WOLA’s latest urgent update about abuses related to Colombia’s national strike, as well as the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
Ex-president Uribe proposes an amnesty
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the country’s most vocal opponent of the 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group, met at one of his ranches on August 15 with the president of the Truth Commission created by that accord, Fr. Francisco de Roux, along with two other commissioners. Uribe, who faces questions about human rights abuses committed during his time as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997) and president (2002-2008), spoke at great length during the meeting, with little pushback from the commissioners.
The ex-president surprised many by calling for an amnesty for human rights and other crimes committed during the armed conflict. “Perhaps this country will need a general amnesty, almost a clean slate,” he told Fr. de Roux. This would appear to contradict one of Uribe’s many criticisms of the peace accord: that, in his view, it confers “impunity” on ex-guerrillas who (along with military personnel) will receive light sentences if they make full confessions and reparations.
On August 26 Uribe presented a draft amnesty law to legislators of his Centro Democrático party, a bill “to overcome judicial asymmetries and asymmetries in access to government employment.” Under the proposal, those accused of conflict-related crimes would receive a full amnesty if they ask forgiveness, recognize what they did “or, failing that, contribute to the truth, without this implying self-incrimination.”
Members of the military would be released from prison and allowed to hold office. A new chamber of the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) would be set up to judge military personnel separately. Anyone who in the past has investigated, denounced, or made public statements about these military human rights crimes would be disqualified from serving as a judge in that chamber.
Uribe’s proposal makes no distinction between commanders and subordinates involved in past crimes. He would not amnesty people accused of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, or public corruption.” The current list of non-amnistiable crimes that must go before the JEP, however, is longer and more specific: “War crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, child recruitment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, genocide, hostage taking or other serious deprivation of liberty, torture, enforced disappearance, child abduction, and forced displacement.”
“Let’s not talk about general amnesty, let’s talk about amnesty as a strong word to generate a national debate and look for a solution,” Uribe said last week. A national debate is very much underway, as the ex-president’s proposal has generated strong reactions.
“People can’t be ‘washing their faces’ with total amnesties, this will not happen as long as I am prosecutor, I will not allow this to go forward,” said the prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, who is close to President Iván Duque, who in turn is a member of Uribe’s party.
The lead government negotiators in the 2012-16 talks that led to the FARC peace accord issued a 12-point document rejecting Uribe’s proposal. Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo argue that it “would undermine the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for serious violations, and victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.” They recalled having to explain to the FARC negotiators in Havana, “in January 2015, one of the most difficult moments in almost five years of negotiations,” that Colombia’s international commitments (the 2002 Rome Statute, the Inter-American human rights system) prohibited amnesties.
Were Uribe’s proposal to go into effect, the former negotiators add, “the first victims, in addition to the conflict victims of course, would be the members of the armed forces and other agents of the state who are currently participating in the transitional process and who will see their legal security disappear.” Notes Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, “His [Uribe’s] argument is that they [the military] must not be equated with guerrillas. But it is the crimes they have committed that make them equal. In addition, in his effort to favor them, he would do them harm: the [peace] agreement and the JEP are more lenient than the ordinary justice system, in theory.”
Álvaro Uribe faces human rights questions ranging from many political associates’ sponsorship of paramilitary groups, to those groups’ rapid growth during his tenure as governor, to the military’s killings of several thousand civilians during his presidency (discussed in the next section). Jaramillo, the former negotiator—who served as vice-minister of defense under Uribe—told Colombia’s Blu Radio that Uribe “has long been seeking a general amnesty and a clean slate. This is something that has been on his mind for a long time and he will continue to insist on it.”
Attorney-General seeks to charge ex-army chief for “false positive” killings
Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking to indict retired Gen. Mario Montoya, commander of the Army between 2006 and 2008, for his role in the military’s so-called “false positive” killings during the armed conflict. A hearing took place on August 25 before a Bogotá judge who will decide on August 30 whether Montoya may be indicted.
If Judge Fabio Bernal gives a green light, Montoya will be the highest-ranking military figure to face justice for these killings in the civilian criminal justice system. He could also become the first person with a case before both the post-conflict transitional justice system (JEP) and the regular criminal justice system. What that means is not entirely clear.
