Updates from WOLA tagged “Politics of Peace”

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

At El Espectador: “People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”

May 25, 2021

Here’s an English translation of an interview of WOLA’s Adam Isacson with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Sunday’s edition of Colombia’s El Espectador.

“People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”
Politics 22 May 2021 – 10:00 p. m.

By: Cecilia Orozco Tascón

A conversation with Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an influential think tank in the U.S. capital. Isacson discusses the law and order situation in Colombia, its impact on the Biden administration, the international impact of allegations of police abuse, and the possibility of “authoritarian populism” winning the 2022 elections.

You have been an analyst of the political situation in Colombia for more than 20 years from the research centers where you have worked. To what do you attribute the social explosion of April and May 2021, outside the moment created by the pandemic and by a tax reform bill that was – to say the least – inopportune?

This could be the same social explosion that began in November 2019. If the year-end holidays and then the pandemic had not interrupted it, we would probably be talking about 18 months of continuous social unrest. The economic despair did not disappear; the anger at the government’s lack of empathy did not disappear; the pain for the lack of implementation of the Peace Agreement and the massacre of social leaders in remote territories did not disappear. On the contrary, all of the above were aggravated during the pandemic.

The country has not been, like other Latin American countries, a country of massive and sustained protests for days and weeks. Nor has it usually overthrown presidents. But this time, peaceful demonstrations and violent acts after them have been going on for almost a month continuously. What changed from its past, so that people decided to go out constantly despite the risk of COVID contagion and the danger of being injured or killed in the riots?

The big change came with the 2016 Peace Accord, because it reduced people’s fear of exercising their freedom of expression. The demobilization of the FARC removed the stigma attached to public protest. Prior to 2016, Colombia had a very large, violent, nationwide guerrilla group that was perceived as an existential threat. It was easy to label anyone who went out to protest as a “guerrilla” in order to delegitimize them, and many people did not dare to demonstrate because of that association. After the accord, the stigma disappeared or is much weaker. The Duque government still tries to present some protesters as linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents. However, these are regional groups that do not represent a great danger to the cities and it is not so convincing. In short, there is more political space for people to take to the streets and they are no longer afraid to express what they feel.

So, could it be said that although citizens knew they could demand their rights, they repressed themselves?

Yes. There was fear of expressing themselves publicly because of the stigmatization of being labeled as “guerrillas” and also because of the social contempt with which the demonstrators were viewed.

People from the governing party and those in uniform maintain that there is a systematic process: first, the massive, peaceful, daytime marches. Then, the nighttime ones that turn into riots produced by individuals who destroy public and private property. Do you think there is a “terrorist” plan of forces opposed to the Duque administration?

Something similar was seen in the United States during the protests that erupted after the assassination of George Floyd. In the daytime, they were peaceful, massive, disciplined, and inspiring. At night, especially in the first two weeks, a small number of people would break windows, set fire to property and clash with the police. On some occasions, these were young people who had become politically radicalized and were filled with hatred for the police, whose aggressive response then inflamed them even further. In others, they were criminals seeking economic gain, almost always through looting. In both cases, the fringe of late-night agitators gave the Trump administration the pretext to use rhetoric delegitimizing Black Lives Matter protesters and their demands. Trump focused his attacks against the demonstrations on something called “antifa” – short for “anti-fascist” – which is more a political posture than an actual group. There has no coordination of violence in the United States. A similar position now appears in Colombia: there is very little evidence of a national movement of violence, but the government tries to blame that activity on armed groups and even international agitators.

Regarding your mention of the “antifa” (supposed leftist extremists who would go, city by city, exporting vandals and vandalism), is the Trump strategy and that of the Colombian government when it blames the “castrochavistas” for vandalism and looting, is it the same and does it intend the same effects?

The term “castrochavista” is the closest thing there is to “antifa”: it means almost the same thing and is the same pretext to justify a violent official response and to disqualify the demonstrators.

But what would the government get out of lying? In any case, gaining time while the social order deteriorates does not seem to be beneficial for the administration nor for its party in the medium or long term when it is discovered that it was only trying to hide its inability to solve a problem?

It is a distraction that serves to avoid facing conversations with protesters, for example, about inequality, just as Trump did not want to talk about racism. It’s a way to put off decisions you don’t want to make by inventing phantoms that distort reality.

