Security deteriorates along the Colombia-Venezuela border
The ELN’s “Camilo Torres Urban Warfare Front” took credit for a bomb that detonated outside a police station in Cúcuta, the largest city along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, on the morning of August 30. The device wounded 14 people, among them 12 police, in Cúcuta’s Atalaya neighborhood.
“Cúcuta is subject to these types of terrorist acts and violence in its rural zones due to the presence of no less than 20 foreign criminal groups,” said Jairo Tomás Yáñez, the mayor of the city of half a million people. While Venezuelan organized crime operates in the area, particularly a band calling itself the Tren de Aragua, it’s not clear why the mayor would have specified “foreign” groups. Colombian groups active in Cúcuta, the conflictive nearby Catatumbo region, and on the Venezuelan side of the border include the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, at least two groups descended from the paramilitary networks of the 1990s and 2000s (the Gulf Clan and Rastrojos), a criminal group descended from the long-demobilized EPL guerrillas which the government calls the “Pelusos,” and smaller local bands.
The latest attack follows two high-profile events in June: a car bomb on the premises of the Army’s 30th Brigade headquarters in Cúcuta on June 15, and President Iván Duque’s helicopter being hit by gunfire as it overflew the region 10 days later. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía) has arrested and charged several people, including a former Army captain, for both crimes, alleging their affiliation with the “33rd Front” ex-FARC dissident group.
These incidents, including the August 21 killing of the vice president of a Junta de Acción Comunal (local advisory board) in rural Cúcuta, “are a small sample of the complexity that the area is experiencing,” warns a Peace and Reconciliation Foundation analysis of Cúcuta, which sees the situation worsening as Colombia’s 2022 presidential and congressional elections draw near. “Some of the factors affecting this reality have to do with the closing of the border [both during and before the pandemic], the reconfiguration of armed actors, and the increase in cocaine cultivation and processing” in this region, “a zone without the rule of law or institutional presence.”
Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander department, is just south of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo enclave, a cluster of about a dozen barely governed municipalities that currently grows more coca than any other region of Colombia. The region “effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state,” reads an analysis by Joshua Collins at The New Humanitarian. Catatumbo has easy access to Venezuela through the large border municipality of Tibú and the presence of all of the above-mentioned armed groups, while one of Colombia’s main oil pipelines (the Caño Limón-Coveñas) runs across its territory.
Catatumbo has strong campesino, Indigenous, and other organizations, including eight former FARC women, profiled this week in a lengthy Vorágine article, leading local reintegration efforts near the site where they demobilized. It has always been a dangerous place to be a social leader, though. This week, the “Madres del Catatumbo por la Paz,” a women’s organization, denounced that its entire leadership had received new and serious threats.
South and east of Norte de Santander, the oil-producing border department of Arauca is also seeing increased tensions. The department has been under heavy ELN influence since the 1980s, endured a bloody mini-war between the ELN and FARC in the 2000s, and is now seeing a growing presence of ex-FARC dissidents. In Saravena, Arauca’s westernmost border municipality, members of an armed group this week stopped employees of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (UBPD, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord) and demanded that they hand over their official vehicle. Municipal authorities meanwhile held an “extraordinary security meeting” after an ex-FARC dissident group calling itself the 28th Front threatened local Indigenous communities, accusing them of petty theft.
An internal dispute between leaders of the 10th Front, a large and fast-growing ex-FARC dissident group, brought a jump in homicides in Arauca in August: at least 28 in a department of 230,000 people. La Silla Vacía notes how the dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca river. Across from the departmental capital, “We can stop at the river’s edge and look them in the face,” said Arauca’s chief of police.
Corruption enables this on both sides of the border. “In Arauca,” on the Colombian side, “there are rumors that all spheres of power are permeated by the dissidents,” La Silla notes. “The most frequent [rumor] is that a good part of the political class of the department works with them.” In the departmental capital, the accusations “even touch the municipality’s security forces.”
Relations between the ELN and local government have been alleged for decades in Arauca. This is the region of Colombia that the ELN, through its powerful Domingo Laín front, is believed to control most tightly. While the dissidents’ presence grows, though, the ELN “has been conspicuous by its absence,” La Silla Vacía observes. “According to a source close to a commander of that group, they continue in the tone of not confronting them in order to avoid a guerrilla war like the one the region suffered ten years ago. However, the tension between them continues to grow.”
