Updates from WOLA tagged “ELN Talks”

Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process: Week of April 15-21

April 23, 2018

Ecuador Will No Longer Host the ELN Negotiations

The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, announced April 18 that his country will no longer host the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN. Government representatives and guerrilla leaders had held five rounds of talks in Quito since February 2017. Moreno’s announcement came days after the murder of two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver, whom a group of re-armed FARC guerrillas had abducted in late March on Ecuador’s side of the border with Colombia.

“I have asked the foreign minister of Ecuador to put the brakes on the conversations and put the brakes on our role as a guarantor of the peace process while the ELN does not commit to ending terrorist actions,” Moreno told Colombian cable news network NTN24.

“President Santos understands the reasons why President Moreno has decided to move away from his role as guarantor and host of these negotiations,” Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín responded, adding that Colombia will seek a new foreign country in which to hold the talks, which have made only very modest progress on their agenda. The candidate leading polls for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election, rightist Iván Duque, endorsed Ecuador’s move: “President Moreno was completely right to suspend the dialogues with the ELN. What President Santos did not do, the Ecuadorian government did well.”

The talks’ remaining five guarantor countries are Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela. Analysts asked by Colombian media coincided in the view that Cuba or perhaps Chile is the best choice for a new venue: Brazil is about to have elections, Chile just inaugurated a new conservative government, Norway is too far away, and Venezuela is roiled by political and economic instability. Another option would be to continue the original vision of “itinerant” negotiations that move from country to country, which poses logistical challenges.

Moreno’s decision came after the journalists’ kidnapping-murder, another kidnapping of two Ecuadorians who remain in custody, and several attacks on Ecuador’s security forces in the border region, mainly in the Pacific province of Esmeraldas. All of these actions were perpetrated by the so-called Oliver Sinisterra Front, a grouping of ex-FARC members headed by Walter Arizara, an Ecuadorian-born former FARC member who goes by the alias “Guacho.” Though the ELN has nothing to do with Guacho’s group’s actions, the attacks on Ecuadorian soil have soured public opinion in the country toward Colombian armed groups in general.

The Colombian journalism website Verdad Abierta adds that Ecuador’s government was also probably miffed at the “lack of diplomatic tact” with which Colombia’s government handled the reporters’ kidnapping and murder.

For more than two years, annoyance has been incubating within the Ecuadorian Defense Ministry over their Colombian counterparts’ lack of commitment to the design of a joint border security strategy that would include contingency plans. Since that time, it was known that some FARC units wouldn’t accept the accords signed with the Colombian government.
… A researcher who has studied the armed conflict dynamic in that border region for several years, and who asked not to use his/her name, affirmed… “The Ecuadorian government has always felt undervalued by the Colombian government. The situation intensified with President Juan Manuel Santos’s response to the situation with the murdered journalists. This had several elements, for example that he did not go to Ecuador to meet with Moreno at a moment of intense pain for Ecuadorians. This was seen as an affront.”
That atmosphere became even tenser after President Santos’s clumsy statements saying that “Guacho” was Ecuadorian and that the reporters were killed in Ecuador. Those statements were interpreted by many Ecuadorian people, including by international bodies as saying “that’s Ecuador’s problem.”

On April 15, two days after President Moreno announced the reporters’ death, President Santos recognized that the reporters were killed on Colombian soil. The bodies remain there, unrecovered.

On April 19 someone—the Colombian military said the ELN—bombed a power pylon in Nariño, Colombia, shutting off electricity throughout the border region, including the troubled port city of Tumaco. The peace talks, meanwhile, continue to seek a new venue at which to resume their fifth round.

Aftermath of the Arrest of Jesús Santrich

Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, the FARC ideologist and negotiator arrested April 9 on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine, was transferred to southern Bogotá’s La Picota prison, where he will remain as Colombian judicial authorities determine whether he should be separated from the peace accords’ transitional justice process and extradited to the United States. Colombia’s Supreme Court denied a habeas corpus motion seeking his release; his lawyers contended, unsuccessfully, that the transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) should have executed the arrest order instead of the regular criminal justice system.

From his confinement, Santrich gave an interview to Colombia’s W Radio news station. He confirmed that he had spoken to Mexican traffickers —who were either undercover DEA agents, or had one or more DEA agents embedded in their group—but thought that they were potential investors in post-conflict agricultural projects. Santrich had been put into contact with the Mexicans by Marlon Marín, a lawyer who is the nephew of chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, a close associate of Santrich’s on the FARC party’s hardline wing.

Santrich said his relationship with Marín “is a working relationship about ideas for productive projects, specifically about farms growing native crops, to implement in zones where the accord on integral rural reform will be carried out.” He said that he did not know the name of Rafael Caro Quintero, the top Mexican drug trafficker whom his intermediaries claimed to be representing. “It’s very hard for me to keep in mind who could be a narco or not. Many people came to my house with the idea of contributing to moving the peace process forward, and all of the people who came were registered with the National Police.” Asked about the ink drawing he gave the Mexicans, dedicated to Caro Quintero, he said that he thought Caro was a potential investor, and that he had given similar drawings to Vice-President Óscar Naranjo and presidential post-conflict chief Rafael Pardo.