The electoral period will soon begin in the country. A scenario of street vandalism, looting and public disorder would be favorable to those who have traditionally fed on voters’ fear. Would this strategy of the ruling party, successful in the past, work in today’s Colombia?

The Democratic Center will use the scenes of violent disorder in the streets to mobilize its electoral base, that is, the roughly one third of Colombians who are hardcore Uribistas. The governing party needs that third of the country to vote massively, but what about the more moderate voters, who seem to share many of the protesters’ demands? They are unhappy with the violence of the protests, but they are also shocked by videos of police brutality. As long as the non-Uribista candidates do not propose anything that scares moderates – just as the slogan “defund the police” scared some moderates in the United States – the appeal of the Democratic Center may be limited to its most rabid base.

Taking into account the situation of permanent social unrest in the country, which does not seem likely to subside immediately, and according to your office’s analysis, do you see the possibility that democracy could be interrupted in Colombia?

It seems very unlikely to me that there will be a rupture of the constitutional order in Colombia. For that to happen, it would require a broad consensus on an opposition candidate or party, or the security forces declaring their lack of confidence in the president. But the picture is different: the opposition is divided, all institutions continue to support the current democratic rules, very few people are seriously calling for Duque’s resignation and most political actors are focused on the impending election campaign.

And what would be the attitude of the United States if there were a total rupture of democracy, for example, declaring and extending the figure of internal commotion [state of siege] or suspending next year’s elections?

In the case of a declaration of internal commotion, as it is a constitutional mechanism, perhaps the U.S. government would keep silent. But if an unconstitutional maneuver is made, such as postponing the elections or extending the current presidential term, I think the Biden administration would speak out because, at that point, the credibility of the United States would be at stake: it cannot criticize Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador for what is happening in each of those countries, and remain silent if its best friend in the region does the same.

The Duque government and his party have been conducting a prolonged fear campaign against the supposed possibility of Colombia becoming “another Venezuela”. In the analysis of Washington officials, is there also this fear of the popularity and high vote of political figures who are opposed to Duque and Uribe and would oppose a leftist triumph?

My perception is that Joe Biden sees himself as one of the few “post-populist” presidents in the world, who managed to remove an authoritarian from power by winning an election. His administration has distanced itself from or opposed populists on the left (Maduro), center (Bukele), and right (Bolsonaro). It could be expected to show the same discomfort with a candidate in Colombia, right or left, Uribista or socialist, who seeks to weaken institutions or collapse democratic checks and balances. At the same time, I do not believe that the Biden administration would oppose a leftist candidate who respects institutions and works within the framework of democratic rules.

U.S. Congressional leaders have called for suspending or not renewing aid to the Colombian police force because of evidence and reports of abuses of power in riot control, and because of protesters killed and injured by ESMAD intervention. How likely is it that the Biden administration will suspend its aid?

We have confirmed that the ESMAD does not receive aid, although it buys equipment manufactured in the United States. As for the institution, unless the human rights situation continues to worsen, it is unlikely that there will be a total suspension of aid to the National Police because the relationship with the United States is very close. It extends from eradication to drug interdiction, to DEA operations, to the establishment of Carabineros units, to the training of forces from other countries. However, there may be some important changes. Since Police General (r) Rosso Jose Serrano fired thousands of officers [in the 1990s], the institution was believed to be less corrupt, more respectful of human rights and more professional. Videos and accounts of abuses in the current protests and the aggressive words of the directors of the Colombian Police and Defense Ministry have alerted U.S. policymakers to the fact that the institution is now badly troubled. The United States is wrestling with its own need to implement police reform, and policy actors in Washington will be examining the situation in Colombia from that perspective.

From several think tanks there are proposals for dialogue to find a solution to the national crisis. Among these proposals, there are two directed to the United States: a. To demand an immediate reform of the Police. b. That while the ESMAD’s protocols are being reviewed, the sale to Colombia of “crowd control” material (dissuasion weapons, gases, tanks) be suspended. Could these requests be well received in Washington?

I believe that both proposals enjoy sympathy among Biden administration officials. But again, because of the long and close relationship with the Colombian police, they will prefer to speak privately. U.S. government officials should be aware that publicly expressing concern about unacceptable behavior by a partner does not mean breaking with that partner.