Reuters reporter Sarah Kinosian documents the extent to which the ELN and dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the border. In a village in Zulia—across from Colombia’s department of Cesar, which lies north of Catatumbo—ELN members from Colombia “function as both a local government and a major employer,” recruiting people—including children—to work in Colombian coca fields, Kinosian writes. “Rebels who once hid from Colombia’s military in Venezuela’s jungles,” mainly ELN and ex-FARC dissidents, “have moved into population centers, ruling alongside Maduro’s government in some places, supplanting it in others.” ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, speaking from Havana where he was a negotiator until peace talks ended in January 2019, told Reuters that while guerrillas cross into Venezuela, he denies that they are present with the permission of Nicolás Maduro’s regime.
Gen. Montoya will not be indicted in regular justice system
In a decision that, El Tiempo reported, “didn’t cause surprise for the majority of sectors,” Bogotá’s Superior Tribunal refused to allow the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to charge or indict Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, for human rights crimes. The court ruled on August 30 that Colombia’s regular criminal justice system, led by the Fiscalía, may continue to investigate Gen. Montoya’s role in the military’s numerous killings of non-combatants during his tenure. But while his case remains before the 2016 peace accords’ special transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP), the Fiscalía cannot separately charge him or bring him to trial.
Gen. Mario Montoya, now 72, faces allegations of creating a command climate and incentive structure that led soldiers to kill thousands of civilian non-combatants. Throughout the country, under pressure to increase “body counts,” officers claimed falsely that civilian victims were armed-group members killed on the battlefield. The JEP is investigating these abuses, known as “false positives,” and has charged former commanders in two regions of the country so far. It surprised the country earlier this year by releasing a very high estimate of the number of civilians killed by the military: 6,402 between 2002 and 2008, which would be well over 40 percent of the armed forces’ claimed combat kills during those years.
A highly decorated officer whom many Colombians associated with the country’s security gains of the mid-2000s, Gen. Montoya resigned in November 2008 after a particularly egregious example of “false positive” killings came to light, blowing the scandal open after years of human rights groups’ denunciations. Former subordinates have portrayed the general as a key architect of the incentive system that encouraged officers to pad their units’ body counts even if it meant paying criminals to kill the innocent.
In 2018, Gen. Montoya agreed to have his case tried in the JEP instead of the regular justice system, even though the Fiscalía at the time was barely moving on its investigation of him. In his appearances before the transitional justice tribunal so far, Montoya has insisted on his innocence. This is risky: if he were to confess to his role in false positives and take actions to make amends to victims, Gen. Montoya would most likely be sentenced to up to eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison. However, if he pleads “not guilty” and the JEP determines otherwise, he could go to regular prison for up to 20 years. The JEP has not yet formally charged Montoya with anything.
The Fiscalía, led by chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa, surprised many in July when it announced it would seek to indict Gen. Montoya for his role in 104 “false positive” killings that took place after a 2007 order requiring the military to de-emphasize body counts. With his case already moving in the JEP, it was not clear whether the regular justice system had the legal standing to issue charges against Gen. Montoya at the same time. On August 30, Judge Fabio Bernal decided that it did not.
For now, Gen. Montoya’s case will proceed in the transitional justice system. While the Fiscalía is not appealing the August 30 decision, relatives of some “false positive” victims plan to do so, because they believe that separate charges in the regular justice system would increase the chances of the General being held accountable. According to Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, who represents some of the victims, a Fiscalía indictment would have helped because of Gen. Montoya’s reticence so far before the JEP:
If the Fiscalía were to continue with these investigations and charge him for at least some of these acts, it would contribute to the participants reaching a scenario of recognition [of responsibility for crimes]. In the case of Montoya, although he submitted voluntarily to the JEP, because his case was not advanced in the regular justice system, he has come to the [transitional] jurisdiction with an attitude of denying his participation in the policy that promoted these acts, and of not recognizing his responsibility from any point of view.”
Government blames Nariño violence on court-ordered freeze in coca eradication
A firefight between anti-narcotics police and members of the “Óliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 14 police wounded in a rural zone of Tumaco, Nariño, not far from the Ecuador border, as they sought to raid a cocaine laboratory on August 20.
This is part of a worsening climate of violence in Nariño’s Pacific coast region, in Colombia’s far southwest, which is one of the country’s busiest and most fought-over drug trafficking corridors. The same municipalities host coca fields, processing laboratories, and coastal transshipment points. Just north of Tumaco, in the “Telembí Triangle” region, fighting between various armed groups, most of them ex-FARC dissidents, has displaced over 21,000 people—a large part of the population—so far this year.