“You will never hear words like ‘cocaine, payment, five-kilogram packages’ come out of my mouth,” Santrich said. “This is like an Indiana Jones movie, everyone adding special effects and the setup is right around the corner.” He added, “It’s more likely that cocaine passed through the nose of the chief prosecutor of the nation than through my hands.” Recordings of Santrich’s conversations with the Mexicans, currently in U.S. authorities’ possession, may give a clearer idea of to what extent Santrich knowingly discussed a plan to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States, or how he reacted when Marlon Marín—who had urged Santrich to meet the Mexicans—discussed the plan in his presence.

Yezid Arteta, a former FARC member turned columnist for Semana magazine’s website, called Marín “the typical lizard that one finds in all political parties and institutions, who seems to be one of the planners of the trap laid for Santrich.” On April 16, Marlon Marín boarded a flight to New York, where he has agreed to testify against Jesús Santrich as a cooperating witness. Asked about his relationship with his nephew, FARC leader Iván Márquez only said he was a “gentleman” whose “conduct will have to be investigated.”

On April 19 Márquez, who is slated to take a seat in Colombia’s Senate on July 20, notified Colombia’s Police and National Protection Unit that he was leaving Bogotá, moving “temporarily to the territorial space [FARC demobilization site] in Miravalle,” in the southern department of Caquetá, “due to the situation and until there is greater clarity and certainty about what comes next.” Santrich, on a hunger strike in La Picota, said he would rather starve to death than be extradited.

Aftermath of Revelation of Peace Fund Irregularities

A week after Colombian media reported on letters from European ambassadors and from Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) voicing concerns about the management of special peace accord implementation funds, President Santos announced a “crash plan” to improve monitoring of resources and administrative steps to restructure management of resources from international donors.

The concerns center around the “Colombia in Peace Fund,” which concentrates a few hundred million dollars in resources for peace accord implementation projects, most of them from foreign donors. Though the fund is subject to close oversight and reporting, in order to speed delivery of aid it is largely exempt from often cumbersome procedures in regular Colombian law designed to prevent corruption in contracting.

The government found that 97 percent of the fund’s resources so far have gone to 40 contracts. “That’s why the denunciations and suspicions that persist about supposed poor management are so concerning,” reads an editorial in El Espectador. “In synthesis, it seems that the corrupt political bureaucracy that is so rooted in our country has also tried to stick its hand in the investments that should be consolidating the accord’s implementation.”

The concerns led to the dismissal of Carlos Fidel Simancas, a contractor of the International Organization for Migration who worked in the Presidency’s Post-Conflict Secretariat. “In that Secretariat,” El Tiempo reported, Simancas

was the manager of former Green Party congressional candidate Sonia Elvira Veloza Mogollón, who last Friday was called for questioning at the Fiscalía as part of the “group of people who played specific roles” in the presumed irregularities in the management of productive projects for demobilized FARC.
Another eight people—a list that does not include Simancas—were also called to the Fiscalía, and their offices and homes were searched on suspicion of being part of the network of Marlon Marín Marín, who according to the investigative body was a sort of articulator of a network that sought to enrich itself with peace contracts.
Marlon Marín first sought to obtain a cut of the contracts for basic healthcare at the demobilized combatants’ concentration sites.

This is the same Marlon Marín involved in the arrest of Jesús Santrich, the FARC leader’s nephew whom columnist Yezid Arteta referred to above as a “lizard.” Before discovering his efforts to strike a cocaine deal with Mexicans, Colombian authorities were already monitoring Marín because they suspected he was mishandling these health contracts.

Vice President Óscar Naranjo said that the government will seek “to accelerate the accords’ implementation, especially with relation to productive projects.” Treasury Vice-Minister Paula Acosta said that the government has contracted the accounting firm Ernst and Young to audit the contracts awarded so far.

Naranjo promised a detailed review of post-conflict productive projects. He said there are 214 such projects so far, in different states of development. Among them, 35, involving 1,533 ex-FARC members, are in the “formulation phase” and will cost about COP$22.764 billion (US$8.081 million).

“This is no reason, certainly, to slow implementation” of the peace accord, concluded El Espectador’s editorial. “The accord has already faltered too much for the government to keep delaying compliance with its promises. The money is there precisely to be spent as soon as possible and to put in motion everything that was promised. Can’t we do this with transparency?”

UN Secretary General Reports on Peace Process

The UN Security Council convened on April 19 to hear the Secretary General’s latest report on the peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission. The ambassadors in attendance gave supportive statements and celebrated the progress away from conflict that Colombia has made. Some, most notably Russia, voiced concerns about the pace of implementation.

“While it is obviously too early to take stock of a peace process that has set ambitious and long-term goals,” UN Mission Head Jean Arnault told the Council that there is reason for optimism.

[W]e have already observed that it has achieved a notable reduction of violence in the context of the congressional elections. Similarly, it has created a series of institutions dedicated to overcoming patterns of social, economic and political violence in the conflict areas. …Throughout the implementation phase of the Peace Agreement, circumstances have occasionally tested the commitment of the two parties to stay the course. They have stayed the course.

Nonetheless Arnault, and the Secretary-General’s report, warned of problems. “[T]he resurgence of violence in several of the areas most affected by the conflict and the persistent pattern of killings of community and social leaders are the main subjects of concern at present,” the report emphasized.