Does it mean that they privately scold and ask them to correct or else they will receive a financial or arms ban reprimand?

Yes. In some cases, if, for example, a military unit is prohibited from receiving aid by the Leahy Law (the U.S. will not provide foreign military assistance to human rights violators), such a prohibition will be communicated privately to the state. Where such lists [of banned units] exist, they are also kept in reserve. Uniformed personnel who have not been cleared or whose names are in the database of suspected human rights violators may not receive training in the U.S. or enter the country. [Note: “enter the country” was added by editors. Visa denial does not automatically accompany Leahy Law disapproval.]

In one of your articles, recently published by El Espectador, you state that if the Biden administration pushes the Duque administration to opt for the path of dialogue to face the current crisis, “it would be developing a framework” for all Latin America where several countries are facing “authoritarian populism”. What do you mean by this term and to which political phenomena are you referring to?

Worldwide, democracy is in retreat as leaders are being elected who ignore institutional controls, constantly lie, attack the media, call their opponents “terrorists” or worse, and seek to stay in power by any means. Venezuela and Russia were the pioneers, but it also happened in Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, El Salvador and many other countries. The United States just had such a president for four years, and he is leading one of our two main political parties. What is happening in Colombia today is a big test: whether democratic institutions can channel desperate social demands, stemming from generations of inequality, or not. The Peace Accord was a great vote of confidence in these institutions. Can Colombia resolve this crisis through dialogue without violence and without resorting to a populist figure? If so, Colombia would be an astonishing example for the rest of the world in this troubled beginning of the 21st century.

Or else, could “authoritarian populism” win in the 2022 election?

It is quite possible that an authoritarian populist candidate could win, yes. At both ideological extremes there may be candidates who see institutions as obstacles or who see themselves as the saviors of the country.

You are not only an expert in security matters but also in human rights. Could the Colombian state be subject to sanctions promoted by Washington, the United Nations and other organizations for the violation of the rights of demonstrators, in addition to the fact that it already has a negative record for the assassination of defenders, social leaders, and former combatants?

This really depends on the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] and the Colombian justice system. We know that human rights violations are occurring at an unacceptable level. Will Colombian institutions identify those responsible and hold them accountable? Will they do so in an efficient manner so that the victims don’t have to wait 10 years for a result? If so, it would be a hopeful break from a very bitter history of impunity in Colombia. If not, then, yes, there will be sanctions. U.S. law, for example, prohibits aid to units (police or military) that commit abuses with impunity. And the Inter-American System and the International Criminal Court are also there for cases in which a country’s judicial system proves unwilling or unable to bring to justice perpetrators of serious human rights violations.

It has been seen that the Duque government’s response to protests has been violent repression, even of peaceful demonstrations. While the official language is partially conciliatory, the shock troops (ESMAD and others) are authorized to attack, reduce, and capture. How can the Biden administration call out the national administration for its handling of street grievances?

Although the Biden administration values human rights much more than the Trump administration, it also thinks about stability and the geopolitical reality of the continent. It is concerned about any symptom of instability in a country considered a close ally, in a region facing challenges from Russia and China, sometimes through Venezuela. Meanwhile, the United States has a longstanding relationship with the Colombian police and doesn’t want to risk it with public criticism. That said, U.S. officials can’t possibly support the brutal tactics of units such as ESMAD, because they know that such tactics prolong and escalate protests unnecessarily. They must be aware that such practices continue to worsen the instability they are so concerned about.

Tags: Politics of Peace, U.S. Policy

At Razón Pública: How is the National Strike seen from Washington?

May 25, 2021

Here is an English translation of a piece that ran in Colombia’s Razón Pública on Monday.

How is the National Strike seen from Washington?

Written by Adam Isacson May 24, 2021

Although many U.S. congressmen have rejected police violence in Colombia, the Biden administration continues to remain silent. Why?

Biden’s silence

Four weeks of the national strike have passed and the administration of Joe Biden has not said much about the current situation in Colombia.

The silence is partly explained by the fact that the U.S. government has other priorities and that politicians and diplomats do not like to speak publicly about the behavior of their allies when they disagree with them. The unfortunate consequence is that silence is misinterpreted as indifference or as an act of support for the security forces in Colombia.

