The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.
Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.
In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.
November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.
The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.
For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.
Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.
It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.
That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.
10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost. 2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate. 3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021. 4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011. 5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits. 6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.” 7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020. 8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups. 9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women. 10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.
In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”
The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.
The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.
Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.
Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.
The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.
WOLA’s Adam Isacson had a conversation this week about peace and security in Colombia with Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador. That newspaper posted an edited transcript of the interview to its site on the evening of November 26. Here’s a quick English translation.
“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson
For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.
Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.
The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.
Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?
They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.
Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?
If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.
You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.
Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.
WOLA has been following the peace process.
As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.
And with regard to crop substitution…
It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.
Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?
The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.
How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?
We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.
The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.
Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?
Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.
I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.
Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?
I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.
Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.
Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?
For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.
In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?
Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.
The following April 23, 2020 statement is cross-posted from wola.org. We are alarmed that Colombia is not only going ahead full-throttle with manual eradication operations in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but that eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.
Washington, D.C.—On Wednesday, April 22, in an Indigenous community in southwest Colombia, public security forces killed one person and injured three others who were peacefully protesting a police operation to manually eradicate coca plants. Members of the police eradication team fired into a group of Awa Indigenous people, who were attempting to talk to them about why Indigenous authorities hadn’t been consulted about the planned eradication, as required by law. The death is the second related to manual coca eradication operations since Colombia went into national quarantine in late March.
Even while imposing a strict national quarantine, the Colombian government has launched more intense and aggressive coca eradication operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These operations, which often require the deployment of public security forces without appropriate protective equipment, have sparked long-standing tensions in six Colombian departments. In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 due to the deployment of eradication forces, the aggressive eradication campaign has ignored key elements of the historic 2016 peace accord.
In the operation that led to the death of one Indigenous community member and three wounded in southwest Colombia, the government had failed to consult with the community prior to the operation. Additionally, in many of the other municipalities targeted in the last month, the Colombian government has systematically failed to deliver payments and other productive project support for crop substitution programs as laid out by Chapter 4 of the peace accords.
The Duque administration’s push to intensify coca eradication has largely responded to an aggressive pressure campaign from the Trump administration. Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.
Beside increasing coca eradication operations during the nationwide lockdown, Colombia has seen no slowdown in the pace of attacks and threats against social leaders, including those who are advocating for implementation of the peace agreement’s illicit crops chapter. On April 22 alone, three people at a local community council in southwest Nariño department were killed by dissident fighters from the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group; another social leader, who formed part of the leftist Marcha Patriótica political movement, was killed in Cauca department; and two more were killed elsewhere in Cauca. Various Afro-Colombian communities in Cauca and Chocó department have also expressed concern about eradication operations and threats by armed groups in their area. According to Colombian think tank Indepaz, at least 71 social leaders were killed during the first three months of 2020; at least another dozen have been killed since Colombia’s national quarantine began.
The Colombian government needs to rigorously and promptly investigate the killings of social leaders, securing convictions for those who carried out and those who ordered the crime. Additionally, instead of a drug policy that emphasizes forced eradication of coca, the Colombian government should uphold its commitments in the 2016 peace agreement and promote rural land reform, sustainable development, and the establishment of state presence in coca cultivation areas. Finally, given the number of leaders from farmers’ association the National Agrarian Coordinator (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) and the Marcha Patriótica who have faced violent attacks and threats, all armed actors—including FARC dissident groups and government forces—should avoid involving civilians in armed conflict.
Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.
We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings.
Colombia and FARC to Make Crucial Announcement on Peace Process
Washington, D.C.—At about 5:00pm today in Havana, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC guerrilla group leader Timoleón Jiménez are expected to announce an agreement on transitional justice, the most difficult item on their negotiating agenda.
The leaders may also announce a date for the signing of a final peace accord. The end of a 51-year-old armed conflict is now in sight.
The items that remain to be negotiated are not easy. The negotiators still must define what “disarmament” means, how fighters are to be demobilized, how to turn accords into law, and how to guarantee a ceasefire while all of that happens. But these issues will likely turn out to be less contentious than what is agreed today: a judicial framework to clear up the worst human rights crimes committed during the conflict, and probably to punish those responsible.
While we don’t know yet what is in this Transitional Justice accord, WOLA hopes that it includes real accountability for individuals on both sides who committed war crimes. Some basic human norms were violated, and even if the punishment is less severe than the crime, it is important that perpetrators face consequences. Nobody, meanwhile, should enjoy pardons or lighter sentences without first confessing fully to his or her crimes and making amends to his or her victims.
A final accord may come soon. The U.S. government and the international community will have to move quickly to help Colombia during the fragile post-accord phase. For Washington, that will mean an increase in assistance to Colombia, which has been slowly cut back nearly every year since 2007. As officials planning the U.S. foreign aid budget prepare their 2017 request, which gets sent to Congress in February, it is essential that they plan for a big increase for Colombia. It is essential that the post-conflict package guarantees restitution and support for the rights of Colombia’s diverse victims-Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, rural farmers, women and the displaced.
CERAC, a Colombian think-tank that monitors conflict events, reported this week that the past two months have been the most peaceful that Colombia has lived since 1975. A peace accord will bring uncertainty and new challenges as Colombia struggles to implement it. But for now, let’s enjoy today’s breakthrough and share in the hope that these gains might be permanent.