Annual UN human rights report
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has maintained an office in Colombia since 1996 with presences in Bogotá and nine regions. Early each year, it produces a report summarizing Colombia’s human rights situation during the prior year. The Colombia office issued its latest report on February 23. Among its topline findings for 2020:
- Colombia suffered 76 massacres, defined as “three or more persons executed in a single incident or during incidents related by responsibility, place and time,” involving 292 deaths. “The number of massacres has grown constantly since 2018, with 2020 recording the highest number since 2014.”
- 73 demobilized ex-FARC members were killed, amounting to a year-end total of 248 since the peace accord’s November 2016 signing (which has since risen to 259).
- The UN office received allegations about 42 cases of government security forces arbitrarily killing a total of 73 people. While most involved police, 11 cases “occurred when the military were participating in prevention and law enforcement activities, executing arrest and search warrants, or engaged in the eradication of illicit crops and the fight against criminal groups.”
The UN High Commissioner counted up to 133 killings of human rights defenders, though as of publication it had been able to verify only 50 due to pandemic restrictions. “Of the verified cases, 25 per cent were reportedly committed by criminal groups, 15 per cent by FARC dissident groups, 13 per cent by ELN, and 4 per cent by the police or military.” Colombian authorities achieved 20 convictions in 2020 against killers of human rights defenders.
The day before the UN report launched, the Colombian presidency issued its own brief report. Presidential Human Rights Advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez claimed that the government and the UN human rights office had counted 66 murdered social leaders, with 63 remaining to be verified. The reason for the discrepancy with the UN is unclear.
The UN and government estimates are on the low end. The government’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counted 182 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2020, and 753 in the five years since 2016. The non-governmental Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (Indepaz), which includes names and places but does not verify each case, counted 310 murders in 2020.
The UN report faults the Colombian government for the continued lack of a stated public policy for dismantling paramilitary successor criminal organizations, as foreseen in the 2016 peace accord. It finds a “lack of a comprehensive State presence” in conflictive parts of the country, which “limits the State ́s capacity to comply with its duty to protect the population.” Juliette De Rivero, the director of the High Commissioner’s Colombia office, told Verdad Abierta, “After the accords’ signing, there was about a year and a half of breathing space in these territories. But then the State didn’t occupy the space—and armed groups began to arrive and exert very strong social control.”
The UN report, as well as press comments by De Rivero and High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, voiced strong support for Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice system. They especially upheld its Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which has taken bold moves in recent weeks against ex-guerrilla kidnappers and military personnel responsible for “false positive” killings, and which often finds itself under political fire from allies of President Iván Duque’s government. Bachelet shared her concern about “declarations against the transitional justice system, including legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”
U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg met with the JEP’s President, Eduardo Cifuentes, on February 26. This was a notable show of support for an institution that some U.S. officials over the years had avoided praising, out of concern that it might end up failing to punish perpetrators.
JEP to investigate pressure on military “false positives” witnesses
As reported in last week’s update, the JEP surprised the country by announcing that it is investigating a much higher than anticipated number of military murders of civilians who were then falsely presented as combat kills. The Special Jurisdiction said its review of existing databases led it to estimate 6,402 of these “false positive” killings between 2002 and 2008 alone.
As an analysis by La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León shows, that number could increase or decrease as the transitional justice system proceeds with its “bottom up” strategy of starting with the perpetrators in order to arrive at the most responsible military commanders. Cifuentes, the JEP’s president, told El Espectador that the next steps involve collecting more testimonies from perpetrators and victims in order “to charge those identified as most responsible.”
This has some top current and former military commanders concerned. Articles last week in El Espectador and Verdad Abierta name some of the officers most frequently cited for commanding units that committed the most “false positive” killings. These include several generals who were promoted to lead Colombia’s army in the 2000s and 2010s.
