Updates from WOLA tagged “Weekly update”

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

Colombia peace update: May 8, 2021

May 10, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

This is a special “protests crisis edition” of the weekly update. It is very long. To shorten it, follow these links to view only items about Dialogues, Human Rights, the International Community, Security Forces, Statements, Statistics, Stigmatization, U.S. Policy, and Vandalism.

April 30

  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00pm on April 30, 13 alleged homicides committed by police, 655 arbitrary arrests, 18 uses of police firearms, and 68 victims of police violence including 8 people with eye injuries.
  • Former president Álvaro Uribe, the leader of President Duque’s political party, tweets “Let’s support the right of soldiers and police officers to use their weapons to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from the criminal action of vandalistic terrorism.” Twitter deletes the message as a violation of its terms of use. Bogotá mayor Claudia López accuses Uribe of escalating protests just as they were calming.

May 1

  • After two days of somewhat less participation in protest marches, Saturday May 1—Labor Day in Colombia—sees a much larger turnout on the streets of hundreds of cities and towns around the country. During daylight hours, protests are mostly peaceful, though looting occurs on the margins in Bogotá. After dark, acts of vandalism and confrontations with security forces proliferate. The National Police announces that 330 of its agents were wounded, and 249 people were arrested for alleged acts of vandalism.
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 11:00pm on May 1, 21 alleged homicides committed by police, 672 arbitrary arrests, 30 uses of police firearms, 92 victims of police violence including 12 people with eye injuries, and 4 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
  • The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 9:30pm on May 1, 5 people allegedly killed by security forces, 111 detained, 6 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 56 people wounded, and 9 assaults on human rights defenders.
  • Confrontations with security forces also occur in Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Manizales, Pasto, and Pereira.
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts 851 cases of violence committed by police in the context of protests between April 28 and April 30, including 13 homicides, 655 arbitrary detentions, 18 cases of use of firearms, 8 cases of eye damage, and 4 cases of sexual violence.
  • The crackdown on protesters appears to be most intense in Cali. The Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network, a Cali-based non-governmental organization, says it has received reports that police have killed 14 people in the city since the protests began, of which it has verified 7. The National Police acknowledge that 10 people in Cali have been killed by unspecified causes.
  • Videos show Bogotá police firing their weapons at protesters in the Kennedy and Cedritos neighborhoods.
  • Brayan Fernando Niño, a 24-year-old employee of a local HomeCenter store, is killed in Madrid, Cundinamarca. An ESMAD tear gas canister fired from an armored personnel carrier hits Niño in the eye.
  • During the evening of May 1 Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, warns protesters to go home or find a place to take refuge. “The human rights situation is critical and there are no guarantees for life, integrity or the free exercise of social protest.”
  • Under a legal framework called “military assistance,” President Iván Duque announces that the armed forces will help the police control public order in major cities. “Military assistance will be maintained until the serious disturbance of public order ceases. Our military forces are supporting the work of the National Police,” Duque says. The mayors of Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín, and Cali , and the governor of Magdalena say that the military does not need to be deployed. Some cite the risk of escalating the protests.

May 2

  • Acceding to one of the protesters’ main demands, President Iván Duque withdraws controversial tax increase legislation, which was opposed both by the left (because it increased regressive sales taxes) and by the business sector (because it raised taxes somewhat on corporations). Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigns. Protests continue. The government still faces a budget deficit equal to 8 percent of GDP.
  • Social media videos from the weekend of May 1-2 “showed police firing at protesters sometimes from close range, ramming crowds with motorcycles, and bashing demonstrators with their shields,” the Guardian reports.
  • “11 of the officially confirmed protest deaths occurred in Cali, with deaths also reported in the cities of Bogotá, Ibagué, Madrid, Medellín, Neiva, Pereira, Soacha, and Yumbo,” the BBC reports. “Most of the dead and injured are young people.”
  • Social media video captures the death of Nicolás Guerrero, a 22-year-old artist, from a bullet fired by ESMAD riot police in Cali.
  • Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) documents 33 aggressions against members of the press in the context of the protests between April 28 and May 1. The majority were carried out by government security forces.
  • The Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) reports that 278 people have been arrested for involvement in “acts of vandalism, crime, and terrorism.” The Fiscalía counts 167 buses and 22 small police posts (CAI) vandalized, 269 roads blocked, and 399 wounded police.
  • The Global Network Against Police Violence, a group of non-governmental organizations from nine Latin American countries plus Spain, issues a communiqué condemning “repression” of the protests in Colombia.
  • One of Colombia’s most-read columnists, Daniel Coronell, devotes an essay to the case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old participant in November 2019 protests who was killed by an ESMAD agent’s “non-lethal” projectile gun in downtown Bogotá. The case against the agent, Capt. Manuel Cubillos, is being heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) sent a report on the incident to the military judge. This report seeks to exonerate Capt. Cubillos and to portray Cruz as a troubled youth with a history of drug use. “Colombia’s Fiscalía is specializing in justifying perpetrators and prosecuting victims,” Coronell writes.

May 3

  • The police response to protesters and some vandals claims many victims in Cali. “Police began confronting protesters at 8 p.m., opening fire in an attempt to disperse the crowd,” the Washington Post reports. “’They were even firing shots from helicopters,’ said Stiven Soñador, a 27-year-old human rights lawyer who took part in the protests. ‘Police started to fire shots and people ran to their neighborhoods, but inside the neighborhoods, there were more [police] waiting.’” At least five people die the evening of May 3.
  • An account from several Colombian human rights groups details what happened in Cali on March 3 to a delegation of human rights defenders. The delegation included members of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Colombia. “The police officers surrounded them [part of the delegation] and shouted at them to leave the place, so the defenders accelerated their pace to leave amid threats that they were going to kill them. At that moment, police officers fired their firearms at the humanitarian mission, then ESMAD arrived and threw a stun grenade at them. The Mission was rescued by street inhabitants who acted as human shields and a police officer who arrived on the scene, interposed himself between the Mission and his companions and helped them run out of the area and meet again with officials from the OHCHR and the Attorney General’s Office.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano seeks to blame acts of vandalism on Colombia’s remaining armed groups: “Colombia faces a terrorist threat, criminal organizations are behind the violent acts that tarnish peaceful protest. These are premeditated acts, organized and financed by FARC and ELN dissident groups. Thanks to the work of the Special Group against Vandalism and Related Crimes we have identified some of these criminal organizations: JM19 movement, Luis Otero Cifuentes group, Gentil Duarte’s Bolivarian Movement of FARC dissidents, the Blue Shields, the Black Shields, ELN urban cells, June 8 and 9: ELN camilistas.” Molano provides no proof.
  • “There have been 19 deaths so far in Valle del Cauca, Bogotá, Neiva, Cali, Soacha, Yumbo, Ibagué, Madrid (Cundinamarca), Medellín, and Pereira,” notes the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría), adding that it “is evaluating and classifying 140 complaints that include information on deaths, missing persons, police abuse and injuries, among others.”
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 3, 26 alleged homicides committed by police, 761 arbitrary arrests, 56 uses of police firearms, 142 victims of police violence including 17 people with eye injuries, and 9 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
  • The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and May 3, 18 people allegedly killed by security forces, 988 detained, 11 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 305 people wounded including 23 with eye damage, and 47 assaults on human rights defenders.
  • In a statement, Defense Minister Diego Molano shares statistics, omitting reference to civilians killed or injured by security forces. “540 policemen injured and one killed during the protests and 306 civilians injured. Also, 20 public transport buses have been burned, 59 commercial establishments looted, 21 CAI [police posts] destroyed and 43 vandalized. 94 banks, 254 stores, 14 toll booths, 4 statues, 23 institutional vehicles, 69 transport stations, 36 ATMs, 2 governors’ offices and 29 traffic ticket cameras have been vandalized.”
  • In Cali, a mob burns the first floor of a hotel where some police were staying. Others blockade the road between the city and its airport, causing cancellations of flights. Other road blockades start causing food shortages.
  • WOLA calls on the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress “to condemn police excesses, distance the United States from officials’ inflammatory rhetoric, and insist that the Colombian government reform the ESMAD and hold accountable those who violated human rights since the protests began.” WOLA calls for a cutoff of assistance to ESMAD and its members, if any exists, and for a suspension of all sales of crowd and riot control equipment to Colombia.
  • The European Union condemns acts of violence in Colombia’s protests, which target “legitimate rights to demonstrate, freedom of assembly and expression,” European External Action Service spokesman Peter Stano said.
  • “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend,” tweets U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). “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.”
  • More than 10,000 academics sign a letter to President Iván Duque urging him to order the security forces to respect human rights, and to avoid deploying the military in response to protests.
  • Eight international NGOs including WOLA call on Colombia to respect and guarantee human rights in the context of citizen mobilizations.
  • An analysis by the daily El Espectador notes that two independent branches of government meant to provide oversight and control, the Inspector-General’s Office and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría and Defensoría), have been “conspicuous in their absence.” Both bodies had new leaders named in 2020, and both are considered close to President Iván Duque or his political party.
  • In response to accusations that his office has been largely absent during the protests, Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) Carlos Camargo tells W Radio, “I have been dedicated 24/7 with my officials, in permanent contact [and] attending to all the situations of what is happening in Cali, it is of the utmost importance to us.”
  • National Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas says that 26 investigations have been opened into police misconduct in the context of the protests.
  • Ex-president Álvaro Uribe, the leader of President Iván Duque’s political party, tweets recommending “Strengthening the armed forces, which are weakened by being held equal to terrorists by Havana [the peace accord] and the JEP,” as well as to “recognize that terrorism is larger than imagined.” In a curious recommendation, Uribe calls to “Resist the Dissipated Molecular Revolution,” apparently a reference to a Nazi-sympathizing Chilean theorist’s notion that dissent is the work of an internal enemy bent on overturning the system and dispersed throughout the population.
  • Accompanied by Defense Minister Diego Molano, Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro records a video calling the ESMAD riot police (whom he doesn’t command) “heroes in black” and urges them to stay the course.
  • Police “have developed some strategies to avoid any responsibility,” according to a Verdad Abierta analysis contending that the aggressiveness of police behavior during protests has worsened markedly since 2019. “They hide their last names and internal identification numbers; they cover their faces with balaclavas; they are incapable of pausing to talk to the victim and to verify the data they believe to be rigorous, like name and ID number; and they shoot indiscriminately at the mob, protected by their own companions.”

May 4

  • Nighttime violence erupts in Bogotá, mainly in poorer neighborhoods, as mobs vandalize 25 Immediate Attention Center (CAI) police posts, destroying 3 completely. 104 public buses are damaged, four of them burned. One of the CAI is set on fire with 14 police agents inside. “The level of destruction, of violence, of attack against citizens, against our public property, against our police, is truly unheard of,” says Mayor Claudia López. “What happened to our uniformed officers is unacceptable.”
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 8:00am on May 4, 31 alleged homicides committed by police, 814 arbitrary arrests, 77 uses of police firearms, 216 victims of police violence including 21 people with eye injuries, and 10 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
  • A communiqué from the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voices strong concern about police attacks on civilians in Cali on May 3, when police shot at non-governmental human rights workers participating in a mission that included employees of the UN Human Rights office. “We are deeply alarmed by the events in the city of Cali in Colombia last night, when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against the tax reform, killing and injuring several people, according to information received.” The statement recalls that “to date, the majority of the protests have been peaceful.”
  • “Since April 28, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received reports of at least 14 deaths in the context of protests in different parts of Colombia, including that of at least one police officer”, reports the UN Human Rights office.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) publishes a list of 87 people who have disappeared amid the protests between April 28 and May 3. On May 5, the National Police claim that 45 of the 87 have been located; La Silla Vacía argues on May 6 that the list “lacks rigor” and 52 have been located. Defense Minister Diego Molano says he knows nothing about that number. The National Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord, calls on the government to avoid repeating the experience of the armed conflict, when tens of thousands of people disappeared. The Unit notes that a human rights NGO, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, has a list of 107 missing people.
  • “I want to announce that we will set up a space to listen to citizens and build solutions,” President Duque says in a televised address. He calls for a dialogue “with all institutions, political parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and civil society leaders, motivated by service to the citizenry.”
  • The “Coalition of Hope,” a grouping of centrist and center-left politicians who say they are open to dialogue with the government, rejects a meeting with President Duque, citing widespread evidence of police violence.
  • “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,” tweets Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It is imperative that U.S. Leahy Law is fully implemented as we make clear that the United States will not support security forces involved in severe human rights violations.”
  • “I’m greatly concerned about the situation in Colombia and extend my sympathies to the families of those killed and injured,” tweets Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas). “Excessive force by police against protestors is unacceptable and authorities have a responsibility to uphold human rights.”
  • The U.S. State Department issues a statement. “All over the world,” it reads, “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. We continue to support the Colombian government’s efforts to address the current situation through political dialogue.”
  • Juan González, the White House National Security Council’s director for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweets: “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.” On May 6 González tells 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.”
  • Citing “reports of grossly excessive use of police force from several Colombian cities,” a statement from WOLA calls on the U.S. government to urge Colombia to return to internationally recognized use-of-force standards, to suspend all sales of crowd-control equipment, and to encourage dialogue efforts.
  • A letter from more than 900 organizations and thousands of individuals denounces police brutality and government stigmatization and calls for guarantees for peaceful social protest. It notes that the tax reform is one of several reasons why people are protesting: other causes include health care reform, pension reform, stopping murders of social leaders and demobilized ex-combatants, stopping coca fumigation, implementing the 2016 peace accord, and guaranteeing a basic income for the poorest.
  • In a statement, the Colombian legal/human rights NGO DeJusticia “urge[s] police authorities to reaffirm their role as guarantors of the life, honor and property of citizens; the Ombudsman’s and Inspector General’s Offices to wake up from their slumber and fulfill their role in this crisis, and Iván Duque’s government to create mechanisms for dialogue and citizen consultation.”
  • A statement from the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) “condemns and expresses its deep concern for the disproportionate use of public force in the context of the social demonstrations and protests.” The mission “joins the voices of repudiation against threats and violence faced by the Multisectoral Verification Commission members headed by the Attorney General’s Office and OHCHR during the night of May 3rd in Cali, Colombia.”
  • In response to international criticism of the use of force in response to protests, Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Relations “strongly reaffirms” in a statement “that Colombia is a State governed by the rule of law with solid democratic institutions that guarantee citizens’ rights.” The Ministry announces that it will convene a meeting on May 5 with ambassadors to discuss the government’s response. Presidential human rights advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez says she will monitor disciplinary investigations against police. In a passage that raises eyebrows, Gutiérrez adds, “human rights only exist if all citizens observe the duties we all have to be part of society.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano insists that, despite much video evidence to the contrary, the National Police have been operating within the confines of the law. Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas says that “criminals” have been shooting at police in Cali, and that cases of police using firearms will be investigated.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano says that 47 police Immediate Attention Center (CAI) posts have been “affected” and 21 have been destroyed.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano reports that 579 police have been wounded, and 515 people have been arrested, within the framework of the protests since April 28.
  • “Protest must be peaceful and the institutional response to sporadic acts of violence by some demonstrators must be within the framework of the Constitution and international human rights law,” reads a statement from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice system created by the 2016 peace accord. The JEP notes that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 88 people disappeared amid the protests, while NGO reports claim more than 170.
  • Amnesty International calls on Colombian authorities “to investigate quickly, independently, and impartially all complaints of excessive and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators.”
  • A cyberattack from the “Anonymous” hacker group takes down the website of Colombia’s army. The group publishes the e-mail addresses and passwords of 168 members of the military.
  • The organization NetBlocks registers disruptions in internet connectivity in Cali on the afternoon and evening of May 4.
  • Campesinos and coca growers in Norte de Santander add a rural dimension to protests, blocking roads between Cúcuta, the department’s capital, and other cities like Tibu and Ocaña. One of their main demands is a rejection of plans to re-start the eradication of coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft, a program that was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns.
  • Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), Francisco Barbosa, tweets “It has been determined that the disturbances and vandalism that have occurred in Cali in the last few days are related to drug trafficking structures, the ELN and FARC dissidents operating in Cauca.” Barbosa provides no proof.

May 5

  • In one of the protests’ largest turnouts, tens of thousands march through Bogotá on May 5.
  • Police confront protesters, many of them throwing rocks, in the Plaza de Bolívar that sits between the Congress and the Supreme Court buildings in Central Bogotá. At one point some protesters charge the steps of the Congress; police quickly repel them with tear gas but the legislative chambers are evacuated. Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, tweets to U.S. Democrats that the incident was “like the 6 of january” raid on the U.S. Capitol.
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 12:00pm on May 5, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 831 arbitrary arrests, 110 uses of police firearms, 222 victims of police violence including 22 people with eye injuries, and 10 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
  • The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 11:50am on May 5, 24 people allegedly killed by security forces, 1,180 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 381 people wounded including 31 with eye damage, and 58 assaults on human rights defenders.
  • “We have received reports of 31 deaths in Colombia,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
  • Colombia’s Congress names a special committee that might serve a mediating role between the government and protest leaders.
  • The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) agree to form an “inter-institutional table” to provide clearer information about homicides, disappearances, and other crimes committed amid protests. Both institutions maintain numbers of such crimes that are well below what non-governmental organizations like Temblores, Indepaz, and the Campaña Defender la Libertad are counting. Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa cites 24 killings as of May 5, for instance, while Indepaz counts 31.
  • Rumors swirl that President Duque is about to sign a decree declaring a state of siege (Estado de Conmoción Interior), which would limit some civil liberties and increase presidential powers for 90 days, including the power to temporarily suspend laws and detain people on suspicion of committing crimes. The government insists that the rumors are false, and no decree is yet forthcoming.
  • El Espectador reports that Colombia’s Police has sent to Cali members of its elite Special Security Task Forces (Grupos Operativos Especiales de Seguridad or GOES), a unit usually employed for commando operations like takedowns of narcotraffickers.

May 6

  • Protests are smaller on May 6, Reuters reports.
  • Widely shared videos continue to show police surrounding and beating people in Bogotá neighborhoods on the evening of May 6.
  • Videos show a disturbing incident in Cali in which police dressed in plainclothes fire weapons at civilians. Their vehicle is identified as belonging to the National Police. The police commander in Cali says the institution will investigate.
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 6, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 934 arbitrary arrests, 98 uses of police firearms, 234 victims of police violence including 26 people with eye injuries, and 11 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
  • The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 3:00pm on May 6, 27 people allegedly killed by security forces, 165 presumed disappeared, 1,251 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 426 people wounded including 32 with eye damage, and 66 assaults on human rights defenders.
  • “We have corroborated the use of tanks with multiple projectile launchers aimed at demonstrators. It is a dangerous and indiscriminate weapon,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
  • “We have received reports of 36 deaths in Colombia,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
  • The Unit for the Search for the Disappeared announces that, using information provide by 26 social organizations, it counts 379 people who have disappeared amid the protests.
  • U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) tweets, “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.”
  • Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas tells El Espectador that, since the protests began, one police agent has been killed and 601 injured. He offers the paper a thorough accounting of vehicles, banks, ATMs, stores, and historical monuments vandalized, destroyed, or looted. Gen. Vargas insists that the ELN and both main networks of FARC dissident groups are involved in acts of violence in Cali: “As director of the Police, I can certify that there are elements that link organized armed groups, the Eln, the dissidents of the FARc with criminals such as ‘Ivan Mordisco’ [of the “1st Front” network] and ‘El Paisa’ [of the ’Nueva Marquetalia’ network]. Likewise, there is evidence about the participation of common organized crime groups.“ Gen. Vargas does not provide proof. “This is not the first time that the government of Iván Duque has pointed to FARC dissidents or the ELN as responsible for serious disturbances of public order,” El Espectador had reported a day earlier.
  • After meeting at the Presidential Palace with leaders of business associations, President Duque calls for “open and excellent” dialogue.
  • About 6,000 indigenous activists and unarmed guards, most of them from Cauca, have arrived in Cali for a Minga (a “coming together”) to demand an end to violence.
  • Wilson Arias, a senator from the left-opposition Polo Democrático party, reports that the Colombian government recently began a purchase of US$3.7 million worth of crowd and riot control equipment and munitions.
  • A statement from the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) hails movement toward “necessary and urgent” dialogue, while calling on “all actors to always guarantee the right to peaceful protest free of disorder and violence, and to facilitate humanitarian corridors.”

May 7

  • The “Coalition of Hope,” a group of centrist and center-left opposition politicians, meets with President Duque. Some show up at the presidential palace wearing t-shirts with the names of people killed during the protests. The group includes, among other well-known politicians, Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the FARC peace process; Juan Fernando Cristo, who was President Juan Manuel Santos’s interior minister; and Sergio Fajardo, a former Medellín mayor, Antioquia governor, and presidential candidate. De la Calle says their agenda includes basic income for the poorest, urgent human rights measures, access to public college education, and a more progressive tax package. They also urged Duque to meet with the actual protest leaders—which may happen on May 10. After the meeting, Duque sounded a more positive note than did the “Coalition” members. La Silla Vacía pessimistically notes that “the agenda was imposed from the Palace and all meetings are held in Bogotá.”
  • The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 4:50pm on May 7, 32 people allegedly killed by security forces, at least 216 and up to 471 presumed disappeared, 1,291 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 451 people wounded including 32 with eye damage, and 67 assaults on human rights defenders.
  • Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 7, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 936 arbitrary arrests, 105 uses of police firearms, 275 victims of police violence including 28 people with eye injuries, and 11 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
  • A statement from the UN system in Colombia calls on the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly and protest, among other basic human rights, citing the 2016 peace accord as a point of reference. It calls on protesters to abstain from violence and to avoid blockading basic food supplies, medical and humanitarian missions.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression issue a statement voicing “the deepest concern” for human rights violations caused by excessive use of force during protests. The Commission also condemns vandalism and violence that has wounded at least 676 police.
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) tweets video from her district of a vigil in solidarity with Colombian protesters.
  • 650 Colombian and international non-governmental organizations call on the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to visit Colombia “to verify the seriousness of the human rights violations” and to “establish an independent mechanism on the ground to collaborate with national authorities in the investigations.”
  • El Espectador talks to 15 protesters released from police custody, who say they were beaten, tortured, and teargassed at close quarters within police installations.
  • The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), which has the power to fire or suspend but not to convict, announces it is carrying out 32 disciplinary investigations of police misconduct during the protests.
  • 26 U.S. NGOs call for respect for the right to peaceful protest, pulling the military out of crowd control, more vigorous work from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and Inspector-General’s Office, a “respectful and meaningful dialogue” with civil society, a visit from the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and for the U.S. government to demand an end to Colombian security forces’ human rights violations.
  • Colombia expelled Omar Rafael García Lazo, the first secretary of Cuba’s embassy in Bogotá. The Foreign Ministry accused García of violating the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. It provided no further detail on García’s alleged offense, or whether it was related to the ongoing protests.
  • Retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, one of very few generals ever to be convicted of human rights crimes, appeared before the JEP on May 5. While he said he was willing to cooperate with reparations to victims, he denied arming or aiding paramilitary groups that carried out large-scale human rights violations when Gen. del Río commanded the Army’s 17th Brigade in northwest Colombia’s Urabá region in the mid-1990s.
  • About five people may have been killed in combat between Venezuelan forces and likely ELN or FARC dissident members on May 2 near a clandestine airstrip in Venezuela’s border state of Zulia.
  • With numerous examples from around the country, conflict analysts Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, Kyle Johnson, Ángela Olaya, and Juanita Vélez discuss in Razón Pública the confusingly fragmented nature of the FARC dissident networks active around the country nearly four years after the group’s demobilization. “Colombia is going through a new, more fragmented and diffuse cycle of war, limited to local or subregional areas—especially along the country’s borders.”
  • A May 5 speech by Álvaro Uribe at New York University generates controversy because of the former president’s human rights record and his provocative messages during the ongoing protests. Uribe is scheduled to talk about environmental sustainability.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: May 1, 2021

May 3, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Proposed tax hike spurs a new round of street protests

This is a developing story. We had to cut off information-gathering and start writing after Friday, so the next update will cover events from May 1 onward.

Tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of dozens of cities starting on April 28, in the third round of major protests the country has seen since November 2019. This time, the triggering factor of the “Paro Nacional” was a tax increase President Iván Duque had proposed to close a growing budget gap. The tax proposal proved to be a “last straw” sending people into the streets, with a long list of grievances, despite a record peak of coronavirus cases.

Colombia needs to raise funds to reduce its deficit (perhaps 8.6 percent of GDP this year) and guarantee basic income for the absolute poorest. However, the tax reform bill handed down by Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla is so unpopular that even Duque’s political patron, former president Álvaro Uribe, abandoned it and submitted an alternative bill.

Though it would raise marginal income tax rates on the wealthiest to as much as 41 percent—perhaps 25 percent of total income—it included surprisingly regressive elements, given sharp pandemic-related collapses in households’ buying power. Not only would it have applied income taxes for the first time to workers making as little as 2.5 million pesos (US$670) per week, it would have raised value-added (sales) taxes on public utilities, fuel, and other basic goods that even the poorest need to purchase. “There are tax measures that would only aggravate the conditions of the least favored people, but increase their number,” warned the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference.

The “strike committee,” heavily composed of union leaders, said that while the tax legislation left them no choice but to protest, they were also demanding an end to systematic killings of social leaders and the lack of guaranteed basic income. La Silla Vacía talked to a few dozen participants, who mentioned social leaders, corruption, lack of implementation of the peace accord, the likelihood that aerial herbicide fumigation could restart in coca-growing areas, and a generalized frustration with Colombia’s “traditional political class.”

The protests happened despite an April 27 order from a court in Cundinamarca, which has jurisdiction over Bogotá, ordering that any protest permits be suspended for public health reasons. Colombia is in the midst of its third and deadliest wave of COVID-19 cases, with over 450 deaths per day as the P.1 “Brazilian variant” of the virus sweeps through the country. There were no protest permits to revoke, however, as the “strike committee” didn’t seek any. Despite the restrictions, protest turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations, with marches in about 300 towns and cities around the country.

While the overwhelming majority of participants were peaceful, some individuals took advantage of the situation to commit acts of vandalism and looting, especially in Bogotá and Cali, and especially after dark. In Cali, reports Voice of America, “public buses were burnt, and across the country windows were shattered, with reports saying rioters had broken into into stores and banks. In Bogotá, local officials reported that vandalism left 11% of the city’s transport system affected or in disrepair.” The National Police health director told press that violence had wounded 87 police agents around the country. “We regret the isolated acts of vandalism that occurred in two or three cities and reject the strange looting that occurred in Cali in which the demonstrators were not involved,” said Francisco Maltés, president of Colombia’s largest union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT).

Authorities committed many acts of violence as well, starting with the use of tear gas and stun grenades to clear a peaceful gathering in the central Plaza de Bolívar on the afternoon of the 28th. On that day Temblores, an NGO that keeps a database of police violence, counted “35 victims of physical violence by the police; three victims of homicidal violence by the police; one person killed during the mobilization; 22 arbitrary arrests of demonstrators; 27 violent interventions by the security forces; and five raids on demonstrators.” Several protesters suffered eye damage: as in Chile, some police appear to be directing their “non-lethal” crowd control weapons at eyes. In Cali, according to NGO reports, police went on a rampage the evening of April 30, killing at least seven people, probably more.

As during past protests—a November 2019 Paro Nacional and a September 2020 response to a brutal police killing caught on video—figures on Colombia’s political right sought to tie violent protesters to national armed groups, and called for more use of force. Former president Uribe called for the Army to be sent into the streets. Defense Minister Diego Molano said that “the violent events in Cali were premeditated, planned and sponsored by criminal organizations,” naming FARC dissident groups among them, and pledged to deploy 2,500 more security force members in that city.

“Those who organize to violate the citizenry and create anxiety and chaos in the residents of each city are terrorists,” said Chief Prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, who claimed that a “clandestine brigade” was behind acts of vandalism in these and earlier protests. “What they have done today is a crime against life, health and citizenship rights of all Colombians.”

Protesters vowed to remain on the streets through the May 1 Labor Day holiday, pushing the Duque government to withdraw or reconsider its tax hike package.

Demobilized guerrillas suffer a wave of killings

“The week of April 14-21, 2021 was one of the deadliest for ex-combatants since the signing of the Final Peace Agreement,” reads a statement from the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). “According to the period analyzed, there were 7 murders, on average one every 24 hours, and 1 attempted homicide against reincorporated combatants in five departments.”

The list of demobilized FARC members killed since April 14 now totals eight, in seven departments of Colombia. All victims were men in rural areas:

  • Fayber Camilo Cufiño, killed April 14 in La Macarena, Meta.
  • Jhon Sebastián Ávila Romero, killed April 17 in a rural zone of Villavicencio, Meta.
  • Yeison Ayala, killed April 18 in Puerto Cachicamo, San José del Guaviare, Guaviare.
  • Luis Fernando Córdoba Hurtado, killed April 20 en a rural zone of Quibdó, Chocó.
  • Mayiber Tapias Monsalve, killed on April 21 in an unspecified municipality of Antioquia.
  • Adolfo Rodríguez, killed on April 21 in Fortul, Arauca.
  • Wilmer Enrique Álvarez Medina, killed on April 22 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
  • Hernando Guerrero Torres, killed April 25 in Dolores, Tolima.

INDEPAZ, a human rights group that maintains a database of killed ex-combatants, counts 22 murders so far in 2021. Figures from the JEP cited in El Tiempo are even higher: 24 murders of FARC ex-combatants so far this year—1.5 per week, a higher rate than the 1.3 in 2020—and 289 overall killings of ex-combatants since the FARC started demobilizing at the end of 2016. The count maintained by the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, is actually smaller: 271 as of April 26.

The JEP found “critical” levels of danger in 10 municipalities covering 7 departments, 4 of them in Cauca. It noted that about 20 percent of murdered combatants “were leaders in political issues, associated with productive projects, representatives of cooperatives, or leading illicit crop substitution processes.”