The report highlights the slowness with which Colombia is reintegrating former FARC combatants.

Socioeconomic reintegration is lagging behind. The transition from early reinsertion to sustainable reintegration has not yet been completed, and this uncertainty continues to undermine the confidence of former members of FARC-EP in their reintegration and in the peace process itself.

Lack of progress in this respect is in good part responsible for the movement of former FARC-EP members outside the territorial areas, hence the growing importance of access to land, the design, funding and implementation of viable productive projects linked to local development and the creation of cooperatives to implement them.

Remarkably, Colombia still does not have a plan in place for reintegrating ex-combatants, violating a cardinal precept of how a peace accord should be implemented.

I reiterate the need for the National Reintegration Council to adopt, as provided for in the Peace Agreement, its national reintegration plan linking reintegration to development.

The Secretary-General’s report also voices concern for the security of former FARC members located outside the former concentration zones, and of threatened social leaders throughout the country.

I am concerned that, by all accounts, the killing of community leaders and human rights defenders has continued unabated in the past three months, despite several measures to address the alarming number of killings registered in 2017. This trend and the proliferation of illegal armed actors associated with it should be brought under control as a matter of urgency, as has been acknowledged by the President and top officials of his Government.
Of particular concern are the attacks against persons working to implement government programmes related to coca substitution and land restitution. Members of local community boards, the governance mechanism established in rural districts, are among the main targets of violence.

A Supportive Statement From U.S.-UN

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, read a statement that was significantly more supportive of the peace effort than has been customary for the Trump administration. It calls for greater government presence in territories, reintegration of former combatants, and action on land tenure. The expected exhortation to “accelerate its counter-narcotics effort” doesn’t appear until the 11th of 15 paragraphs.

The agreement that ended five decades of war in Colombia has created the conditions for the just and lasting peace that Colombians deserve. It was a historic achievement. But peace in Colombia remains an unfinished project. All of us have a role in ensuring that it succeeds.
…We cannot allow formerly FARC-controlled areas to fall into the hands of criminals and illegal armed groups. That would undo much of the progress of the peace accord. We encourage the government to continue efforts to eliminate Colombia’s ungoverned spaces. The United States also urges the government to continue the full implementation of the comprehensive peace plan. This includes efforts to reintegrate former combatants into civilian life.
The peace accord provides an important opportunity to address historical land issues that have driven conflict and violence in Colombia. We welcome President Santos’ landmark decree meant to formalize land ownership for more than 2.5 million farmers. Improving access to land is essential in transforming rural livelihoods. Criminal groups and narco-traffickers have dominated rural areas of Colombia for decades. With secure land titles, the Colombian people can provide for their families without feeling beholden to these groups.

DEA Investigating Corruption Allegations Against Agent

A story by BuzzFeed reporter Aram Roston, later picked up by the New York Times, reveals that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating veteran agent José Irizarry, who had been stationed in the agency’s field office in Cartagena, Colombia. The nature of the now-resigned agent’s misconduct is not clear, but three anonymous sources told Roston “the scope of the case is believed to be unprecedented in the agency’s history.” One source said that Irizarry is also being investigated by the Justice Department’s Inspector-General and the FBI.

Proposal To Eradicate Coca With Drones

El Tiempo reported that the U.S. government’s estimate of the amount of coca planted in Colombia in 2017 reached a new record of between 220,000 and 230,000 hectares, up from 188,000 in 2016. The White House has not yet published its 2017 figure. Nor have Colombian authorities published their estimate, but the same article cites a Colombian estimate of 170,000-180,000 hectares, up from 146,000 in 2016. This apparent increase occurred even though Colombian government, police, and military eradicators uprooted, cut down, or directly applied herbicides to 53,000 hectares of coca bushes last year, and worked with farmers for the voluntary eradication of about 20,000 more.

As a result, the same El Tiempo article revealed, the Colombian National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DIRAN) is pursuing the possibility of employing drones to spray herbicides on the coca fields. Each would fly a meter or less over the bushes, spraying the herbicide glyphosate.

In 2015, Colombia suspended the U.S.-funded practice of spraying glyphosate from aircraft after the UN World Health Organization published a literature review70134-8/fulltext) finding that the chemical “is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate is still commonly used in Colombian (and U.S.) agriculture, and eradicators still kill coca with the more precise method of applying it from backpack-mounted dispensers, which presumably minimizes spray drift to populated areas and destruction of legal food crops. The drone proposal would enable similar close-proximity spraying without the risks that sharpshooters, ambushes, landmines, and booby traps have posed to human eradicators working in the fields.

On April 13, the DIRAN began testing drones from five companies. It is prepared in 2018 to spend COP$21 billion (US$7.5 million) on drones that meet a series of standards:

  • Ability to fly between 50 centimeters and one meter above the plants.
  • Ability to operate in temperatures ranging from -5 to 40 degrees Celsius.
  • Two GPS systems to guarantee precision of spraying.
  • An anti-collision sensor.
  • An automatic recording system that records the drone’s location at every second.

The DIRAN expects that each drone would be able to spray between 10 and 15 hectares per day, whereas a human eradicator can only destroy 3 to 5 hectares of coca per day. In an absence of government presence in coca-growing zones, though, it remains unclear what would prevent farmers with limited economic options from replanting the crop.