But what is happening in Colombia has not gone unnoticed in Washington. A large number of progressive members of Congress, moved by videos of police brutality, has expressed outrage at the human rights violations, mostly committed by government forces. A small number of conservative voices have repeated some of the Duque government’s arguments: that the protests are the work of organized agitators.

More moderate legislators have either said nothing or taken a Solomonic position: “both sides are to blame.” For now, it appears that the Biden administration’s response follows the line of the moderates, who remain silent.

The progressives

Some of the U.S. voices calling on the Duque administration to curb police violence are already well known in Colombia.

Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern was the first to speak out on the issue. McGovern has visited Colombia repeatedly over the past twenty years and now heads the powerful House Rules Committee.

On May 3, he tweeted, “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend. U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”

The “Leahy Law” prohibits military assistance (though not the sale of military equipment) to foreign security forces with a pattern of serious human rights violations, without effective state action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although ESMAD does not receive U.S. assistance, the tear gas they use is made in the United States. But the Colombian state buys these and other equipment with its own funds.

On May 11, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who gives the law its name, tweeted, “It is shocking to see the violent police response by the Colombian govt of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters. Legitimate grievances, while no excuse for violence or vandalism, should be a cause for dialogue, not excessive force. If the Colombian govt has solid evidence that protests are being orchestrated by terrorists, as alleged, produce the evidence and arrest the perpetrators. If not then law abiding Colombians will understandably lose patience with their leaders.” Senator Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the most powerful members of the chamber, and a veteran Colombia watcher.

Another high-level Democrat who strongly criticized the Colombian government was New York Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, who has championed the rights of Colombian Afro-descendants and now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On May 4, Meeks tweeted, “I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable.”

Other progressives, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Texas Democratic Representative Joaquín Castro and New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also expressed their concern on social media and in press releases.

On May 14, 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where they asked the State Department to:

  • more forcefully denounce police brutality;
  • suspend all aid to the Colombian police;
  • stop the sale of riot control equipment;
  • publicly reject statements by Colombian officials linking protesters to terrorist groups; and
  • urge and even facilitate dialogue.

The conservatives

While progressives have been notably active, U.S. right-wing figures have been rather quiet.

On May 6, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”

If this sounds vaguely like the rhetoric of “molecular revolution dissipated” it is because many of Senator Rubio’s Colombian constituents are aligned with Uribismo. In South Florida, the Colombian protests are a frequent topic of conversation on Spanish-language radio, where commentators view the demonstrations as the result of a “hybrid warfare” strategy by the left.

Rubio’s tweet is the only statement on the strike that I have seen from a Republican member of the U.S. Congress. But that doesn’t mean the right is staying silent: a conservative Washington think tank called the Center for a Secure Free Society released a report on May 17 entitled “Asymmetric Assault on Colombia,” in which it argued that “the Colombian people, especially the peaceful protestors, are not the culprits in the crisis—they are the victims.”

They claim that the protesters, who lack agency, have been misled by international agitators. The report continues: “As some of the most vulnerable in society, the poor and middle class in Colombia are targeted as tools of asymmetric warfare by foreign and domestic adversaries to the Colombian state”.

The moderates and the Biden administration

As vocal as progressives are, and will continue to be, they alone will not get the Biden administration to act decisively against police violence in Colombia.

Much depends on what moderates in the Democratic Party, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., or Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, do or say. Both have so far remained silent.

These and other lawmakers, who are heard by Biden, do not dismiss the progressives’ arguments, although they may not share some recommendations, such as freezing police aid. And they are more likely to be in touch with the Colombian embassy and business community.

For its part, the Biden administration has expressed only mild concern. On May 4, Juan Gonzalez, White House National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted, “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” Two days later Gonzalez told The Hill: “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”

The State Department issued a statement on May 4 with a message to both sides: “All over the world, citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights.”

A long-standing relationship

The Biden administration wants to be cautious for a primarily geopolitical reason: it does not want to clash with one of its few strong allies in the region, one that shares borders with Venezuela, while Chinese and Russian influence appears to be growing. At the same time, the Biden administration doesn’t ignore the long and deep relationship the United States has maintained with the Colombian police, forged since before the fight against the Medellin and Cali cartels.