In a communiqué sounding alarms about the situation of ex-combatants and social leaders around the country, the UN Verification mission reiterated “Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to advance recovery efforts in the country in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic,” and called for stronger measures to protect people.

Emilio Archila, who as presidential counselor for stabilization and consolidation is the government official with most authority over peace accord implementation, insisted that the Duque administration is working to protect excombatants. “We have an absolutely dynamic way of working,” he told El Tiempo, contending that ex-combatant killings dropped 10 percent from 2019 to 2020 and that 2021 so far has seen fewer killings than 2020. “Of all the entities that participate in this prevention, the technical directors meet once every two weeks, analyze and adapt the measures depending on the conclusions they draw from the increase or decrease of these murders. In addition, the heads meet once a month to make this type of analysis, and the intelligence bubble of the Ministry of Defense follows up on a daily basis to adapt actions according to the situation.”

El Espectador noted, though, that the Duque government has not been using the tools that the 2016 peace accord created to protect ex-combatants. “In 38 months of President Iván Duque’s administration,” the paper reported, “the National Commission for Security Guarantees—a body created by the Peace Accord to dismantle the groups that are heirs to paramilitarism and which should meet once a month—has only met on six occasions. And, according to members of civil society and human rights platforms in that Commission, none of those meetings has taken up the public policy for dismantling of those groups, which is in fact its objective.”

Renewed fighting on Venezuelan side of the border

Starting about April 5, our April 17 update had reported, there appeared to be a lull in fighting that first flared up on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and FARC dissident groups in Apure, Venezuela, just across the border from Arauca, Colombia. That lull ended on April 23, with a renewed series of skirmishes and aerial bombings in the rural zone of the border town of La Victoria, Apure.

According to sketchy reports, members of the “10th Front,” a group headed by ex-FARC members who refused to demobilize, ambushed Venezuelan troops carrying out operations. Combat stretched well into the April 24-25 weekend. Juan Francisco García of FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO, told El Espectador that the dissidents brought 10 bodies to a local church and that another 9 cadavers were reportedly in a nearby hospital. “There are unconfirmed reports that FARC dissidents have seized a large quantity of weapons,” he added.

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on April 26 that the armed forces had suffered casualties during the prior 72 hours, though he did not specify how many. Eight Venezuelan personnel had been killed in the earlier March-April round of fighting.

While this is all at the level of rumor, conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told El Espectador that the fighting’s lull and resurgence may owe to back-channel negotiation attempts and personnel changes:

After the first change of the commander in charge of the operation, a context of tense calm had been generated in which the local and national government were inviting Apureños to return to the area. This happened approximately 12 days before this past weekend.

It is believed that the government may have been holding a confidential negotiation with the dissidents to try to reach an agreement. And indeed, although tensions existed, there were no military actions; no explosions or machine gun fire were heard again. However, at the end of last week there was a change of the person in charge of the operation and since Friday there were again bursts of gunfire in the rural area.

The initial fighting had displaced about 5,888 people from Venezuela into Colombia, according to Colombian authorities. A new report by Human Rights Watch observed that the number may be larger: “in late March, when official numbers indicated that 4,500 people had fled,” local officials in Colombia’s Arauquita municipality told HRW that “approximately 3,000 more were staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas.” During the period of calm, some of the displaced had been abandoning temporary shelters and attempt to return: as many as 30 to 40 percent, according to Colombian border management director Lucas Gómez.

Human Rights Watch and Venezuelan NGOs blame much of the displacement on “egregious abuses against local residents” committed by Venezuelan security forces carrying out operations against the 10th Front. Venezuelan units identified in HRW’s report include the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB), “the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the National Anti-Extortion and Anti-Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS).” Among the worst confirmed abuses in the report was the March 25 massacre of a family in La Victoria, which had been the subject of many prior unconfirmed reports.

Colombian armed groups operate freely in Apure and other parts of Venezuela, in part filling a vacuum of collapsed state presence, as a New York Times feature, focused mainly on another part of the border, reported on April 26. In Apure, there are three such groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, who have been in the zone since the 1980s; the 10th Front FARC dissidents, which are affiliated with the largest dissident network, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte”; and the “Nueva Marquetalia,” the FARC dissident group formed by top guerrilla peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other high-profile leaders who rejected the peace process in 2019. The latter group appears to have a much smaller physical presence in the area.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano continues to argue that the Venezuelan regime is favoring the “Nueva Marquetalia,” seeking to ease its entry into Apure, forcing the 10th Front to negotiate with it. Molano, the Venezuelan opposition-aligned daily Tal Cual reported, “put forward a second theory that Miraflores [the Venezuelan presidency] was seeking to test the government of U.S. President Joe Biden in order to improve relations with Washington.”

In a good analysis of Colombian armed group activity deep within Venezuelan territory, International Crisis Group analyst Bram Ebus noted that although what is happening in Apure is much more intense than usual, “even if things sometimes boil over, the Maduro government’s wrath with [Colombian] guerrilla groups does not seem to last long.”

Along the Orinoco, as at other parts of the border, links among armed groups, state officials and residents are brittle relationships rooted in self-interest. The ELN and FARC dissidents run similar illicit businesses, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, and both work alongside local Venezuelan authorities and security forces, but each guerrilla faction manages its trafficking routes and contraband shipments separately. Alliances appear to depend more on profit than ideology or geopolitical position.

Ebus added that in other parts of the border, like Táchira, Venezuelan forces have cast aside any ideological claim by colluding with groups descended from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups. He recalled that collusion with armed groups occurs on the Colombian side of the border as well, citing examples in Vichada department:

Within the Puerto Carreño municipality, there is a Colombian army battalion, a national police unit and a naval brigade patrolling the rivers. But clashes between Bogotá’s military and armed groups are infrequent. Some sources, including local officials, allege that corrupt elements in the military are collaborating with non-state actors, but most say the two sides have no more than a tacit understanding aimed at preventing violence. “Here, they [non-state armed groups] learned to behave well with public forces”, an official explained, arguing that more brazen violence results in a larger troop presence – which is bad for business.

As Venezuelan Defense Minister Padrino vowed to “continue and intensify military operations” in the zone, Ebus lamented the lack of a communication channel between the Colombian government and Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Caracas. Without it, the border region is missing a key brake that could prevent escalation to an inter-state conflict.

Without a means for the two governments to communicate even as they accuse each other of sponsoring armed proxies, any military build-up close to the border, outbreak of violence or guerrilla offensive could be misinterpreted as a plot hatched by the neighbor. Incommunicado deadlock is beginning to look more dangerous with each day.

Links

  • Seven top FARC leaders have taken the important judicial step of pleading guilty to charges of kidnapping. The JEP had issued the charges in January. It took the FARC leadership a few months, including asking for an extension, to come around to admitting their responsibility for at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Families representing seven Valle del Cauca departmental legislators whom the FARC kidnapped in 2002 and killed in 2007 demanded that the accused be removed from seats in Congress and confined in conditions of restricted liberty.
  • Despite the victim’s family’s efforts, Colombia’s military justice system will hear the case of Dilan Cruz, the 18-year-old protester killed in November 2019 by a riot policeman (ESMAD) using a putatively non-lethal weapon. A new Supreme Court ruling finds that Cruz’s killing was an “act of service” and need not go to the civilian criminal justice system, where the probability of a guilty verdict would be higher.
  • Colombia’s national statistics agency (DANE) published new data showing a huge pandemic-caused economic reversal. 3.5 million Colombians fell into poverty in 2020. 42.5 percent are now below the official poverty line of 331,688 pesos (US$89) per person per month (higher in cities), and 15 percent (7.4 million people, a 59 percent increase over 2019) are in extreme poverty, unable even to pay for sufficient food.
  • The latest annual report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found Colombia, with Latin America’s third-largest population, in second place behind Brazil among the region’s defense budgets. SIPRI reported that Colombia spent US$9.2 billion on its military in 2020, 26th in the world. Thirty-three members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter asking that a trillion pesos (US$268 million) be transferred from Defense to pandemic-related public health need.
  • The commander of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command took a team of “security assistance experts”—people who handle arms sales, basically—to Colombia for a several-day, in-person visit.
  • By a 553-77 vote, the European Parliament passed a resolution praising the 2016 peace accord, condemning recent violence against ex-combatants and social leaders, calling on existing armed groups to cease attacks on civilians and commit to peace, and calling on EU bodies to continue assistance to peace accord implementation.
  • The Defense Ministry announced that seven people had been arrested in connection with the April 17 disappearance of an off-duty Army lieutenant colonel, Pedro Enrique Pérez, in the conflictive town of Saravena, Arauca. Lt. Col. Pérez, last seen leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman, is believed to be captive of the 10th Front FARC dissident group, possibly being held across the border from Saravena in Venezuela. Meanwhile, a likely ELN ambush in Arauquita, which neighbors Saravena, killed a sergeant and wounded four other soldiers.
  • 27,435 people were forcibly displaced by violence during the first 3 months of 2021, a 96 percent increase over the first quarter of 2020, according to the Human Rights Ombusdman’s Office (Defensoría).
  • At La Silla Vacía, Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group published a fieldwork-based overview of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Putumayo. Fighting between FARC dissidents and a hybrid “Frankenstein” group called Comandos de la Frontera has placed social leaders in the middle, while the coca economy booms and peace accord implementation flags.
  • Diana Bernal Ibáñez of the Colectivo Sociojurídico Orlando Fals Borda, which legally represents ethnic communities demanding prior consultation before aerial herbicide fumigation begins in coca-growing zones, wrote in El Espectador, “There are many factors that push populations to flee their territories, but none is as effective in forcibly displacing them as the arrival of glyphosate.” Thirty-five members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter to Colombia’s Constitutional Court demanding that the spray program’s environmental approval be suspended because communities in remote areas could not participate meaningfully during the pandemic. Twenty-one Colombian and international NGOs, including WOLA, asked the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to hold a hearing to review the fumigation program, which may be revived by June after a 2015 suspension due to public health concerns. During his April 25 mass, the maximum Catholic Church authority in Colombia, Bogotá Archbishop Luis José Rueda, warned, “The campesinado is dying, because this wolf of drug trafficking has come to destroy them in their abandonment and oblivion. The solution is not glyphosate.”
  • 10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
  • Sociologist Francisco Leal Buitrago, who has written often about civil-military relations during his long career, proposed nine strategic reforms in El Espectador, ranging from taking the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, to hiring more qualified defense ministers, to increasing the role of Congress and high courts in approving senior military promotions.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a statement “expressing its concern about violence in Cauca, especially the forced displacement of the population and the assassination of social leaders.”
  • Three children aged 11, 12, and 17 working as trash recyclers were murdered with machete blows in a marginal neighborhood of Quibdó, Chocó; authorities and civil society leaders believe they crossed an “invisible boundary” between neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs. One of the accused of massacring five minors in Cali’s majority Afro-descendant Llano Verde neighborhood says the August 2020 crime was a case of “social cleansing.”

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: April 24, 2021

April 25, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Attacks on indigenous communities intensify in Cauca

It was another bitter week in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, the most dangerous of Colombia’s 32 departments to be a social leader. Cauca is enticing to drug traffickers and armed groups because the Pan-American highway traverses it, it has an extensive Pacific coast, and the Colombian government is absent from most rural areas. Cauca has the largest indigenous population of all departments. The rural population—which is the majority of the department’s 1.5 million people, much of them Afro-descendant and indigenous—is both caught in the crossfire and more organized than counterparts in most regions of Colombia.

Many areas that had been under FARC influence before the 2016 peace accord are disputed between some of three or four FARC dissident groups, the ELN, and neo-paramilitary and organized crime bands. Violence has flared up in 2021. Just in the past week:

  • On April 17 the Army killed 14 members of the “Carlos Patiño Front” dissident group in the rural part of Argelia municipality, in southern Cauca. One soldier died. Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro said that a column of troops was attacked. Fighting between this dissident group and the ELN has terrorized Argelia’s rural population all year, causing thousands to displace. The Carlos Patiño is aligned with the largest network of FARC dissidents, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.” It inexplicably still has an active Facebook page.
  • On April 20, in the northern part of Cauca, assailants shot and killed Sandra Liliana Peña Chocue, the 34-year-old governor of the La Laguna Sibera indigenous reserve in Caldono municipality. Peña, a member of the Nasa nation who had led local efforts to eradicate coca plants, was killed as she rode her motorcycle in rural Caldono.
  • Indigenous communities in northern Cauca, mainly within the framework of the Cauca National Indigenous Council (CRIC), quickly mobilized to demand respect for their territory and organizations, joining in a coca eradication effort to carry on Sandra Liliana Peña’s work. This, too, was attacked on April 22, as several assailants opened fire on the eradicators and members of the Indigenous Guard, an unarmed but very disciplined security force, in rural Caldono. The attack injured about 31 Indigenous people. The Indigenous Guard captured seven of the attackers and one of their vehicles. According to the CRIC, the eradication effort continued after the attack.

While the attackers were almost certainly FARC dissidents, the CRIC’s statement evidenced the community’s intense distrust of the national government and its armed forces:

Today we were outraged to hear in a TV newscast, General Marco Mayorga Niño, commander of the III Army Division, assuring that “it has been agreed to coordinate with the authorities the eradication of coca found in the area,” and “to dialogue with the Indigenous Guard about coordinating security activities in the reserves’ territories.“ None of this corresponds to the truth.

On March 26, the nearby municipality of Corinto had been rocked by a car bomb that went off just outside the mayor’s office in the center of town. (An earlier update covers this incident.) Like this week’s attacks in Caldono, the car bombing was probably carried out by the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, the most powerful FARC dissident group in this part of Cauca. Like the Carlos Patiño Front further south, the Dagoberto Ramos is linked to the Gentil Duarte network. A third dissident group, the Jaime Martínez (also active on Facebook), operates nearby and also appears to be part of the Gentil Duarte structure.

“After the peace agreement, there were several months of very significant calm, but after that it’s been changing and there has developed a much more complicated situation than before the accord,” Dionisio Rodriguez Paz of the Cococauca organization said during the presentation of a CINEP human rights report this week.

A report from several local human rights groups cited by El Espectador recalls that Cauca, with about 3 percent of Colombia’s population, concentrates 28 percent of its murders of social leaders, which increased by 40 percent in the department from 2019 to 2020. Of 271 leaders killed in Cauca since the peace accord’s 2016 signing, 50.9 percent were Indigenous leaders.

Foreign Minister’s comment at UN meeting generates outrage

Concerns about social leaders were a frequent topic of discussion among international diplomats at the UN Security Council’s quarterly meeting to review aspects of peace accord implementation, held virtually on April 21.

Ambassadors praised some aspects of implementation, like the enrollment of 50 percent of demobilized guerrillas in collective and individual productive projects, and several welcomed the government’s proposal to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission to include compliance with the post-conflict transitional justice system’s (JEP’s) sentences. But they echoed concerns about rising violence, especially in areas of former FARC influence. “It is urgent that the policies and measures taken by the State—including the recent Strategic Security Plan—translate into better results, especially in the 25 municipalities that concentrate most of this violence,” read the statement from the UN Verification Mission’s director, Carlos Ruiz Massieu.

A big point was the continued slaughter of demobilized FARC members. The JEP’s president, Eduardo Cifuentes, said on April 19 that at least 276 former guerrillas had been killed since the peace accord went into effect. The latest was Ever Castro, a former FARC medic shot to death in Meta department on April 18. Castro’s killing happened only four days after another former FARC member, Fayber Camilo Cufiño, was killed in the same zone. “Much of the country was committed to the peace process until they noticed that we’d surrendered our weapons; after we turned in our guns, they left us on our own,” lamented to El Espectador Alexa Rochi, a fellow ex-combatant and close friend of Castro.

The figure of 276 murders represents more than 1 out of every 50 of the 13,185 guerrillas who passed through the peace accords’ demobilization process. Colombia’s Constitutional Court is reportedly studying legal petitions (tutelas) seeking to declare that the government’s insufficient protection of ex-combatants has reached an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” a term in Colombian law that would require the executive branch to take emergency measures.

In this context, part of the Colombian government’s remarks before the Security Council, as read by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum, were especially disconcerting. “The existence of FARC dissident groups,” she told the UN body, “should be considered as an example of non-compliance, precisely, of the former guerrillas who are now converted into a political party.”

Dissident groups are led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the accord or who abandoned the demobilization process and rearmed—a common outcome in peace processes. Perhaps 10 percent of former FARC members have chosen this path. Many if not most of the new groups’ members are new recruits with no prior FARC membership.

That the former FARC political party is somehow coordinating with the dissidents, perhaps using them as a “Plan B,” is an occasional talking point on Colombia’s right. (A few years ago, WOLA staff were surprised to hear it from a Trump administration official.) Blum appeared to be reinforcing this unfounded theory, further endangering the large majority of ex-guerrillas who have given up arms—a population already facing serious threat.

The “Plan B” theory is especially bizarre when one recalls that the dissidents are among the most frequent killers of their former comrades who demobilized. Estimates ranging from about 44 to 49 percent of ex-FARC killings were carried out by dissident groups. How then, could the demobilized guerrillas be responsible—using the Foreign Minister’s logic—for the existence of the same groups that are killing them?

La Silla Vacía pointed out another serious misstatement in Blum’s comments before the UN. “So far in 2021,” she said, “the total number of victimizations has fallen 51 percent compared to the same period of last year.” The online investigative site recalled that killings dropped by only 10 percent, from 20 during the first 3 months of 2020 to 18 during the first 3 months of 2021.

Expressions of disagreement with Blum’s comments came quickly.

  • “For the United Nations it is very clear first to distinguish between the dissidents who have never been part of the process, those who were part of the process and unjustifiably left it, and the 90 percent who remain in the process and have been fulfilling their obligations,” said UN mission chief Ruiz Massieu. “For us this distinction is very clear.”
  • “I reject the statements made by Foreign Minister Blum,” tweeted the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño. “Her speech is untrue and puts a target on the heads of the thousands of signatories of the Peace Accord who are committed to the fulfillment of what was agreed, despite the permanent non-compliance of this government.” Londoño went on to call for Blum’s resignation.
  • “That the government would say this makes those who are killing us feel authorized to attack us,” said ex-FARC senator Julián Gallo.
  • “I protest the statements made by the Foreign Minister,” tweeted Humberto de la Calle, who was the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the 2012-16 FARC talks. “She puts at risk the lives of former combatants who laid down their arms. It is the negation of the accord. It is a provocation. I demand retraction.”

In an April 22 tweet, the Colombian Presidency official most in charge of peace accord implementation, Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, raised eyebrows with a tweet thread that appeared to contradict the Foreign Minister’s UN comments. The dissidents “are the ones who have to answer individually, and this is not a responsibility that belongs to the Comunes party,” he wrote, tagging Londoño. Later that day, Archila’s office and the Foreign Ministry issued a joint statement that at least partially walked back Blum’s much-derided words at the UN:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Counselor’s Office emphasize that Colombia’s [UN] statement emphatically recognizes and reiterates the National Government’s support for the reincorporation process of the former combatants committed to the process, in its multiple political, economic, and social dimensions, and its commitment to their security and protection, and those of the members of the political party that emerged from it.

Fumigation edges closer to approval

In August 2018, Iván Duque assumed Colombia’s presidency vowing to restart a U.S.-backed program to eradicate coca by spraying a controversial herbicide, glyphosate, from aircraft. Thirty-two months later, this “fumigation” program is very close to restarting. “It seems like the return of illicit crop fumigation using glyphosate is imminent,” noted Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group at Razón Pública. “There is a high probability that in 2021 we will see the planes take off for the coca-growing areas,” wrote Juan Carlos Garzón and Ana María Rueda of the Ideas for Peace Foundation. As we noted in last week’s update, sources in Colombia’s presidency predicted to La Silla Vacía that aerial spraying could restart in June.

Following a World Health Organization study determining that glyphosate could be carcinogenic, Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years in which police and U.S. contractor-piloted planes sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) in an effort to kill coca. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out several criteria that would have to be met before any eventual restart of the spray program. (Those are laid out in last week’s update.) With a decree, an environmental finding, and a health study, Colombia’s government claims to have met these criteria.

The only step that remains is for the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government, to meet and ratify the program’s restart. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen with few obstacles. “The most likely scenario,” write Garzón and Rueda, “is that in 2021 spraying will begin in a dozen municipalities—in one of the six ‘nuclei’ for which the Anla [Colombia’s National Environmental Licensing Agency] has already given authorization.”

The main remaining potential obstacle to a renewed fumigation program is a Constitutional Court review of a legal complaint (tutela) filed by several Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Court has indicated it will hand down a decision in about a month.

The communities argue that they were not given an opportunity to participate in prior informed consultation on one of the Court’s required steps, the determination of environmental risk. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government sought to hold these consultations virtually over the internet. But most of the affected ethnic communities are in remote areas without broadband signal, if any.

As it weighs the evidence, the Constitutional Court has sent lists of tough questions to the Anla and the National Police. If the Court decides that barely accessible virtual meetings fail to meet its criteria, then the fumigation program’s restart will be substantially delayed. If the Court gives the program a green light, the “June” timetable mentioned above is likely.

If that happens, Garzón and Rueda predict that protests will quickly follow (though a recent La Silla Vacía report contended that coca-growers’ organizations are much weakened):

The photo of the [first] plane spraying will cause tensions and mobilizations that have already been anticipated. Beyond the discussion of whether the communities’ resistance is organic, spontaneous, or pressured by armed groups, this will be a difficult situation for the government to handle in a context of high social discontent that has been accumulating throughout the pandemic. This could be the spark that triggers and coheres protests and blockades.

Opposition to fumigation, on public health, environmental, and “bad drug policy” grounds, continues to mount. 39 NGOs sent a letter to the Constitutional Court asking the justices to rule in favor of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant complainants and suspend the spray program. A petition on change.org, meanwhile, is nearing 35,000 signatures.

Links

  • WOLA’s “Con Líderes Hay Paz” campaign hosted an event featuring stirring testimonies from prominent social leaders from Chocó, Buenaventura, Cali, and Córdoba.
  • Colombian Army Colonel Pedro Pérez has gone missing in Saravena, Arauca, a town along the Venezuelan border with a long history of ELN influence. He was last seen, off duty, leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman on April 17. In another strange story, Semana revealed that another member of the Army, Sergeant Antonio Misse, may have been taken by Venezuelan forces while off duty on the Colombian side of the border near Cúcuta in December, and remains in Venezuelan custody.
  • About 5,877 Venezuelans displaced by fighting between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group remain in 58 “informal reception points” in Arauca as of April 15, UNHCR reports. Though fighting has died down, very few have felt safe to return. A La Silla Vacía analysis contends that the ELN, which has strong influence over this zone of Arauca and Apure, Venezuela but has stayed to the margins of the latest fighting, is emerging as “the big winner.”
  • The Jesuit think tank CINEP released a flurry of publications this week. The 62nd edition of Noche y Niebla, a publication synthesizing results of the group’s extensive conflict database, counts 846 victims of “social-political violence” in 2020, with 300 of them in Cauca. CINEP also published the latest edition of its long-running Cien Días political analysis magazine, and a fivepart series in El Espectador about the ELN, drawn from a recently published book.
  • Two police officers were shot and killed, probably by FARC dissidents, in the town center of Puerto Rico, Caquetá.
  • The Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP), charged with providing security for prominent ex-guerrillas, is limiting their domestic travel. Comunes (ex-FARC) party Senator Julián Gallo had to go to court to get the UNP to provide security, as agreed in the peace accord, so he could carry out party business outside Bogotá. The judge who considered his case determined that the UNP had “placed in danger” the former FARC leader. On April 20 former FARC members of the Commission to Search for People Believed to be Disappeared, a body created by the peace accord, denounced that they are unable to do their work because the UNP is refusing to send bodyguards to accompany them on many of their missions.
  • A bill seeking to legalize and regulate production, processing, and distribution of coca leaf passed its first step, gaining approval of a Colombian Senate committee. Members of the governing Centro Democrático party boycotted the 12-0 vote. By an 8-5 vote, a different Senate committee rejected a bill that would have prohibited aerial fumigation of coca with glyphosate.
  • Journalist Jeremy McDermott of the investigative website InsightCrime is being sued for libel—a criminal charge in Colombia, potentially involving prison and steep fines—for a meticulously documented 2020 series showing that a Colombian businessman living in Spain is, in fact, a paramilitary-tied narcotrafficker. McDermott made a strong case that Guillermo Acevedo is a shadowy criminal warlord known as “Memo Fantasma”; Acevedo is pressing charges.
  • VICE has produced a seven-episode podcast about the case of Drummond Coal, an Alabama-based mining company with large investments in Colombia, whose managers in Cesar stand accused of working with paramilitary groups to put down a unionization effort 20 years ago.
  • Basing his 150-page analysis on 50 interviews with specialists and advocates, Mariano Aguirre unpacks the many causes of Colombia’s massive late-2019 social protests, and offers insight into how donor nations should shift their priorities. Lots of insight here into Colombia’s current challenges.
  • An investigation by La Silla Vacía takes down the Chief Prosecutor’s Office’s (Fiscalía’s) tendency to rely on the term “clarifications” (esclarecimientos) when reporting its results, especially results for its efforts to bring to justice the killers of social leaders and ex-combatants. The term, which indicates that prosecutors have at least identified suspects, “adds up so many categories of judicial events—including several that do not provide the truth about who committed the crimes—that, in the end, it clarifies little about the progress of justice.”

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: April 17, 2021

April 17, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Decree, issued the day of high-level U.S. visit, signals imminent restart of aerial herbicide fumigation

On April 11 and 12 Colombia received its highest-level in-person visit to date from Biden administration officials. Special Assistant to the President and Senior National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung were in Bogotá, where they met for two hours with President Iván Duque and other high government officials. It was the first stop on a South America trip that took González and Chung later to Argentina and Uruguay.

According to a pre-trip White House statement, the officials were to “discuss economic recovery, security and rural development, the Venezuelan migrant crisis, and Colombia’s regional climate leadership.” Colombian media reported that issues covered included security, “the fight against drug trafficking and transnational crime,” progress in peace accord implementation, economic recovery, and Venezuelan migration.

While perhaps unrelated, hours after the U.S. officials’ visit the Duque government issued a long-expected decree laying out how it will carry out a revived aerial fumigation program. The term refers to spraying herbicides from aircraft over populated areas where farmers grow coca, the crop used to make cocaine. The U.S. government heavily supported a fumigation program between 1994 and 2015, which sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory.

Herbicide fumigation was a key component of the strategy known as “Plan Colombia,” and it was controversial because it rarely came with assistance to smallholding farmers, and because communities denounced environmental and health harms. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the program in 2015, after a World Health Organization study determined that the active chemical, glyphosate, could be carcinogenic.

In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of conditions that a future government would have to fulfill before ever restarting a fumigation program, and in 2018, newly elected President Duque made clear his intention to do that. Sources in the Presidency tell La Silla Vacía that they may meet these conditions, and the spray planes could start working, as early as June.

The required steps—summarized here in a way that omits some nuance—are:

✔️ By decree, set up a system for evaluating health and environmental impacts that is independent of the Counternarcotics Police, which carries out fumigation. The April 12 decree establishes this system, requiring the Counternarcotics Police to report monthly to environmental and other agencies.

✔️ By decree, set up an independent process for receiving and processing claims from individuals who say they were wrongly sprayed. The April 12 decree establishes this process.

✔️ Gain the environmental licensing authority’s (ANLA’s) approval for the spray program’s environmental management plan. The ANLA issued its approval two days after the Presidency’s decree, on April 14. The plan prohibits the planes from spraying from an altitude greater than 30 meters (98 feet), or in conditions when wind might cause more than 10 meters of spray drift.

The 507-page document also notes that spraying may occur in 104 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities, in the departments of Antioquía, Bolívar, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Chocó, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Vichada. Planes may use bases in San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; Cumaribo, Vichada; Villagarzón, Putumayo; Larandia, Caquetá; Tumaco, Nariño; Guapi, Cauca; Barrancabermeja, Santander; Caucasia, Antioquia; Cúcuta and Tibú, Norte de Santander; Condoto, Chocó; and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz said that Norte de Santander and its conflictive Catatumbo region will come first. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s crop monitoring report covering 2019, Catatumbo has the country’s largest concentration of coca crops.

✔️ Have the National Health Institute (INS, sort of like the United States’ Centers for Disease Control) perform a study finding that the planned spraying poses a low health risk. While this study, commissioned to the University of Córdoba, won’t be made public until the entire process is complete, it is all but finished.

🔲 Gain the approval of the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government. The CNE has the authority to undo the spray program’s 2015 suspension. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen quickly.

Among the CNE’s members, though, is Health Minister Fernando Ruiz who, when serving as a vice-minister during Juan Manuel Santos’s government in 2015, defended the fumigation program’s suspension on public health grounds. “The main cancer attributed to glyphosate is Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer in the lymphatic organ that can develop 15 to 20 years after exposure,” Ruiz told an interviewer. This puts the Minister in an awkward position. He is seeking to have an alternate take his place in the CNE proceedings as an “ad hoc” minister who might approve the fumigation.

With this week’s decree and environmental approval, and with a decree last week (reported in our last update) seeking to divert challenges to fumigation away from the courts, the fight over fumigation “seems to have tipped in favor of the government,” El Espectador reported.

Critics like María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED) contend that the April 12 decree is flawed. It “is focused on reaction and not on prevention, as it explains how complaints of possible damages will be handled, but not how to prevent them,” she told El Espectador. Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia worries that the ANLA and other agencies charged with oversight have almost no presence in remote areas where spraying will occur. Ana María Rueda of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz recalls that the program’s design appears to violate the peace accord: “The spirit of the Accord… was that first, crop substitution should be tried with communities and, if it did not work, then spraying would operate. That was what the [Constitutional] Court asked for, but we do not see it anywhere in the decree.”