The JEP’s method of starting with lower-ranking military perpetrators in order to arrive at the top commanders puts pressure on those lower-ranking defendants, who make up most of the 1,860 security-force members who agreed to have their cases heard in the JEP. Nineteen of them had reported being threatened or followed, according to a September 2020 document from the government’s Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
On February 2, the JEP sent a letter to the Specialized Technical Defense Fund for Members of the Security Forces (FONDETEC), a sort of public defender service for members of the military and police accused of crimes. The letter asks for information about the advice that FONDETEC lawyers may be providing to low-ranking military defendants in the JEP system.
Some of these defendants have alleged that their public defenders strongly encouraged them to avoid implicating senior commanders in their JEP testimonies. “FONDETEC conditions our testimonies to improve the defense of those above us,” a military witness told the JEP, according to El Espectador investigative columnist Yohir Akerman.
“What evidence do you have to link General [Mario] Montoya, commander of the Army? The situation could turn around against you,” a FONDETEC lawyer called “Doctor Vargas” apparently told defendants at the military’s detention center in Facatativá, Cundinamarca. Akerman identifies him as Fernando Antonio Vargas Quemba, a FONDETEC attorney with ties to far-right, even paramilitary-linked, groups.
Colombia’s politically powerful associations of retired military and police officers issued a communiqué opposing the JEP’s information request regarding FONDETEC activities, viewing it as part of an “unprecedented offensive against our military and police, with the purpose of demoralizing and discrediting those who selflessly serve the country.”
The commander of the Army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, appeared to go further. The day after the JEP’s revelation of its estimate of 6,402 murders, the general posted to his Twitter account nature footage depicting snakes, interspersed with Bible excerpts, and a vow that “we will not let ourselves be defeated by poisonous and perverse vipers that want to attack us, accuse us, or weaken us.”
“How frightening that these gentlemen are still there [in command]. We are not poisonous snakes. We are victims of the Army,” responded the Association of Mothers of False Positives. A La Silla Vacía analysis, noting Gen. Zapateiro’s “impulsive” nature, observed that the commander is under pressure from the hardline retired officers’ associations. An unnamed “high government official who works with the Army” insisted that the General’s position is not the Army’s institutional stance.
New military command to fight armed groups and organized crime
On February 26 President Duque visited the Tolemaida base in Tolima to inaugurate a new Colombian Army Command against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats (CONAT). This 7,000-person unit’s objective will be “breaking, striking, and subduing the structures of drug trafficking and transnational threats, linked to the illegal exploitation of minerals, trafficking of species and people, and, of course, any transnational form of terrorism,” reads a Presidency release.
The CONAT’s commander is Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, a former commander of the Colombian Army’s National Training Center who served a recent tour in Miami as the commander of the U.S. Southern Command’s J7/9 Exercise and Coalition directorate.
It is not immediately clear how much about the CONAT is new, other than its command and organizational structure. Colombia’s Army already had Counter-Drug Brigades; these are now being combined under the CONAT with a counter-illicit mining brigade and aviation units. Reporting about the unit doesn’t specifically speak about new capabilities, equipment, or personnel increases.
Defense Minister Diego Molano said the new command will prioritize “areas identified as being highly influenced by drug trafficking such as Catatumbo, Cauca, and Putumayo.” Catatumbo is along the Venezuelan border, which drew the notice of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In response to an earlier announcement by President Duque about the CONAT, Maduro had called on Venezuela’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need.”
A Caracol Noticias report by noted investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón—who was part of an unfortunate recent exodus from Semana magazine—cited videos and emails indicating an ever closer relationship between Venezuelan security forces and members of the ELN and FARC dissident groups on Venezuelan soil. “Today we are in full support of the commander, comrade Nicolás Maduro, so that this government may continue, so that he may continue to lead this ship,” a video depicts “Julián Chollo,” a commander in the dissident group headed by former FARC leader “Gentil Duarte,” telling residents of the town of Elorza, deep within Apure, Venezuela. The Caracol report finds, “According to internal ELN communications, Venezuela may have become the scene of a ‘war among guerrillas’ in which each side has the support of different [Venezuelan] military units.”