I estimate that U.S. cooperation with the Colombian Police will amount to about $150 to $160 million in 2021 (out of a total police and military aid package of about $250 million, which in turn is part of a $520 million aid package). The purposes of this cooperation include:

  • coca eradication;
  • cocaine interdiction;
  • cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in operations against drug traffickers;
  • intelligence sharing with police Special Investigation Units (SIU);
  • assistance in increasing the presence of rural police (Carabineros) and police posts in conflictive territories;
  • cooperation on extraditions and Interpol cases; and
  • cooperation on training other countries’ forces.

The relationship between the U.S. government and the Colombian police runs deep: you can see it in the large number of olive green uniforms circulating in the corridors and on the sidewalks if you visit the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

So it is not hard to understand why Biden administration officials are reluctant to talk about freezing aid or sales to the police, and why their public statements have been far softer than those of the UN, the European Union and the OAS mission.

Tags: Politics of Peace, U.S. Policy

WOLA Podcast: Understanding Colombia’s Latest Wave of Social Protest

May 14, 2021

Transcript in English | Transcripción en español

Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.

This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Audio, Podcast, Politics of Peace, U.S. Policy

At the New York Times: Colombia Is in Turmoil. Biden Must Push It Toward Dialogue.

May 12, 2021

The present crisis in Colombia demands genuine, broad-based dialogue, which in turn would renew the original promise of the 2016 peace accord. Getting there, though, means overcoming some stiff internal hard-lien opposition. The U.S. government can help by distancing some very powerful people in the country who prefer escalation over dialogue. Read a new column by WOLA’s Adam Isacson at nytimes.com.

Tags: Politics of Peace, U.S. Policy

Power Rivalries Put Pressure on Colombia’s Peace Treaty

March 15, 2021

By: Mariano Aguirre, WOLA Board Member
(Cross-posted from chathamhouse.org)
(Versión en español disponible en esglobal.org)

The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.

Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.

Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.

Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.

Hostages and human rights violations

The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.

Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.

This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party). 

The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.

“The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice.”

But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.

Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.

Rural communities under pressure from criminals

OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.

This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.

Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.

His government has launched military-civil stabilization operations in areas of high conflict and illicit crop production, but peasants and indigenous communities see fumigation as another breach of the peace treaty and they intend to resist it.

They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.

“Peasants and indigenous communities see fumigation as another breach of the peace treaty and they intend to resist it.”

Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.

The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.

Tags: False Positives, FARC, Illicit Crop Eradication, Indigenous Communities, JEP, Military and Human Rights, Politics of Peace, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Transitional Justice

International Civil Society Organizations Welcome the Progress of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and Support the Legitimate Work of Human Rights Organizations and Victims of Extrajudicial Executions

February 28, 2021

On February 24, over 25 international civil society organizations, including WOLA—through the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz—published a statement commending the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) for its February 18 order on how it plans to investigate and prosecute the at least 6,402 extrajudicial executions it has identified in macro-case 03.

The original Spanish-language statement is here.
The English-language version of the statement is below.

The undersigned international civil society organizations welcome the progress made by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). On February 18, 2021, through Auto 033 of 2021, the JEP made public its prioritization strategy within Case 03, known as “false positive” extrajudicial executions. According to information gathered by the Chamber for the Acknowledgment of Truth and Responsibility (Sala de Reconocimiento de Verdad y Responsabilidad), “at least 6,402 people were illegitimately killed to be presented as combat casualties throughout the national territory between 2002 and 2008”.

The courageous and rigorous work of Colombian human rights and victims’ organizations has been key in clarifying the truth about these painful events, which the Colombian people continue to mourn and must be prosecuted. Seeking to reduce the JEP’s work as an attempt to “discredit” the leader of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) political party, not only constitutes an affront, but it is also untrue and puts at serious risk, once again, the lives and work of human rights defenders, whose truth is key to definitively overcoming the conflict in Colombia. 

We reject this new stigmatization and alert the state and the Government of Colombia about the serious security consequences it may have on the victims and defenders who have been denouncing these cases for years.

It is important that the JEP does not falter in its work, which, as stated by the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssel, “is taking important steps in the fight against impunity, which will help Colombia to address past serious violations of international law and prevent the recurrence of such violations”. 