Fighting Between Armed Groups in Bajo Cauca and Catatumbo Has Displaced Thousands This Year

In addition to the Colombia-Ecuador border region, where the FARC dissident group commanded by alias “Guacho” has drawn much attention, two other regions saw intensified violence during the week between groups that remain active, and are growing, in post-accord Colombia.

The Bajo Cauca region in northeastern Antioquia, a coca production and cocaine transshipment zone a few hours’ drive from Medellín, is the scene of frequent combat between two organized crime groups. The Urabeños (also known as Gulf Clan, or Usuga Clan, or Gaitanistas), the largest organized armed group in the country, is battling a regional group called the “Caparrapos” (also known as the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Front). Both groups can trace their lineage back to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary network that terrorized much of Colombia, and enjoyed some support on the political right, in the 1990s and 2000s.

So far this year, fighting between the two groups has displaced at least 2,175 people in the Antioquia municipalities of Cáceres, Caucasia, Tarazá, and Ituango. Violence has also been intense across the departmental border in southern Córdoba. Fighting on April 13-15 killed five people and displaced 210. In the sports complex in Tarazá’s town center, 120 of the displaced are currently taking refuge.

Sergio Mesa Cárdenas of the Medellín NGO Corpades told El Colombiano that the warring groups are getting support from the Mexican cartels that buy their illicit product.

The “Caparrapos” gang, led by alias “Ratón,” has alliances with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Medellín’s “Los Triana” gang. Regarding the “Gulf Clan,” led by alias “Gonzalito,” the investigator says they have the support of the “Pachelly” gang from [the Medellín suburb of] Bello and the “Zetas” cartel.

The situation is arguably worse in Catatumbo, a poorly governed coca-growing region in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. This zone had a longtime presence of the FARC, the ELN, and the EPL. The latter group, the People’s Liberation Army, is descended from the dissident remnant of a larger group that demobilized in 1991. (The Colombian government often calls them “Los Pelusos.”) The EPL remained active in Catatumbo, profiting from the production and transshipment of drugs into Venezuela; today it has about 200 members and appears to be growing.

With the FARC’s exit from the scene—the 33rd Front concentrated in a demobilization zone in Tibú municipality over a year ago—the EPL and ELN began to compete for control of its previous territories of influence. A longstanding non-aggression arrangement broke down in mid-March, and combat has intensified ever since. “According to voices in the region who spoke to reporter Salud Hernández-Mora,” El Tiempo noted, “it is all because the ELN believes that the ‘Pelusos’ violated accords to share the business that the FARC left behind.”

After a month of tensions and sporadic combat, the situation worsened April 15 with the EPL’s declaration of an “armed stoppage”: a several-day prohibition on all road travel, and often a requirement that local businesses shut their doors. Residents of several Catatumbo municipalities received pamphlets informing them of the stoppage, and many of the region’s population centers became “ghost towns.” Schools closed all week, “affecting about 45,000 children and 2,000 teachers,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Norte de Santander Governor William Villamizar declared a state of humanitarian emergency in Catatumbo, and asked the national government to authorize a dialogue between ELN and EPL leaders at the ELN negotiating table. The commander of the Colombian Army’s “Vulcan” Task Force, stationed in the region, said that “a special deployment has been done.”

Civil society groups in Catatumbo, along with the Catholic church and local governments, have joined in calls on the armed groups to leave the civilian population out of the fighting. Business owners tried to open their establishments for half-day periods, but, according to El Colombiano, were met by armed people “who obligated them to close with the threat: ‘we’re the ones who have the weapons here.’”

The UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs says that 2,500 people have been displaced by Catatumbo’s violence since the situation deteriorated in mid-March. A government source told El Colombiano that the actual number is probably higher, as many displaced are fearful of registering and may be staying with relatives and friends. If the situation continues for another week, the source said, food could start running out in some communities.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Drug Policy, ELN Talks, Reintegration, U.S. Policy, UN, Weekly update

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

February 18, 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.”

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Elections, ELN Talks, U.S. Policy, Weekly update

Last week in Colombia’s Peace Process

February 9, 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.

In addition:

  • 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.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Elections, ELN Talks, Weekly update

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

January 29, 2018

In third week after end of ELN ceasefire, violence intensifies

Talks in Ecuador between the government and the ELN made no progress more than two weeks after the non-renewal of a 100-day cessation of hostilities, which ended on January 9. Last week, events on the battlefield made the situation worse.

In the early morning hours of January 27, an explosive device killed five police and wounded forty-three more as they began their day at a post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city. A second bomb went off on January 28 near a police post in another Barranquilla neighborhood, wounding two police and three civilians. Also on January 27, a bomb in Santa Rosa del Sur, in the northern department of Bolívar, killed two police. The ELN retweeted a statement from an urban bloc (account since suspended, but it was here) claiming responsibility for the Barranquilla attacks. The government reported capturing a suspect: a man who, authorities allege, had a notebook with a map of one of the bombing sites.

The week also saw combat between Colombia’s army and the ELN in Valdivia, Northern Antioquia, while four ELN members died in an army-air force-police attack in Chitagá, Norte de Santander.