The term “false positives” refers to soldiers, apparently under heavy pressure to produce results measured in body counts, killing several thousand civilians and falsely presenting the murders as combat deaths. The JEP has estimated that as many as 6,402 false positive killings took place just between 2002 and 2008, Álvaro Uribe’s first seven years in office. If accurate, that number would be equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed during those years.
Gen. Mario Montoya was a key figure during this period. A U.S.-trained officer, he commanded the “Joint Task Force South” that carried out U.S.-backed counter-drug operations during the first years of “Plan Colombia” in the early 2000s. He went on to command the Army during the height of the Uribe government’s anti-guerrilla offensive, including the triumphant July 2008 rescue of 15 FARC hostages known as “Operation Jaque.” (“As their bonds were cut free, the former hostages were quietly told that the Colombian Army had just freed them,” reads an account of the rescue. “Then, the recovery team began to chant, ‘Uribe! Uribe! Uribe!’ followed quickly by ‘Montoya! Montoya! Montoya!’”)
Just a few months later, in November 2008, Gen. Montoya was forced to resign. The triggering event was the revelation that 22 men who disappeared from the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha had turned up dead hundreds of miles away, in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. The men had been lured with offers of employment, taken away and killed, only to be presented as armed-group members killed in combat. The Soacha case capped years of human rights groups’ denunciations—long denied by the Uribe government—that the military had been falsifying combat kill totals by murdering civilians.
Gen. Montoya has been under a cloud ever since, and in 2018 he agreed to have his case heard in the JEP. The transitional justice court is approaching “false positives” in a bottom-up fashion, starting with some of the most serious cases and working toward top commanders. That means it could be some time before the transitional justice court indicts Montoya, if it finds enough evidence to do so.
While Montoya has appeared before the tribunal, so far he has denied any responsibility for the killings. In an early 2020 appearance, the general sparked outrage by blaming soldiers from poor backgrounds: “those kids didn’t even know how to use forks and knives or how to go to the bathroom.”
The JEP is looking into whether commanders like Montoya created a climate, and set of incentives, that encouraged officers to rack up large body counts even if it meant killing non-combatants—and whether the commanders knew that so many combat kills were falsified. The Fiscalía is more specifically seeking to charge Montoya with responsibility for 104 killings, including 5 children, that took place in 2007 and 2008. That is the period after the issuance of a military directive to prioritize guerrilla demobilizations and captures over killings, which the Fiscalía contends that Montoya ignored.
He “allegedly pressured all division, brigade and battalion chiefs to follow a different strategy that reportedly rewarded and awarded decorations to commanders and groups that reported deaths,” according to the prosecutor’s office. “Commanders of his subordinate units knew that Montoya did not ask for (but) demanded combat kills.” A soldier who says he was kicked out of the force for disobeying these orders claimed that Montoya demanded “rivers of blood,” a phrase the General denies using.
Colombia’s civilian criminal justice system could have acted on the allegations against him at any time since 2008. In fact, as El Espectador explains, “a process against Montoya for false positives committed under his command was announced in 2016. The proceedings were suspended and then, with the arrival of Néstor Humberto Martínez at the Fiscalía [a chief prosecutor with little interest in military prosecutions] and the signing of the Peace Accord, it was left in limbo.”
Martínez’s successor, Francisco Barbosa, announced his intent to revive Gen. Montoya’s indictment on August 12. In the regular criminal justice system, the General could face up to 50 to 60 years in prison if found guilty. Montoya’s case is principally before the JEP, though, where he would face 5 to 8 years of “restricted liberty” if he admits to crimes and provides reparations, or up to 20 years in regular prison if he refuses to admit responsibility but is found guilty.
Colombia is still working out what it means to have two parallel justice systems considering war crimes. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that prosecutors in the regular justice system could continue investigating crimes in parallel. In 2019, the prosecutor in Montoya’s case decided that this meant the general could be investigated, but not indicted, while his case remained before the JEP. Barbosa, the current chief prosecutor, later altered that interpretation, claiming that he had the power to indict Montoya—though the case could not go to trial in the regular justice system.