A major objection has to do with the Constitutional Court’s requirement that the environmental approval process include informed consultation with communities, especially Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. The Court has agreed to take up several communities’ complaint that, from remote areas with poor internet service, they haven’t been able to participate meaningfully in “virtual” consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court’s action on the consultation question could be a “roadblock” that prevents fumigation from restarting in June, according to an El Espectador analysis.

If fumigation does restart in coming weeks or months, we can expect a wave of protest across rural Colombia, as happened in 1996 (with heavy FARC encouragement) when the program first got started. The protests might not be massive, though, notes a La Silla Vacía analysis based on interviews with coca growers’ organization leaders in six zones. The investigation finds these organizations weakened by the worsening security situation as new armed groups proliferate, the difficulty of doing organizing work in a climate of constant threats and killings of social leaders, and a social base demotivated by the government’s poor compliance with the peace accord’s crop substitution commitments. “The communities saw fumigation as something off in the distance,” said Pedro Arenas of Viso Mutop.

After the decree’s release, Colombia’s pugnaciously hardline defense minister, Diego Molano, said, “the only ones worried here about precise aerial spraying against coca, which we are about to start, must be the criminals who profit from this criminal business and want to subject our peasant population to a new slavery.”

Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, a much-cited scholar of rural Colombia, offered a sharply different view in an El Espectador column:

Prioritizing fumigation over substitution is a brutal violation of everything the peace accord stood for. It has two notorious consequences. On the one hand, it affects the core of the agreement (which sought to build a new form of relationship between the central state and the territories). On the other, it carries high legitimacy costs…

What will this country reap if its government persists in sowing poison? These air strikes are perceived—correctly, in my opinion—as an aggression from distant forces that have no regard for the population’s interests. The Duque government responds to territories that have demanded for decades a greater state presence with the “magic formula” of presence through spraying.

Fighting appears reduced, but situation is very tense, in Venezuela border zone

“From Arauquita, Arauca, no explosions have been heard for a week on the other side of the river, on the Venezuelan side,” La Silla Vacía reported on April 12. There has been a notable lull in the combat that began on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and the “10th Front” FARC dissident group—one of three guerrilla or rearmed guerrilla groups active in Venezuela’s border state of Apure. The official toll of dead and injured has not increased since last week’s update. Security analyst Andrei Serbín (interviewed in this week’s WOLA Venezuela podcast) told Tal Cual there has been a “considerable reduction” in fighting in recent days, but that “doesn’t mean that the threat has been eliminated. The FARC has this ability to lower its profile, avoid confrontation and attack elsewhere.”

The halt in fighting may owe, too, to the steady arrival of more Venezuelan forces into the zone. In addition to regular military units and the feared FAES police shock force, the Maduro regime announced that it would be sending 1,000 members of the citizen militia. This part-time force, which reports directly to the president, is hardly combat-ready—many of its members are middle-aged or older, or more oriented toward political work than fighting—but it may provide logistical and other backup to the Venezuelan forces arrayed near the Colombian border.

Most of the civilian population, meanwhile, appears to have vacated the zone. Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum said that her government had counted 5,737 Venezuelan citizens displaced into Arauca. Though fighting may have slowed, La Silla Vacía reports, “fear of the excesses that their own country’s authorities may commit is the main reason why the displaced still cannot conceive of returning to their homes.” These include “in addition to fleeing the crossfire… detentions, assaults, looting, and even the murder of a family.” Though they have taken a toll on the civilian population, Serbín points out that the Venezuelan military “hasn’t shown a great capacity. It hasn’t demonstrated results.”

On April 10 the 10th Front FARC dissident group’s putative leader, Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez alias “Arturo,” put out an audio message insisting that his group “doesn’t seek problems” with the Venezuelan armed forces, which have singled out the 10th Front for attack even as the ELN and a second dissident group, the “Segunda Marquetalia,” operate in the same region.

The 10th Front is part of the largest network of former FARC guerrillas to rearm, the so-called “1st Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. The other main network of dissidents, the Segunda Marquetalia, is headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator in Havana but rearmed in 2019. Most of both groups’ rank-and-file membership is new recruits with no past membership in the old FARC.

In his message Arturo, a former FARC front leader who deserted in 2004 and spent time in prison, acknowledged that the 10th Front has differences with the Segunda Marquetalia, and called on the Venezuelan Army to stop collaborating with the rival group. He said he is willing to dialogue.

For his part Iván Márquez, whose group is less visible in the zone but purportedly has closer ties to the Maduro regime, released a video on April 13 insisting that the Segunda Marquetalia does not consider neighboring countries’ forces to be “military targets” or “collect taxes” from—that is, extort—their citizens.

On his television program, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and legislator who is perhaps the second most powerful figure in Nicolás Maduro’s regime, appeared to issue a warning to all Colombian armed groups inside Venezuela, including the Segunda Marquetalia. “Venezuelan territory is impregnable. This applies to any group, no matter who the leader is, no matter what his name is. If they want to wage war against the Colombian government, they should do it in their territory, don’t do it in ours.”

The border-zone situation continues to highlight the very poor state of relations between Colombia and Venezuela. Blum, Colombia’s foreign minister, said on April 14 that she had communicated to the United Nations about the “serious situation” resulting from “the support given by the illegitimate Venezuelan regime to armed narco-terrorist groups.” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza issued a tweet calling Blum “Doña”—a misogynistic putdown—and demanding that Colombia guard its borders and keep Colombian armed groups out of Venezuelan territory.

Decrees make changes to military justice system

A series of three presidential decrees, made public on April 14, aim to increase the autonomy and performance of Colombia’s military justice system, which is charged with trying and punishing military and police personnel who violate their services’ codes of conduct.

While years of Colombian jurisprudence appear to make clear that violations of civilians’ human rights should be tried in the civilian criminal justice system, many cases still do end up in the military system. Once there, guilty verdicts and punishments are exceedingly rare.

“It’s no secret that citizens have a problem of trust” with the military system, an El Espectador questioner pointed out in an interview this week with the system’s current director, adding that “for most Colombians it is equivalent to impunity.” Shockingly, the system is so untransparent and sluggish—tracking cases with Excel spreadsheets and a written method dating back to the 1960s—that its director cannot say how many cases of “false positive” killings its judges have yet to decide (or to transfer to the civilian system).

The new decrees set regulations to implement reform laws passed in 2010 and 2015. They will move the military justice system out of the Defense Ministry’s purview, creating a new Specialized Administrative Unit within the executive branch. The current head of the military justice system, Fabio Espitia, who served for a time as Colombia’s acting chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), will head this new unit. The unit will have its own prosecutor’s office, investigators, tribunals, and judges. It is to use an oral, accusatory trial system instead of the military system’s current slow, opaque system. This should make it easier to see where cases stand, and what has happened. The president of the civilian Supreme Court will have a seat on its board of directors.

While this is a big step toward autonomy for a justice system that had been within the military chain of command, it is not quite autonomous. While out of the Defense Ministry, the system will still be in the government’s executive branch, under the President, and not the judicial branch. All, or nearly all, of its judges will continue to be active-duty or retired military officers. Espitia defended this to El Espectador, insisting that “in military and police operations there is something called operational law, and this is known to those who are part of the forces. It is only natural that it cannot be known by a civilian.”

The separate justice system, too, still applies to police—which remain part of Colombia’s Defense Ministry—even though police are charged with protecting and serving the population, not confronting enemies in battle. Espitia defended this, too, arguing that Colombia is not a typical country: “the police must be in joint operations with the military to disrupt organized crime groups.”

The unfortunate consequence, though, is that police who abuse human rights may see their cases go to the historically more lenient military justice system even when “organized crime groups” have nothing to do with what happened. An egregious recent case placed before the military system is that of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed in downtown Bogotá in November 2019 by a policeman who clearly appeared to be misusing a nonlethal crowd control weapon.

Another major case of police human rights abuse is the rampage of indiscriminate force against protesters that followed the September 9, 2020 police killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez. Over two nights, police killed 13 people in the streets of Bogotá. So far, three policemen have been charged, and their lawyers failed to transfer their cases to the military justice system. There was further good news this week, as the civilian Fiscalía decided to transfer the entire September 2020 Bogotá police riot investigation to its human rights unit. That greatly increases the likelihood of a prosecution that takes the entire context into account, rather than treating the cases like individual, unrelated murders.

Links

  • Fr. Fernán González offers a summary of a new book about the ELN published by the Jesuit think tank CINEP. It argues that while the guerrilla group maintains its decentralized, “federated” structure, its center of gravity is shifting toward the front dominated in the eastern department of Arauca, which is the most “successful.” Meanwhile, local organizations that form the ELN’s “social base” are becoming increasingly independent.
  • La Silla Vacía sounds alarms about rapidly increasing violence in rural zones of Valle del Cauca department, whose principal cities, Cali and Buenaventura, get most attention. Actors “include armed groups seeking routes from Cauca and Chocó, criminal micro-trafficking groups, silent narcos, returned extradited persons, and a homegrown [ex-FARC] dissidence in Colombia’s third richest department.”
  • Just to the south, in the department of Cauca, the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación offers an overview of which armed groups are active in which sub-regions.
  • Colombia’s Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) called off a longstanding investigation against former chief of police Rodolfo Palomino. Since 2016, Palomino was being investigated for scandals that occurred during his 2013-2016 tenure: revelations of a male prostitution ring using police cadets, wiretaps of journalists, and an irregular land purchase.
  • On April 14 in La Macarena, Meta, Fayber Camilo Cufiño Mondragón became the 264th former FARC combatant killed since the 2016 peace accord.
  • Irregular road-building is feeding a sharp rise in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin, Reuters reports. “According to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, more than 280 km [174 miles] of unplanned roads were opened in key areas during the first 100 days of last year. It expects more roads were built in 2020 than in any other year, driven by rising land speculation.”
  • The post-accord transitional justice tribunal (JEP) is calling two senior active-duty generals to testify in May. Gen. Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez and Gen. Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings. Today, Rodríguez commands the Army’s Education and Doctrine Command, while Pinto commands the Army’s Second Division in northeastern Colombia.
  • FARC dissidents in the Orinoco and Amazon basin departments of Guainía and Vaupés are enriching themselves from illicit mining of the mineral coltan, a source of the elements niobium and tantalum used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronics, El Espectador reports.
  • The elements of Colombia’s transitional justice system—the JEP, the Truth Commission, and the Commission to Search for the Disappeared—pledged to assist civil society groups in the search for more than 841 residents of the port city of Buenaventura who disappeared during the conflict. At PRI’s The World, Steven Grattan reports on Buenaventura’s ongoing public security crisis and its impact on social leaders.
  • At Anthropology News, Gwen Burnyeat, a junior research fellow at Oxford, looks at how the Santos government’s rational, unemotional, technocratic “peace pedagogy” efforts got steamrolled by accord opponents’ disinformation campaigns in the runup to the failed October 2016 plebiscite.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: April 10, 2021

April 13, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Updates on the situation at the Venezuela border

Fighting continued this week on the Venezuelan side of the common border in Apure, across from Colombia’s department of Arauca, between Venezuelan forces and a Colombian guerrilla dissident group. While confirmed information remains scarce, the intensity of combat and number of casualties appeared to be less than in the prior two weeks, since Venezuela’s initial March 21 attack on dissident targets. The combativeness of Colombian and Venezuelan officials’ statements, however, has intensified.

“We’re witnessing the escalation of tensions between the two countries, which is extremely dangerous,” observed defense analyst Rocío San Miguel of the Venezuelan think tank Control Ciudadano, adding, “I don’t remember, in terms of duration, a similar situation in the last 30 years.”

Indeed, Venezuelan forces likely did not anticipate that the 10th Front dissident group—whose leaders, and some of whose members, spent years as FARC guerrillas—would fight back with such ferocity. On April 5 Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino reported that eight Army personnel had been killed since March 21, including four officers. A mortar misfire on April 3 killed three members of an artillery unit, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel, and wounded nine others. Gen. Padrino added that a total of 34 troops had been injured, and that Venezuelan forces had killed 9 rearmed guerrillas and captured 33.

Despite the continued fighting, Venezuelan officials insisted that they are consolidating control of the Apure border zone. Measures include deployment of a temporary military command, an Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) for the region. (Reuters reports that “Venezuela’s military maintains standing ZODI units for each of its 23 states and the capital Caracas.”) In the zone, military personnel are restricting the population’s movements. Units from elsewhere are being reassigned to Apure and equipped with Russian-made Orlan-10 surveillance drones.

Venezuela continues to face charges that it is focusing its efforts on only one of three Colombian guerrilla, or post-guerrilla, groups active in Apure. Rocío San Miguel, according to Tal Cual, “pointed out that the Armed Forces’ actions do not seem to be similar with respect to all the armed groups present in the area, and that there seems to be a pattern of neutrality with respect to the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN).”

Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, alleged that Venezuela is deliberately favoring a third group, the “Nueva Marquetalia” FARC dissidents headed by Iván Márquez, who was the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in the 2012-2016 peace talks but rearmed in 2019. “The objective of the operations there is not protection of the border, it’s protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.

Security expert Jorge Mantilla told the BBC that something must have happened to cause a breakdown in “arrangements, sometimes tacit, for the distribution of rents and territorial control” between Venezuelan forces and the three Colombian groups, causing Caracas to target the 10th Front.

Venezuelan officials haven’t addressed charges of armed-group favoritism, instead claiming that they are dealing with the effects of Colombia’s failure to govern its side of the border. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Colombia a “failed state” and a “narco-state” lacking control of its territory. “I’d say it’s Colombia’s ineptitude, but sometimes I think this is in their interest,” added Gen. Padrino.

The humanitarian toll of the fighting continues to be grave. At least 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Arauca, Colombian officials say. Venezuelan officials claim the number is lower, insisting the border municipality of La Victoria had a total population of about 3,500. They also deny displaced people’s claims that Venezuelan forces extrajudicially executed civilians during the operation.

Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes said that some residents of the region have remained there amid continuing combat, mainly out of fear of losing their livestock or other property, or having their houses burned or sacked. Tarazona also alleged that elements from the 28th Front FARC dissidents—part of the same “First Front” dissident network as the 10th—were arriving in the region to reinforce the 10th Front in Apure.

Tarazona and FundaRedes don’t have a 100 percent accuracy record, though. The Venezuelan NGO director also alleged that Rodrigo Londoño, the maximum leader of the demobilized FARC’s legal political party, Comunes, had been holding quarterly coordination meetings with leaders of both main dissident networks. This made little sense to observers within Colombia, where Londoño has been a strong advocate of the peace accord and outspoken critic of the dissidents. It’s also hard to imagine the party leader, who is 62 and has had health problems, shaking his police guard for days to meet with dissident leaders in the jungle. “There is absolutely nothing that identifies me with them, and I am not an a**hole,” Londoño said in a video.

Amid concerns about the remote—but not zero—possibility of the border situation escalating into conflict with Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza said that his regime would submit a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres asking the UN to mediate or provide good offices, “establishing a direct and permanent communication channel” between the two neighboring countries, whose de facto governments maintain no diplomatic relations, “to resolve all issues related to the border.” This runs along somewhat similar lines to a civil society proposal, issued a week earlier, calling on the UN to name a special envoy to the border crisis.

At the same time, other Venezuelan officials issued more bellicose rhetoric. “The incursions into Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque,” said Gen. Padrino, the defense minister. Diosdado Cabello, a politician often considered the second most-powerful individual in the Maduro regime, was characteristically even more blunt. “Colombia has declared, internally, that it is going to try to set the table for U.S. imperialism to attack Venezuela. They will be making a mistake because if we have a war…with Colombia, we are going to do it in their territory.”

A decree makes it harder to challenge the president, and fumigation, through legal means

With a new decree changing how citizens can seek redress before the presidency, “the government of Iván Duque made an unprecedented display of power,” in the words of the news website La Silla Vacía. While it raises strong concerns about democratic checks and balances and will certainly face constitutional challenges, the decree could open the door to a much faster restart of a controversial U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where farmers grow coca.

The change affects the “tutela,” a figure in Colombian law that gives citizens the right to seek a quick response from courts when government is infringing their rights. Supporters view the tutela as a major victory won in the drafting of Colombia’s progressively worded 1991 Constitution. It has been unpopular on Colombia’s political right, which views it as an obstacle, since it gives minority interests and activists the ability to block policies’ implementation.

Decree 333 of 2021, which Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz issued on April 6, states that from now on (and possibly retroactively—it’s not clear), all tutelas filed against the President, or considered important for national security—like those having to do with coca eradication—will no longer go to courts of law. They are to be considered by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), a Bogotá-based high court that makes administrative rulings.

Going to the Council of State will make it harder for communities to challenge a re-start of the aerial fumigation program. This program, active since 1994, was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns about spraying the chemical glyphosate over residential coca-growing zones. In response to a tutela, in 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of health, environmental, and consultative requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the spraying, as Iván Duque has pledged to do. In 2020, as the pandemic made it difficult for communities to participate in consultations about renewed spraying, another tutela resulted in regional court rulings that paused the controversial program’s restart.

The decree may put fumigation on a fast track to re-starting. First, it appears to offer a way around regional courts that have ruled on the side of affected communities. Second, filing complaints with the Bogotá-based State Council is more challenging for people in the very remote areas where coca is cultivated and spraying may happen. “There is a direct violation of the right to equality,” explained Diana Bernal of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which has represented communities subject to fumigation. “The decisions will fall to judges who lack regional context, and who will not have the same ability to go deeper because the plaintiffs will be in remote areas.”

Either way, if the decree stands, fumigation could restart in as little as a couple of months, once the government determines that it has met the Constitutional Court’s requirements. “The Government believes that the current actions will favor it, and that is why announcements have been made that spraying will begin in a short time,” an unnamed Justice Ministry source told La Silla Vacía.

Beyond coca fumigation, the new decree raises concerns about democratic checks and balances. It presumes that the Presidency can “choose its own judge” on a constitutional issue, cutting out courts that have proved more likely to issue rulings unfavorable to it. “The proposed reform is subtle and may go unnoticed by the general public,” wrote EAFIT University constitutional law professor Estaban Hoyos. “The Duque government is issuing decrees for its own interest, intending to evade judges’ oversight of its actions or omissions that disregard fundamental rights. This is profoundly undemocratic.” Hoyos recalled to El Espectador that President Duque is further weakening checks and balances at a time when he has already named political allies to the leadership of oversight bodies like the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

It’s not at all clear that such a change can happen by decree, bypassing the legislature. Law professors and opposition legislators, probably together with legal NGOs, are preparing a legal challenge to the decree. It is not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.

The peace accord’s special congressional seats for victims suffer a new setback

The 2016 peace accord had sought to “place victims at its center,” according to its negotiators. As part of that commitment, it promised to create special congressional districts that would represent 16 regions of Colombia hardest-hit by the conflict. For two congressional terms (eight years), residents of those zones would elect to Colombia’s House of Representatives candidates chosen by victims’ organizations, not political parties.

This never happened, and while Colombia’s Constitutional Court considers whether to make it happen, the special congressional districts plan suffered another setback this week with an unfavorable recommendation from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

The long story begins in 2017, as Colombia’s Congress was passing a series of laws to make peace accord commitments official. Among those was a bill creating the special districts for victims. The measure passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November 2017.

That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption. Still, that argument has not prospered in lower court challenges.

In December 2019 Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case of the special electoral zones and the 2017 Senate vote. This week the Procuraduría issued its recommendation to the Constitutional Court, which dealt another blow to the plan to create the special districts for victims. The agency—now headed by a political ally of President Duque, whose party opposes the seats—called for the Court to strike down the measure because it lacks sufficient “immediacy and subsidiarity.”

The Constitutional Court could still decide that the special congressional zones are valid, ignoring the Procuraduría opinion and making this peace accord commitment to victims a reality. It is not clear how the Court might rule, or whether it would issue a decision with enough lead time before Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections.

Links

  • The UN Verification Mission issued its latest quarterly report, which counted 14 murders of former FARC combatants and 24 killings of social leaders during the previous 3 months. 262 former FARC members of about 13,000 who demobilized, or 2 percent, have been killed since the group demobilized in 2017. The report also noted that “several actors… continue to question the Government’s view of the development programs with a territorial focus [PDETs], claiming that its approach is not in line with the Comprehensive Rural Reform as envisioned in the Final Agreement.”
  • WOLA published its latest monthly alert on Colombia’s nationwide human rights and humanitarian situation.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed a phone call to Colombian President Iván Duque on April 5. They discussed “ways to renew our focus on issues including climate change, the protection of human rights, and the regional economic recovery from the pandemic,” as well as “the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela and Colombia’s efforts to promote democracy throughout the region.”
  • The Colombian government’s State Legal Agency (ANDJE) asked the Constitutional Court to review a Supreme Court order calling on the National Police to curb rights abuses during social protests. It argued that the right to protest should be regulated because “the public will take advantage of it, ‘discrediting the police’s authority,’” El Espectador reported.
  • The ELN carried out 58 percent fewer offensive actions (27), was involved in 30 percent fewer combat incidents (14), and was responsible for 9 percent fewer deaths (19) during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think tank.
  • A Bogotá court met on Tuesday and Friday to consider the Prosecutor-General’s (Fiscalía’s) controversial request to drop witness-tampering charges against former president Álvaro Uribe.
  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed an 898 million peso (US$245,000) no-bid contract with a public relations firm that Minister Diego Molano “knows very well,” El Espectador reported. The contract seeks “to improve ‘public perception’ and ‘protect the collective imagination’” about the Defense Ministry.
  • As the former FARC leadership decides whether to accept the JEP’s charges of ordering and overseeing tens of thousands of kidnappings of civilians, its members are worried about their historical legacy, reports La Silla Vacía. “They fear they will go down in history as a criminal gang that committed crimes against humanity if they accept the charges against their leaders.”

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: April 4, 2021

April 4, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Fighting continues between Venezuelan military and 10th Front dissident group

Nearly two weeks since Venezuelan security forces attacked a FARC dissident group in Apure, along the border with Colombia, unusually intense combat continues, displacing large numbers of civilians.

On March 21, Venezuelan armed forces carried out bombings and land raids on six sites used by the 10th Front, an ex-FARC group. The New York Times called it “several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades.” Venezuelan forces also carried out house-to-house raids in border towns like La Victoria and El Ripial, terrorizing the population.

The 10th Front, made up of a few former FARC guerrillas and many new recruits, is affiliated with the 1st Front headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” Colombia’s largest network of ex-FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilize. It is one of three Colombian armed groups active inside Venezuela in this part of the border zone. Venezuela’s military operations have not affected the other two: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and a second dissident group, the “Nueva Marquetalia,” which is led by Iván Márquez, who had headed the FARC’s negotiating team during 2012-16 peace talks.

The 10th Front has retaliated repeatedly. It has attacked a local office of Venezuela’s taxation agency, knocked out electrical power, attacked Army road checkpoints, and destroyed a Russian-made armored personnel carrier with either a rocket-propelled grenade or an improvised explosive device. “That civilian and military facilities are being damaged is something we had not seen to date,” Fr. Eduardo Soto, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela, told Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

Estimates of the combat’s toll are high. Venezuelan officials cite nine dead, including four soldiers, along with 32 arrests and nine guerrilla dissident camps destroyed. The 10th Front denies that any of its fighters have been captured or killed.

Venezuelan human rights group statements, and press interviews with refugees who have crossed the river into Colombia’s also-conflictive department of Arauca, reveal many testimonies of Venezuelan soldiers and members of the notorious Police Special Actions Forces (FAES) unit raiding homes, looting possessions, dragging people into the street and beating them, forcing people to hold weapons while photographing them, detaining people and holding them incommunicado, and massacring a family in El Ripial, presenting the dead as combatants. The guerrilla dissidents, meanwhile, are accused of widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines and explosives.

On March 31 Venezuelan forces detained two reporters with the NTN24 news network, along with two members of the FundaRedes human rights group. They were released after 24 hours, without their cameras, mobile phones, or other equipment. A statement from Venezuela’s Defense Ministry mentioned “media scoundrels that deploy their dirty manipulations to fuel violence” in the region. “The role that NGOs are playing in this operation is striking,” it added.

As of March 31, Colombia’s migration agency had counted 4,741 people displaced by the fighting, who had taken refuge in 19 shelters in Arauquita, Colombia. That represents more than 10 percent of Arauquita municipality’s estimated population of 44,000. About 40 percent are children. At least several hundred of the displaced have Colombian citizenship but had settled on the Venezuelan side of the border. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is in Arauquita helping with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks. An unknown number of people have also displaced to other parts of Venezuela.

It is not clear why Venezuela has chosen to confront the 10th Front to the exclusion of other Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory, or why it has done so now. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, claims that Nicolás Maduro’s regime “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business” and that it “orders that one narco-criminal group be combated selectively.” Most educated guesses do point to a corrupt relationship between Venezuelan security forces and organized crime.

Caracas may have decided to favor the “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group, or perhaps, the Washington Post posits, “the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.”

An unnamed expert cited in El Espectador had a lengthy hypothesis:

An expert consulted by this newspaper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that drug trafficking in the area involves “paying extortion, or a bribe, to public entities, particularly to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). According to the expert, since 2019, both the dissidents of the Segunda Marquetalia, as well as those of Gentil Duarte, began to default on payments. “That undoubtedly generated a series of tensions with the FANB that escalated.”

…The expert added that the 10th Front began to increase the volume of drug trafficking passing through the route. “Then more members of the FANB began to charge and raise the rates. That’s when ‘Ferley’ appeared, he is the finance chief of the 10th Front and he began to have disputes with people in the FANB,” this person added.

The same article cited Sebastiana Barráez, a Venezuelan journalist, contending that “the sympathies that have been expressed, even by Nicolás Maduro himself, have been towards Iván Márquez, not towards Gentil Duarte.” Still, the Segunda Marquetalia presence in the region is less notable. “They have a strange presence because it is not so clear to identify who their combatants are, at least in Arauca and Apure,” researcher Naryi Vargas told El Espectador.

At the moment it is impossible to predict whether the violence will die down or escalate. The dissidents are showing a much greater willingness to keep attacking the Venezuelan forces than they do in Colombia, where attacks on military targets are usually followed by lengthy retreats.

The dissidents are reportedly calling for negotiations that might lead to a truce with the Venezuelan regime. Over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan organizations sent a March 31 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres asking him to name a special envoy to mediate, since the Colombian government and the regime in Venezuela have almost no remaining contacts with each other.

The two governments continue to ramp up bellicose rhetoric. While Colombia’s defense minister alleges Caracas is colluding with the Nueva Marquetalia, Venezuela’s defense minister insists that the Colombian armed groups “cross the river, make their skirmishes and return to Colombia with the protection of their authorities.” A Venezuelan Defense Ministry communiqué even sought to bring the United States into the picture:

They [the armed groups] are sponsored by the Colombian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is why their incursions into the Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque, since he provides them with logistical and financial support, creating a criminal corridor on the border with the advice of the U.S. Southern Command.”

Though the probability of escalation into inter-state conflict remains low, it can’t be discarded. “This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” an unnamed human rights worker told the Guardian. The paper went on: “The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. ‘I would say it is making it worse.’”

Car bombing raises concern about Cauca’s deteriorating security situation

The department of Cauca, in southwest Colombia, remains one of the most conflictive parts of the country. On March 26, a car bomb detonated in the center of Corinto, in the northern part of the department not far from Cali. Last week also saw the murder of a judicial police investigator near Corinto, and the forced displacement of 2,000 people in Argelia, in the department’s south.

The car bomb went off next to the mayor’s office in Corinto, wounding 43 people including 11 municipal employees. President Iván Duque said that a FARC dissident group powerful in the area, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, was responsible. The Dagoberto Ramos, like the 10th Front in Arauca and Venezuela, is believed to be part of the dissident network headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the 1st Front. Led by a former mid-level FARC leader named Johany Noscué alias “Mayimbú,” the unit has carried out some bloody high-profile attacks, including the 2019 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality. The dissidents and the armed forces had been fighting in a nearby village in the days leading up to the bombing.

The Dagoberto Ramos unit is also believed responsible for the March 27 kidnapping and murder of Mario Fernando Herrera, an investigator with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Herrera was taken on March 26 at a roadblock that the dissidents had set up on the road between Corinto and the northern Cauca municipality of Santander de Quilichao. HIs body was found the next day.

Further south in Argelia, fighting remains intense between the ELN and another dissident group purportedly aligned with “Gentil Duarte,” the Carlos Patiño front. (To make things more complicated, this region also has a dissident group aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia, and the two have poor relations: Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses observed last year that Argelia may be the only zone where units of the two dissident networks are fighting each other.) ELN-dissident firefights have left residences riddled with bullets and shrapnel in the middle of the town of El Plateado, Argelia. Starting on March 27, 2,000 residents fled “at great speed.” Most headed for the county seat of Argelia, where many are gathered in the main church and the soccer arena.

Cauca has only about 1.35 million people, but has always been over-represented in measures of violence. It is strategically located for narcotrafficking, with coca fields, laboratories, and routes leading to Pacific transshipment points. Northern Cauca is also a center of Colombia’s illicit marijuana trade, with grow lights dotting the region’s hillsides at night. Illicit mining is common, especially near the Pacific. It is one of Colombia’s most ethnically diverse departments, but indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have historically been poor and excluded from political power, which has concentrated in the hands of a European-descended elite. Its topography is complex: Colombia’s three Andean mountain chains all converge there in what’s called the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif).

Cauca leads the country in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since 2016. So far in 2021, the department has suffered four massacres. The homicide rate in 2020 was 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than all but four or five U.S. cities. The ELN, three dissident units, a fragment of the EPL, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group all operate in Cauca, as do smaller regional organized crime groups.

Argelia social leader Walter Aldana described the situation to El Espectador:

What we have today in the department of Cauca is the presence of eight or ten illegal armed groups that exercise power and dominion in the territories. They fight among themselves for territorial control. But whoever is there at the time is the authority in the territory. For more than a year, since before the pandemic, we have had a curfew from 7 o’clock at night—depending on the armed group and how they want to handle things.