As international civil society organizations that have accompanied Colombian human rights organizations for many years, we reiterate our support for their legitimate work, which we consider essential for consolidating peace and strengthening the rule of law in Colombia.

All sectors and actors should refrain from issuing stigmatizing statements that put lives at risk and further polarize Colombia. We encourage all to contribute with determination from their different roles and mandates to the definitive overcoming of the conflict in Colombia.

Tags: False Positives, Politics of Peace, Special Jurisdiction for Peace

The Truth Commission’s end-of-year message

January 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francisco de Roux.

Tags: Politics of Peace, Truth Commission

The Cooperation Space for Peace Condemns Widespread Instances of Police Brutality in Bogotá

September 29, 2020

On September 21, WOLA and 43 other international civil society organizations published a statement condemning widespread instances of police brutality during the recent demonstrations in Bogotá. The demonstrations were prompted by the September 9 police killing of Javier Ordóñez, which State forces responded to with disproportionate use of force against civilians exercising their rights.

According to the statement, 13 deaths were recorded, more than 400 people were injured (72 instances from firearms), and three women were sexually assaulted.

The several recommendations for the international community proposed by the organizations include: rejecting violence during peaceful demonstrations, providing sufficient guarantees for political participation, accompanying the peace process and the implementation of the 2016 accord, monitoring cases of police abuse, and supporting processes that contribute to an active and informed civic culture.

The full statement is available here.

Tags: Human Rights, Politics of Peace, Security

In a nation on edge, officials are in denial

September 18, 2020

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.

A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begged them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.

These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.

Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.

You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).

Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.

With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.

As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.

They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.

There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.

Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”

These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.

Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.

When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”

Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.

This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.

Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.

A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.

New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.

Tags: Bogotá, Human Rights, Politics of Peace

Ongoing Legal Process Against Uribe an Important Advance for Justice and Accountability in Colombia

August 4, 2020

(Press release cross-posted from wola.org)

Washington, D.C.—In response to news that Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered that former president Álvaro Uribe be held under house arrest, in connection to allegations of witness tampering, WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli issued the following quote:

“Uribe has always been one degree of separation from crimes against humanity and unaccountable, authoritarian behavior. Despite massive circumstantial evidence, others have always taken the fall for the DAS intel scandal, the parapolitics scandal, links to paramilitaries on the U.S. terrorism list, false positive killings, paramilitary massacres, and violence against Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples. This case involves the ex-president’s lawyers making payoffs to ex-paramilitary witnesses, so they might alter their testimonies and falsely incriminate a political adversary. We hope that it begins the process of peeling off Álvaro Uribe’s Teflon vest so that all the victims of these crimes can finally have justice.”

“This sends a strong message that no one is above the rule of law in Colombia,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA. “These kinds of sensitive investigations, implicating some of Colombia’s most powerful political elites, are only advancing in the first place thanks to the courageous work of human rights defenders, journalists, justice officials, and other reformers who are fighting every day to uncover the truth of what happened during Colombia’s conflict. As the legal processes involving Uribe continue, it is critical that state officials respect and uphold the independence of Colombia’s courts and justice system.”

Tags: Human Rights, Justice System, Politics of Peace

International civil society organizations reject the repeated attacks and accusations against the Truth Commission and invite others to protect their work

July 20, 2020
PDF en español

For the international civil society organizations that subscribe to this statement, the critical remarks made about the commissioners of the CEV, and in particular its president, Father Francisco de Roux S.J., are unacceptable. The Commission’s work has been criticized by members of the government party and a former minister of defense and ambassador who, in opposition to the Peace Agreement, insist on disqualifying the judicious and responsible work that the Commission has carried out as one of the temporary and extrajudicial components of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No repetición, SIVJRNR).

Since its 2017 constitution, the CEV has been developing an independent, rigorous exercise to reveal the truth of the profound pain produced by the long armed conflict suffered by Colombia.

           From the perspective of the conflict’s victims, the CEV is weaving pathways, building methodologies, creating spaces, generating dialogues, and receiving reports and testimonies from throughout the country and abroad in order to clarify the truth and thus contribute to the end of the armed conflict in Colombia.