Following the Barranquilla attacks, rightwing candidates for Colombia’s May presidential elections called on President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend or end talks with the ELN. “The government can NOT restart negotiations with the ELN in these conditions, it must react with determination and authority,” tweeted Germán Vargas Lleras, who had served as Santos’s interior minister and vice president. The candidate of ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, Iván Duque, tweeted, “when terrorism is given advantages, it feels free to attack with cowardice.”

Former FARC launch campaign but are increasingly vulnerable to attack

The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party descended from the FARC guerrillas, launched its 2018 election campaign at a January 27 event in Ciudad Bolívar, a sprawling low-income neighborhood in southern Bogotá. (And one of a handful of Bogotá districts where a majority voted “no” against the FARC peace accord in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.) Led by maximum leader and presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño (previously known as “Timochenko”), the new political party introduced a political platform including a proposed guaranteed basic income for all Colombians.

The peace accords give the former guerrillas an automatic 5 seats in a 107-seat Senate and 5 in a 172-seat House of Representatives. The new party is running 23 candidates for Senate seats and 51 in the House. That places the FARC 12th among all Colombian parties in number of House candidates, and 13th in number of Senate candidates. “We’re very optimistic and confident that we will win more than 10 seats,” said top leader Carlos Antonio Lozada. That is far from certain: the ex-guerrillas’ past of human rights abuses, most of which remain unacknowledged for now, make them quite unpopular in mainstream Colombian opinion. The peace accord also holds out an awkward possibility of FARC officeholders standing trial for serious war crimes.

Meanwhile, threats and attacks against the FARC political organization are worsening. About 33 former guerrillas have been killed since the final peace accord was signed in November 2016. The past week saw armed men raid the FARC party headquarters in Quibdó, the capital of the northwestern department of Chocó. FARC party member Johana Poblador was beaten in Bogotá by armed men who threatened to kill FARC leaders. Two FARC members in Medellín received death threats from the “Gaitanistas” or “Urabeños” neo-paramilitary group, which has already threatened to attack FARC party offices around the country.

Violence and displacement around the country

Last week it became evident that, between only the 17th and 20th of January, violence forced more than 1,000 people to leave their home communities. The Urabeños, the ELN, and FARC dissident groups—all of them fighting to occupy vacuums left by the demobilized FARC—were involved in all cases. Violence continued, and perhaps worsened, this week.

  • About 172 people were displaced by fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents in the La Voz de los Negros Community Council of Magüi Payán, Nariño, southwestern Colombia.
  • In Cumbal, Nariño, fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents forced many to flee into neighboring Ecuador.
  • Just to the north, in Argelia, Cauca, at least 11 armed men opened fire on a festival, killing three people.
  • Further north, in Buenos Aires, Cauca, a roadside attack killed two members of a mining cooperative. “We’re feeling the fight for territorial control, with the exit of the FARC from municipalities that have to do with narcotrafficking. In addition are those affected by illegal mining,” said Cauca governor Óscar Campo.
  • An “unidentified armed group” forced 425 people to flee five hamlets and an indigenous reserve in San José de Uré, in the northwestern department of Córdoba. This area, the southern part of the department, sits along a key corridor for trafficking cocaine to the Caribbean coast. The government human rights ombudsman (Defensoría) reports that Urabeños have been increasing their presence, patrolling in camouflage-clad groups of 15 to 30 combatants in zones that used to be FARC-dominated.
  • Just to the south, in the coca and cocaine-producing Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, three armed men entered a bar on January 21 in the town of Yarumal, indiscriminately opened fire with Mini Uzis and killed seven people. A similar massacre took place in the same municipality in December.
  • Elsewhere in the Bajo Cauca region, in Cáceres and Caucasia municipalities, violence forced about 400 more people to flee. Here, the identity of the armed group isn’t clear: “It’s that we don’t know who they are, they don’t identify themselves, they don’t wear labels,” a local witness told Medellín’s daily El Colombiano. “We’ve only seen them several times around here, armed, wearing camouflage, it was about 30 men.” The zone has a presence of both ELN and Urabeños. (Also in Caucasia last week was U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, paying a visit to observe U.S.-supported coca eradication and substitution programs.)
  • Fighting between the security forces and the ELN displaced several families in Paya, Boyacá.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Displacement, Elections, ELN Talks, Weekly update

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

January 22, 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.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, ELN Talks, Transitional Justice, Weekly update

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

January 15, 2018

We’d like to post these all year without missing a week. Travel plans may complicate that, but we’re going to try.

ELN ceasefire breaks off

For 102 days, while peace talks proceeded in Quito, the Colombian government and ELN guerrillas mostly honored a cessation of hostilities. That period saw 33 possible ceasefire violations committed by the ELN—of which 12 were verified—killing 26 noncombatants and involving the kidnapping of 13 people and forced recruitment of 14. Still, this was a much lower tempo of violence than normal. And there were zero incidents of combat between the ELN and Colombia’s security forces.

The cessation of hostilities ended on January 9, when the parties failed to agree to extend it. Overall analysis of the non-renewal placed most blame on the ELN, which appeared to lack internal consensus, or even unity of command, about whether to continue the truce.

The ELN’s standing in public opinion plummeted further as the group immediately launched a series of attacks on security forces and infrastructure, mostly in the northeast of the country. The week saw approximately 13 attacks, leading to the deaths of at least two police and at least three bombings of the 485-mile-long Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.