In response to all this, “the government has recurred to old formulas,” wrote Santiago Torrado at Spain’s El País, “such as holding a security council meeting, announcing the deployment of 2,000 uniformed personnel in addition to the 8,000 already in the department, and offering rewards for the ringleaders.”

“The improvisation, the lack of planning, the lack of systematic persecution of crime is very evident,” wrote Alfonso Luna Geller, of the group Proclama del Cauca, at El Espectador. “The military and police are always surprised. It seems that there is no military or police intelligence, no strategic or tactical operations, because they have been replaced by useless security councils. … The National Government only appears to make bombastic and opportunistic declarations on the smoking streets of our towns.”

“The only way to transform these conditions is with transformations driven by the State as a whole,” former human rights ombudsman Carlos Negret told Torrado. “With long-term policies and not with circumstantial projects; with sustainable and durable decisions, and not with fire extinguishers that sooner rather than later use up their loads. I believe that implementation of the peace agreement has many of these elements”.

Links

  • 25 U.S. and Colombian organizations sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to cease funding for aerial herbicide fumigation in territories where farmers grow coca, before Colombia’s government re-starts the suspended program.
  • From Vorágine and Connectas, a new accusation that the government’s coca eradication statistics are artificially inflated: eradicators “arrived at the coca fields to negotiate with the landowner. This was a ‘pact’ in which the eradicators only completed half of their task or did it badly on purpose: they did not uproot the bush from its roots, but only stripped it halfway down its stem.”
  • Mutante, Baudó AP, and La Liga Contra el Silencio published an investigation alleging that nine farmers were killed in the context of coca eradication operations in 2020. The total death toll for coca eradication in 2020, then, was 25, since the Defense Ministry reported 16 eradicators or security-force escorts killed last year.
  • The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy published a “Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One,” which places emphasis on access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and “a collective and comprehensive response” to supply reduction in Latin America. It does not specifically mention forced eradication of illicit crops.
  • The State Department’s annual human rights report draws attention to some of the more notable abuses that took place in 2020, while noting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo that the JEP’s estimate of 6,402 victims of military “false positive” killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 “is a figure that seeks to create a negative image of our Armed Forces and extort the real debate, the one we need so that this country can have forces with greater legitimacy.”
  • An InsightCrime investigation into armed groups’ recruitment of children finds “the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca [Antioquia] and the Amazon state of Vaupés.”
  • It has been a year since Salvatore Mancuso, once a top leader of Colombia’s national AUC paramilitary network, completed a criminal sentence for narcotrafficking in the United States. He remains in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, seeking to prevent his deportation to Colombia, either by staying in the United States under the Convention Against Torture, or being removed to Italy, as he is a dual citizen. By video, Mancuso has been sharing information with the JEP and the Truth Commission. He is revealing names of military officers and civilian third parties who aided and abetted the right-wing groups that, at the conflict’s peak in the late 90s and early 00s, committed the majority of killings and forced displacements.
  • Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, a longtime personal friend of President Iván Duque, drew criticism this week for indicting one of the opposition-party candidates with highest poll numbers ahead of March 2022 presidential elections, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. The Fiscalía is accusing Fajardo of a 2013 case of contracting irregularities: approving a loan to the Antioquia government that was denominated in dollars, without first performing a risk study.
  • Fiscal General Barbosa paid a visit to the United States this week, where he met with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Marshals representatives, among others. Barbosa’s delegation included Gabriel Jaimes, the prosecutor in the super-high-profile witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe. Jaimes has asked to drop the charges in Uribe’s case, and will present arguments before a judge on April 6. Investigative journalist Daniel Coronell points out that the majority of witnesses on Uribe’s behalf in this case have some relationship with the Oficina de Envigado, an organized crime structure descended from the old Medellín cartel.
  • Without Catholic Church-led organizing and a 1993 law recognizing Afro-descendant communities’ collective landholdings, the jungles of Chocó “could have been destroyed by the logging interests of the time,” says Quibdó Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto in an interesting interview with La Silla Vacía. “If it weren’t for that work, we would have this forest full of monocultures and agribusiness.”
  • The Colombian government appears determined to move ahead with a US$4.5 billion purchase of 24 F-16 fighter jets. This is controversial because the contract, equivalent to more than 1 percent of GDP, comes at a time when resources are lacking for other priorities, like peace accord implementation.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021

March 28, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents

On March 21, residents of Arauquita, across the Arauca river from Venezuela, “woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation” on the other side of the border, the northeast Colombian municipality’s mayor told the Associated Press. In La Victoria, in Venezuela’s state of Apure, armed forces were carrying out an intense ground and air offensive against Colombian guerrilla dissidents, firing from helicopters and dropping bombs from aircraft.

Combat began on the 20th, according to a statement from the Venezuelan armed forces. That day, two Venezuelan officers taking part in border-wide military maneuvers called “Bolivarian Shield”—a major and a first lieutenant—were killed, apparently by landmines, a rarity in Venezuela. The statement claimed that government forces captured 32 people and destroyed 6 encampments while seizing drugs and war materiel, and killing a FARC dissident leader known as “Nando.” An opposition legislator, Karim Vera, said that about 20 Venezuelan troops were wounded.

Details are sketchy, in part due to power outages in La Victoria, but fighting continues. FARC dissidents attacked a Venezuelan military post on the night of March 23.

La Victoria, Venezuela is north and west of the river; Araquita, Colombia is south and east. (From Google Maps)

Civilians are being hit hard. As of March 25, 3,961 residents of La Victoria had fled across the border into Arauquita. “People we have spoken with are terrified and fear for their lives,” Dominika Arseniuk, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Colombia, told the Associated Press.

Those who fled the Venezuelan side say that government forces—including the feared police Special Actions Force (FAES), rarely active outside cities—have been raiding homes, looting possessions, and beating people. FAES may have massacred a family in El Ripial, just east of La Victoria, and may have dressed the bodies in uniforms. Anderson Rodríguez, president of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca, told the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación that other families are presumed disappeared and some bombings were indiscriminate.

Three different Colombian armed groups, all of them nominally guerrillas or guerrilla-descended—are active on both sides of this part of the Colombia-Venezuela border. To varying degrees, they profit from extortion, taxing cross-border contraband, skimming from local treasuries, illicit mining of precious metals including the mineral coltan, and trafficking cocaine—though the ELN has prohibited most coca or cocaine production in Arauca, Colombia. Armed groups have also stepped up recruitment of Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the border, especially of minors.

The presence of armed groups in this lightly governed zone goes back to well before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election; as has happened in all countries bordering Colombia, Venezuelan forces tended to leave Colombian armed groups alone as long as they avoided violence (what Caracas Chronicles calls “a sort of laissez-passer secret policy”). The armed group presence has increased in recent years, though.

The three groups active now are:

  • The National Liberation Army (ELN), whose powerful Frente de Guerra Oriental (FGO) is the region’s largest and longest established. It has been operating in Arauca since the 1980s and expanded in Apure, Venezuela for more than 10 years “with the permission of the Chavista regime,” according to Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime. The FGO’s leader, alias “Pablito,” is a member of the ELN’s five-member Central Command and spends much of his time inside Venezuela. The ELN does not appear to be a party to the past week’s violence.
  • The Venezuelan forces’ target this week, the 10th Front, a structure led by members of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. There are two main networks of FARC dissident bands active in Colombia right now, and the 10th Front appears to be affiliated with the largest: the “1st Front” group led by Miguel Botache alias “Gentil Duarte,” a former mid-level FARC commander most active in south-central Colombia. (InsightCrime’s McDermott says he has doubts about this affiliation.) The 10th may have as many as 800 fighters active in Arauca and Apure. Alias “Nando,” the leader whom Venezuelan forces claim to have killed on March 22, may have been the brother of the 10th Front’s finance chief. The 10th Front and Venezuelan forces have confronted each other in the past, but never on anything near the scale of last week.
  • Members of the Segunda Marquetalia, the other main FARC dissident network. This band was founded by FARC leaders who demobilized in 2017 then rearmed in 2019, led by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the 2012-16 peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The group, named for the site where the FARC began following a 1964 military attack, is smaller than Gentil Duarte’s organization, but may enjoy closer political relations with the government in Caracas. (Iván Márquez appeared with Hugo Chávez on the presidential palace steps in 2007, during a brief moment when Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, authorized Chávez to help broker a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.) McDermott says Márquez “has had ties to the highest levels in Venezuela, including the presidency, and many of those ties are still in place.”

These three groups together may have 2,000 or more members inside Venezuelan territory—only some of them in Apure—but have avoided fighting each other. “They are not together but they are not fighting either, it is like a toxic relationship,” Kyle Johnson of Conflict Responses told a forum last week, “but we must remember that the ELN is very present in that area. The ELN believes it owns Apure and makes people think that those who operate there do so because they allow it. I am not entirely convinced of conflicts between these groups as such.” Conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told La Silla Vacía, “In Apure there is a relationship of coordination, and in some cases collaboration, between the Segunda Marquetalia and the 10th Front. There is no rivalry.” The two dissidences “appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship on the border,” tweeted analyst Bram Ebus, who has written a few much-cited studies of this region.

The Colombian government frequently accuses Venezuela of allowing ELN and FARC dissident fighters to operate safely on its soil. “The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the [peace] agreements by sheltering criminals such as [Nueva Marquetalia leaders] Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, alias El Paisa, and alias Romaña,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, told Reuters on March 23.

Several sources cited by Caracas Chronicles hypothesize that Nicolás Maduro’s regime, in seeking to mediate, regulate, or “triangulate” among the Colombian groups active in the region, has decided that the 10th Front is out of line and must be reined in. “One unconfirmed interpretation of the flare up,” Ebus tweeted, “is a business dispute that escalated quickly when it hit political sensitivities. F10 [10th Front] has irritated Venezuelan military authorities before for failing to pay a cut. Their visible presence in Apure may have been a bridge too far.”

A frequent hypothesis advanced in media coverage contends that Venezuela’s government is favoring the Segunda Marquetalia. “The Venezuelan National Guard has generals in its service who protect the Second Marquetalia,” said former Colombian chief organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla. “There is a sector of the National Armed Forces kneeling at the orders of Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez,” said Venezuelan opposition legislator Gaby Arellano. “Some weeks ago we reported in our PRR [Political Risk Report] that, according to our sources, Iván Márquez was being moved to a more secure location, far from the border, to protect him from eventual operations by Colombian forces,” noted Caracas Chronicles. “The Venezuelan military operations have not touched the operations of the Segunda Marquetalia, which are especially robust in the state of Apure,” McDermott told La Silla Vacía, adding, “The offensive responds to growing reports in Venezuela that the 10th Front had dominance in the area. And it could open a space for Márquez’s dissidents to expand later.”

Cited in Venezuela’s Tal Cual, McDermott also found it notable that Venezuela deployed the brutal police FAES unit to Apure. “Apparently Maduro does not trust the military in the Apure area, the military does not have the capacity to confront the Colombian dissidents, or the military on the border is very corrupt and its capacity has been eroded.”

A statement from a 10th Front leader known as “Arturo” insists that “we weren’t the ones who initiated this confrontation,” vows to keep fighting Venezuelan forces, but also offers to withdraw units if the Venezuelan government sends a “top-level commission to clarify truths.”

Serious incidents like this raise concerns about an outcome that, one hopes, all would wish to avoid: a hot inter-state conflict between Colombia’s and Venezuela’s government forces. The Colombian government announced that it is reinforcing military presence along the Arauca border by about 2,000 troops, and Colombian media report that, though there is no official information, “there is speculation that the Maduro government is enlisting 2,000 men of the Armed Forces to be sent to the border with Arauca.” In Caracas Chronicles’ estimation, “We have no reasons to fear for a war between Colombia and Venezuela, but we can’t forget that Venezuela is protecting public enemies of Colombia (the FARC dissidents), and that this is always a source of risks.”

Ebus sounded concerned, too, on Twitter: “Herein lies the danger: now that the confrontation has escalated, there’s no turning back. The dispute between Chavistas and the guerrillas is out in the open and it will be hard for either side to back down. In a moment like this, the grave risks of the lack of communication between Caracas and Bogotá are painfully evident. Political leaders have limited recourse to calm tensions, leaving the cauldron of border tensions to play out for itself.”

Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility

The lead story in last week’s update covered the case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court of Jineth Bedoya, a journalist abducted, raped, and tortured by paramilitares while doing her job in 2000. Bedoya, whose long quest for justice is the first Colombian case of sexual violence ever heard by the Inter-American Court, saw her virtual hearing interrupted and postponed on March 15, when government lawyers accused the Court’s judges of bias and abruptly exited the proceedings.

The hearing resumed on March 22 and 23, after the Court rejected the government’s objections. A few hours in, the government’s lead attorney, Camilo Gómez, read a statement partially recognizing the Colombian state’s responsibility:

On behalf of the Colombian State, I recognize international responsibility for the failures of the judicial system, which did not carry out a criminal investigation worthy of the victim, by collecting twelve statements, and ask Jineth Bedoya for forgiveness for these facts and for the damage they caused her. The State recognizes that these actions violated her rights to personal integrity and judicial guarantees, in relation to the obligation to guarantee the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

This apology covers the Colombian judicial and prosecutorial system’s failures since the 2000 crime, in a case that has only seen the convictions of three low-level paramilitaries, and then not until 2016 and 2019. “Of the nearly 20 people involved in the process, only three have been prosecuted,” Bedoya told the Court. “Three convictions against material perpetrators, partial justice. Masterminds, none.”

The apology does not cover the Colombian executive branch’s failure to protect Bedoya even after she reported earlier threats and attacks, and in the face of evidence that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction. Gómez, the government’s lawyer, said that his team will respond to those charges in writing.

The government told the Court’s judges that in 1999, after Bedoya and her mother were attacked, the Presidency’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) studied her risk and offered her a bodyguard. Bedoya, they said, “did not make the necessary arrangements to obtain the accompaniment.”

Bedoya explained she could not do her job as an investigative journalist under such conditions, noting that agents of the DAS—which has since been disbanded after a series of scandals—were working with paramilitaries at the time. “Over time, it was demonstrated that this entity carried out illegal espionage, stigmatization, intimidation, leaking of sensitive information to paramilitary groups, and acts of intimidation,” Jonathan Bock of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation said at a subsequent press conference. “Therefore, the lack of protection for the journalist generates state responsibility for failure to comply with the duty of prevention.”

The Colombian government attorneys’ theory that it is not responsible for Bedoya’s lack of protection and prevention “is especially chilling,” said her lawyer, Viviana Krsticevic of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “because it advances a theory according to which Jineth is to blame for what happened to her. The State uses part of the factual information in a rigged way and omits saying important things.”

Jineth Bedoya called the government’s partial recognition of responsibility “one more slap in the face. To only recognize that on 12 occasions they made me testify about my rape, that there was no investigation into the threats, and that they do not admit the reparations that I have sought—it is like the cases that I denounce every day, where a husband beats a wife and the next day says ‘forgive me, I love you but I was in a bad mood’. That is what the State has done with me before the Court.”

The journalist, who is now the deputy editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, said that she continues to receive frequent death threats. She requested protection for her mother, who also receives constant threats and has no bodyguard. If it treats a person like her, a well-known journalist who has access to the media, in such an undignified manner, she concluded, “imagine how the state treats an anonymous victim, who does not have that possibility.”

Links

  • A car bomb detonated outside the mayor’s office in Corinto, in conflictive northern Cauca department, on March 26. Seventeen people were wounded, including eleven municipal employees.
  • Polarizing politics, approaching elections, a slow vaccine rollout, a regressive tax reform, street protests, worsening insecurity, Álvaro Uribe’s judicial case, and the Truth Commission’s upcoming report combine to make Colombia a “powderkeg,” writes Javier Lafuente at Spain’s El País.
  • A New York Times cover story dives deeply into the March 2 bombing of a FARC dissident site in Calamar, Guaviare that killed two minors whom the group had recruited. A new detail: one of the victims, 16-year-old Danna Liseth Montilla, had worked last year with Voces del Guayabero, a local media collective that published much-circulated reports and videos documenting violent government tactics during mid-2020 coca eradication operations. Last week soldiers found another 16-year-old girl who had fled the bombing and spent the next three weeks alone, lost in the jungle. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued new charges of child recruitment, and arrest warrants, against FARC dissident leader “Gentil Duarte”—whose group had recruited the children killed on March 2—and key subordinates.
  • 75 people who led coca substitution programs in the framework of the peace accords have been killed, according to a report from Somos Defensores, Minga, and Viso Mutop.
  • “In Colombia we continue to speak of the existence of at least five non-international armed conflicts, whose actors continue to affect the dignity and lives of the civilian population,” reads the annual Colombia report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, released last week.
  • An analysis in La Silla Vacía finds that the commission that the peace accord set up to manage protection of FARC ex-combatants is moribund, with the government ignoring suggestions and treating it as a forum to present already-crafted policies. Meanwhile, the number of FARC ex-combatants who have been killed since the accords went into effect stands at 261. Protection was among the principal concerns voiced in a letter that the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño, sent to the U.S. Congress on March 23.
  • So far this year, as of March 7, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) reported that 3,119 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. “1,311 families have fled their lands to safeguard their lives and physical integrity.”
  • The case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed by a policeman’s “nonlethal” weapon in downtown Bogotá in November 2019, remains before the military justice system. An amicus brief that Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court argues that the military system “fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case.”
  • A new U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Colombia, as well as to Honduras and Panama, later this year. This unit’s first deployment in mid-2020, which involved dozens of trainers providing instruction to Colombian military personnel in a few conflictive parts of the country, generated controversy in media and among opposition legislators.
  • Retired Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was imprisoned for working with paramilitary groups that carried out massacres in northwestern Colombia during the 1990s, appeared before the JEP and, to the disappointment of victims, denied any links with paramilitary groups. Del Río is free from prison for the moment pending his case before the JEP.
  • The Washington Post published a poignant profile of Gonzalo Cardona, an environmental defender who dedicated his life to saving the endangered yellow-eared parrot in often-conflictive southern Tolima department. Cardona, 55, was shot to death in January.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: March 20, 2021

March 22, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Jineth Bedoya’s Inter-American Court case delayed as government “walks out” of hearing

One of Colombia’s most emblematic human rights cases suffered a momentary but confounding setback, as government representatives abruptly withdrew from a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This Court is an OAS-affiliated body, based in Costa Rica, that hears cases when signatory nations’ judiciaries have proved unable to win redress for victims. It was holding a virtual hearing on March 15 for oral arguments in the case of Jineth Bedoya, a prominent journalist who was abducted, raped, and tortured, with security forces’ involvement, in 2000.

That year Bedoya, then a reporter at El Espectador, was investigating networks of arms trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activity linking paramilitaries, guerrillas, organized crime, and members of the security forces. These networks centered on Bogotá’s La Modelo prison, which both then and now has been a violent place. (A year ago, on March 21, 2020, guards killed 24 prisoners there, apparently shooting to kill, while putting down a riot.) “La Modelo was the ‘office’ from which all crime in the country was connected,” reads an account from Bedoya reproduced this week by journalist Cecilia Orozco.

In May 2000, Bedoya was receiving threats from paramilitaries as she investigated a massacre of 32 prisoners at La Modelo. On the morning of May 25, 2000, she showed up at the prison gate—which is not far from the Chief Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) and the U.S. embassy—for an arranged meeting with paramilitaries who had been threatening her. “It was a trap,” Bedoya recalls. She was abducted from the front door of the prison and driven out of the city, tortured, and repeatedly raped. “Then I don’t know what happened. I was left abandoned on a road, almost dead.”

Even as a respected reporter from mainstream media outlets (she later moved to El Tiempo), and even as a 2012 State Department “International Woman of Courage,” Jineth Bedoya has been unable to win justice for what happened to her. Only three of her attackers—low-level actors—have been sentenced. The Fiscalía mysteriously lost key evidence. “For 11 years the prosecutor who was in charge of the case would call me to suggest that I investigate, and give the results to him.” The Fiscalía forced her to narrate, and relive, what was done to her on 12 different occasions. One of her sources was killed an hour after meeting with her. She learned that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction.

She went to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which issued recommendations to Colombia for her case. These went unmet. The next step was to go to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which took her case in May 2019. It reached its oral arguments phase, with hearings set to begin on March 15, 2021. The Guardian hailed what appeared to be a big step toward justice:

“To bring my case before an international court not only vindicates what happened to me, as a woman and a journalist,” Bedoya said in a video shared on Twitter. “It opens a window of hope for thousands of women and girls who, like me, had to face sexual violence in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict.”

That’s not quite what happened. The hearing, held virtually due to COVID-19, began with justices asking Bedoya questions. After a while, the government’s representative asked to speak.

That representative was Camilo Gómez, head of the National Agency for the Legal Defense of the State (ANDJE) in President Iván Duque’s government. From 2000 to 2002 Gómez was the high commissioner for peace—the government’s chief negotiator—for then-president Andrés Pastrana’s failed effort to negotiate peace with the FARC.

Instead of addressing what happened to Bedoya, Gómez charged that the Court’s six judges were “pre-judging” Colombia during the day’s questioning, and called for all but one of them to be recused. The government’s legal team then abruptly exited the virtual hearing. The judges heard from one more witness, then suspended the Court’s proceedings while they determined what to do next.

Condemnation of the government’s response came quick. “The Colombian government’s decision to effectively stomp out of the Inter-American Court hearing shows the authorities’ shocking disregard for the violence inflicted on Jineth Bedoya, and is a slap in the face to every Colombian journalist—especially women journalists—fighting impunity,” said Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I have been litigating before the Inter-American Court for 25 years, said Bedoya’s lawyer Viviana Krsticevic, the director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “and this is unusual, unheard of, we are surprised that the State of Colombia is doing what even really authoritarian governments like Fujimori’s government in Peru, Ortega’s in Nicaragua, Maduro’s in Venezuela, did not do.”

On March 17 Camilo Gómez sent Bedoya a letter, which he made public on Twitter, suggesting an out-of-court settlement. Such offers have happened before, said Jonathan Bock of the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), but they have merely been offers of monetary payments without the government recognizing its responsibility for what happened to Bedoya. Bedoya’s legal team refused, adding that making the letter public was “an act of harassment and malicious litigation.”

On March 18 the Court’s judges, led by the one justice whom Gómez had not called to be recused, rejected the Colombian government’s request for new judges. Jineth Bedoya’s hearing is set to restart on March 22 as though nothing had happened.

Numerous activists and analysts voiced puzzlement at the Colombian government’s behavior, showing insensitivity to a high-profile victim while inviting a legal defeat. Santiago Medina-Villarreal, a former lawyer at the Inter-American Court, fears that the government is playing a long game, sending a message ahead of future cases scheduled to go before the Court. “With this attitude, the State intends to undermine with doubts the judges’ appearance of impartiality.” An effort to de-legitimize the Court, Krsticevic told El Tiempo, “would be very serious for Colombia and the region.”

“They killed me on the morning of May 25 [2000],” Jineth Bedoya writes. “I believed that words are the best way to transform pain. But my life is over: having to see the marks of sexual violence and torture on my body every day is something that does not allow me to close this cycle definitively.”

U.S. officials point to outlines of Biden approach to coca and peace

While eradicating record amounts of coca manually, Colombia continues to move toward restarting a U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where the plant is grown. Citing health concerns, the government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this program in 2015. As past weekly updates have noted, the new Biden administration is not opposing continued U.S. support for “fumigation.” In fact, February and March State Department documents hailed the Duque government’s efforts to relaunch the program.

On March 14, El Tiempo’s longtime Washington correspondent, Sergio Gómez, shed a bit more light on the Biden administration’s thinking, excerpting views on eradication and peace accord implementation from interviews with several officials. In general, these officials and legislative staff told Gómez that they don’t see fumigation or forced eradication as keys to long-term reductions in coca-growing. Instead, they voiced a preference for implementation of the 2016 peace accord and increasing government presence in long-abandoned rural territories.

Here are a few highlights indicating how official thinking may be evolving:

  • ”A senior U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá authorized to speak on this issue: “Essentially, our idea is that the territorial transformation that would come from the full implementation of the accords is the best long-term security strategy and the most promising and sustainable solution to the problem of illicit crops.”
  • Another U.S. Embassy official: “The clearest lesson from the period from 2012 to 2017, when cultivation went from its lowest point to its highest in just 5 years, is that Colombia was successful in reducing crops, but not in sustaining those gains. … The best way to sustain them is to increase the presence of the state and offer economic opportunities in rural areas. You can’t just eradicate and attack criminal groups.”
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who voiced disappointment with a February State Department document praising fumigation: “We want to help Colombia reduce coca production and cocaine trafficking, but as we have seen over the years sustainable progress is not measured in the number of hectares eradicated. Government presence—in the territories most affected by this problem—is not achieved simply by sending in armed forces. Nor do we see evidence that illegal armed groups are being dismantled, especially when so many social leaders are being threatened and killed.”
  • A senior legislative aide, who said that the State Department’s recent written praise for forced eradication “seemed ‘outdated’ or the work of some Trump administration holdover”: “We want to see progress in coca reduction, but we don’t see anything that gives us confidence that the Duque government has a sustainable strategy to achieve it.”
  • Another congressional staffer: “When Plan Colombia kicked off in 2000, the goal was to reduce coca cultivation by half in 5 years. And here we are, 20 years later and there is still the same or more drugs than two decades ago with a ‘new plan’—agreed between Duque and Trump—that again seeks to reduce crops by half in another 5 years.”

Sen. Leahy’s office told El TIempo “that the Senator ‘would oppose the use of U.S. funds to finance aerial spraying’ when it resumes,” which could mean a fight if the Biden administration decides to keep supporting the controversial herbicide spray program.

The ELN and Ecuador’s elections

The candidate who led February 7 first-round voting for Ecuador’s presidential election is vehemently denying allegations that his campaign received support from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Andrés Arauz, the candidate favored by left-populist ex-president Rafael Correa, is threatening legal action.

On October 25, a Colombian Army raid in Chocó killed Andrés Felipe Vanegas, alias “Uriel,” a mid-ranking ELN leader who had a high profile because he gave frequent interviews. At the site of the raid, soldiers reportedly recovered computers and other data devices with over 3 terabytes of information.

On January 30, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana received some of that information from official sources. An e-mail from Uriel to two other ELN members, presumed to be contacts in Ecuador, appeared to refer to a US$80,000 “investment” in “supporting hope.” Andrés Arauz’s political coalition is called the “Union for Hope.”

On February 12, a few days after Arauz led first-round voting with 32.7 percent, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (FIscal), Francisco Barbosa, paid a quick visit to Quito to hand over to his Ecuadorian counterpart all evidence from “Uriel” pointing to links between the ELN and Arauz.

Last week Arauz enlisted the aid of a Colombian jurist, former Fiscal Eduardo Montealegre, an opponent of Colombia’s current ruling party whose term coincided completely with the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. As El Colombiano explains, the Ecuadorian candidate granted Montealegre power of attorney “to investigate and file a complaint for falsehood and procedural fraud against Colombia due to allegations linking him to the ELN.”

Arauz called the allegations a “crude setup.” He argued that “Uriel” operated far from Colombia’s border with Ecuador, and questioned the Colombian armed forces’ honesty, arguing that they have engaged in a cover-up of thousands of extrajudicial executions—the so-called “false positives” human rights scandal. He added that he sees Colombia’s conservative government engaging in “a state policy to delegitimize and undermine governments with progressive tendencies.” The ELN, for its part, also rejects the allegations, calling them “fake news.”

We are unlikely to learn what really happened before April 11, when Ecuadorians vote in the presidential runoff election. Polling is sparse, but the race appears close between Arauz and center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso.

Links

  • WOLA hosted a discussion on March 18 about the Colombian military’s “false positives” killings, which the transitional justice system (JEP) revealed in February to have likely been more extensive than most knew. On March 17, the Mothers of False Positives (MAFAPO) presented a report to the Truth Commission.
  • In May 2019, the New York Times had triggered an outcry by reporting that Colombia’s Army leadership was returning to “body counts” as a measure of success, setting numerical goals for units to meet. The Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) just completed an investigation begun that month, exonerating the Army’s commander at the time, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, of “pressuring or requiring” generals “to meet minimum targets for casualties, captures or demobilizations.”
  • El Tiempo reported that coroners have identified the bodies of eight of the ten people killed in a March 2 bombing raid on a FARC dissident site in Guaviare. One of the eight was a 16-year-old girl. (El Nuevo Siglo reported that coroners determined a second girl, age 15, was also killed in the attack, but the El Tiempo story makes no mention of this.) As noted in last week’s update, charges that child combatants were among the dead led Defense Minister Diego Molano to make some very crude remarks about child combatants.
  • Colombia’s Congress briefly faced a legislative proposal to extend President Duque’s term by two years, along with those of members of Congress, mayors, governors, high court judges, the chief prosecutor, and other top officials. The initiative quickly collapsed after news of it emerged, and 15 legislators withdrew their signatures.
  • “In the coming months, negotiations will be concluded for the acquisition of 24 new, state-of-the-art fighter planes,” Semana reports. The purchase could total US$4 billion.
  • The next step for the witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe will take place on April 6, when a judge will consider the Fiscalía’s request to drop the charges. (See the overview of the case in our March 6 update.)
  • The JEP’s “top-down” investigation of the FARC’s mass kidnappings, which featured the indictment of eight top leaders in February, is moving down the chain of command, with three mid-level leaders providing grim testimony of the inhuman treatment to which they subjected their kidnap victims.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: March 13, 2021

March 15, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

At least one child killed in March 2 bombing raid on FARC dissidents

An entry in the “Links” section of last week’s update noted that Colombia’s armed forces had reported “neutralizing” 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare, on March 2. (Guaviare, in south-central Colombia, is an agricultural frontier department with a history of armed group presence.) “Duarte,” once a mid-level FARC leader, had exited the peace process before the peace accord’s 2016 signing, and now leads the largest network of armed “dissidents.” Since at least January 2019, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has warned that Duarte’s group recruits many underage combatants.