Gen. Montoya’s lawyers dispute that. So does the government’s internal affairs branch, the Procuraduría, which argues that the JEP has primacy because Montoya has agreed to have his case heard there and has attended all his hearings.
In any case, an indictment without a trial is largely symbolic. Still, the Fiscalía cites declarations from JEP officials who have supported its ability to continue investigating. Lawyers representing victims of false positives have also been supportive: Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective told El Espectador, “it has been the JEP itself that has insistently asked the Fiscalía not to abandon the investigations, but to continue them until they are completed.” Germán Romero, an attorney who represents 12 false positive victims, added, “This is a real and concrete investigation… it is impossible and it could be understood as a substantial affectation to the rights of the victims if this indictment doesn’t happen.”
Some Colombian legal experts, though, are concerned and wonder why the Fiscalía is acting now. While the regular justice system’s prosecutors may continue investigating military and police officials’ alleged crimes, they “cannot rule on their responsibility since that decision corresponds to the JEP,” writes Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the DeJusticia think tank. “The Fiscalía cannot charge them, which is an attribution of responsibility, but must refer those investigations to the JEP.”
Uprimny, writing in El Espectador, wonders what Fiscal Barbosa may actually have in mind with an indictment in the Gen. Montoya case.
Its basis is bizarre and could have very serious implications. According to Barbosa, Montoya is being charged because he continued to demand combat kills after November 2007, disobeying Directive 300-28 of that date, which prioritized demobilizations and captures over casualties. That is why the Fiscalía will charge him with “only” 104 executions that occurred after that directive, when there were thousands of false positives in previous years and Montoya was already commander of the Army and demanded casualties.
Does this mean, then, that for Barbosa the thousands of false positives perpetrated when the previous directive was in force, which favored casualties, do not involve any responsibility of senior officers, even though they demanded casualties at all costs as an operational result? If that is so, who should answer for those false positives perpetrated in previous years? Only the soldiers who perpetrated them, but not those who incited those deaths because they were following a directive? And what responsibility, then, according to Barbosa, is incumbent on those who drafted and promoted the previous directive?
We will know more after the judge rules on May 30. Meanwhile, human rights organizations are calling on the JEP to eject another retired senior military officer, former Col. Publio Hernán Mejía. One of the Colombian Army’s most highly decorated officers, Col. Mejía was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiring with paramilitaries and involvement in false positive killings. He was released when he moved his case to the JEP, but has been uncooperative and has been making very aggressive statements on Twitter and considering a far-right run for the presidency next year.
Police reform and accountability debates, 4 months after Paro Nacional
On August 26, four months after the April 28 launch of protests that went on for several weeks, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Bogotá, Cali, and a few other cities. The day was mostly peaceful, according to the National Police.
Fallout continues, however, from the Paro Nacional protests of April through June, when some protesters caused property damage and an often vicious police response killed 43 people, according to the NGO Temblores, while dozens more remain disappeared. While victims continue to seek justice, the authorities have been quietly cracking down on people whom they believe to have played leading roles in protest-related disorder, often charging them with “terrorism.”
- An El Espectador analysis detailed several cases of very likely killings of civilians at the hands of police in Cali, none of which has been investigated.
- Police have now captured 165 people they allege to have been leaders of the “Primera Línea”—young people who occupied the “front line” of protests—in several cities. Many face terrorism charges.
- Among them is Juan Fernando Torres, a 25-year-old Medellín primary school teacher who became known as “El Narrador” because he documented protests, and confrontations with police, on video, posting them to his social media accounts. While the videos record him shouting rude epithets at the police, they do not appear to show Torres taking part in violence. Nonetheless, at 5:00 in the morning of July 29, police broke down his door and took him away while his family looked on.
- A well-known student protest leader in Popayán, Estéban Mosquera, who had lost an eye to a tear-gas canister shot by a riot policeman during a 2018 protest, was shot to death on August 23 by two men on a motorcycle.