The Colombian government pulled its negotiating team from Quito, and appeared to suspend talks until the ELN agrees to a new ceasefire. This is a reversal of the 2012-16 FARC negotiations, when the guerrillas repeatedly demanded a bilateral ceasefire but the government preferred to keep fighting while talks proceeded.

France, the European Union, the “guarantor countries” of the ELN talks (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway, and Venezuela), and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño all called on the parties to return to the table and agree on a new cessation of hostilities. The UN noted that it cannot keep its monitoring and verification structure in place very long with no ceasefire to monitor.

The U.S. government issued a travel warning for four departments where the ELN is most active: Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, and Norte de Santander.

Other coverage: Washington Post, New York Times, El Tiempo

Visit of UN Secretary-General

The need to restart the ELN talks and ceasefire was a main message of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a January 13 visit to Colombia. Guterres visited Bogotá and Meta to get a sense of how implementation of the FARC accord is going, to give political support to the ELN process, and to support the work of the UN verification mission in Colombia.

That mission’s latest 90-day report to the Secretary-General, made public on January 5, voiced concern about the government’s implementation of the FARC accord: “Overall, the implementation of the peace-related legislative agenda has progressed unevenly, compounded by events relating to the presidential and parliamentary elections, to be held in the first semester of 2018.”

Military sets up giant task force in Nariño

Colombia’s Defense Ministry has set up a joint task force, “Hercules,” with about 9,800 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and police stationed in Nariño, on the Pacific coast in the southwestern corner of the country. Nariño is Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department and a heavily used corridor for cocaine shipments into the eastern Pacific. It has very active FARC ex-militia dissident groups and a growing presence of the ELN. Not all of the 9,800 personnel are new: many are already stationed in Nariño but now form part of this joint command structure.

“This plan has had a big media deployment in the region and in Bogotá,” writes Laura Soto in La Silla Vacía. “But four sources who know the zone (members of the Tumaco mayor’s office, two human rights defenders who have worked closely with Caritas, and a social leader) aren’t hopeful that the panorama will approve, at least not in the short term.”

Lowest homicide rate in 40 years

President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated that Colombia’s 2017 homicide rate reached the lowest point in 42 years: 24 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants (about the same as Washington DC). Security analyst Hugo Acero cast some doubt on the statistics, though the overall trend points to declining homicides.

Nastiness between Santos and Maduro

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro told his countrymen that “thousands of Colombian patients cross the border to get operated on here, to treat a flu, to clear up a cataract, to seek medicines in Venezuela” where the health system is “free.” (Venezuela in fact suffers from severe shortages of most medicines, while Colombia’s healthcare system is also theoretically free.) President Santos called this comment “cynical,” pointing out that the reverse phenomenon is happening with Venezuelans recurring to Colombia’s border-zone hospitals. “President Maduro, don’t try to use the Colombian people to hide the enormous shortcomings of your failed revolution,” he said. Maduro responded that Santos “has his country in chaos” and isn’t complying with the FARC peace accord.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: ELN Talks, Weekly update

Colombia’s ELN Peace Talks Explained

February 7, 2017

by Geoff Ramsey and Sebastian Bernal

After a months-long delay, today the Colombian government is finally starting formal talks with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The negotiations are sure to raise questions about Colombia’s post-conflict future, the implementation of the peace accords with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and ongoing human rights issues. With today’s launch of the peace negotiations’ public phase in Quito, Ecuador at 5:00 p.m. local time, here is an overview of the process.

Talks with the ELN were first announced in 2016. Why the delay?

While a joint statement announcing the beginning of talks was released in March 2016, the beginning of the Quito negotiations was delayed over the government’s insistence that the rebels release all hostages and kidnapping victims. (The government held the FARC to the same standard in 2012; the larger group renounced kidnapping months before the announcement of formal talks.) This included Odín Sánchez, a former lawmaker and member of a political family dynasty that has been linked to paramilitary and corruption scandals in the department of Chocó. Until his release from captivity last week, Sánchez had been held since agreeing to swap places as an ELN hostage with his brother, former Chocó Governor Patrocinio Sánchez Montes de Oca. Odín Sánchez’s February 2 release, on top of the February 6 release of a soldier taken captive by the group in January, removes a final barrier to the formal start of talks.

Why are the ELN talks important?

While most attention on Colombia’s armed conflict has focused on the roughly 7,000-strong FARC, the ELN—with up to 2,000 members—retains an active presence in the country, mostly in northeastern Colombia though their influence also extends to Chocó and other parts of the Pacific coast. With the FARC beginning to demobilize, there is concern that the ELN, along with criminal organizations and neoparamilitary groups, could move to fill territorial and economic power vacuums that the FARC leave behind. Reaching a peace accord with the ELN would help ensure that the group does not expand its area of influence or recruit disenchanted FARC deserters. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance in ELN-controlled areas that have long suffered from a lack of state presence and strong democratic institutions.

For the United States, a peace deal would ultimately mean the effective dissolution of another group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as well as a potential boost to anti-drug efforts at a time when authorities are slowly taking steps toward a new strategy to address coca production in rural Colombia.

What will the negotiations look like?