On March 9 some left-leaning media, citing families and local human rights associations, began alleging that as many as 12 of those killed in the March 2 attack could have been children. As of March 12, one child was confirmed to have been killed at the dissidents’ site. A trusted source tells WOLA that two other children arrived wounded at the hospital in nearby San José del Guaviare municipality.

Danna Lizeth Montilla was 16 years old. Her father told El Tiempo that he had not seen his daughter since December 2020, when she left home in Puerto Cachicamo, a village in San José del Guaviare, to live with relatives at a site where a better internet signal might allow her to attend school during the pandemic. They lost contact with Danna in January. Her father feared that she had been recruited by an armed group. “It’s something that has become common,” he told El Tiempo. “But I never thought it would happen to my daughter.”

This is not the first time that child combatants have died in a bombing raid on dissidents. An August 2019 operation in the nearby municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, killed eight minors at an encampment—but the Defense Ministry failed to report that detail. When opposition senators revealed the deaths in November 2019, accusing a cover-up, the defense minister at the time, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign.

The current defense minister is not covering up the March 2 bombing outcome. Diego Molano acknowledged that children may have died, including Danna Lizeth Montilla, though the actual number is unknown since forensic investigations continue. He placed blame for what happened on the dissident groups recruiting children, and insisted that the armed forces, lacking intelligence indicating that children were present, carried out the March 2 operation in accordance with international humanitarian law.

While further investigation is needed to confirm that, legal experts interviewed in Colombian media agree that it’s possible the armed forces’ March 2 operation did not violate international humanitarian law. While IHL prohibits recruitment of children under 18, armed child recruits 15 or over may be considered combatants, or legitimate military targets, under some circumstances.

Minister Molano didn’t stop there, though. In interviews on March 9 and 10 he caused an uproar in Colombia, using language attacking the children themselves. Some examples:

  • “Even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.”
  • “We’re not talking about young people who didn’t know what they were doing.”
  • “It’s not like they were studying for their college entrance exams.”
  • “This operation targeted a narco-terrorist structure that uses young people to turn them into war machines.”

Criticisms of Molano’s statements poured out. “There’s no such thing as minors acting out of free will in an armed conflict,” said Javeriana University law professor Yadira Alarcón. “The war machine is the one that kills kids, minister,” opposition Senator Iván Cepeda wrote on Twitter. “This is a message of war against children, a message of war against the vulnerable populations that today are being victimized,” said prominent human rights defender Francia Márquez, one of 23 signers of a letter condemning Molano’s statements. “For the Minister of Defense, children aged 13, 14, and 16 have been turned into ‘war machines.’ It is very sad that kids are called that,” said Danna Lizeth Montilla’s father.

Indigenous community retains soldiers in Chocó

The commander of the Colombian Army’s 7th Division denounced on March 8 that members of an indigenous community disarmed, bound the hands of, and retained nine soldiers in Carmen de Atrato municipality, in Chocó department. (In Colombia’s northwest corner, Chocó is the country’s poorest department, and one of its most violent.) Government officials are vowing to pursue kidnapping charges against members of the local Indigenous Guard, a disciplined public order force—armed only with ceremonial staffs—that is common in many indigenous territories.

Details about the incident are confusing. Soldiers claim they were investigating shots fired near a main road. Indigenous Guard members in the El Consuelo Parte Baja community claim that the soldiers lacked recognizable insignia. Neither side alleges that force was used. On the next day (March 9), the community turned the nine soldiers over to a committee from the Defensoría.

The Army vowed to file criminal kidnapping charges against the Chocó indigenous leaders. President Iván Duque’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, voiced rage, telling El Tiempo: “Things must be called by their names. They were not detained, they were kidnapped! And those who did it should be condemned for that crime. They should be sentenced for that crime to prison terms between 40 and 45 years, the maximum that the penal code establishes for that case.”

Guarín, a longtime conservative security intellectual and columnist, sees a larger nationwide plot. “It is an unarmed violent mobilization—at least not with firearms, in most cases—that seeks to prevent the capture of criminals, the eradication of illicit crops, the destruction of drug processing laboratories, operations against the illicit extraction of minerals, and even the fight against organized armed groups’ structures.”

Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) rejected Guarín’s words, including allegations that the Chocó community engaged in kidnapping. ONIC’s peace and human rights counselor, Gustavo Vélez, told El Tiempo, “These people [soldiers] were not assaulted, they were not outraged, they were only held… They were taken to a place where they did not even go without water, and they were handed over to… the Defensoría.”

“As a national organization we categorically reject this type of assessment by Dr. Guarín,” Vélez continued, “because this type of assessment stigmatizes the Indigenous Guard, stigmatizes men and women who today are displaced and confined. At no time has the Indigenous Guard been used by armed actors for illegal purposes.”

Letter from UN rapporteurs on fumigation

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made public a December 17 letter from seven of its rapporteurs, urging the Colombian government not to restart a program that would eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

Between 1994 and 2015, with heavy U.S. support, contract pilots and Colombian police sprayed glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares of the country’s territory, achieving modest and quickly reversible reductions in coca cultivation. The program was suspended in 2015 after a World Health Organization study found glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While the Duque government is vowing to re-start fumigation, Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set several health, safety, consultation, and other requirements that the government must meet before doing so.

The December letter is signed by the UN rapporteurs for Toxic Substances, Afro-Descendant Communities, Environment, Food, Physical and Mental Health, Human Rights Defenders, and Indigenous Communities. It contends that resuming glyphosate fumigation would “carry enormous risks for human rights and the environment, while it will not comply with the conditions established by the Constitutional Court or international obligations.” It warns that renewed fumigation might violate the terms of the 2016 peace accord. It advises renouncing fumigation, and asks the government for information about compliance with the Constitutional Court’s requirements and other risk mitigation measures.

“The letter was sent after we in civil society requested that the rapporteurs activate this mechanism, and thus help restrain the Government’s insistent announcements about the possible resumption of the PECIG [glyphosate spray program],” notes a statement from the Colombian legal NGO DeJusticia and several other groups, including WOLA.

The Colombian government’s February 17 response to the UN rapporteurs also became public last week—and it was a flat refusal. Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations Adriana Mejía told the rapporteurs that their “urgent call…does not comply with the requirements set forth in the code of conduct governing the performance of your mandate.” In other words, that the rapporteurs were outside their proper lane, and thus would not get a response to their letter’s claims.

The UN letter was not the only public declaration last week in opposition to renewing fumigation. More than 150 academics from Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere signed a letter urging President Joe Biden “to reconsider your support for aerial spraying.” WOLA’s Adam Isacson published a column in El Espectador voicing hope that, once it becomes more consolidated with the addition of key officials, the Biden administration may be convinced to abandon the spray program.

For now, the fumigation program remains suspended. Defense Minister Molano, though, reiterated on March 2 that, with the Court’s conditions met, the program would restart in April. A judge in Nariño department, in southwest Colombia, continues to hold up a component of the restart with a finding that Afro-Descendant and indigenous communities must be consulted first. A government filing alleges that the judge’s “omissive” action runs counter to “maintaining national security.”

Links

  • President Duque held a rare meeting on March 10 with Comunes (ex-FARC) party leader Rodrigo Londoño to discuss protection of demobilized ex-combatants. On March 18, Londoño is to appear before the Truth Commission jointly with former top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is currently in an ICE facility in Georgia contesting his deportation, after serving a U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking. Meanwhile, in an eight-page document Londoño frankly discussed the Comunes party’s difficulty joining coalitions for the 2022 presidential and legislative elections, as well as divisions within the party.
  • U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a March 10 phone conversation with Defense Minister Molano and Presidential Chief of Staff Maria Paula Correa. According to the White House readout, topics covered included climate change, “a peaceful and negotiated outcome to” Venezuela’s crisis, peace accord implementation, and “the importance of upholding human rights.”
  • Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, sparked controversy with another in a series of public comments blaming Venezuelan migrants for some crime in the city. As the first woman and first LGBTI mayor of Bogotá, her words drew expressions of consternation from several of her center-left political allies.
  • A regular Universidad de los Andes poll of Colombian public opinion found that support for the FARC peace accord surpassed 50 percent for the first time—51 percent, up from 41 percent during a 2016 version of the poll.
  • The investigative website La Liga del Silencio reported that the Truth Commission had sent the Defense Ministry a letter last October noting that the armed forces had not responded satisfactorily to 38 different information requests submitted over the previous year. The Liga report reveals that a 2015 fire at a military facility destroyed 17 years of Army records in a major conflict region, the Magdalena Medio.
  • The Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), which since 2019 has been directed by a conservative disliked by much of the country’s human rights community, is again embroiled in controversy. It faces allegations that its leadership “drastically” censored the content of a museum exhibit that Center staff had developed with several indigenous groups’ participation and consent. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), citing indications of prior censorship from fifty witnesses, asked the CNMH to turn over e-mail communications between Director Darío Acevedo and the leadership of the historical memory museum effort.
  • Writing for Mongabay, Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses finds that Colombia’s military-led environmental protection campaign has done little to confront those most responsible for profiting from and financing Amazon basin deforestation, nor does it resolve land tenure issues that underlie the problem.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: March 6, 2021

March 7, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Prosecutor asks to acquit Álvaro Uribe

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) recommended on March 5 that former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) not be prosecuted for allegations of witness tampering. The case had Uribe, the founder of President Iván Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, under house arrest between August and October. It now goes to a judge, whose decision about whether to drop charges is certain to be appealed.

Here is a quick overview of what has happened:

  • In 2012 ex-president Uribe accused a political opponent, then-representative Iván Cepeda, of visiting imprisoned former paramilitary leaders and bribing them to give false evidence tying Uribe to paramilitary groups. Cepeda, whose senator father was killed in 1994 by paramilitaries working with an official who would take a leading position in Uribe’s presidential intelligence service, was investigating Uribe’s possible links to the rightwing armed groups.
  • Because the accusation was against a sitting member of Congress (Rep. Cepeda later became a senator, along with Uribe, in 2014), Colombia’s Supreme Court took up the case investigation.
  • In 2018, the Supreme Court determined that Iván Cepeda had neither paid nor pressured the former paramilitaries with whom he had met, exonerating him. Instead, in a bombshell finding, the Court turned the tables and announced it would be investigating Álvaro Uribe and his attorney for “procedural fraud and bribery”: essentially, offering bribes to a cast of characters of minor ex-paramilitaries in exchange for false testimony. The charges could carry a prison term of up to 12 years.
  • On August 12, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered Senator Álvaro Uribe placed under house arrest at his ranch in Córdoba. It issued a 1,500-page document laying out evidence against Uribe and his attorney, Diego Cadena, including videos, audios, intercepts, and WhatsApp transcripts. A February 28 column by investigative journalist Daniel Coronell recalls some of the incriminating conversations.
  • On August 18, Uribe resigned his Senate seat, which placed him outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. On September 3, the Supreme Court handed the case over to the Fiscalía, which since January 2020 has been headed by Francisco Barbosa, a friend of Iván Duque’s since college. The Fiscalía had six months to decide whether to proceed with the case, a term that expired last week. The prosecutor put in charge of the case, Gabriel Jaimes, had worked in the past as “right-hand man” for one of the most conservative figures in Colombian politics, former inspector-general, current OAS Ambassador, and Uribe supporter Alejandro Ordóñez.
  • Uribe was released from house arrest on October 10.
  • On March 5, Gabriel Jaimes asked the judiciary to terminate (or “preclude”) the investigation against Álvaro Uribe, writing that Uribe’s conduct didn’t “have the characteristic of crime,” and that any crimes that may have been committed didn’t involve Uribe.

“Thank God for this positive step,” Uribe tweeted. Uribe’s attorney Jaime Granados, who has defended several politicians and military officers accused of human rights crimes, told media that Jaimes’s request to drop the case “was the only possible conclusion the investigators could reach.”

Sen. Iván Cepeda retorted that “Prosecutor Jaimes practically became Uribe’s lawyer… the positions of the Prosecutor’s Office are a mirror of Uribe’s arguments and his defense.” Cepeda’s attorney, Reinaldo Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, called Jaimes’s decision “reckless. The road to impunity continues its course, but it can be stopped, we hope, by the judges of the Republic.”

The prosecutor’s request to drop the case must now go before a judge, which is supposed to happen within five business days but may take longer. If the judge grants the request to end the investigation, Sen. Cepeda—who is classified as a “victim” in this case—can appeal it. If the judge finds that the investigation should continue, the Fiscalía can appeal it.

An appeal will take months. If the appeals judge agrees with the Fiscalía, then the Uribe case is over. If the appeals judge finds ground to continue Uribe’s prosecution, then the Fiscalía must either come up with new arguments (out of a short list of allowed arguments) to drop the case, forcing the courts to do this all over again—or it must prosecute Álvaro Uribe, apparently against its prosecutors’ will.

The Uribe case is likely to drag on, then, for many more months, steadily overlapping the campaign for Colombia’s March 2022 presidential elections.

Illicit crop eradication the subject of several notable new documents

Two State Department reports that became public last week congratulated Colombia’s government for its aggressive approach to illicit crop eradication and its movement toward reinstating a controversial program to eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

On February 23, the State Department delivered to Congress a required report, which became public on March 1, certifying that Colombia is following a strategy to cut coca production by 50 percent by 2023. This document notes a “historic level of manual eradication despite challenges from the COVID-19, a dramatic increase in coca grower protests opposing manual eradication, and a rise in violent attacks against eradicators. Significant progress has also been made to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program that meets the administrative and oversight requirements established by the Colombian constitutional court.” (Colombia suspended aerial herbicide eradication in 2015, citing public health concerns.)

On March 2, the Department issued its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a global overview. Its Colombia section laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

Both documents came as a surprise to some Colombian analysts who expected the Biden administration to adopt the more critical approach to forced eradication laid out in the December report of a bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. That body, whose members included some individuals considered close to the new administration, wrote that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Even if it does intend to adopt such a new tone on eradication, the six-week-old Biden administration, which still lacks officials in many key positions, may not yet have the bandwidth to do so.

Five documents issued since February 26 are sharply critical of the U.S. and Colombian governments’ current approach to coca. All conclude that forced eradication, especially when not paired with alternatives, exacerbates violence and weakens governance in rural areas that badly need it.

  1. A February 26 research report from the International Crisis Group found that “security operations that pay far greater heed to the need to protect civilians and invigorate rural reforms would be more effective.” Principal author Elizabeth Dickinson presented her findings at a joint event with WOLA on March 5, and in a column at NPR that same day.
  2. 22 U.S. and international civil society organizations, including WOLA, sent a March 1 letter to President Biden encouraging him to make implementation of the 2016 peace accord a central tenet of U.S. policy toward Colombia. “We urge the United States not to restart the aerial spraying program, which will be seen as undermining the accords and will drive farmers and communities away from cooperating,” the letter reads.
  3. A multimedia series published on March 1 by El Espectador, “The Battle to Substitute Coca,” tells the story of post-peace accord eradication and crop substitution from the perspective of San José del Fragua, a municipality in Caquetá. It thoroughly explores the complexities surrounding the increasingly frustrating experience of the peace accords’ neglected crop substitution program.
  4. Also in El Espectador, Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published a March 4 column arguing that aerial fumigation “is condemned to failure and will increase violence and set the country aflame.”
  5. Longtime drug policy scholar Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz published a detailed paper that he had written in 2020 to inform the work of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. (English here.) Garzón found that “the current approach by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the right one; however, in practice it has come up against the inertia of anti-drug policy, in which the reduction in coca crops—measured in number of hectares eradicated—is considered the main indicator of success.” He adds, “The image of a plane spraying hectares of coca is useful to show that the state is acting rigorously and promptly, but it clearly falls short if the goal is to create fundamental change. The benefits of this tool are limited to the very short term, while the costs in terms of state legitimacy and the relationship with local communities last a very long time.”

The JEP rejects two “para-politicians” and keeps one

A small number of civilian leaders serving criminal sentences since the 2000s for supporting paramilitary groups—so-called “para-politicians”—has agreed to cooperate with the post-conflict transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). This week, the case of one advanced, while the post-conflict tribunal is kicking out two others.

Álvaro “El Gordo” García was a senator and powerful political boss from Sucre, a small department on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It is among the poorest third of the country’s 32 departments. García was sentenced to 40 years in prison for helping to organize the AUC paramilitary confederation’s bloc in the Montes de María region, which carried out some of the bloodiest massacres of the entire conflict during this century’s first years. The JEP is trying Sen. García, who directed the 2000 Macayepo massacre, as a paramilitary member—not as a third-party supporter.

The JEP has agreed to take García’s case, which could earn him a shorter sentence under non-prison conditions, as long as he tells the full truth about what happened in the Montes de María and provides reparations to his victims. If he reveals what he knows, La Silla Vacía reports, García could take down with him a large number of people. “Nothing moved in Sucre without ‘Gordo’ knowing about it. If he starts to tell everything he knows, there will be no one left with a head,” a “person who worked in politics with Garcia for several years” told the investigative website. “Those guys (the paramilitaries) took over the department and the municipalities with the complacency of the police, the DAS [disbanded presidential intelligence agency], the Fiscalía and the judges,” added “a politician who was in office during those years.” For now, “El Gordo” García remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison.

Another Sucre politician from that era is on the verge of being ejected from the JEP’s jurisdiction. Salvador Arana was the department’s governor during the early 2000s, then went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Chile before the justice system caught up with him and found him guilty of colluding with paramilitaries, including to kill political rivals. The JEP has refused to release Arana from his Barranquilla prison pending trial, and last week threatened to suspend him from the transitional justice system within 30 days if he failed to show more commitment to tell the truth and recognize his victims. So far, the JEP contends, Arana “has simply accused the victims of being collaborators of the FARC, of administrative corruption, and of manipulating witnesses.”

A third “para-politician” is out: Ramiro Suárez Corzo, the 2003-07 mayor of the busy Venezuelan border city of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, has been ejected from the JEP’s purview after three years, and will not get an opportunity for a lighter sentence. Like Arana, Suárez has been in prison for colluding with paramilitaries, who killed at least one of his political rivals. Like Arana, the JEP accuses him of failing to make significant new contributions to the truth about his case, instead denying his guilt and accusing his accusers.

Links

  • WOLA is pleased to launch a new multimedia resource and toolkit for protecting Colombia’s threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. Visit our Con Líderes Hay Paz campaign.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update summarizes numerous alarming cases brought to our attention in recent weeks.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) plays an important role in the Urabá region of northwestern Colombia, where paramilitaries displaced thousands of farmers during the conflict, and large-scale farmers appropriated their land. El Espectador and Verdad Abierta revealed that the new Defensoría representative in Urabá, José Augusto Rendón, is a lawyer who aggressively defended the region’s new landowners against victims’ efforts at land restitution. On several occasions Rendón predicted that violence would result if victims got their land back. Several national human rights organizations received the nomination “with absolute bewilderment and dismay.”
  • The latest bimonthly Invamer Gallup poll of urban Colombian public opinion shows only 6 percent of respondents believing that the security situation is improving, tied for a record low along a time series going back to 2008. President Iván Duque’s approval rating remains at 36 percent, where it was two months ago. By a two-to-one margin, respondents opposed Duque’s offer of legal status to Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, which was well received internationally.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano reported that the armed forces killed (or in his term, “neutralized”) 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte” by bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare.
  • The Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which as noted above saw horrific massacres during the 2000s, was relatively peaceful in the 2010s. Troublingly, El Espectador and the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris published reports from the region documenting an increase in threats against social leaders and indications that paramilitary-descended “Gulf Clan” is making inroads.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: February 27, 2021

February 28, 2021

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.”

Links

  • 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.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: February 20, 2021

February 21, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

JEP finds a large number of “false positive” killings

Colombia’s post-conflict justice system (JEP) issued a dramatic order on February 18, explaining how it plans to investigate and prosecute its “Macro-Case 03: Deaths illegitimately presented by state agents as combat casualties.” These war crimes, called “false positives,” involved security-force (usually Army) personnel killing civilians, then presenting the dead as armed-group members killed in combat, in order to earn rewards.

The JEP’s most surprising finding was its topline number. Security forces murdered at least 6,402 civilians, the tribunal contends, in the seven years between 2002, the first year of Álvaro Uribe’s presidential administration, and 2008, when a scandal involving 19 murdered young men from a poor neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts broke the scandal open.

6,402 is equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed between 2002 and 2008. It is nearly triple the 2,248 cases, dating from between 1988 and 2014, that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) had shared with the JEP. Colombian human rights organizations called the Fiscalía’s undercounting “infuriating.”

The actual number is probably higher than 6,402; the JEP “is still receiving reports to contrast” with its database, La Silla Vacía reports, adding, “For each, the JEP has already identified the name, surname and identity card number,” and each appears in at least three of four governmental and non-governmental databases the tribunal consulted. In addition, some FARC members who demobilized during that period may have been killed later and counted as combatants. And many more cases may still be in the files of the military justice system, not the civilian Fiscalía.

On January 28, the JEP had indicted seven top FARC leaders for their role in kidnappings, with the intention of moving down the chain of command to on-the-ground perpetrators. The false positives investigation, though, is to go “bottom up,” starting with soldiers and officers, then moving up the ladder to top commanders who, today, deny any responsibility for the killings. (The FARC leaders, by contrast, appear poised to accept responsibility for kidnappings.)

That means proving that the practice of killing civilians to receive rewards, a phenomenon that the UN and other human rights monitors began denouncing around 2004, was systematic—a claim given new credibility by the startlingly high number of 6,402 cases. With this order complete, the JEP is to focus its investigations on Antioquia, the Caribbean coast, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, and Meta.

Ex-president Uribe, calling the JEP order “another outrage,” denied responsibility for the killings, saying that while of course he placed strong demands on the military, “effectiveness is not an excuse to violate the law.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and some NGOs and victims’ groups, hailed the JEP’s action. A statement from several groups worried, though, that the JEP’s “bottom up” approach might go too slow, failing to touch the military’s top ex-commanders before the tribunal’s 10-year mandate ends in 2028.

Opposition legislators’ report finds peace accord implementation slipping behind

Fourteen Colombian legislators from the political opposition, spanning six parties, issued the latest in a series of data-rich reports monitoring the government’s compliance with commitments made in the 2016 peace accords. The driving force behind these reports is Green Party Representative Juanita Goebertus, who was a member of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.

The official most responsible for accord implementation in President Iván Duque’s government, High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, challenged some of the legislators’ claims with a point-by-point Twitter thread, to which Rep. Goebertus then responded with a point-by-point rebuttal thread.

The report finds the Colombian government falling further behind in implementing the accord, especially its provisions related to rural governance and crop substitution. Among its numerous findings:

  • Colombia’s Congress has yet to pass 38 percent of laws required to implement the accord, including 21 of 36 laws required to carry out its first chapter on rural reform and territorial governance, a vital element given the heavily rural nature of the conflict. This chapter is estimated to comprise 85 percent of the total cost of implementing the accord.
  • The Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs), a core strategy meant to bring governance and development to 16 conflict-battered regions over 15 years, are running badly behind schedule. The government is spending less than 2 percent of what it should be to maintain a 15-year pace on the largest item, infrastructure projects. While Archila insisted that these projects are being completed at a healthy pace, Goebertus said that pace slowed by 46 percent in 2020.
  • In only 3 of 16 PDET zones has the government completed a promised “roadmap” document needed to speed up investments, and no PDET projects have begun in the highly conflictive central Pacific coast region.
  • The government is formalizing smallholders’ land properties at 29.5% of the pace that fulfillment of the peace accord’s promised 7 million hectares would require, and only 4 of 170 PDET municipalities have yet had landholdings mapped out in a promised cadaster.
  • The accords’ crop substitution program promised assistance with productive projects, starting 12 months in, for families who eradicated all their coca. In year four, only 5.3% of families have received productive project support.
  • 54.5 percent of guerrilla ex-combatants have not received government support for productive projects. Archila says that 6,172 people—about half of ex-combatants—have benefited from productive projects, and “1,214 people, who still haven’t formulated a project, have jobs.”

Draft decree outlines resumption of aerial herbicide fumigation

Since taking power in August 2018, President Iván Duque and his government have vowed to re-start spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft to eradicate coca. A U.S.-backed “fumigation” program, a significant part of the “Plan Colombia” strategy, operated from 1994 to 2015.

Public health concerns forced the program’s suspension that year. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court then laid out a series of six health, environmental, consultation, and safety requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the program. One of those steps is the emission of a decree laying out how fumigation would operate. The government produced an 11-page draft decree in December 2019, but never issued a final document. On February 15, the Justice Ministry produced a new, 20-page, draft decree.

This document prohibits spraying in “the National and Regional Natural Park Systems, strategic ecosystems such as páramos, Ramsar category wetlands and mangroves, bodies of water, and population centers.” It does not mention indigenous reserves or Afro-Descendant community council lands. As the Constitutional Court requires, it calls on Colombia’s National Health Institute (INS, roughly similar to the CDC) and environmental authority (ANLA) to sign off on the spray program’s safety after performing studies, which have been underway since at least early 2020. The Counternarcotics Police would have to provide monthly spray reports to the ANLA, the Ministry of Health, and other oversight agencies.

Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano, recently insisted that all conditions for re-starting spraying might be met by late March, but experts interviewed in Colombian media see approval being delayed for months more. “This decree won’t accelerate the process,” María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drug Studies (CESED) told El Espectador.

The draft decree is just one of several unmet criteria, including the INS and ANLA sign-offs and a green light from the multi-agency National Drugs Commission (CNE). Via the Colombian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia learned that, as of September, the INS health study had only completed work in 7 of 14 departments where fumigation was expected to occur. The ANLA approval, meanwhile, is being delayed by two court challenges seeking to uphold vulnerable communities’ ability to participate in the process.

Should the Duque government meet all of the Constitutional Court’s requirements to restart fumigation, there will be legal challenges—and it’s not certain whether the Court will approve of the program’s design. Its rulings have noted that glyphosate spraying, as the 2016 peace accord explains, is meant to be a last resort after other options have received higher priority, like voluntary crop substitution and manual eradication. The draft decree does not mention this prioritization. Nor does it mention prior consultation with indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, an omission that the Constitutional Court may object to, Vélez contends.

Links

  • In public statements, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro criticized Colombia’s decision to grant a legal status to Venezuelan migrants inside Colombia, calling it a “clown show” and accusing President Iván Duque of using it to “clean up his image.” Maduro also said he’d told his country’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need,” in response to Duque’s announcement of a new elite army unit to go after armed group leaders who spend a lot of their time in Venezuela.
  • The Colombian government submitted a report to the JEP finding that the former FARC is lagging badly behind its commitments, under the peace accord, to turn in illegally obtained assets. The Comunes party replied that the government’s imposed deadline of December 31, 2020 was “impossible to meet due to legal and physical constraints,” like security conditions in areas where the ex-FARC assets are located.
  • Two Colombian think tanks, CINEP and CERAC, which play a formal role in verifying implementation of the peace accord, issued their eighth in a series of data-heavy reports.
  • The ambassador to Colombia of Norway, which along with Cuba was a guarantor nation for peace talks with the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, voiced perplexity that Colombia’s government did not respond positively to Cuba warning of intelligence pointing to a possible ELN attack in Colombia. Meanwhile, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry put out a communiqué noting a tense meeting with Cuba’s ambassador and reiterating a demand that Cuba provide more information about the purported imminent attack.
  • Writing for Razón Pública, four analysts from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz disputed claims that the ELN might be in danger of collapsing under its own internal divisions.
  • Colombia’s left-of-center political parties have been reluctant to enter into coalitions with the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, for the March 2022 presidential and congressional elections, La Silla Vacía reports.
  • Fighting between FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan Neo-paramilitary group displaced more than 250 people from the rural zone of the chronically violent municipality of Ituango, in north-central Antioquia.
  • Colombia’s GDP contracted 6.8 percent during 2020 due to the pandemic—the worst year since records began in 1905—though it expanded 6 percent during the final quarter of the year.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: February 13, 2021

February 14, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Colombia offers documented status to Venezuelan migrants

In November 2020, the Interagency Platform for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM) estimated that 1.71 million migrants from Venezuela were living in Colombia: 770,246 documented, and 947,106 with “irregular migration status.” They are part of a flow of 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the collapsing country since 2015.

In a surprise February 8 move, Colombian President Iván Duque decreed that all Venezuelans who arrived in the country before January 31 may receive a “Temporary Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV) allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years, to work legally, and to access health and education services, including COVID-19 vaccines. Implementation of the new status could take up to a year, Ligia Bolivar of Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andrés Bello told The New Humanitarian, starting with the creation of a register of all undocumented Venezuelans.

Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Bogotá for the announcement and called it “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the Americas since the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” (Angélika Rettberg of the Universidad de los Andes told the BBC she also saw “a kind of gesture towards the new U.S. government, because it shows that their [Colombia’s] policy towards Venezuela is not just ‘stick,’ but also humanitarian ‘carrot,’ something that may be more in line with Joe Biden’s administration.”)

President Duque highlighted that Colombia will need more international aid to assimilate a community equivalent to nearly 4 percent of Colombia’s population, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Duque, the announcement was a sharp reversal from his earlier position of refusing vaccinations to undocumented Venezuelans. While Colombia has not suffered major outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan violence, analysts worry about worsening xenophobia, especially among informal and low-wage workers who perceive themselves as competing for scarce jobs with the new arrivals. Such tensions, MercyCorps’ Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told the New Humanitarian, “have been on the rise.”

“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America, we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said. Colombia’s move comes at a time when Peru and Ecuador have sent armored military vehicles to their common border to interdict migrants, and Chile has returned Venezuelans to their country on air force planes.