Reporting from El Tiempo mentions fighting between three factions of ex-FARC dissidents, mostly derived from former Tumaco-area FARC militia members who did not demobilize: the “Óliver Sinisterra,” whose highest profile leader, alias “Guacho,” was killed in 2018; the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico; and more recently members of the Putumayo-based “Comandos de la Frontera,” a group made up of former guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and organized crime. The latter group is apparently aligned with the “Segunda Marquetalia,” the dissident faction founded by former chief FARC peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other top ex-FARC leaders.
All the armed groups “are looking to control coca crops and production,” a “church spokesperson who knows the region” told El Tiempo. “Everyone here has a Mexican ally, from a cartel, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano is blaming increased violence on a court ruling. In May 2021, in response to a judicial appeal (tutela) from the Nariño Pacific Human Rights Network, which represents several Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities, the Superior Tribunal of Pasto prohibited all coca eradication—including that done by manual eradication teams—until the government engages in prior consultation with affected communities. The court ordered the Interior Ministry to carry out consultations within 100 days, with a possible 60-day extension. It is not clear how much progress the Ministry has made, if any, on consultations with residents of these remote, poorly governed zones.
Since May, then, coca eradication has been on hold in much of 10 municipalities along coastal Nariño. This includes Tumaco, which ranks second in coca acreage among Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. Nariño, however, has seen a decline in coca cultivation, from nearly 42,000 hectares in 2018 to 30,751 in 2020, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Long the number-one coca-growing department, Nariño has been surpassed by Norte de Santander (see the Venezuela discussion above). About one-fifth of Nariño’s coca is planted in indigenous reserves, the UNODC estimates.
Molano, the defense minister, calls the result of the court order “a case of national security,” adding that “denying the possibility of manual eradication in 10 municipalities of Nariño has had an impact on the increase in homicides and forced displacements in that area.”
The communities themselves, though, blame a near-total absence of government presence, including security and other basic services. “We have been negotiating with the governments in power for almost 26 years, and we have not been able to get roads we need to transport our legal products,” a leader of Nariño’s Juntas Comunales La Cordillera organization told El Tiempo. “We have no roads, we have no schools. We want to substitute [coca], but they do not present us with options.” Community leaders note that the government is badly behind on payments promised to those who voluntarily eradicate their coca, in the framework of a program set up by the 2016 peace accords.
Unable to eradicate coca in coastal Nariño, “the authorities have opted for a path that, paradoxically, is the one that many experts recommend because of its effectiveness: attacking other links, such as inputs or capital for the purchase of coca leaf and coca base,” reads an El Tiempo editorial. It is not clear how energetically the government is pursuing these alternative measures, though, or whether they could possibly be enough to substitute for state presence in a climate of worsening combat between guerrilla dissidents and other armed groups.
- WOLA’s latest alert details numerous cases of human rights abuse committed around the country during July and August.
- VICE reports on the National Police’s practice, during the April-June Paro Nacional protests, of taking arrested protesters to unofficial “black sites” in Cali, where hundreds were beaten and forced to make false confessions.
- Colombia’s universities “were not exempt from the conflict, and were stigmatized. When I was director of police intelligence, I contributed to stigmatizing it, because I considered them to be related to armed groups and that guerrilla fighters were linked to them. What a big mistake,” said former National Police chief and vice president Gen. Oscar Naranjo, in an appearance before the Truth Commission.
- Colombia and Panama have agreed to limit, to 500 people per day, the flow of migrants from other countries traveling northbound from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap jungle region. “So far this year, Panama estimates more than 50,000 migrants have come through the dangerous Darien route,” the Associated Press reports, adding, “An estimated 15,000 migrants are currently en route through Colombia heading for Panama.”
- U.S. Army South, the Army component of U.S. Southern Command, held a two-day seminar for members of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), who will soon deploy to Colombia, Panama, and Honduras for a lengthy military training mission. The SFAB’s first visit to Colombia, between May and October 2020, generated much publicity and some controversy.
- An investigation by La Silla Vacía finds that the Land Restitution Agency—a body created in 2011 by the government of Juan Manuel Santos—has recently been inaccurately inflating the amount of land that it has been distributing to small farmers dispossessed by the conflict.
- Interviewed by the New York Times, President Iván Duque said “he had done more than his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, to put in place the peace deal’s landownership overhauls and development plans that would give poor farmers and former rebels jobs and opportunities.”
- WOLA laments the unexpected and premature death of our longtime colleague and friend Yamile Salinas, a great and generous legal mind, teacher, and fighter for land rights and human rights in Colombia’s countryside.