It has taken more than two years of intricate exploratory talks—a period marked by setbacks like the kidnapping of Odin Sanchez as well as that of Spanish journalist Salud Hernández—to finally reach a point where both the government and the ELN can pursue dialogues with a formal agenda.

Moving forward, the two negotiating teams will be headed by former Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo and the ELN’s Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” who is viewed as a moderate among the ELN’s five-member Central Command. On paper, the talks’ agenda and methodology remain quite vague. However, from the joint statement on the negotiations (PDF) it appears the process will seek to include the perspectives of civil society and community actors. According to the negotiating parties the agenda will cover the following points:

  • Participation of society in constructing peace
  • Democracy for peace
  • Transformations for peace
  • Victims
  • The end of the armed conflict
  • Implementation

How will talks with the ELN differ from the accords signed with the FARC?

From a practical standpoint, negotiating with the ELN will be a different experience than with the FARC. Unlike the larger guerrilla group, the ELN’s command structure is not as centralized. While it is headed by a five-person Central Command, and a 31-member National Directorate below that, ELN columns operate with a high degree of regional autonomy. This means that decision-making processes and internal deliberations could take longer, and the risk of dissenting factions—or subordinate units that simply ignore orders—is higher.

Although the last two points of the agenda echo items discussed in the FARC talks, it remains to be seen how already agreed-upon elements of justice, reparation, non-repetition, and truth will be harmonized with the accord reached with the FARC in Havana. The government would be wise to avoid revisiting these areas after undergoing a long and unfinished process of designing a new set of transitional justice institutions. Reopening themes covered with the FARC would delay a process that is already destined to face the pressures of an upcoming presidential election in 2018, after which President Juan Manuel Santos will leave office.

The challenge the parties will face during the negotiations’ initial phase is to decide who will participate in this process, and what will be the mechanism to receive thousands of proposals and ideas generated by Colombia’s diverse civil society. As Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank has pointed out, a key difference between the ELN and FARC talks will be the former’s insistence on expanding talks to include a broader social base. And the government, for its part, appears to recognize that: Juan Camilo Restrepo has assertedthat “dialogue with the remote communities of Colombia will be decisive in the negotiations with the ELN.” In this process, groups like the Ethnic Commission and other victim’s organizations who were heard in Havana may play a large role in organizing communities in rural Colombia for participation in the talks.

International facilitation of this process will be provided by Ecuador as a hosting country. Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela pledged to serve as guarantors and will reportedly also host subsequent negotiating rounds, while Norway will play the same guarantor role it played during negotiations with FARC.

What would a constructive U.S. role in the ELN process look like?

The U.S. role in this peace process will likely be drastically different than with the FARC talks, which hosted a full-time special U.S. envoy who played a constructive role in moving the accords along. By contrast the Trump administration has been relatively quiet on the peace accords in Colombia so far, although on February 6 a State Department spokesperson issued a statement confirming U.S. support for the search for peace in Colombia, as well as praising “advances in demobilization.”

This is a welcome remark following recent statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in written responses to questions submitted for his nomination hearing process expressed an intent “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement [with the FARC], and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a review of the Havana accords will in fact give the administration every reason to support them. We also believe that the talks with the ELN are worthy of support, though we caution that they will require much patience. In the meantime, we call on both sides in the talks to move quickly toward a bilateral, verified ceasefire, or at least a series of gradual de-escalation measures. While the guarantor countries have already pledged to provide key support, the United States can play a positive role by refraining from opposing or making destructively critical statements about the ELN process, and encouraging a discussion that is both inclusive of civil society, as the ELN wants, and carried out with discipline, clarity, and purpose, as the government and most stakeholders want.

Tags: ELN Talks

English Translation of the ELN Peace Talks Agenda

April 1, 2016

On March 30, after more than two years of exploratory conversations, Colombia’s government and second-largest insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), reached agreement on an agenda for formal negotiations. This “public table of conversations” will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Cuba. Here is the negotiating agenda. This document’s Spanish original is here, in PDF format. This is a rush translation; feel free to suggest edits in the comments.

Accord for Dialogues for the Peace of Colombia Between the National Government and the National Liberation Army

The government of the Republic of Colombia (National Government) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), henceforward “the Delegations,” as a result of exploratory and confidential dialogues, and given their manifest disposition for peace, have agreed to install a public table of conversations to take on the points that have been established on the agenda, with the goal of signing a Final Accord to end the armed conflict and agree on transformations seeking a Colombia in peace with fairness.

The exploratory dialogues took place between January 2014 and March 2016 in the Republic of Ecuador, the Federative Republic of Brazil, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose governments acted as guarantors along with the Government of Norway; during this phase the governments of the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of Chile officiated as accompaniers. The National Government and the ELN express special recognition and gratitude toward all of them. The international community’s continued accompaniment is essential.

Recognizing that peace is a supreme good in every democracy, and with the objective of putting an end to the armed conflict, eradicating violence from politics; placing the treatment of victims’ situation at the center; and advancing toward national reconciliation through society’s active participation in the building of a stable of long-lasting peace, the Delegations have agreed:

  1. To install a public conversations table in Ecuador.
  2. The table’s sessions will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Cuba. These countries, together with Norway, are the guarantors.
  3. To carry out direct and uninterrupted conversations between the Government and ELN Delegations.
  4. To execute the agenda with the greatest speed and rigor.
  5. To develop the following agenda:

I. Agenda

1. Participation of Society in the Building of Peace

The participation of society will be:

a. That they make peace viable through initiatives and proposals in the course and context of this process.

b. On the themes of the agenda.

c. A dynamic and active exercise, inclusive and pluralistic, that permits the building of a common vision of peace that encourages transformations for the country and its regions.