Cuba notifies Colombia of an imminent ELN attack

El Tiempo revealed a February 6 communication that the Cuban embassy in Colombia shared with the Colombian government, the chief of the UN Verification Mission, and two Catholic Church representatives. It reads: “Our embassy received information, whose veracity we cannot assess, about an alleged military attack by the Eastern War Front of the ELN in the coming days. We have shared this information with the ELN peace delegation in Havana, which expressed total ignorance and reiterated the guarantee that it has no involvement in the organization’s military decisions or operations.”

The “Eastern War Front” (FGO) is the ELN guerrilla group’s largest unit, based in the northeastern department of Arauca and over the border in Venezuela. Its commander, Carlos Emilio Marín alias “Pablito,” a 40-year member of the group, may be its most powerful member. The FGO carried out the January 2019 truck-bomb attack on Colombia’s police cadets’ school that killed 22 people and ended slow-moving peace negotiations in Havana. Several ELN negotiators have remained in Cuba since the talks’ breakdown; “experts assert that the alert to Colombia could be interpreted as Cuba distancing from its uncomfortable guests,” El Tiempo speculates.

High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz used the occasion to reiterate a demand that Cuba extradite the ELN leaders stranded in Cuba. The Havana peace talks’ protocols, signed by the Colombian government and international guarantors in 2017, made clear that if negotiations broke down, the ELN leaders would return to clandestinity in Colombia. The Duque government ignored these protocols, calling them a non-binding commitment made by the prior administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.

As a result, the ELN leaders remain in Cuba. Their continued presence was the principal reason the outgoing Trump administration cited for its January 11 re-addition of Cuba to the State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

On February 7 El Tiempo revealed an internal, encrypted ELN communication, leaked from a government source, that appears to reveal internal division within the guerrilla group. Disagreements allegedly center on some units’ involvement in narcotrafficking and presence in Venezuela. The document also expresses frustration with ELN negotiators being “physically trapped” in Cuba.

High Commissioner Ceballos cited the document as proof that the ELN’s internal divisions make them impossible to negotiate with. From Havana, ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, who had headed the negotiating team stranded in Cuba, insisted that the document was fake. Later in the week, the ELN leadership called the Cuban government’s warning about an imminent attack a “false positive,” saying that such an attack “is not part of the ELN’s military plans.”

In other leaked ELN document news, Semana revealed in late January a document retrieved from computers captured during an October military raid that killed Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” a vocal mid-level ELN leader, in Chocó. Using indirect language, the document appears to point to an $80,000 loan to the presidential campaign of Andrés Arauz, who led in February 7 voting in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections. (Arauz is the candidate aligned with Rafael Correa, the populist president who governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017.) On February 12 Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito to furnish this evidence to Ecuadorian counterparts.

Buenaventura’s population protests against violence, government inaction

In Buenaventura, the port that accounts for 70 percent of Colombia’s import-export activity, a paramilitary-derived gang that briefly dominated criminality in the city, “La Local,” underwent a December schism into two factions, the “Chotas” and the “Espartanos.” Daily street fighting has ensued, leaving much of the city’s 400,000 people in the crossfire. Estimates of the toll so far in 2021 range from 20 to 52 killed, and 112 to 1,700 families displaced.

Youth groups led days of protest against the situation during the week of February 1. These continue, using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura. When they manage to block port cargo transport for even a few hours, these protests get national attention.

The national government responded with a February 8 visit from Interior Minister Daniel Palacios. The minister promised increased rewards for information leading to the capture of gang leaders, the arrival of 120 more police, and “two detachments of Army Special Forces and a Navy reconnaissance platoon to assist with urban surveillance, adding up to more than 1,200 men from the security forces in Buenaventura.” The government also promised an increase in security cameras, a measure also being adopted in Buenaventura’s Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, a district whose organized population bans weapons and seeks to exclude members of all armed groups.

These security measures are not what the #SOSBuenaventura movement is demanding. “There’s already a police presence here, for many people they do not represent security,” Leonard Rentería, a youth leader and vocal protest organizer, told El Espectador. “People continue to be afraid because they do not see the police providing guarantees to protect their lives.”

The bishop of Buenaventura, Msgr. Rubén Darío Jaramillo, went further:

The people feel that there’s no authority, that the authority is the bandits who are in the street with their guns dominating the territories. They are the authority here… The security forces are supposed to defend citizens in their honor, their property, and their lives. But many make the mistake of allying themselves with criminals. They buy them with money. The bandits know that by buying the police they win, and there is nothing the people can do about it.

Thousands of Buenaventurans, dressed in white, lined the narrow port city’s main thoroughfare on February 10, forming a 21-kilometer (13-mile) human chain. Prominent participants in the protest included Bishop Jaramillo and Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal, who is starting his second year in office.

Vidal is Buenaventura’s first mayor who is not the product of a big political machine. He was a leader of the “Paro Cívico,” a social movement that shut down much of the city with three weeks of peaceful protests in mid-2017, demanding state investment in a city that, though the main port, is one of Colombia’s poorest. Paro Cívico members were threatened and killed in the ensuing years; given the forces arrayed against it, Vidal’s late-2019 election victory was remarkable.

As La Silla Vacía and Pares noted, though, the Paro Cívico has not been in the vanguard of the current anti-violence protests. While the movement has been supportive, it appears more focused on governing. Much of the new energy has come from youth leaders like Rentería, who described the Paro as “deactivated from the role it had assumed.”

Links

  • Next week, President Duque is likely to have his first phone conversation with President Joe Biden since the U.S. election, La Silla Vacía reports, noting that the three-month delay “has no precedent in the contemporary U.S.-Colombia relationship.”
  • An annual report from Frontline Defenders, released February 9, found that 53 percent of murders of human rights defenders worldwide occurred in Colombia in 2020 (177 of 331). Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on February 10 finding serious fault with the Colombian government’s efforts to protect human rights defenders and social leaders. On February 11 U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We are concerned about ongoing violence against human rights defenders who play a vital role in building a just and lasting peace in Colombia. Reducing this violence and prosecuting these crimes is a top priority.”
  • With the murders of Antonio Ricaurte in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, and Juan Carlos Correa in San Andrés de Cuerquia, Antioquia, 257 former FARC members have been killed since the 2016 peace accord went into effect. Eight so far this year.
  • Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the former FARC political party Comunes, wrote a strikingly worded letter to former president Juan Manuel Santos, voicing alarm at ex-guerrillas’ security situation and asking for help getting a meeting with President Iván Duque. Santos responded that while he would try, Duque has not responded to his past overtures.
  • In Londoño’s at times tearful testimony and exchanges with victims last week before the transitional justice tribunal (JEP), La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez optimistically see “an opportunity… to process the truths of the conflict with a grammar that recognizes the emotions that are surfacing in the spaces of transitional justice, and processes them through a restorative justice that allows the country to clarify facts of the past and build a common future.”
  • “2020 deepened the deterioration of the media and the state of freedom of expression in the country,” reads the annual report of Colombia’s Free Press Foundation (FLIP). “Violence against the press occurs with the same systematicity and permissiveness as it did in past decades, during Colombia’s darkest years.”
  • Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano (profiled by Andrés Dávila at Razón Pública), told Reuters that U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, suspended since 2015, could restart “as early as next month.” The government, he says, will meet a series of safety, environmental, and consultation conditions set by the Constitutional Court “by the end of March.” Molano’s rapid fumigation timetable is not a sure thing, as legal challenges continue. Molano repeated the Duque government’s diagnosis that drug trafficking is “the biggest threat we have.” Cases of military corruption or human rights abuse, he told Semana, are “individual and isolated.”
  • President Duque said that Colombia’s Army will soon inaugurate an elite counter-drug unit or “specialized command” meant to carry out a high-value targeting strategy against the heads of Colombia’s main drug trafficking organizations.
  • WOLA laments the February 13 death, from COVID-19 complications, of our longtime colleague Luis Fernando Arias, head of Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous Peoples (ONIC).

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: February 6, 2021

February 7, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

2021 began with a wave of massacres, and security analysts are pessimistic

A new WOLA alert details more than 30 attacks on social leaders, journalists, opposition political leaders, and communities since late December. Colombia’s security situation continues to worsen in territories that were conflictive before the 2016 FARC peace accord. The first 35 days of 2021 saw 13 massacres kill 50 people in 7 of Colombia’s departments, according to the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (PARES).

“It’s as though we’ve gone back years in a spiral of violence,” wrote PARES’s deputy director, Ariel Ávila, at El Espectador. Ávila sees three differences from the pre-accord past: more violence along the Pacific coast, a government that seems “paralyzed” with the military “closed up in its barracks,” and a fragmented flux of criminal groups changing names, appearing and disappearing. He cites a boom in coca and gold prices creating criminal incentives, and worries that violence will get much worse as Colombia’s 2022 election campaign approaches. Ávila faults the ruling party—led by Álvaro Uribe, who as president oversaw a period of security gains—for “fighting the last war,” choosing incapable defense ministers, and ideologizing the strategy.

Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) also finds a jump in prices offered for coca (counterintuitive, since cultivation remains historically high), and fragmentation of armed groups. This fragmentation, he notes, calls into question the effectiveness of “high value target” strategies that pour resources into taking out easily replaced criminal-group leaders. Garzón adds that corruption in the security forces is “a serious problem, rarely denounced, but frequently reported in areas where illegal economies are highly prevalent.” His analysis, in La Silla Vacía, also highlights the “consolidated influence” that armed groups, especially the ELN and “Segunda Marquetalia” FARC dissidents, have in Venezuelan territory.

Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses, writing for the Universidad de los Andes’ 070, join Garzón in questioning the Duque government’s insistence that attacking drug supplies—especially eradicating smallholding farmers’ coca crops—is the key to easing the larger security crisis. Colombia’s government manually eradicated and seized record amounts of coca and cocaine in 2020, yet “some of the regions hardest hit by the FARC conflict are at risk of returning to the levels of violence experienced before negotiations began in 2012. That is, they may lose the security gains generated by the peace process.” Johnson and Vélez call for more emphasis on territorial governance, especially implementing the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET) foreseen in the peace accord’s first chapter. They criticize the Duque government’s flagship territorial governance strategy, called “Zonas Futuro,” for only strengthening military presence.

Over the past week, several stories in Colombian media documented security deterioration in specific regions.

  • El Espectador profiled Los Caparros, a paramilitary-descended group whose power is rising in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia, even though its nominal leader was killed in November.
  • Just to the north of Bajo Cauca, PARES reported on the neighboring Nudo de Paramillo region, where FARC dissidents are fighting the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.
  • Further north and east, conditions are worsening in the Montes de María region, which was hard-hit by paramilitaries and guerrillas 20-plus years ago but had since become less violent, La Silla Vacía finds.
  • A massacre of four young men from Policarpa, Nariño, drew attention to bitter fighting between dissident groups, and with the ELN, near the Pan-American Highway in northern Nariño and southern Cauca.
  • In the urban core of the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura, a group that dominated most criminality, La Local, broke into two factions late last year, and now tens of thousands of residents are caught in a bloody crossfire. Other armed groups are fighting in the municipality’s vast rural zone. Numerous civil-society groups have issued an “SOS,” citing “perverse alliances between illegal armed groups and the security forces.”
  • In the far south, in Putumayo, fighting between guerrilla dissidents and paramiltary-descended criminals, compounded by forced eradication in the department’s robust coca fields, has brought a jump in attacks on social leaders.
  • In the northeast, near the Venezuela border, Norte de Santander department is in bad shape. There are two hotspots. In Catatumbo, the country’s largest coca-growing zone, the ELN is the strongest of many armed groups, with the Gulf Clan making new incursions. In the outskirts of Cúcuta—at half a million people, the largest city on the Colombia-Venezuela border—the ELN (perhaps with Venezuelan support) weakened a local paramilitary-descended group, Los Rastrojos, last year. But now the Gulf Clan is moving in, La Silla Vacía reports.

Government may make “official” the lowest existing estimate of social leader murders

On February 3 President Iván Duque announced a new “inter-sectoral table” to “unify information” about persistently frequent murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. Alarmed, critics pointed out that Duque was proposing to adopt the smallest available estimate of these killings, and that the move may be a sign of weakened checks and balances.

As several local leaders fall to assassins every week, different entities maintain varying estimates of how severe the problem is. While all are still verifying their 2020 numbers, estimates through 2019, laid out in a graphic in El Espectador’s good coverage of the “inter-sectoral table” proposal, come from:

  • The NGO Indepaz, which counted 805 murders between November 24, 2016 and the end of 2019.
  • The government’s human rights ombudsman, Defensoría del Pueblo, whose Early Warning System counted 571 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019. By July 2020, El Espectador reports, this had risen to 662.
  • The NGO Somos Defensores, which counted 465 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.
  • The government’s chief prosecutor’s office, Fiscalía, which employs statistics gathered by the Colombia field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which in turn counted 398 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.

President Duque’s new “unification” policy adopts as “official” the lowest of those estimates, the one used by the Fiscalía. Yet this figure, El Espectador points out, is artificially the lowest “because, as the UN office itself has acknowledged, they are partial reports, as it does not have sufficient presence in territory to cover all cases.”

By subsuming the human rights ombudsman’s larger number to the Fiscalía’s, President Duque’s plan would throw out about 200 cases and seek to “silence” the Defensoría, worried Leonel González, the main data-keeper at Indepaz. The move also raises concerns about separation of powers. In Colombia’s system, the Fiscalía, Defensoría, and the internal-affairs office or Procuraduría are separate branches of government, beyond the executive’s control. But President Duque has managed to place close colleagues at the head of these agencies, especially the Fiscalía and Procuraduría, calling their independence into question. Lourdes Castro of Somos Defensores voiced concern in El Espectador about “the implications for democracy of this co-optation of the control bodies by the administration.”

Two big networks of Colombian human rights organizations, the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos and the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, quickly put out a statement rejecting Duque’s move as “a serious step backward.” They criticized Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa’s claims to have “clarified” a growing percentage of this smaller universe of murders, citing “misinterpretation…of the term ‘clarification,’ understanding it as any procedural advance.” The groups called out the Fiscalía for prosecuting trigger-pullers “without reaching the intellectual authors [masterminds] of the aggressions, much less dismantling the armed structures behind them.”

Meanwhile, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Bogotá, Juliette de Rivero, rightly recalled that a focus on statistics about murders is misplaced. “It would be a mistake to believe, given what is happening in the country, that the main objective should be to agree on figures. The important thing is to prevent killings, attacks, and threats against human rights defenders and social leaders, whether it be 10, 20, or 100 cases.”

Links

  • The likely nomination of Brian Nichols, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Colombia, to be the Biden administration’s first assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs “will be good news for issues such as the protection of social leaders and the implementation of the Peace Accord,” predicts La Silla Vacía. “Not necessarily for Duque and his circle of power.”
  • Diego Molano is Colombia’s new minister of defense, replacing Carlos Holmes Trujillo, who died of COVID-19 complications on January 26. Molano headed the big-budget “Acción Social” cash-transfer program during the Álvaro Uribe government, and had been serving as Iván Duque’s chief of staff.
  • “The Elders,” a group of former presidents, UN secretaries-general, and other retired luminaries, issued a statement—put forward by Colombian ex-president Juan Manuel Santos—calling on Joe Biden to revoke the Trump administration’s last-minute addition of Cuba to its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries. The principal reason for Cuba’s addition was its refusal to extradite ELN leaders who were present in the country for peace talks, when a vicious January 2019 ELN bombing led to those talks’ end. For Cuba to turn the negotiators over to Colombia would violate the talks’ agreed protocols. U.S. pressure “may make countries more hesitant to act as facilitators in the future.”
  • The human rights NGO Temblores published a compelling report documenting recent National Police human rights abuses and the need for meaningful police reform.
  • A new paper by four noted U.S. and Colombian analysts dives deeply into “gang rule” dynamics in Medellín, with the counterintuitive finding that “state efforts to expand services, crowd out gangs, and establish a monopoly on protection could have the opposite effect, driving gangs to increase rule.”
  • Sometimes, a report at Caracol Noticias alleges, coca eradication teams “go to the fields where, according to the reports [from ‘diverse sources consulted’], they make agreements with the coca-growing communities. The owner of a plot may be told, for example, to allow them to uproot 50 bushes, and then they report having cut down three or four hectares of coca. It’s a win-win situation.” Last July, a Semana investigation made similar allegations about eradicators inflating their results.
  • With the impending exit of Roberto Pombo, the director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper El Tiempo, columnist Cecilia Orozco at El Espectador worries that “the El Tiempo-Semana-RCN media axis, in the hands of Uribismo, might guarantee the electoral triumph of a more violent and annihilating ultra-right wing than we have suffered so far.”
  • UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi will visit Colombia next week. Obtaining international support for vaccinating Venezuelan migrants will be a main topic of discussion. President Iván Duque has said in the past that Colombia won’t offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans, but appears to be walking that back a bit.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: January 30, 2021

January 31, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Transitional justice tribunal issues first indictment of FARC leadership, for kidnapping

Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.

The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.

The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.

The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)

The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.

If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.

Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibility that a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)

The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-level FARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.

From U.S. diplomats, a new tone on peace accord implementation

The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.

During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:

  • Tweets on the U.S. embassy’s account (1) (2) (3).
  • A conversation between just-confirmed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Claudia Blum.
  • Interviews in Colombian media with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.

“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:

  • On peace accord implementation: “We’ve seen some progress, but we’ve also seen some problems with implementation, including opposition from illegal groups.”
  • On social-leader killings and security: “This problem of massacres and attacks against certain groups and leaders is something that needs much more attention. …The government is fighting them [illegal armed groups], but evidently it has not set a policy to prevent the problems they cause.”
  • On aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas: “This time, the fumigation, the aerial spraying, will be the total responsibility of the Colombian government. We’re going to help them in certain aspects, but they’re going to buy the glyphosate, they’re going to control the planes, it’s not contractors, as before. So now it will be completely different.”
  • On governing party members’ meddling in the U.S. election: “If there are some frictions as a result of that, we’re going to overcome it. It wasn’t President Duque or his cabinet, but some politicians.”

U.S. returns paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo, a voracious child rapist

On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.

Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.

Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, died of COVID-19-related pneumonia on the evening of January 26. Trujillo was a leading contender to be the ruling Centro Democrático party’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election.
  • The FARC political party, recognizing that its acronym is a political liability (see kidnapping discussion above), officially changed its name to Comunes (“common people”).
  • Between January 1 and 24, the JEP counted “14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the security forces, 13 death threats against social leaders, 6 massacres, 5 assassinations of former combatants of the FARC-EP, 14 homicides of social leaders, 3 attacks and 7 armed confrontations between illegal groups.”
  • As of November, there were 1.71 million Venezuelans in Colombia (over 3% of Colombia’s population), of whom 770,246 had “regular migration status,” according to the latest situation update from UNHCR.
  • A report from the Peace Accords Matrix program at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute finds implementation of the peace accord’s ethnic provisions to be lagging. “Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun implementation.”
  • “We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living,” reads a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris from Francia Márquez, a Cauca-based Afro-Descendant environmental leader and winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
  • El Espectador hosted a worthwhile panel on implementation of the peace accord’s vital rural reform chapter, with two top officials, the lead author of a critical January report from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), a Kroc Institute expert, and an activist from Caquetá. Video here, summary here.
  • The newspaper also produced an excellent multimedia feature on women searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
  • With Panama’s border closed due to COVID-19, about 1,000 U.S.-bound migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and several African countries are stranded in makeshift tents on a beach in Necoclí, in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region, according to AFP.
  • Threats and killings—most likely by the ELN, although other armed groups are present—forced 11 town council members to flee the municipality of Argelia, in southern Cauca department.
  • The latest bimonthly Gallup poll, whose time series for some questions goes back to the late 1990s, shows growing discontent on many issues. La Silla Vacía shares the full poll as a Google Doc. Favorability ratings for the military and police have recovered a bit after scandals, though they remain low in part because of enforcement of pandemic lockdowns. Joe Biden has a 60%-11% favorable-unfavorable rating. By a 69%-24% margin, respondents see peace accord implementation as “on the wrong track.”

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia Peace Update: January 23, 2021

January 24, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

U.S. inauguration spurs reflections about the bilateral relationship

As President Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump, Colombian media speculated about how the bilateral relationship might change.

One of the most likely shifts is renewed U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which Trump, in the final weeks of the campaign, derided as “the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels.” Biden, by contrast, had counseled President Iván Duque, at a 2018 event in Bogotá, that “the peace agreement was a major breakthrough and should not be minimized or ignored.”

In the new administration’s first days, the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave remarks strongly supportive of the accord’s implementation (discussed below), and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, along with the Bogotá embassy’s Twitter account, made clear that the accord’s implementation is once again a key U.S. priority.

President Duque, whose party, the Centro Democrático, opposed the accord in 2016, did not refer to it specifically in remarks congratulating Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. He noted “the defense of democracy, the fight against transnational crime, against drug trafficking, against terrorism; of course, cooperation, comprehensive development, the commitment to renewable energies and to confront the vicissitudes of climate change and, of course, to continue strengthening investment ties.”

Much media speculation surrounds the possibility of cooling relations amid accusations that members of the Centro Democrático improperly favored Donald Trump and other Republican candidates during the U.S. campaign. “Joe Biden has spoken, after the elections, with Latin American leaders, such as those of Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, but not with Ivan Duque,” noted El Espectador.

“The interference of some Colombian political figures in the U.S. election was inappropriate and not very strategic, and has left its mark especially among members of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority,” Michael Camilleri, a State Department official during the Obama administration, told the paper. Added WOLA’s Adam Isacson at Caracol, “the bilateral relationship will remain just as close, but relations between the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático are not going to be the best.”

Opposition Senator Antonio Sanguino called for the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, who was accused by his cousin, former President Juan Manuel Santos, of improperly favoring Trump. The Ambassador attended Biden’s January 20 inauguration ceremony.

Biden’s arrival “opens space for citizen diplomacy,” said much-cited conflict analyst Luis Eduardo Celis, adding, “we must prepare the messages and mechanisms to tell the new President of the United States that there is a peace to be built in Colombia.” Letters asking for more explicit U.S. support for peace accord implementation came from the Defendamos la Paz coalition, and from 110 Afro-Descendant, indigenous, campesino, and victims’ organizations.

UN Security Council meets to discuss peace implementation

The Security Council met virtually on January 21 for a quarterly review of Colombia’s peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission, which produced its most recent report at the end of December.

“2021 is year five of the 15-year timeframe envisioned for the implementation of the entirety of the Peace Agreement,” said the UN Special Representative in charge of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu. “It is incumbent to ensure 2021 is remembered as the year in which bold steps were taken to bring to fruition the full promise of sustainable peace enshrined in the Agreement.”

The UN mission director said his office has been warning repeatedly about budget shortfalls in the Colombian government agency charged with providing physical protection to threatened social leaders and former FARC combatants. “More than 550 vacancies for bodyguards remain and over 1,000 requests for close protection are still pending review” at the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit, he said. These numbers far exceed results presented by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Blum, who highlighted “more than 200 schemes to protect former combatants” in 2020, along with 24 sentences handed down for killing ex-combatants, 40 cases under investigation, and 48 arrest warrants issued.

The Security Council should find it “intolerable that more than 250 ex-combatants—signatories to the Peace Accord—have been killed since its signing,” said Norway’s UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who called for strengthening the National Protection Unit and three bodies created by the peace accord: the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the Special Investigative Unit of the Fiscalía, and the Comprehensive Program of Safeguards for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders.

Even during the Trump administration, U.S. representatives at Security Council meetings tended to give statements generally supportive of Colombia’s peace process. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador, was explicitly supportive, signaling an early change in tone with the arrival of the Biden administration. “What can often be often lost, I think, in the specifics of our discussions in this topic is the magnitude of the peace agreement, and the profound impact it has already had on Colombian society,” Mills began. He went on to voice strong concern about attacks on social leaders and ex-combatants, urging Colombia’s government to increase its presence in rural areas and to punish those responsible.

Ambassador Mills also voiced support for Colombia’s “truly innovative” transitional justice system, a topic on which U.S. diplomats have generally avoided comment. In 2019, the U.S. ambassador at the time even supported President Duque’s unsuccessful efforts to weaken this system.

Community leaders threatened in El Salado, a town that suffered an emblematic massacre

The village of El Salado, in El Cármen de Bolívar municipality, in the once-conflictive Montes de María region a few hours’ drive from Cartagena, is known throughout Colombia for the massacre and displacement its residents suffered at the hands of paramilitaries between February 16 to 21, 2000. About 450 AUC members killed 60 people amid days of uninterrupted torture and rape, while the security forces failed to respond.

The name “El Salado” evokes the worst moments of Colombia’s armed conflict. Those memories revived this week as 11 community leaders received a written death threat. A flyer circulated by the so-called “Black Eagles” on January 18 reads, “The people who appear on this list, whose pictures or names are here, leave, or we will come for you at any time.” El Salado social leaders have also received text messages reading, “Either you leave or you die. We know where you are,” “this is how we started 21 years ago,” and “we already know where every family member lives.”

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) responded by sending a delegation to El Salado, led by Vice-Ombudsman Luis Andrés Fajardo. 2019 and 2020 “early warning” reports from the Defensoría point to a growing presence of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization, which moves cocaine through the Montes de María en route to the Caribbean coast. The National Police stated that it was sending an elite team along with representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía).

The name “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras) frequently appears on death threats sent to human rights defenders and social leaders around the country. But the group does not seem to have visible leadership or hold any territory. “The Black Eagles don’t exist,” said Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. “These are people, surely not among those wanted by the law, who use the ‘Black Eagles’ emblem to threaten. The authorities, led by the Fiscalía, must determine the threats’ origin. The problem is that this is never investigated.”

Links

  • As the FARC political party begins an “extraordinary assembly” meeting that some key leaders are skipping, leader Rodrigo Londoño declared an intention to abandon the name “FARC,” in order to ease formation of coalitions and to distinguish the group from armed dissidents. Fundación Paz y Reconciliación analyst Ariel Ávila told El Tiempo that a name change “would help the Farc party to get off the list of terrorist organizations.”
  • Two prominent Colombians are hospitalized with severe cases of COVID-19: Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Luis Fernando Arias, leader of the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC).
  • The Inter-American Human Rights Commission ordered precautionary measures for Ricardo Calderón, an intrepid investigative journalist who, during his longtime tenure at Semana magazine, revealed several major corruption and human rights scandals in Colombia’s armed forces, particularly in military intelligence. Calderón is one of many reporters who left Semana after a recent management change, but he continues to receive threats.
  • Judicial proceedings have begun for Bogotá police accused of killing civilians during a violent citywide police response to anti-police brutality protests last September, in which police killed 13 people over two days. Defense lawyers are seeking to have officers John Antonio Gutiérrez, José Andrés Lasso, and Andrés Díaz Mercado tried in the military justice system instead of the regular criminal justice system, arguing that their role in four of the killings was an “act of service.”
  • El Espectador took brief looks at the activities in southeastern Colombia of Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) criminal group, and at those of Mexican organized crime throughout the country.
  • Vorágine looks at the grim human rights and security situation in southern Chocó’s San Juan River valley, a major narcotrafficking corridor with very little government presence beyond sporadic sweeps from security forces and coca eradicators.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: January 16, 2021

January 18, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Trump administration, citing the ELN talks’ outcome, puts Cuba on the U.S. terrorist sponsors list

On January 11, with nine days left to the Trump presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government was once again designating Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” alongside North Korea, Syria, and Iran. President Barack Obama’s administration had removed Cuba from this “terrorist list” in 2015.

The measure carries penalties, like bans on assistance and arms sales, that already apply to Cuba through other laws. The Biden administration can remove Cuba, American University’s William LeoGrande explains, by submitting “a presidential report and certification to Congress, which then has 45 days to reject the certification before it goes into effect.”

The main pretext cited for re-listing Cuba involves Colombia. In May 2018 Colombia’s government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host ELN-government peace talks. At the talks’ April 2016 outset, all involved—including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These made clear that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was skeptical about peace talks.

In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police Cadets’ School, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government rejected the protocols: it demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves demand to leave Cuba as detailed in the protocols.

Critics of the State Department decision pointed out that Havana is being punished for assisting a peace process and obeying its rules. “They felt they were doing what they were asked to do, then being accused of being terrorists themselves,” said a source whom The Washington Post described as “a former senior U.S. official familiar with Latin American policy.”

Condemnation came from many quarters, including WOLA.

  • “Efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable,” read a letter from nine Democratic senators, led by incoming Appropriations Committee Chairperson Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont.)
  • “I am outraged,” said the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York).
  • “If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts,” read a statement from the government of Norway.
  • The Colombian government’s two lead negotiators during the FARC peace process warned “that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments.”
  • On the other side, legislators from Colombia’s ruling rightist Centro Democrático party signed a letter calling on President Duque to consider breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba. And Colombia’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, tweeted that “The Government of Colombia will be forceful against diplomats who attempt to act and interfere within the country.”

Presidency peace and stabilization official reports results, responds to critics

The Colombian Presidency official who oversees most peace accord implementation, Emilio Archila, told El Espectador that he doesn’t know why critics accuse his government of focusing too exclusively on certain aspects of the accord, like the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). “A very small part of it,” he surmised, “is that it is in the political opposition’s interest that we arrive at [the election year of] 2022 with the idea that not enough is being done, and perhaps the opposition has done better than me.”

Archila had choice words for Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco, who upon the release of HRW’s annual worldwide report said that “in Colombia you turn over a stone and a sicario comes out,” while accusing the government of “a fundamentally military response” to human rights problems. “This is an insulting statement regarding Colombia,” the presidency official replied.

In interviews and in the release of monthly results reports, Archila pointed to a Defense Ministry “intelligence bubble” to follow up on risks and threats against ex-combatants “which has saved the lives of several.” Presidency documents cite 1,134 mostly small development projects delivered in the PDETs’ 170 municipalities (counties). Archila rejected criticism that delivery of these projects has not been as consultative as the accords envisioned. To criticisms that the projects have been too small to bring fundamental change in rural Colombia, he responded that larger projects, like tertiary roads, are coming but take longer.

