the government of Iván Duque and Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), at war with the state since 1964. These speculations stem principally from two unilateral gestures, one by the ELN, one by the Duque government.
First, on 29 March, Duque’s High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos, re-designated two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, as “Peace Promoters”, a role given to members or ex-members of armed groups who commit to contributing with their experience to paving the way for peace negotiations with illegal armed groups, while the government suspends any legal process against them for their actions in that group. Galán and Torres, who both formally dropped out of the ELN and demobilised many years ago, had previously been designated by the administration of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) as “peace promoters”. In January 2019, after the ELN detonated a car bomb in the General Santander National Police Academy, killing 23 people, Duque had cancelled the status of all peace promoters, reactivating arrest warrants against them. In addition to Galán and Torres, this included active ELN members Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Eduardo Martínez, who had also been designated peace promoters. Galán and Cuéllar were captured; Martínez and Torres went into hiding. Galán and Torres were wanted on charges against the whole of the ELN Central Command (COCE) for a 1999 kidnapping, in which they did not participate because they were imprisoned at the time, but until this investigation is formally closed, they need a presidential pardon to walk freely.
Contextualising the Perspectives of Each Side: “Resistance” versus “Legality”
Neither the ELN nor the Duque government are homogenous entities. Both are complex ecosystems, each with their own internal dynamics, identity narratives, political power balances, and ideas about how Colombian public opinion perceives them.
Between October 2017 and January 2018, a virtuous cycle of unilateral and bilateral gestures led to a hundred-day bilateral ceasefire, which included a hybrid monitoring mechanism comprising representatives of the international community and Colombian civil society. While this bilateral ceasefire was welcomed by pro-peace networks as it alleviated humanitarian suffering, the ELN and the government had different interpretations as to what constituted breaches of the ceasefire, and it was ultimately not possible to extend it. Paradoxically, what was meant to be a trust-building step created a major deadlock in the negotiations. This, compounded by the short time that the Santos government had left in power, the ELN’s growing criticism of the government’s implementation of the Havana Peace Agreement signed with the FARC in 2016, and the ELN’s kidnapping of two Ecuadorian journalists, among other things, derailed progress of the negotiations under Santos. The support within the ELN and among their sympathisers shifted towards the hard-line faction, which does not see a negotiated peace as a viable solution, and rather supports the strengthening of the ELN’s military might to continue what they see as their resistance against an unchanging oligarchy.
President Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, won the 2018 elections on a promise of drastically modifying the Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and taking a hard-liner stance with the ELN. Governments themselves are complex dynamic ecosystems within the wider state structure, comprising multiple people and institutions, immersed in relationships within themselves, with various players in the political establishment, with their political opposition, and with Colombian public opinion.
Duque’s political capital draws overwhelmingly on the support of ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010), today Senator, whose popularity rested on his ‘democratic security’ policy, and who had staunchly opposed the negotiations with the FARC, leading to the triumph of the ‘No’ vote in the 2016 Peace Referendum. However, his government also comprises a key alliance with the Conservative Party, via his vice-president Marta Lucía Ramírez, and multiple other alliances with national and local-level politicians of different parties.
When Duque took power in August 2018, the ELN negotiation team was in Havana, where the negotiations were transferred in May 2018. They waited there and stated publicly their willingness to continue the dialogue with the new government. Duque announced that he would evaluate the state of the negotiations before taking a definitive decision. His government consistently pushed for the release of all the ELN’s hostages and the cessation of all criminal activities as conditions for negotiating. The ELN, in turn, argued that such actions would be made in a series of bilateral humanitarian gestures, as negotiations progressed.
Meanwhile, the negotiations remained frozen, no government delegation arrived in Havana, and the conflict intensified in regions such as Catatumbo, Cauca, Chocó and Nariño. With the ELN’s car bomb in January 2019 Duque formally ended the negotiations, saying the ELN did not show a willingness for peace, and requested an Interpol warrant against the ELN negotiation delegates in Cuba. He urged Cuba and Norway, both guarantors to the Santos negotiations with the ELN, to ignore protocols signed with his predecessor which guaranteed the safe return of the ELN negotiation team to the Colombian jungle in the case of breakdown of peace talks, and return the negotiators to Colombia to be arrested.