We are convinced that only Truth is the guarantee for the noncontinuity and non-repetition of the armed conflict in Colombia. The peace commissioners have demonstrated their commitment to this purpose and, from diversity and difference, have assumed their work with depth and dedication. Their honor is and will be the guarantee that will preserve such Truth in favor of Colombia’s peace.

We encourage the Commission to continue its work and look forward to the fruits of its labor with hope. We encourage all citizens of the country and abroad, regardless of their ideologies, to join forces so as not to let this process be mistreated, ideologized, or politicized by the interests of a few who reject the transformational force of the truth.

The truth is a public good.

Tags: Civil Society Peace Movement, Politics of Peace, Truth Commission

COVID-19: a Window of Opportunity for Negotiations With the ELN?

May 11, 2020

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.

Second, on 30 March, the ELN declared a unilateral ceasefire for the whole of April. In their accompanying statement, the ELN emphasised that this decision responded to the request made by UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a global ceasefire during the coronavirus pandemic, a petition echoed by millions of people worldwide, including UN officials in Colombia who specifically called on the ELN to cease hostilities and alleviate the humanitarian dimension of the current crisis.

Both these unilateral gestures are encouraging. However, to be realistic about the possibilities of new negotiations between the government and the ELN, and to understand the challenges and opportunities these gestures offer, it is necessary to consider the perspectives of both sides. We draw on public statements by both sides, closed-door meetings with key stakeholders, and a recent public dialogue organised by Rodeemos el Diálogo with various experts on the possibilities of a peace process with the ELN, to try to put ourselves in the shoes of each.

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. 

The ELN, Colombia’s oldest insurgency, ideologically rooted in Marxism and Liberation Theology, has over 4000 fighters, and has steadily expanded its geographical control to areas previously controlled by the FARC. The ELN’s cohesion is based on shared ideological commitments held by a number of local factions with great territorial diversity and considerable autonomy. The COCE’s decisions fluctuate according to dynamic interaction across its factional and geographical complexity, and between moderates and hardliners. The ELN’s Fifth Congress in 2014 reached a consensus on exploring peace negotiations with the Santos government – an expression of the moderate wing having the upper hand. An exploratory phase followed, which resulted in formal negotiations beginning formally in February 2017 in Quito, with the announcement of a formal six-point agenda

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”.

Interpreting the Unilateral Gestures

While some observers speculated that the gesture by the ELN to declare a ceasefire and the gesture by the Duque government to re-instate Felipe Torres and Francisco Galán as peace promoters was a sign of secret negotiations being underway, the public statement by the ELN rejecting Torres and Galán as legitimate facilitators of dialogue, and their subsequent declaration on 27 April, announcing the end of the unilateral ceasefire, confirmed that these two unilateral gestures coincided by chance. Nevertheless, both gestures are encouraging in their own right, if we take them in the context of each side’s perspectives.

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. 

The impacts of these positive gestures must be recognised and protected, to allow the possibility of a window to be opened that could eventually bring back the derailed negotiations. For example, multi-party political platform Defendamos la Paz has increased their lobby for negotiations, calling on the ELN to extend the ceasefire or even make it permanent, and for the government to respond in kind. Importantly, Álvaro Uribe has also made statements in support of peace via Twitter, adding his voice to the international call for ceasefires in the context of coronavirus, and encouraging the re-designation of Felipe Torres and Francisco Galán as peace promoters. Uribe’s support would be crucial for any future dialogue to prosper, as his influence would determine not only the outlook of the Democratic Centre party, but could could also shape public opinion towards negotiations with the ELN.

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.

Tags: Ceasefire, ELN, ELN Peace Talks, Politics of Peace, Public Health

WOLA Podcast: “I Wish I Did More Positive Reporting About Colombia Because I Love the Place”

March 31, 2020

Since 1997, John Otis has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).

Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Tags: Audio, Podcast, Politics of Peace, Post-Conflict Implementation, Transitional Justice, U.S. Policy

WOLA Podcast: Protest and Politics in Post-Conflict Colombia

December 17, 2019

WOLA’s Defense Oversight Director Adam Isacson talks about Colombia with WOLA Andes Program Director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. Isacson and Sánchez-Garzoli talk about what they saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.

(mp3 download)

Tags: Arauca, Attacks on social leaders, Audio, Chocó, Human Rights, Podcast, Politics of Peace