- Thirty social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants in Tolima department say they have received death threats during the past seven weeks. Some say the threats began to escalate after the Paro Nacional began.
- Relatives of people killed by police during earlier protests—after a September 9, 2020 episode of police brutality in Bogotá—say that they are receiving death threats and experiencing aggressive behavior from police in their neighborhoods. “In an intimidating message, in which several relatives of September 9 victims were mentioned, a person implied that he has already identified the people involved in the commemorative acts and, in addition, left a sentence via text message: ‘let’s see if you want the game to start, we will gladly start.’ The message dates to August 3.”
- In a bit of encouraging news, the Constitutional Court ruled that the military justice system does not have jurisdiction over the May 1, 2021 police killing of protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Court found no evidence that the accused policeman, Maj. Jorge Mario Molano, fired his weapon in self-defense or to protect anyone else. His case will be tried in the regular civilian criminal justice system.
- As Colombia’s national debate over police reform continues, the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Colombia released a report, based on inputs from 11 experts, about what obstacles stand in the way of meaningful reform to Colombia’s National Police force. The report highlights the need for civilian leadership of reform and of citizen security policymaking, which in turn requires a larger number of civilians educated and trained in the field.
- The Truth Commission is three months away from a November 28 deadline to finish its work and publish a report, but Colombia’s Constitutional Court is considering its request for an extension, as the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the Commission’s work, especially field research. Juanita León at La Silla Vacía believes that enough judges on the Court are in favor of permitting a deadline extension for seven or eight months, into the period between the election (May 2022) and inauguration (August 2022) of Colombia’s next president. The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), in its opinion sought by the Court, requested that the Truth Commission be granted seven more months to work. The Duque government, arguing that only the Congress has the power to grant it, has opposed an extension.
- The Duque government promulgated, after much delay, a law foreseen by the peace accord that will create 16 special congressional districts for victims’ representatives, increasing Colombia’s House of Representatives from 171 to 187 members between 2022 and 2030. This law, bitterly resisted by peace accord opponents, only passed after years of legal wrangling over whether a sufficient quorum existed during the Senate’s 2017 approval. This week, some retired officers demanded that a few victims’ seats be reserved for military personnel who suffered abuses, like kidnapping, at the hands of guerrillas.
- Citing a paramilitary plan to assassinate him and insufficient protection from the national government, the governor of the Caribbean department of Magdalena, Carlos Caicedo, left the country. Caicedo leads a local center-left political movement that has won the past three mayoral elections in Magdalena’s capital, Santa Marta. Caicedo is asking the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to issue precautionary measures for his protection.
- The mayor of Segovia, Antioquia denounced that police in his municipality are cooperating with the Gulf Clan paramilitaries, for instance by leaking information about imminent counter-drug operations.
- “The Colombian military is the best partner force that I’ve worked with in 18 years,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Webb said at the conclusion of a joint exercise in Tolemaida, Tolima. “I pray for peace, but I’m always ready for war. If I do have to fight a war, I would be proud to serve with each and every one of you.”
- A key reason the UN/Colombian government estimate of coca cultivation is currently so much lower than the U.S. estimate is that it “subtracts the [eradicated] hectares reported by the field teams, but does not verify the effectiveness of the intervention,” writes Sergio Uribe at Razón Pública.
- According to a Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría) report, Antioquia may have displaced Cauca as the department where the largest number of social leaders were killed during the first six months of 2021. A report from the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), blaming the proximity of campaigning for 2022 elections, found a 15.7 percent increase in aggressions against political leaders during the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
- The week saw many reports of violence in Pacific coast zones where armed groups are disputing control over drug trafficking routes.
- In Tumaco, Nariño, fighting between counternarcotics police and members of the local “Oliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 13 dissidents and one police agent wounded. On the other side of the international border from Tumaco, the fighting placed Ecuador’s security forces on alert.
- Just north of Tumaco, in Nariño’s Telembí Triangle region, Doctors Without Borders estimates that fighting displaced over 21,000 people and confined 6,000 others—combined, nearly 30 percent of the region’s population—during the first six months of the year.