Ever since, two members of the ELN COCE (Nicolás Rodríguez and Pablo Beltrán) have remained in Havana (Cuba decided to respect the protocols), giving frequent press interviews expressing their wish to reignite negotiations, urging Duque to send a negotiation team to continue with the existing negotiation agenda, as it was an agenda signed with the Colombian state. The Duque government, meanwhile, contends that the previous agenda was signed with the Santos government, and that new negotiations would require a new agenda. Duque continues to emphasise further unilateral permanent gestures by the ELN as conditions for negotiating, especially hostage release and cessation of criminal activities, in line with his government’s key slogan, “peace with legality”.
The ELN tends to reject unilateral gestures, claiming that the government does not see them as a gesture of a strong group willing to make concessions and pave the way to peace collaboratively between two antagonists, but rather as a show of weakness. The ELN’s gesture is thus suggestive of a possible shift towards a consensus at least on seeking a way to alleviate humanitarian suffering. The compliance of all the ELN’s Fronts with the ceasefire so far (between 1-22 April there were zero attacks by the ELN) is also positive, considering the ELN’s geographical fragmentation and non-vertical hierarchy, and is indicative of the COCE’s capacity of command and control. The Colombian army has not instigated any attack since 12 March, which suggests that the government is likewise prioritising the response to the Coronavirus crisis. This convergence of unilateral strategies has materialised in a tacit truce, which could nurture a virtuous cycle of decisions that lead to long-term de-escalation of the conflict. Many sectors of civil society and the international community have welcomed the positive impact of the ceasefire in the lives of war-torn communities.
However, this cannot be misinterpreted as a step towards the opening of a negotiation table, and a shift within the ELN towards a consensus for a negotiated peace. On the contrary, the geopolitics around Venezuela offer a ripe context for a radicalisation of the ELN. Donald Trump’s constant threats to the Maduro regime and Duque’s confrontational approach to Venezuela reinforce the ELN’s self-perception of being a bastion of resistance against global neoliberalism and fascism. The unilateral ceasefire thus could also be read as a move to regain international legitimacy in the global context of failing neoliberal democracies, and position themselves as standing against Trump.
The Duque administration’s gesture of reinstating Torres and Galán as peace promoters suggests of a willingness within at least one sector of the government to take tangible steps towards peace, responding to the many calls by pro-peace sectors of Colombian civil society and the international community for the government to seek a “complete peace” – one that encompasses all illegal armed groups in the country. Just as an insurgency has harder and more moderate positions internally, which fluctuate in power and visibility according to the unfolding political present, so does a government. The intensifying violence of the conflict with the ELN, and the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan migrants arriving in Colombia, have now been compounded by the coronavirus crisis. Pro-peace elements within the government now have the opportunity to elevate the protection of life as the central mandate of the Duque administration, beyond the scrabbles of right/left sectarianism which have thus far dominated its political narratives, in which it has been stuck since coming to power on the basis of opposing Santos and his peace process.
Possibilities and Challenges for Peace: Opening the Window of Opportunity
Peace is not a linear process. Even if these two unilateral gestures do not immediately bring the parties to a negotiation table, they give oxygen to pro-peace elements in the government, in the wider political establishment, among Colombian civil society and in the international community.
We see four interdependent and mutually reinforcing conditions as essential for a future Duque-ELN negotiation. First, the Duque government needs to show both sufficient political will and political capital to engage successfully in peace negotiations. Second, the ELN must build sufficient consensus internally to commit to a negotiated solution to the conflict, and accepting that this may have to look different to what they envisaged when they committed to negotiating with the Santos administration. Third, the growth in support in Colombian public opinion for an end to violence in the country. Fourth, a favourable geopolitical environment for fostering a sustainable peace in Colombia, which had been adversely affected by the Trump administration’s disdain for the 2016 Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and the worsening of the Venezuela crisis.