2. Democracy for Peace

Democracy for peace is the purpose of this point of the accord:

a. To carry out a debate that permits examination of society’s participation in, and decisions about, the problems that affect its reality, and that can be channeled into constructive elements for society.

b. Treatment of conflicts with an eye toward building peace.

c. Review of the normative framework and guarantees for public demonstrations. Treatment of the legal situation of those accused and convicted for actions taken in the development of social mobilizations.

d. Participation of society in the construction of citizenship.

3. Transformations for Peace

The purpose of this point is to agree on transformations for peace, taking into account:

a. The transformative proposals elaborated by society, upheld by the results of point 2 of this agenda (“Democracy for Peace”).

b. Transformative programs to overcome poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation, while seeking equity.

c. Alternative integral plans with a territorial focus, which constitute economic and productive options that benefit communities.

4. Victims

In the construction of a stable and lasting peace, the recognition of victims and their rights is essential, as is the treatment and resolution of their situation based on truth, justice, reparations, and commitments of non-repetition and not forgetting. These elements, taken together, are the basis of forgiveness and lead toward a reconciliation process.

Tags: ELN Talks

ELN Talks: With the agenda almost ready, a bloody setback

October 27, 2015
Maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino”

(740 words, estimated reading time 3 minutes, 42 seconds)

Sunday’s attack on a military column in Boyacá, in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border, dims prospects that formal negotiations might start soon between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrilla group.

The ELN or National Liberation Army is a leftist group founded in 1964 like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). While the FARC has perhaps 7,500–9,000 members, the ELN today probably has about 1,500–2,500, mostly concentrated in thee or four parts of the country. For three years in Havana, the FARC has been participating in formal peace negotiations with the Colombian government, but the ELN has not.

Government and ELN representatives have been holding “talks about talks,” at least six rounds of them in Ecuador, for over a year and a half. A source close to the talks told WOLA last month that these exploratory meetings have totaled nearly 200 hours. But a formal launch of negotiations remains elusive.

Part of the reason is the ELN’s insistence on a bilateral cease-fire before talks begin. The Colombian government rejects this, and refused to grant a ceasefire to the larger FARC, arguing that the guerrillas would use the resulting “rest period” to recover militarily. Another reason is the ELN’s slower decision-making process: the group’s top leaders do not appear to have reached full consensus on the terms for peace.

The hardest-line leader is believed to be the newest addition to the ELN’s five-member Central Command, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito.” Giraldo commands the Domingo Laín Front in northeastern Colombia, which may make up one-third of all ELN fighters and is responsible for Sunday’s bloody attack on a military column that was transporting voting materials for local elections.

Observers of the ELN talks have been insisting for months that a launch of formal negotiations is drawing close. “There is 80 percent agreement” on the agenda, maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista alias “Gabino” said in April. And this week, the Colombian investigative website Verdad Abierta published a draft negotiating agenda, citing “sources who have participated directly in the discussions.” The six points reportedly are:

  1. Participation of society in peacebuilding. Here, it must be defined how communities and civil society are going to participate in peacebuilding. A methodology and a means of participation will be defined.
  2. Democracy for peace. This would be a sort of participatory diagnostic, in which communities define a substantive agenda for overcoming violence.
  3. Transformations for peace. From this point would emerge a proposal for social transformations which would make possible a climate for guerrillas’ transition to civilian life.
  4. Victims. The community of victims, not the negotiators at the table, would define, in a participatory manner, the standards for truth, justice, reparations, non-repetition, and memory that the process must have.
  5. End of conflict. A banner issue for the ELN has been that the conversations take place amid a bilateral cease-fire, and not in the midst of the conflict. It must be seen how this possibility could be articulated with that of a pre-accord cease-fire with the FARC. There will be a “leaving aside” of weapons in the sense of not using them for political reasons.
  6. Implementation. Unlike the process with the FARC, this point contemplates evaluations of developments, which will be made public.

This overview is vague, and some of its language (“social transformations,” “participation”) points to areas of disagreement about the scale of the reforms that the agenda will include. The agenda points are notable, though, for their lack of overlap with the FARC negotiating agenda: they don’t specifically address issues from the Havana talks like rural development, political participation, and drug policy, though they may in some way revisit victims and disarmament. It’s also surprising not to see on this draft agenda one of the issues that the ELN has raised most consistently since the 1980s: Colombia’s management of, and foreign investment in, the mining and energy sector.

Either way, these six points’ emergence indicates that a formal launch of negotiations with the ELN is drawing ever closer. Sunday’s attack, though, clouds the outlook. It may have been a misplaced “show of strength” aimed at improving the guerrillas’ negotiating position. Or may have been a message from “Pablito” to the rest of the group’s leadership, discouraging them from rushing into talks on unfavorable terms. Either way, because of the October 25 attack’s political fallout, it would be surprising to hear of a breakthrough with the ELN in the next few weeks.

Tags: ELN Talks