- A new report from the International Crisis Group questions the Duque government’s contentions that the coca crop lies at the root of Colombia’s violence challenges, and that forced eradication can bring peace. Looking into the origins and current reality of the country’s coca economy and attempts to attack it, the report concludes that “an approach based on forceful eradication of coca, which the U.S. has stoutly backed, tends to worsen rural violence, while failing to reduce drug supply.” WOLA will be co-hosting an online event with this report’s principal authors on March 5.
- Meanwhile, El Tiempo offered some geographic intel on manual eradication: “Operations…have been concentrated mainly in the Zonas Futuro of Pacific Nariño, Bajo Cauca and Sur de Córdoba, Catatumbo, and Putumayo.” Citing the Colombian Presidency, it reported that forces manually eradicated 4,574 hectares of coca in January—more than January 2020 but behind pace to match 2020’s total of 130,171 hectares eradicated.
- The Financial Times published an in-depth look at Colombia’s efforts to eradicate coca, and the probably imminent restart of an aerial herbicide spraying program that was suspended, due to public health concerns, in 2015. RCN Noticias reported on efforts to renew fumigation, pending fulfillment of requirements set out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court: “Eight modern planes with two teams of 16 pilots” are ready “to start spraying, a task that awaits ‘D-day’ to start the mission,” adding that “canisters full of glyphosate [herbicide] are already in special hangars,” and that “Guaviare is where aerial spraying will start again.”
- At least eight, or at least eleven, people were massacred over the February 20-21 weekend in Tumaco, Nariño near the Ecuador border. The perpetrators are believed to be “Los Contadores,” one of several criminal and guerrilla dissent groups operating in this zone of heavy coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.
- A video from the town of Siberia, Orito, Putumayo shows heavily armed members of the “Comandos de la Frontera” paramilitary group entering a bar and announcing their intention to kill “people who commit vice (viciosos), drug addicts, and thieves.” An early warning document from the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría) calls the group a “mutation” of an earlier group active in Putumayo, the “Sinaloa Mafia,” that can trace its command DNA back to the old AUC paramilitaries.
- After recording three ELN “offensive actions” in each of three consecutive months, the think-tank CERAC, which maintains a detailed conflict database, counted nine ELN offensive actions in January. A February 23 ELN attack killed two soldiers and wounded 11 in Tibú, near the Venezuela border in Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region.
- Retired Gen. Eduardo Herrera Berbel, who participated in past peace talks with the ELN, told Semana that in his view, talks can only restart if the ELN agrees to cease kidnapping and other criminal behavior as a precondition. Citing past peace talks’ signed protocols, Herrera disagrees with the Duque government’s pressure on Cuba to extradite ELN negotiators who have been on the island since a January 2019 Bogotá bombing forced an end to talks.
- La Silla Vacía looks into “Operación Artemisa,” the Colombian armed forces’ ongoing (though not constant) effort to combat deforestation in environmentally fragile areas. It finds that many in the military are unhappy about taking on this non-combat role: “You don’t use special forces to stop a peasant with a chainsaw.”
- President Duque and other leading government officials participated in a nearly 6-hour video discussion on February 24, in which they made the case that the current administration is implementing the peace accord. They sought to respond to, as they put it, “those who seek to ignore the progress achieved and promote a hateful division between supposed friends and enemies of peace.”
- “Colombia has an absolutely obscene concentration of land and it is a concentration of land that is rarely spoken of. Not only is it socially unjust, but it is also a tombstone on the country’s development possibilities. No country with the agrarian structure that Colombia has has emerged from underdevelopment. It is as simple as that.” — Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, director of the National University’s Lands Observatory, in an unusually thorough Caracol analysis of land tenure in Colombia.