The Coronavirus pandemic is radically reshaping our world. As governments worldwide are extending lockdowns, might not the ELN similarly reconsider, and extend their ceasefire? Might increased political and citizen support crystallise around a government mandate for protecting life? And might the government continue to abstain from military engagement with the ELN, and offer an explicit unilateral gesture of de-escalation? Might the outcome of the coming US elections create a more favourable geopolitical context for future negotiations with the ELN? The transformations of political identities around the world under coronavirus will change global trends on everything from neoliberal economic policies, state welfare, populism, and community solidarity. These transformations could redefine how the Duque government and the ELN see themselves and each other, and how Colombian society feels about a negotiated solution to the conflict. The window of opportunity remains to be opened.
We’ve added a fourth article to this site’s page of “Explainer” documents: an overview of the National Liberation Army, ELN, Colombia’s largest existing guerrilla group. The Explainer moves rapidly through the ELN’s difficult history, its command structure and way of operating, its geography, its revenue streams, its poor human rights record, and Colombia’s experience engaging it in peace talks. All in a concise 5,400 words—but with numerous photos and maps.
On March 29, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group announced a month-long, unilateral ceasefire that will begin on April 1 and end on April 30. The Colombian government subsequently announced that two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Carlos Velandia, would serve as “peace promoters” (gestores de paz)—a small but critical first step in restarting peace negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government that have been stalled since January 2019.While these humanitarian actions will help bring a temporary peace to some conflict-ridden communities in Colombia, securing a lasting peace requires using this ceasefire as a starting point for reinitiating dialogue between ELN and the government.
The Duque administration has tried to control the spread of COVID-19 through a nationwide quarantine. Yet, despite enhanced public health and security measures all over the country, killings, displacements, and violent actions by illegal armed groups targeting ethnic, indigenous, and rural communities have continued at an alarming rate. Since the quarantine, hostilities between armed groups have exacerbated humanitarian emergencies and led to the confinement of civilians in Nariño, Chocó, and Cauca. In Putumayo, forced coca eradication has prompted conflicts with rural farmers, while it has led to an extrajudicial killing in Catatumbo. Four ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) were recently murdered: two in San Vicente del Caguán, one in La Macarena, and one in Bogotá.
All over the country, social leaders have seen their protection diminished even further since the quarantine, and several have been assassinated. They include feminist leader Carlota Salinas of Bolívar, Ángel Ovidio Quintero of Antioquia, leaders of the Emberá indigenous group Omar Guasiruma and Ernesto Guasiruma of Valle del Cauca, and several other leaders and community members in Awá territory and Afro-Colombian communities in Jiguamiando, Chocó. Jhon Restrepo, director of Casa Diversa and a well-known LGBT activist suffered an assassination attempt.
In response to the violence during the pandemic, more than 100 Colombian ethnic, indigenous, and rural communities wrote letters to all the armed groups in Colombia urging them to stop bellicose operations during the pandemic in order to minimize violence and public health risks.
Though the ELN’s chain of command is loose, the group has generally observed past ceasefires. In zones under the group’s influence, populations interviewed by WOLA recall the group’s 100-day 2017 ceasefire with some nostalgia, as an unprecedented period of tranquility. WOLA encourages the ELN to continue its ceasefire after April 30 if, as is likely, the public health emergency is continuing.
All armed actors in Colombia should implement ceasefires at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, refraining from offensive tactics or other actions that might leave populations vulnerable to infection. All should use the temporary pause to explore paths for sustained peace. In the case of the temporary ELN unilateral ceasefire, the Colombian government should take steps towards a bilateral ceasefire and reestablishment of talks with the guerrillas. It should increase protection for social leaders in addition to taking measures to protect vulnerable communities from the COVID-19 virus. All belligerent groups should respect the Humanitarian Accord Now in Chocó (Acuerdo Humanitario ¡Ya! en el Chocó)—a 2017 humanitarian accord proposed by dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups in Chocó—and international humanitarian law.