FARC party spokesman Pastor Alape Lascarro told El Espectador that the PDETs “are not responding to the expectations of the communities, carrying out works that are not within the framework established in the Peace Agreement.” He questioned the long-term sustainability of economic projects offered to ex-combatants, while recalling that 253 of 13,185 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the accords’ signature.

Environmental defender Gonzalo Cardona is assassinated

On January 11 the Fundación ProAves, which seeks to protect birds and other wildlife in Colombia, announced the murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, coordinator of a ProAves preserve in Tolima department that provides refuge for the endangered yellow-eared parrot. ProAves had reported Cardona missing on January 8, and confirmed a few days later that he had been killed.

Cardona was a founding member of the environmental group , working in Roncesvalles municipality in west-central Tolima since 1998 to save a bird species whose population in Colombia’s central cordillera, by then, had fallen to 81. His work there during some of the conflict’s most intense years placed him in periodic danger, as rural Tolima was a key battleground between the FARC and government forces. But it made a difference: a late 2020 census counted 2,895 yellow-eared parrots in the preserve.

Cardona’s likely killers are not known. “It is outrageous that the second most biodiverse country on the planet continues to lose its great defenders to violence,” read a statement from Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute.

In more dismaying news, Francisco Javier Vera, an 11-year-old environmental activist in Cundinamarca, received a grisly threat of death and torture this week in a comment posted to his Twitter account.

Links

  • Sign up for Con Líderes Hay Paz, WOLA’s new digital advocacy campaign in support of Colombia’s threatened Afro-descendant and indigenous social leaders and human rights defenders.
  • Iván Márquez, the FARC leader who headed the guerrillas’ negotiating team in Havana then rearmed in 2019, released a video endorsing the idea of a recall vote to remove President Duque. At the request of Colombia’s National Police, Twitter shut down Márquez’s account, and that of his longtime dissident collaborator Jesús Santrich. YouTube followed suit. National Security Advisor Rafael Guarín tweeted that Márquez will be “taken down” like Pablo Escobar.
  • The Duque government is inexplicably removing the Interior Ministry security detail for Iván Velásquez, the former auxiliary magistrate who suffered extensive illegal surveillance while investigating the “para-politics” scandal, then went on to head Guatemala’s CICIG anti-corruption body.
  • The restart of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing regions, which was likely to begin in the first months of 2021, may be delayed for weeks or months further. A judge in Nariño accepted an injunction (tutela) filed by Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, alleging that required prior consultations have been insufficient.
  • El Espectador produced worthwhile sets of infographics about the reintegration of ex-combatants and implementation of the PDETs.
  • Sixteen women were killed in Colombia during the first thirteen days of 2021, a sharp rise in the rate of femicides.
  • President Duque reiterated his government’s refusal to offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans in Colombia, saying it would cause “a stampede.”
  • At War on the Rocks, Andrew Ivey explores “integral action” as a direction for the Colombian military’s post-conflict role. While we don’t share his conclusion that the military should play eminently civilian roles like carrying out development projects, Ivey presents detailed information about the evolution of the armed forces’ thinking.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: January 9, 2021

January 9, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.

U.S. Congress passes 2021 foreign aid bill

On December 27 Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s budget for 2021, including the foreign aid appropriation (see “Division K” here). As in nearly all of the past 30 years, that bill makes Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The law appropriates $461,375,000 in State Department and USAID-managed aid for Colombia this year, about $30-40 million more than the past few years’ laws and about $50 million more than the Trump White House had requested in February.

The proportions between programs and priorities are similar to prior years. Our best estimate (derived here) is that 47% of the $461 million will go to economic and civilian institution-building aid programs; 18% will go to strictly military and police aid programs; and 34% will go to programs, mainly counter-drug programs, that can pay for either type of aid but for which we don’t have a breakdown.

In addition to the $461 million in the foreign aid bill, a significant but unknown amount of military and police aid will come from the Defense Department’s $700 billion-plus budget. In 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service, Defense accounts contributed another $55.39 million or more to benefit Colombia’s security forces.

As in previous years, the law includes human rights conditions holding up about $7.7 million in military aid until the State Department can certify to Congress that Colombia is holding gross human rights violators accountable, preventing attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society leaders, protecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, and holding accountable senior military officers responsible for “false positive” killings.

After some very concerning military intelligence scandals in 2020, the law includes a new condition on the $7.7 million: the State Department must also certify that Colombia is holding accountable those responsible for “illegal surveillance of political opponents, government officials, journalists, and human rights defenders, including through the use of assets provided by the United States.”

Killings of former FARC combatants accelerate

The UN Verification Mission’s latest quarterly report, dated December 29, voices strong concerns about “248 killings of former combatants (six women), including 21 during the reporting period (two women, three of indigenous origin and two Afro-Colombians) and a total of 73 during 2020.”

The problem is worsening. Five demobilized FARC combatants were murdered over a 12-day post-Christmas period.

  • Rosa Amalia Mendoza Trujillo and her infant daughter were among several victims of a December 27 massacre in Montecristo, Bolívar.
  • Manuel Alonso, killed on December 27 on the road between Florida, Valle del Cauca, and Miranda, Cauca.
  • Yolanda Zabala Mazo, killed on January 1, together with her sister, on January 1 in Briceño, Antioquia.
  • Duván Armed Galíndez, shot on January 2 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
  • Diego Yule Rivera, who had been displaced from Caloto, Cauca after receiving threats, was shot in Cali on January 7.

This, according to the FARC political party, brings the number of assassinated ex-combatants to 252 since the peace accord went into effect.

The chief prosecutor’s office’s (Fiscalía’s) Special Investigative Unit has managed 289 cases of killings and other attacks on ex-combatants, the UN report informs. Of these, the Unit has achieved convictions of responsible parties in 34 cases, while 20 cases are on trial, 38 are under investigation, and an additional 49 have arrest warrants issued.

The report notes that conditions are most perilous for ex-combatants in the zone surrounding the triple border between Meta, Caquetá, and Guaviare departments in south-central Colombia. This area, once the rearguard of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, is now under the strong influence of the largest FARC dissident organization, the 1st and 7th Front structure under alias “Gentil Duarte.”

Coca eradication hits record level as a restart of fumigation nears

In an end-of-year security declaration, President Duque announced that Colombia, with U.S. backing, had met its 2020 goal of eradicating 130,000 hectares of coca. This is a manual eradication record, the first time Colombia has exceeded 100,000 hectares and an area “roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles” according to AFP. The 130,000-hectare goal will remain in place, Duque added, for 2021.

(Any discussion of eradication statistics must mention mid-2020 allegations from former officials and contractors, who contend that eradication teams may have inflated their results by as much as 30 percent.)

Duque added that Colombian forces had seized 498 tons of cocaine in 2020, which would shatter the 2017 record of 434.7 tons.

We probably won’t find out how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2020 until the U.S. government and UN Office on Drugs and Crime release their estimates in mid-2021. In the meantime, the Colombian government continues to move closer to relaunching a program, suspended in 2015 for health concerns, that would eradicate coca by spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft.

On December 19 and 20 Colombia’s environmental authority (ANLA) held a virtual public hearing on one of the main requirements that must be fulfilled to relaunch fumigation: the National Police’s application to modify its environmental management plan to allow aerial glyphosate spraying. This hearing was delayed for months, as communities in remote areas with poor internet service objected to holding a “virtual” consultation due to pandemic restrictions.

At the hearing, National Police Gen. Julio Cesar González presented a summary of the force’s proposed modifications to the environmental management plan (available here as a large trove of Google documents). “We’re going to go to areas that are already deteriorated, so we don’t expect to affect them further. This is based on technology, and aerial spraying will focus on large plots.” The General insisted that the spray program’s technology has advanced over what it was before, allowing greater accuracy over the area to be sprayed and the amount of herbicide to be applied. More than 60% of the spray mixture will be conditioned water, glyphosate will be 33% (less than some commercially available mixtures), and the rest will be a mineral coadjuvant.

Diego Trujillo, the delegate for agricultural and environmental issues at Colombia’s inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría), voiced concerns about the proposed renewal of spraying. He argued that it runs counter to the peace accord’s commitments, and relies on purchases of Chinese-produced glyphosate that, according to El Espectador’s summary, “led in 2015 to an investigation into corruption in the this herbicide’s acquisition, which was was not recommended by health and environmental authorities.”

Mauricio Albarracín of the legal NGO DeJusticia objected to the process, citing a lack of prior and informed participation of possibly affected communities who were being asked to consider an environmental management plan “that consists of more than 3,000 pages, contains language that is not accessible to the possibly affected population, and suffers a lack of transparency in information.” Albarracín added that information about harms and risks is “insufficient, poorly structured and biased,” and that the spraying plan fails to meet the obligation to implement the 2016 peace accord in good faith. (The accord sets aside aerial spraying as a last resort, when coca growers who have been offered help with alternatives persist in growing the crop, and when conditions on the ground are too dangerous for manual eradication.)

María Alejandra Vélez, director of the University of the Andes’ CESED (Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), argued that fumigation is not cost-effective and could carry unacceptable health and environmental risks. Vélez, an economist, found fault with the police proposal’s methods and quality of information.

Following the hearing, the daily El Espectador published a tough editorial titled “insisting on the useless.”

Presidency officials are investing their time complying with the requirements imposed by the Constitutional Court to resume an ineffective and insufficient activity that destroys ties with communities in the most affected areas. One would think that after decades of failure, the political consensus in Colombia would show signs of reflective capacity. But this is not the case. The useless is presented as the magical solution.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s homicide rate fell 4.6% in 2020 to a rate of 23.79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest level since 1974. However, the country suffered a jump in massacres—killings of three or more people at a time—with 89, claiming 345 victims.
  • President Iván Duque said that his government has no intention of providing COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “Of course they won’t get it,” he told Blu Radio. “Imagine what we would live through. We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”
  • La Silla Vacía wades through the Fiscalía’s record on bringing social leaders’ killers to justice, and finds 30 percent of cases have reached the indictment stage but only 7 percent have concluded with a conviction. Meanwhile, WOLA published a second alert, just before Christmas, about threats to social leaders, a week after warning of a large number of urgent situations. And on January 1 Gerardo León, a community leader in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, became the first murdered Colombian social leader of 2021.
  • Colombia expelled two Russian diplomats, accusing them of espionage. The Putin government followed suit, expelling two diplomats from Colombia’s Moscow embassy.
  • As of December 22, Joe Biden still hadn’t given a call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his post-election congratulations. If a call has taken place since, the Colombian government hasn’t announced it. Governing-party officials’ meddling in the U.S. campaign is the most likely explanation for the presidential ghosting.
  • Colombia has a new National Police chief. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, an officer with an intelligence background and the son-in-law of 1990s chief Gen. Rosso José Serrano, replaces Gen. Óscar Atehortúa, whose tenure was marked by protests against brutality and allegations of corruption. An El Espectador editorial urges the new chief to carry out badly needed reforms to the force.
  • Hernán Giraldo, a former top paramilitary leader from northern Colombia whose name is synonymous with systematic rape of young girls, is being extradited back to Colombia nearly 13 years after being sent to the United States to serve a sentence for another crime, drug trafficking.
  • Retired military officers are becoming more politically active. La Silla Vacía reports on a late October meeting at which former soldiers and police agreed to form a political party to run candidates in 2022 national elections, in order to counter what they see as “a radical left.” Meanwhile retired Gen. Jaime Ruiz, president of Colombia’s hardline association of former officers (ACORE), shared with El Nuevo Siglo his view that, largely because of the FARC peace accord, “2020 was not a good year for the security forces.”
  • December 31 was the deadline the government set for the FARC to hand over all illegally obtained assets, as mandated by the peace accord. The ex-guerrillas appear to have fallen short on turning over land and property, but claim that they face security and legal obstacles to doing so. El Espectador explains the “ABC” of the controversy.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: Week of December 13, 2020

December 20, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Consultation puts a restart of fumigation on the front burner

On December 19 Colombia’s environmental authority, the ANLA, is holding a long-awaited public hearing about resuming coca fumigation. The term refers to a U.S.-backed program that uses aircraft spraying the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca. The hearing is a step toward ANLA’s deciding whether to award the controversial program an environmental license, one of several prerequisites that Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set for its restart.

Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years and over 1.8 million hectares sprayed, following a World Health Organization literature review’s finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Since then, the government was slow to implement an alternative—whether on-the-ground eradication or building state presence and services in coca-growing zones—and coca cultivation surged.

The December 19 public hearing centers on the 4,000-page modification that the National Police—which runs the spray program—is proposing to the ANLA’s environmental management plan for the spraying. The hearing responds to a March request from four NGOs, Acción Técnica Social, Elementa, Viso Mutop, y Dejusticia. The pandemic has delayed it: courts ruled that communities in remote areas far from internet access could not be consulted “virtually.” A higher court overruled that in October, however, finding that virtual consultations could go ahead.

The groups that called for the hearing contend that the spray program is risky and ineffective. DeJusticia’s co-founder, Rodrigo Uprimny, notes, “The argument against fumigation is simple: it is not effective, it has serious negative effects, its legal viability is precarious, and there are better strategies.” María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs (CESED) contends that fumigation causes “a loss of state legitimacy,” a “balloon effect” as coca cultivation moves elsewhere, and conflict with the peace accords’ offer of help with crop substitution.

Should this process lead to a restart of spraying, we can expect Colombian organizations—including those that called for the December 19 hearing—to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. An analysis from DeJusticia advocates finds “poor transparency and access to information in the process, weak evidence, and failure to comply with constitutional orders,” while little is known about the health study that Colombia’s equivalent of the CDC (the INS) has been required to carry out. A joint letter from numerous Colombian organizations found that “the government is not complying with the legal and constitutional mandate to respect consultation and free, prior, and informed consent in eradication plans in ethnic territories,” and demanded that the December 19 hearing be suspended.

Coca fumigation has been the subject of numerous WOLA reports and commentaries, a November 30 joint letter with Colombian partners, and an event we co-hosted on December 9.

International warnings about massacres and social leader killings

“I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence,” reads a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that counts 375 people murdered in 2020 by massacres and targeted social leader killings. A summary of the statement was featured for at least two days this week on the main page of the United Nations’ website. During the past week, strong concerns about massacres (defined as the killing of multiple people at a time) and social leader murders also came from:

  • The 29th semi-annual report of OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA), drawing attention to “illegal armed groups’ territorial and social control.”
  • A Verdad Abierta resource that allows a reader to view brief biographical and geographical information about 602 social leaders killed between January 2016 and September 2020, selecting for year, region, and stage of judicial investigation.
  • WOLA’s monthly alert about the human rights situation, which “cannot stress enough that international actions are required to stop the human rights rollbacks occurring as a result of the inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace accord.”

Two reports warn about security along the Colombia-Venezuela border

Two high-credibility security think tanks released reports raising alarms about worsening security conditions at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Even as pandemic measures stop all legal border crossings, violent organized crime activity has increased, in a way that mixes dangerously with the neighboring governments’ poor diplomatic relations.

“In the 24 border municipalities of Colombia, during 2020, 472 people have been assassinated, 63 of Venezuelan nationality; 24 have been massacred; 1,365 persons have been forcibly displaced and 13 have been kidnapped,” reports the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación in a 55-page report on The Situation of Security and Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela Border. “On the Venezuelan side,” however, the Foundation could obtain “no known figures that would allow us to specify” how bad the situation is.

“Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings,” reports the International Crisis Group’s Disorder on the Border: Keeping the Peace between Colombia and Venezuela. “High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.”

Both reports find the Rastrojos, a paramilitary-derived organized crime group, losing ground to the ELN along the border between Norte de Santander, Colombia and Táchira, Colombia: a more densely populated part of the border especially coveted by smugglers. The Rastrojos were found to have helped Venezuelan Assembly President (recognized by several dozen countries as Interim President) Juan Guaidó to cross overland into Colombia in February 2019. Since then, Venezuela’s security forces have cracked down on the group, along with the ELN, which moved quickly to fill the vacuum and to consolidate its dominance on the Venezuelan side on the border.

The Venezuelan government appears to have aided and abetted the ELN, the Crisis Group notes, as Caracas officials “view the ELN as a supplement to the state’s border defenses and seem willing to overlook occasional clashes between its fighters and the Venezuelan military.”

Other groups, like FARC dissidents, remnants of the EPL guerrillas, Venezuelan gang networks, and Mexican cartel middlemen, are also very active, adding to the chaos. “The Colombian army, for its part, is under orders not to rock the boat” in order to minimize the likelihood of conflict, the ICG finds.

Links

  • The Fiscalía is investigating 2,314 cases of “false positive” cases involving 10,949 members of the Army, including 22 generals, involving 3,966 victims, according to a September document that the prosecutor’s office sent to the International Criminal Court.
  • Despite the sharp rise in massacres and social leader killings, Colombia’s 2020 homicide rate to date is 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents, which Colombia’s Police say is the lowest in 46 years.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses take issue with government claims that nearly all 250 killings of ex-FARC guerrillas are related to narcotrafficking.
  • “Of the 75 municipalities with the most coca or substitution leader killings…there were specialized judges in only 3 (Puerto Asís, Tumaco, and Cúcuta) and criminal judges in 6. There were judicial police in 11 and specialized prosecutors in 7,” reads a La Silla Vacía analysis of the justice system’s absence.
  • Prominent center-left columnists Ramiro Bejarano, María Jimena Duzán, and Cecilia Orozco continued to question former Fiscal General Néstor Humberto Martínez, whom they accuse of plotting with the U.S. DEA to entrap participants and supporters of the peace process between 2017 and 2019.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: Week of December 6, 2020

December 12, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fumigation is coming

Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, told the Blu Radio network that a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation might restart in as little as “between a month and a half and two months.”

Five years ago, citing health concerns, the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos suspended this program, which used aircraft to spray the controversial herbicide glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015. The current government of Iván Duque is working to restart the program, with U.S. funding and exhortations from Donald Trump: “you’re going to have to spray.”

That requires meeting a series of requirements laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, among them consultations with communities and studies of environmental and health impact. The consultations had been slowed by the pandemic: a court in Nariño found that “virtual” exchanges were impossible with communities in remote areas far from internet coverage. That decision, though, was reversed by an October higher-court ruling. Now, 17 consultations are ongoing, and the environmental licensing authority, ANLA, will hold a final national consultation beginning on December 19.

Though Minister Ruiz’s maximum-two-months is on the fast end of estimates we have heard for when fumigation might restart, it is not implausible.

At a December 9 event WOLA hosted with five experts from around Colombia, speakers warned about potential damage that a renewed aerial glyphosate spraying might cause: to human health, to the environment, to indigenous cultures, and to nearby crops needed for food security. Speakers warned that a fumigation program would be costly, would cause forced displacement, and, under most circumstances, would violate the peace accords’ fourth chapter. They warned that a renewed fumigation program could inspire a wave of protest in coca-growing zones, especially if carried out under current conditions of insufficient prior consultation and few opportunities to receive crop substitution assistance.

FARC dissident activity around the country

Concerning reports from around the country point to increasing activity of FARC dissident groups. These are armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who rejected the peace accord in 2016, ex-guerrillas who demobilized but later rearmed, and new recruits. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación’s (PARES) latest report on the country’s security situation estimates that about 30 such groups, totaling perhaps 2,600 members, are active in 113 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). It places them in three categories:

  • Those networked under the 1st and 7th Front structure headed by Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who refused to demobilize in 2016. PARES estimates that 65% of dissidents are in this network.
  • The “Nueva Marquetalia” network headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks but rearmed in 2019.
  • Smaller, “dispersed” groups, often headed by very young people.

After Iván Márquez and several other top ex-FARC leaders launched their “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group in August 2019, Gentil Duarte’s larger dissident network appeared to rebuff their outreach. Now, “Police say there is a war to the death in the areas [the two dissident networks] aspire to control, such as Putumayo, Nariño, Catatumbo, and Cauca,” according to a December 10 story in El Espectador, which relies heavily on National Police information.

That story warns that Nueva Marquetalia is moving into the heartland of Gentil Duarte’s group, seeking to traffic cocaine along the Guaviare River between Meta and Guaviare. A December 7 half-ton cocaine seizure in Puerto Concordia, Meta, may indicate that Iván Márquez may have sent a powerful emissary to do this: Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” who twenty years ago was one of the most feared FARC members because he pioneered ransom kidnappings along main roads out of Bogotá. Much of the cocaine produced in Meta and Guaviare goes through Arauca into Venezuela, then by air or boat to Central America and Mexico, or on to Europe.

To the west of Puerto Concordia, in La Macarena, Meta, dissidents are believed to be behind the murder of Javier Francisco Parra, the director of Cormacarena, the Colombian government’s regional environmental body. Parra was known as a defender of Caño Cristales, a tourist destination famous for its uniquely colored algae. The site’s accessibility was widely hailed as a tangible benefit of the peace accord.

Another feared member of the Nueva Marquetalia, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa”—who headed the FARC’s brutal, elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Column—was dispatched to Putumayo. There, he made an alliance with that department’s most powerful regional organized crime group, called “La Constru” or occasionally “La Mafia Sinaloa,” and with remnants of the FARC’s 48th front. All are fighting the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group, which is aligned with Gentil Duarte, for control of Putumayo’s lucrative trafficking routes through Ecuador and out to the Pacific, and down the Caquetá river into Brazil and on to Europe.

Colombian press reports from the past week also find a worsening humanitarian situation in Nariño’s Pacific coastal region. In the busy port of Tumaco, “where, curiously, there are hundreds of Mexicans these days,” Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador about the wave of violence that followed the September collapse of a two-year truce between two local dissident groups, the Frente Óliver Sinisterra and the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico.

Several hours north and inland from Tumaco, in the violent Telembí Triangle region, La Silla Vacía reports on fighting between the Óliver Sinisterra, the Gentil Duarte-tied 30th Front, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, for control of the Patía River’s trafficking routes. Violence broke out six months ago, during the pandemic, and has been worsening ever since. Further north along the coast, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA alerted about combat between dissidents and other groups causing mass displacements in Iscuandé, Nariño.

In all of these reports, a common theme is the near-total absence of Colombia’s state. Usually, the only government presence is military—and in places like coastal Nariño, there is only so much even a corruption-free armed forces could do. In La Silla Vacía, the general heading the local armed forces task force “recognizes that the Patía River is too extensive and connects with a maze of smaller rivers that are impossible for the security forces to control in their entirety.”

Links

  • Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his first overseas trip as chairman will be to Afro-descendant regions of Colombia , a country he knows well (and, some contend, controversially).
  • Colombia’s Senate approved a round of 19 military promotions, including those of Army Generals Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo and Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sánchez, who commanded units during the 2000s alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings.
  • Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian from Caucasia, in northeastern Antioquia’s convulsed Bajo Cauca region. Verdad Abierta also focused on the Bajo Cauca region, publishing a threepart series, with some striking photos, about armed group activity and social leaders’ precarious situation.
  • At a virtual hearing of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, representatives of Colombia’s Truth Commission denounced obstacles that the government has placed in the way of their work, such as security forces’ refusal to turn over requested documents. Colombian government representatives declined even to participate in the hearing.
  • A UNDP-PRIO-Universidad de los Andes poll of 12,000 residents of the 170 post-conflict “PDET” municipalities found reduced overall perceptions of armed-group control, and 80% support for programs that reintegrate former FARC combatants.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: Week of November 29, 2020

December 5, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission calls for changes

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, an independent, bipartisan entity established by a 2017 law, published a report based on a year and a half of work on December 1, and discussed its findings at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on December 3. Its Colombia recommendations call for some breaks with how the United States has engaged for decades on drug supply control.

The Commission began work in mid-2019, charged with evaluating U.S. counternarcotics programs in the Americas and recommending improvements. Its chair, Shannon O’Neil, is an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; other commissioners included a former commander of U.S. Southern Command; a former ambassador to Brazil; two former Republican and one former Democratic members of Congress; and two Colombian-American former Obama administration officials, Dan Restrepo and Juan González, who frequently represented the Biden campaign in 2020 appearances before Colombian media.

The report flatly declares that “while Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure.” It calls for a more nuanced, long-term, and cooperative approach.

The Commission backs implementing the peace accord’s first chapter, on rural reform, praising its Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) which “if carried out…would be unprecedented.” It endorses building tertiary roads, land titling, and financial inclusion.

It calls for a Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control license, an exception to “terrorist list” prohibitions that would allow U.S. programs finally to support development and reintegration projects involving FARC ex-combatants.

It recommends relegating forced coca eradication to a lower priority. “Sending workers and security forces into remote areas to eliminate small plots of coca is a wasteful and ultimately fruitless effort.”

The commission calls for protecting local social leaders, with specific mention of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and women’s leaders.

President Duque criticized the Commission’s findings, insisting that Plan Colombia brought coca cultivation down from 188,000 hectares in 2000 to 60,000 in 2014. He did not address why these gains were so quickly reversed later in ungoverned territories.

Defense bill requires report on misuse of military intelligence aid

The U.S. Congress is poised to pass the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the 1,000-plus-page law governing the Department of Defense. The House-Senate committee that resolved differences in both chambers’ version of the law included, in its narrative report, a requirement that the Defense Department inform about Colombian military intelligence bodies’ misuse of assistance to spy on reporters, legislators, human rights defenders and other civilians. Explosive revelations of such spying rocked Colombia in January and May.

The House version of the bill had required an extensive report about these human rights scandals. The Republican-majority Senate’s bill did not. Though the reporting requirement was relegated to narrative report language, the Defense Department still has 120 days from the NDAA’s passage to furnish an unclassified report describing credible allegations of misused aid since 2016, steps the Department took in response, and steps the Colombian government has taken to hold those responsible accountable, and to avoid future misuse.

Colonel’s resignation highlights Army’s internal divisions

El Tiempo’s November 30 edition revealed that, on September 22, a prominent Army colonel had sent President Duque a strongly worded resignation letter.

“I have absolutely lost confidence in the institutional High Command, headed by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro, commander of the National Army, which, without a shadow of a doubt, not only prevents me from continuing under his orders but also goes against my Christian principles and values such as loyalty, fidelity and transparency,” reads the missive from Col. Pedro Javier Rojas, who since 2011 has directed the Army’s Doctrine Center.

In this position, Rojas played a central role in rethinking the Army’s doctrine for a post-conflict mission set. The “Damascus Doctrine” (a Biblical reference to truth being revealed) was central to Colombia’s Partnership and Cooperation Program with NATO. It encourages a more professional army to work jointly and to prepare for more complex threats. Its development was a top priority of Gen. Alberto Mejía, who headed the armed forces durign the latter part of Juan Manuel Santos’s administration, coinciding with the signing and early implementation of the FARC peace accord.

Col. Rojas alleges that Gen. Zapateiro, the current army commander, is doing away with the Damascus Doctrine, erasing references to it. Zapateiro’s defenders, including the hardline association of retired officers ACORE, contend that the doctrine remains the same but is being rebranded to eliminate associations with Gen. Mejía and ex-president Santos, who are unpopular with the Army’s right wing.

Col. Rojas told El Tiempo that the problem goes deeper: “There is a clear internal leadership crisis. We have 25 fewer generals than we should have, and officers from other ranks have also left.”

“What is clear,” notes El Espectador, “is that this situation shows that there are considerable differences within the high commands of the National Army.”

How land theft was legalized

“If land in Colombia were a cake cut into ten pieces, one person would control nine of the pieces,” begins a series of videos featured by the “Rutas del Conflicto” project of Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. The four-chapter presentation, “How They Took Our Land,” explains how Colombia’s remarkably unequal land concentration worsened in recent years. While paramilitary groups played a brutal role, the videos show graphically, with thorough documentation, that mass land theft from campesinos also depended on unscrupulous government officials, military officers, and prominent businessmen.

The video series, produced by lawyer Yamile Salinas of the INDEPAZ think tank, names names. It shows how this model of mass land theft was piloted with the military-paramilitary campaign of massacres and forced displacement in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region in the 1990s. It goes on to show how the model was perfected in the Montes de María region of Colombia’s Caribbean during the early 2000s, in the oilfields of eastern Meta in the late 2000s, and more recently in the massive deforestation currently taking place in the ancestral lands of the Nukak people in Guaviare.

“We wanted to show how this displacement and dispossession runs throughout the whole country,” Salinas told El Espectador. “The model is being perfected, and it is moving through several territories involving all actors: the guerrillas, the ‘paras’, public servants, and big companies.”

Links

  • An Army report submitted to the Truth Commission contends that the institution did not collaborate widely with paramilitary groups during the conflict, omitting mention of many emblematic cases.
  • The pandemic has been the largest of many obstacles faced by the Truth Commission, which must finish work in November 2021, Santiago Torrado writes at Spain’s El País.
  • Leyner Palacios, an Afro-descendant social leader and survivor of the 2002 massacre in Bojayá, Chocó, is the 2020 winner of the National Human Rights “defender of the year” Prize given by the Church of Sweden and the Swedish development organization Diakonia. The “lifetime achievement” prize went to another well-known Chocó Afro-descendant leader, Marino Córdoba of AFRODES.
  • La Liga Contra el Silencio reports on increasing paramilitary activity in Santa Marta, Magdalena, once a stronghold of the AUC blocs headed by “Jorge 40” and Hernán Giraldo. Further west along the Caribbean coast, El Espectador reports on rising paramilitary activity in the Montes de María.
  • Perhaps because members of Colombia’s governing party campaigned improperly for Republican candidates in the United States, President-Elect Joe Biden hasn’t yet made a pro forma phone call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his congratulations, La Silla Vacía reports.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: Week of November 22, 2020

November 28, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fourth anniversary of the FARC peace accord

On November 24, 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño signed a revised peace accord at a ceremony in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón. Four years later, analysts tend to note an intensification of violence in the past year or two, especially compared to the immediate pre- and post-conflict period. Most find Colombia’s armed conflict fragmenting into a collection of regional conflicts with different dynamics. Some contend that the government has not adapted to this new reality.

Here are some analyses published to coincide with the fourth anniversary:

  • An infographic from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz counts 65% more armed-group actions (318) in the fourth year after accord than it counted in the last year before the accord (192). The ELN, in first place, slightly exceeds dissidents’ activity.
  • “The question beginning to be asked is whether the window of opportunity opened by the accord has closed and we are in the midst of a new cycle of political-military violence, or whether we are just going through a difficult patch in a transition to peace,” notes Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.
  • CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds a slight increase in conflict-related violence so far in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
  • Sergio Jaramillo, the Santos government’s high commissioner for peace during the FARC dialogues, praised some aspects of the Duque government’s accord implementation, but voiced concern about rising violence in “post-conflict” territories.
  • El Espectador published a timeline widget highlighting major peace and conflict events over the past four years.
  • Oft-cited political scientist Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín talked about his new book warning of “A New Cycle of War in Colombia.”
  • “The country has improved a lot in many political and social areas, but there has been a huge deterioration of security in the last two years. We’ve had over 70 massacres and a rise in killings and illegal economies in various areas,” Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación told Al Jazeera.
  • “Strengthening the state’s presence in conflict-affected areas is a work in progress, which needs to be accelerated,” wrote former European Union Special Envoy Eamon Gilmore.

JEP hearing on ex-FARC protections

On November 25 the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) held an 8-hour hearing about threats and killings of demobilized guerrillas. The day before—the 2016 peace accords’ fourth anniversary—Paula Osorio, whose body was found in Yuto, Chocó, became the 243rd former FARC member to be murdered.

Just over 13,000 FARC members demobilized in 2017. At the current rate of one killing every five days, 1,600 ex-combatants will be dead by the end of 2024, said the director of the JEP’s Investigation and Accusations Unit (UIA), Giovanni Álvarez.

The JEP had ordered the government to take “precautionary measures” to protect former FARC members among its defendants. If they are killed or intimidated from testifying, ex-combatants will neither be able to clarify their crimes nor provide restitution to victims.

Álvarez summarized a JEP report about attacks on ex-combatants. Nearly all victims were rank-and-file guerrillas: only 10 of the dead had leadership positions. All but six were men. All of the killings have been concentrated in 17 percent of the country’s 1,100 municipalities.

Martha Janeth Mancera, the acting vice-prosecutor general, testified that as of November 11 the Fiscalía had “clarified”—identified the likely killers—in 108 of 225 cases (48%) it had taken on. She said that of these 108 cases, 44% were likely carried out by FARC dissident groups, 11% by the ELN, 10% by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, and 6% by other criminal structures. Mancera did not specify the likely killers of the other 29 percent.

The dissident groups, Álvarez pointed out, should not be considered as a monolithic bloc. There are two main networks—Gentil Duarte’s group active in 155 municipalities and Iván Márquez’s “Segunda Marquetalia” active in 44—plus “openly narcotized and lumpenized” groups active in 38 municipalities.

The acting vice-prosecutor said that to date, the body had managed to bring 33 cases of ex-combatant killers to sentencing. She blamed the lack of greater progress on a lack of specialized judges “so that we can manage to advance.” She added that the Fiscalía had identified likely masterminds, rather than just “trigger-pullers,” in 52 cases of ex-combatant killings, attempts, threats, or disappearances.

She added that, when ex-combatants receive threats, the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit has been too slow to respond. “We send the alert to the National Protection Unit, but, it must be said calmly, this process is very slow. The most agile thing is to report to the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), which carries out the relocation of the ex-combatant.” In some cases, she added “we’ve had to send more than 10 official requests in which we say that this is an extreme risk case.”

Somos Defensores report

Somos Defensores is a non-governmental organization that documents attacks and killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. It takes care to verify cases, and its numbers are usually similar to those kept by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The group’s latest report, covering the third quarter of 2020, hasn’t yet been posted to its website, but summaries appear at El Espectador and Verdad Abierta. They indicate that:

  • 40 human rights defenders were killed, in 15 departments of Colombia, between July and September.
  • The number of murders stood at 135 by the end of September. Somos Defensores’ tally surpassed its figure for all of 2019, 124, in August.
  • Counting all types of aggression for which a responsible party can be alleged, neo-paramilitary groups are believed responsible for 54 attacks, FARC dissidents for 20, the ELN for 11, and the security forces for 8.

The organization noted that it may be undercounting, as the pandemic has made it difficult to verify killings in the remote territories where they often happen.

Links

  • Human Rights Watch asked Colombia’s Senate not to promote Army Generals Marcos Evangelista Pinto and Edgar Alberto Rodríguez, who commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings in the 2000s.
  • HRW also released a report on March prison protests, just as the COVID-19 lockdowns began, that led to the killing of 24 prisoners in Bogota’s La Modelo jail. According to coroners’ reports, the wounds on the prisoners’ bodies indicated that prison guards were shooting to kill.
  • Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said that forces have eradicated 111,131 hectares of coca so far in 2020, on track for the government’s goal of 130,000 hectares by year’s end.
  • On November 24, the fourth anniversary of the final peace accord, a FARC party senator for the first time presided over a meeting of Colombia’s Senate: Griselda Lobo Silva, once the romantic partner of deceased maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, is the Senate’s second vice-president during the chamber’s 2020-21 session.
  • A November government decree allows lands seized under Colombia’s asset forfeiture laws to be handed over to ex-combatants for approved productive projects. Transferring land to former guerrillas who sought to become farmers was a question the peace accord had omitted.
  • A La Silla Vacía investigation finds 7,491 complaints of police abuse or brutality since 2016, not one of which has even reached the indictment phase.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez, of the recently founded Conflict Responses think tank, map out the FARC dissident group phenomenon around the country.
  • The New York Times published a feature about the arduous journey of Venezuelans leaving Colombia because the pandemic dried up economic opportunities. Once they find that Venezuela is “in free fall,” many are going back to Colombia.
  • The U.S. Air Force sent two giant B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Colombia for “Brother’s Shield,” a Colombian Air-Force-led exercise. The planes, which ceased production in 1962, also participated in the annual regional UNITAS naval exercise, hosted this year by Ecuador.
  • The government’s High Counselor for Stabilization issued a statement reminding the FARC that it has until December 31 to turn over all promised illegally acquired assets.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update documents 28 cases and developments of concern since mid-September.
  • The Bogotá daily El Espectador ran a wide-ranging interview with WOLA’s Adam Isacson.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: Week of November 15, 2020

November 21, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Four ex-FARC members killed in a week

Four demobilized FARC combatants were assassinated this week, bringing the total of murdered ex-guerrillas to 242 since the peace accord’s December 2016 ratification. Of those, 50 happened during the first nine months of 2020, according to the UN Verification Mission.

The latest victims are:

  • Heiner Cuesta Mena alias Yilson Menas, shot November 14 in Neguá, Quibdó, Chocó.
  • Jorge Riaño, shot November 15 in Florencia, Caquetá. Riaño had left the FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in Montañita, Cauca, to raise fish and chickens with his wife and young daughter.
  • Enod López, shot on November 15 along with his wife Nerie Penna, a Conservative party municipal council representative and community leader in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. The department’s police commander blamed the “Carolina Ramírez” FARC dissident group, part of the 1st Front structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.”
  • Bryan Steven Montes alias Jairo López, shot November 19 in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo.

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino responded to Montes’s killing by calling on the government “to stop simulating the peace accord’s implementation and to implement it comprehensively.” In an article published on November 16, InsightCrime described a very precarious security situation in eight of the twenty-four former ETCRs.

At the end of October, over 200 former FARC combatants carried out a “Pilgrimage for Life and Peace” march to Bogotá to call for better protections. Twelve of the march’s leaders met on November 6 with President Iván Duque at the presidential palace.

Security Forces kill top “paramilitary” and capture a FARC dissident; a second dissident is killed in Venezuela

A November 16 army-police operation killed Emiliano Alcides Osorio Macea, alias “Caín” or “Pilatos,” the head of the “Caparros” neo-paramilitary group. “Caín” reportedly died in combat as forces raided a ranch in Tarazá, in northeastern Antioquia’s violent Bajo Cauca region.

Osorio, a longtime paramilitary who demobilized from the AUC’s Antioquia-based Mineros Bloc in 2006, was what the authorities consider a “high value target.” With over 400 estimated members, the Caparros, also known as the Caparrapos or the Virgilio Peralta Arena Bloc, is one of the larger single-region armed groups active in Colombia. It split off in early 2017 from the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization and, possibly in tandem with the ELN and FARC dissidents, has been violently disputing control of the Bajo Cauca region and neighboring southern Córdoba. It is believed responsible for several killings of local social leaders. It is doubtful that the death of Caín will reduce violence in this territory, which sees much coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.

Another mid-level commander, in this case of the dissident group headed by former chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, was killed in Venezuela this week. Venezuelan forces killed Olivio Iván Merchán, alias “Loco Iván,” under unclear circumstances in Venezuela’s Bolívar state. Merchán was a FARC member for more than 30 years, part of the military command (estado mayor) of the powerful Eastern Bloc. He demobilized in 2017. He joined Iván Márquez’s “Nuevo Marquetalia” dissident group when it formed in 2019.

Researcher Miguel Ángel Morffe told El Espectador that Venezuelan forces either killed “Loco Iván” by mistake, or that they did it at the bidding of his fellow dissidents who wanted him dead for some reason. Morffe saw little possibility that Venezuelan forces did so out of a desire to keep order.

Meanwhile in rural La Macarena, Meta, an Army-Fiscalía team wounded and captured Rolan Arnulfo Torres Huertas, alias Álvaro Boyaco, whom the government identified as the “finance chief” for Gentil Duarte, who heads what is probably the largest national FARC dissident group.

Military questioned for misogynistic chants

Adriana Villegas, a columnist for the La Patria newspaper in Manizales, Caldas, lives across the street from the base of the Colombian Army’s Ayacucho Battalion. Soldiers on training drills routinely run past her house, chanting cadence rhymes.

On October 18, Villegas wrote a column about the content of some of those rhymes, which alarmed her and her daughter. We won’t reproduce them here; they included some vivid imagery about committing violence against girlfriends, mothers, mothers-in-law, and women related to their enemies.

Villegas’s cause got taken up by a local feminist group and the president of the Caldas legislature, who called on the Army to apologize. It did not: it issued a statement maintaining that the misogynistic cadences were not part of training or doctrine. The Battalion’s commander called Villegas for more information, a conversation during which, she noted, he kept calling her “doctorcita” and insisted that the misogynistic rhymes were “an isolated case.”

Colombia’s Free Press Federation (FLIP) got involved after Villegas received citations from the Battalion calling on her to their base to give a statement. While this may be part of the Battalion’s internal investigation, Villegas said she found the formal requests intimidating.

“I regret that the Army is wasting this opportunity to recognize a problem and, instead, is assuming an attitude of denial,” Villegas wrote in her November 15 column.

Other links

  • Hurricane Iota passed over the Colombian Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés y Providencia as a Category 5 storm. On Providencia, El Tiempo reports, “There is no house that hasn’t suffered damage. And the majority are destroyed.”
  • A Guardian longread by Mariana Palau, about the “False Positives” scandal and former Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, is a nuanced portrait of 21st century Colombia.
  • In an El Espectador blog post, an unnamed scholar who spent months accompanying military personnel at Colombia’s Superior War College is struck by officers’ frustration with forced coca eradication, which “turns the campesinos into enemies.”
  • Colombia’s Senate passed a bill extending for another 10 years the “sunset date” for Colombia’s 2011 Victims’ Law, which was to expire in 2021. It goes to President Duque’s desk for signature.
  • Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación visited an encampment of FARC dissidents in Cauca, and published an overview in El Espectador of these violent groups, dividing them into three coalitions or categories.

Tags: Weekly update

Colombia peace update: Week of November 8, 2020

November 14, 2020

WOLA had a good experience this fall producing weekly updates, on a pilot basis, about U.S. border security and migration. Between now and the end of the year, we’re carrying out a similar pilot for Colombia, producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Revelations about Santrich case point to entrapment

The Bogotá daily El Espectador reported on November 8 that 24,000 audios from the Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) pointed to “an entrapment operation against guerrilla negotiators,” with a possible political motive against the FARC peace accord.

The revelations surround the case of Seuxis Pausías Hernández alias “Jesús Santrich,” a top FARC ideologist. The nearly blind Santrich was close to Luciano Marín alias “Iván Márquez,” the politically radical top leader who led the guerrilla group’s negotiating team during the 2012-16 peace talks. Santrich was a vocal member of that team.

  • In April 2018, just before he was to be sworn in as one of the FARC’s five members of Colombia’s House of Representatives, Santrich was arrested for conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. Video showed him in a meeting with purported Mexican narcotraffickers.
  • The meeting was arranged by Márquez’s nephew, Marlon Marín, who was not a FARC member and was under investigation for improprieties in peace accord implementation contracts.
  • At the Mexicans’ insistence, Marín drew Santrich into a scheme to ship cocaine to the United States, bringing him into the meeting recorded on video.
  • The narcotraffickers were, in fact, DEA personnel. The U.S. government requested Santrich’s extradition, and brought Marlon Marín to the United States, where he is now a protected witness.
  • A year later, in May 2019, after failing to get compelling evidence out of the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) or the U.S. Department of Justice, the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) ordered Santrich’s release. The decision led an infuriated chief prosecutor Néstor Humberto Martínez to resign.
  • Santrich was then sworn into Congress, but disappeared shortly afterward. He and Iván Márquez turned up again in late August 2019, in a video announcing that they and other former FARC leaders had rearmed.

The episode dealt the FARC peace process its severest blow. Now, the El Espectador revelations cast doubt on the extent to which Santrich was involved in the fake drug deal. This appears to be a case of entrapment, involving the DEA and former prosecutor-general Martínez, who had bitterly opposed the peace accord’s transitional justice provisions.

The Fiscalía’s 24,000 audio clips are mainly Marlon Marín’s intercepted communications. In the weeks leading up to Santrich’s arrest, the newspaper notes, “the calls between the ‘Mexicans’ and Marín were many and extensive, and in almost all of them the fundamental characteristic was the former’s insistence on putting Marín on the phone with the former chief peace negotiator of the Farc, Iván Márquez.” They failed to do that, but Marín did get them a brief meeting with Santrich.

The revelations have the Fiscalía under a cloud. “There remains the feeling that the Fiscalía did everything possible to sabotage the reputation and actions of the JEP,” contends an El Espectador editorial. “It is regrettable to find that there was ‘friendly fire’ with something as delicate as the treatment of former Farc combatants.” At a November 11 press conference, the JEP’s new director, Eduardo Cifuentes, said that the Fiscalía had shared very little evidence from the Santrich case with his tribunal, turning over only 12 audios and keeping the remaining 24,000 secret.

As for the former chief prosecutor, Néstor Humberto Martínez: President Iván Duque’s government has just named him to be its next ambassador to Spain.

US Senate reveals its draft 2021 aid bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill on November 10. The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. The House of Representatives passed its version of the aid bill in July.

As our latest table of aid to Colombia shows, the two chambers’ foreseen amounts don’t differ widely. The House would appropriate $458 million, and the Senate $456 million. (Another $55-60 million or so would come through the Defense budget.)

Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate a bit less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total. It also contrasts with the Trump administration’s aid request, which would have slashed economic aid in a $413 million aid package.

Like the House bill, the Senate attaches human rights conditions to a portion of Foreign Military Financing aid, and specifies that some support go to the Truth Commission and the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (but not the JEP).

The Senate appropriators’ bill also requires the State Department to produce a report about Colombian government actions to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for illegal military intelligence spying on civilians.

Here are links to the Senate bill and explanatory report, and to the House bill (see Division A) and explanatory report.

Links

  • Rodrigo Pardo (who has since joined the parade of journalists abandoning Semana magazine, where this appears) writes that Colombia can expect more U.S. engagement on the peace accord once Joe Biden is inaugurated.
  • La Silla Vacía believes Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, former vice-president Fransicso Santos, is staying in his post. This despite allegations by his cousin, ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, that the ambassador actively sought to help the Trump campaign.
  • “The proliferation of coca cultivations in southwestern Colombia undermines black and indigenous struggles for autonomy,” writes Lehman College’s Anthony Dest (formerly of WOLA’s Colombia program) in an article based on fieldwork in Cauca.
  • The FARC admitted on November 3 that it had twice tried to kill former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras. The right-of-center politician responded in a column that he wants to know the full truth about what happened, and that the JEP should be allowed to work to do that.

Tags: Weekly update

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process: Week of September 30-October 6

October 13, 2018

Prosecutor’s Office Raids Transitional Justice System Headquarters

On the afternoon of October 4 agents of Colombia’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía, which investigates and prosecutes crimes in the regular criminal justice system) showed up at the offices of the new, separate transitional justice system created by the peace accords (Special Peace Jurisdiction or JEP, which investigates and prosecutes war crimes committed during the armed conflict). The agents, sent by the Fiscalía, demanded to be allowed to carry out a “judicial inspection” of the files in the new justice system’s first and largest case so far, numbered “case 001”: charges of mass kidnapping against 31 FARC leaders.

This action, which appeared to be a blatant interference in the new justice system’s workings, generated expressions of outrage against Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez, a frequent critic of the JEP and other aspects of the FARC peace accord. Though Martínez quickly rescinded the order and called back the agents, JEP President Patricia Linares declared, “the Prosecutor’s Office obtained a digital copy of the casefile, due to the hasty manner in which the procedure was carried out.”

Linares “strongly and emphatically reject[ed]” what she called “the Fiscalía’s undue interference with the autonomy and judicial independence” of the JEP, adding that it was “openly violative of the judicial reserve that covers the investigations carried out by JEP judges.”

The UN Verification Mission and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia issued a joint declaration following the incident:

The rights of victims and the legal security of participants in the armed conflict depend on strict respect of all public powers for the independence and autonomy of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. We underline the importance that collaboration between jurisdictions be harmonious and fully respectful of their respective competences.

What Colombian media called a “train crash” between the old and new judicial bodies could have consequences for the peace process. It appeared to be a political move seeking to intimidate the JEP and demonstrate the Fiscalía’s relative power. It may have increased former FARC leaders’ fear of being arrested in a similar future show of political power, which risks causing more of them to abandon the process, either going into hiding or taking up arms again.

Missing FARC Leaders Send a Harshly Worded Letter

Two of the most prominent leaders who have already gone clandestine surfaced in a letter sent to the Peace Committee of Colombia’s Congress. Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator during the Havana peace talks, and Óscar Montero alias “El Paisa,” once head of a powerful FARC mobile column, have been missing since June or July. Their letter, the first communication from them in months, had some very harsh words for a process they view as failing.

“The peace accord has been betrayed,” reads the letter, which laments having agreed to turn in weapons before reaching more specific agreement on the terms of ex-combatants’ reintegration. The letter outlines what, in the missing leaders’ view, are three “structural flaws” in the November 2016 accord.

First, they cite “judicial insecurity,” believing themselves vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and possible extradition. They allege that this is what happened to Jesús Santrich, a guerrilla negotiator close to Márquez who was arrested in April and faces an extradition request to the United States on charges of conspiring to transship cocaine. The two ex-guerrilla leaders write that these charges are a “judicial setup hatched by the Attorney General, the U.S. Ambassador, and the DEA.” Writing in La Silla Vacía, analyst Héctor Riveros notes that regardless of the truth behind the Santrich case, the “judicial insecurity” argument has served “hundreds of ex-guerrillas” as a pretext for exiting the process and joining armed dissident groups.

The second “flaw” noted in the letter are the changes made to the accord after it was narrowly rejected in an October 2016 plebiscite, which in their words “transfigured the Havana Accord into a horrific Frankenstein.” Third, they cite the Colombian Congress’s failure to pass all the legislation needed to implement the accord, especially reforms to the political system and the failure to create special temporary congressional districts to represent victims’ groups.

The FARC political party held a press conference in the Congress, with its legislators rejecting the arguments in Márquez and Montero’s letter. “They’re totally wrong,” said FARC Senator Carlos Antonio Lozada.

“I could hardly go and say that there are no conditions or guarantees while I’m sitting in the Senate press room leading a press conference. What we’re saying is that the process has difficulties, the implementation has not been consistent on the part of the state, but there are some spaces that have been won, we value them and they are very important to achieve progress in the implementation of the peace accords.”

Lozada called on the missing leaders to “understand” that the ex-guerrilla party has adopted a supportive but critical position on the accord’s implementation, and that they “reconsider their position.”

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero told the Blu Radio network that “the police have intelligence reports” about Márquez and Montero’s current location. While refusing to reveal anything on the radio, Botero acknowledged that both are in Colombia.

US Ambassador Pushes for Santrich Extradition

The Jesús Santrich case remains a big test for Colombia’s new transitional justice system. The former guerrilla negotiator remains in prison awaiting a decision from the JEP about whether he may be extradited to face charges in a New York federal court of conspiring to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States in 2017, after the peace accord was ratified.

“Extradition is a very strong tool for Colombia, for the United States, for the victims and for the peace agreement,” U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker said this week. “Jesus Santrich is accused in a United States Court of having violated U.S. law, that is why we are seeking his extradition and we will continue in that.” The ambassador added, “Any person or institution that can stop the extraditions affects the interests of the United States, affects the interests of Colombia and of all those who long for peace.”

The FARC insists that Santrich, a FARC ideologist who has poor eyesight and little apparent prior involvement in the guerrillas’ narcotrafficking, is innocent. They doubt the evidence made public so far, which appears to show Santrich offering approval to a plan, hatched by a nephew of Iván Márquez, to send coca to Mexican narcotraffickers who are, in fact, DEA agents or informants.

Farc Senator Victoria Sandino said, “It’s been more than six months since they captured Jesus Santrich, with the argument that U.S. justice has the evidence,” but “the Prosecutor-General’s office then goes out and says it does not have it. And now the Embassy persists in the extradition. What we say is show the evidence and present it to the JEP. And Santrich’s legal defense demands freedom, because no evidence has been shown.”

Sandino is referring to this chain of events:

  • When another country requests the extradition of an individual facing trial in the JEP, the peace accord requires the JEP to determine whether the alleged crime took place before or after the December 2016 ratification of the FARC peace accord—the official end of the conflict. If the crime happened before that date, then extradition would be blocked.
  • This procedure left unclear whether the JEP was merely to perform the clerical task of certifying the date of the alleged crime, or whether it was also empowered to decide whether there was enough evidence to back up the allegation.
  • Colombia’s Constitutional Court settled this question in August, when it determined that the JEP does have the ability to evaluate the evidence backing an allegation.
  • On September 18, the JEP asked the Fiscalía to turn over all the evidence in its possession about the Santrich case.
  • On September 27, the Fiscalía sent a letter to the JEP stating that it had turned over everything it its Santrich file. La Silla Vacía commentator Héctor Riveros characterized this as “the ‘bureaucratic file,’ that is, some letters and little else.”
  • On October 1, the Fiscalía announced via Twitter that it had sent 12 more audio files to the JEP. But it also surprisingly announced that it “does not have audio or video evidence. …The elements being requested now are those that form part of a judicial process in the United States.” That the proof against Santrich is not available in Colombia drew much attention in Colombian media.
  • According to Riveros, the Chief Prosecutor then tried to do some damage control: “Prosecutor Néstor Humberto Martínez, aware of the seriousness of Santrich’s detention, invited the directors of the most influential media in the country to his office to show part of the evidence on the basis of which the former negotiator’s arrest was ordered. They were short videos and some photos that, although they did not reveal anything, hinted that Santrich may have been literally caught ‘with his hands in the cookie jar.’”

“If everything keeps going like this,” Riveros wrote, “that Jurisdiction [JEP] can not say anything other than that there is no proof that Santrich has committed crimes after the accord’s signing.”

New Security Council Report

The UN Verification Mission in Colombia issued its latest quarterly Secretary General’s report to the Security Council on the demobilization and reintegration process. It covers July 21 to September 26. Some of its key findings:

  • As of August 30, approximately 13,000 demobilized FARC members had been accredited by Colombia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, and 12,773 of them had been provided with their accreditation, an increase of 150 since July. It’s hard to notify some of these ex-guerrillas of their accreditation because of their “increased dispersal.”
  • On August 10 the FARC gave the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace a list of about 1,000 additional former members, who were not on the “final” list of August 15, 2017, the date the FARC officially disarmed. Most of the new names, the Secretary-General’s report notes, “come from areas affected by continuing security challenges and where the integration of the individuals into the process could be beneficial. As such, I hope that this matter will be treated by the new Government as a priority.”
  • As of late August, 232 accredited ex-guerrillas were still in prison, even though the accord calls for amnesty for their crime of sedition, and then for their future appearance before the JEP for more serious crimes.
  • The UN Mission reiterated concerns about “the departures of several former FARC-EP commanders from the territorial areas for training and reintegration in the south-eastern region. Some of them have cited concerns about their physical and legal security as a motivating factor.” Ominously it adds, “this development has underlined the continued fragility of the peace process, owing in particular to the persistence of violence in the zones of conflict linked mainly to criminal groups.”
  • The Mission’s chief, UN diplomat Jean Arnault, said that about 4,000 ex-FARC members remain in the “territorial areas,” or demobilization sites, or their immediate vicinity. (Ex-guerrillas have been free to leave these sites since August 15, 2017.) More than 2,000 have moved to “several dozen new regrouping points and thousands are dispersed throughout all of the country, including in the main cities.”
  • “The process of economic reintegration is clearly lagging behind other dimensions of reintegration,” the report states. “[T]he fundamental goal of providing income-generating opportunities to some 14,000 former combatants is far from being realized, as illustrated by the fact that only 17 projects have been approved, of which only 2 are currently funded.” Former FARC members are carrying out dozens of productive projects, informally, on their own. Many could succeed, the UN report contends, “if provided with better access to technical and marketing advice, land and overall support from the Government, local authorities and the private sector, among others.”
  • Nine former FARC members were killed during the 90-day period, making a total of 71. The Fiscalía’s Special Investigation Unit, set up by the peace accord to investigate these killings, notes that three-quarters of these killings took place in five departments: Nariño (16), Antioquia (15), Cauca (12), Caquetá (8), and Norte de Santander (7). The UN report notes further, “In 34 cases, the Unit reported significant progress in its investigations, with 17 instigators or perpetrators arrested. Of these, 15 cases involved dissident groups, 7 involved private individuals, 6 were attributed to ELN, 4 cases were attributed to the Clan del Golfo criminal group, 1 involved local criminal organization and 1 case remains under investigation. According to the Investigation Unit, the principal motives behind the attacks are related to territorial control (21 cases) and revenge (3 cases).”
  • Even without direct negotiations, the UN report states that “continued direct communication between the Government and ELN is welcome.” The report finds that renewed peace talks are certainly possible: “The Government has made it clear that it expects a cessation of all violence; the ELN, for its part, has stated that it aims to bring about substantive change based on a broad social dialogue. The two goals are not incompatible.”

FIP Report Finds Deteriorating Security Conditions

The Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), a Bogotá-based think-tank founded by members of the business community, released an extensive report on October 3 about deteriorating security guarantees for practicing peaceful politics in post-conflict Colombia. “From a feeling of tranquility and expectation for the returns that the implementation of what was agreed with the FARC would bring,” the report reads, post-conflict regions “have passed into distrust and fear for the reactivation of violence.” It zooms in on four conflictive regions: Arauca, Catatumbo, Cauca, and southern Bolívar.

Among the report’s findings:

  • In the 170 municipalities (counties, of which Colombia has about 1,100) that Colombia has prioritized for post-conflict Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDETs), homicides increased 28 percent in January-July 2018, compared to the same period in 2017.
  • In these municipalities, forced displacement tripled, from 5,248 people to 16,997.
  • In these municipalities, crimes against social leaders also nearly tripled, from 24 to 67.
  • Throughout the country, 93 social leaders were killed between January and August, compared to 50 during the same period in 2017.

In the four regions it looked at, the FIP found common patterns:

  • an unstable confluence of armed actors;
  • a reactivation of social conflicts;
  • vulnerability of social leaders;
  • delays in the implementation of the peace accord;
  • weaknesses in ex-combatants’ reincorporation process; and
  • difficulties in implementing security guarantees at the local level.

The FIP calls for urgent measures to prevent further deterioration of post-conflict zones’ security situation. “Under these conditions, the implementation of the peace accord is at a critical moment. We still have time to prevent and contain the manifestations of violence and intimidation in the territories affected by the presence of illegal armed groups and armed confrontation.”

Kidnapping of Mayor’s Son, Age Five, in Catatumbo

Two armed, motorcycle-mounted men kidnapped the five-year-old son of the mayor of El Carmen, a municipality in the violence-torn region of Catatumbo, in Norte de Santander department near the Venezuelan border. The mayor, Edwin Contreras, is part of a political dynasty in the 2,000-person municipality; his uncle had held the post before him. “Since he became mayor, he has received strong intimidations,” reports El Espectador.

The Catatumbo region, with 11 municipalities and a population of about 300,000, has suffered frequent fighting between the ELN and a local guerrilla group, the EPL, since March. The two groups previously had cordial relations, but the departure of the FARC from part of the zone, and a sharp rise in coca cultivation, undid the local power equilibrium. Violence has since shuttered schools at times and displaced thousands.

While the kidnappers’ identity is unknown, speculation points to the ELN. “In this municipality, even a needle can’t move without the ELN knowing about it,” local residents who asked to remain unnamed told El Espectador. “We’re so exposed that on any given day they can kidnap the mayor’s son,” the municipal ombudsman said. “There is no Army here. There is a police presence, but they can’t do their job. They can’t go out. We’ve reiterated this issue in all official security meetings. We are abandoned to our fate.”

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Extradition, Transitional Justice, U.S. Policy, UN, Weekly update