- Further north, in northern Cauca, Indigenous organizations denounced several alarming events from the past week, pointing a situation of “generalized violence.”
- Further north, 4,679 people in 14 Indigenous communities are confined by fighting between the ELN and the Gulf Clan in southern Chocó’s Bajo Baudó river region. Fighting between the same groups displaced over 1,500 people in Chocó’s lower San Juan River region.
- Further north in Chocó, where the Bojayá river flows into the Atrato—site of a historic FARC massacre in 2002—the population lives in fear of three armed groups plus the security forces, El Espectador reports. Organized crime activity is causing extensive deforestation in Chocó, reported Cuestión Pública and La Liga Contra el Silencio.
- A devastating analysis by Camilo Alzate at El Espectador details the government’s failure to implement collective protection measures for threatened social leaders and ethnic communities along the Pacific coast.
- Tensions continue to increase along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
- In Arauca, fighting between the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group and the Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan organized crime group, appeared to have killed at least 13 people in a single week.
- In the department of Norte de Santander, which includes the convulsed Catatumbo region, 50 non-governmental organizations denounced the killing of 22 social leaders and the death of 36 people in 8 massacres in the department since January 2020. Analyst Luis Eduardo Celis described deteriorating security in the departmental capital, Cúcuta, which borders Venezuela.
- The Colombian government meanwhile claims that captured computers included evidence of contacts between Venezuelan government officials and “Gentil Duarte,” the maximum leader of the largest current network of ex-FARC dissident groups.
- “We are facing an increasingly parochialized insurgency that, for the most part, concentrates its strength and armed action on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, but which operates under different logics on both sides,” reads an analysis of the ELN by Andres Aponte, Charles Larratt-Smith, and Luis Fernando Trejos at La Silla Vacía.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Biden and Duque speak
“Why won’t Biden call Duque?” conservative former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams asked in a June 22 Council on Foreign Relations blog post. Colombian media had been pointing out that Joe Biden and Iván Duque had not had a phone conversation since Biden’s November 2020 election. Some speculation centered on reports that members of Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, favored Donald Trump and Republican candidates in the 2020 campaign.
On June 28, Biden and Duque had their first phone conversation. The trigger was not Elliott Abrams’ prose as much as news that the helicopter in which Duque was traveling had been hit by gunfire while over Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on June 25. The two presidents spoke for 25 minutes; in the room with Duque was Vice President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, Chief of Staff María Paula Correa, and the recently named ambassador to the United States, Juan Carlos Pinzón. El Tiempo reported that Biden asked Duque to send his greetings to Duque’s three children.
The White House and the Colombian Presidency both published brief readouts of the call. Both noted that Biden pledged to donate 2.5 million COVID vaccines, and that the two presidents discussed topics like security cooperation, climate change, and the situation in Venezuela.
The White House statement notes, “President Biden also voiced support for the rights of peaceful protestors, underscored that law enforcement must be held to the highest standards of accountability, and condemned wanton acts of violence and vandalism.” The Colombian document omitted any mention of the protest movement that has rocked the country since April 28, or of the security forces’ heavy-handed response.
“Colombia is a symbol of the challenges that the Andean region is experiencing. The economic challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic because people have lost jobs and family members,” Juan González, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told Colombia’s La W radio after the two presidents’ conversation. “Our interest,” he added, “is to help Colombia overcome this. It is important that the country can be a safe place. We recognize that the situation in Venezuela has been one of the reasons for the lack of security. Colombia is a country with many inequalities, so alternatives to crime and drug trafficking must be created.”
U.S. House drafts 2022 foreign aid bill
On July 1, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee, by a 32-25 vote, approved its version of the “State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs” appropriation—that is, the foreign aid bill—for fiscal 2022. It would provide $62.2 billion for diplomacy and assistance worldwide, a 12 percent increase over 2021 levels.
The House bill, which tends to reflect the priorities of the chamber’s Democratic Party majority, would provide Colombia with $461.375 million in assistance during 2022, about $7.5 million more than the Biden administration requested and identical to the amount in the 2021 appropriation. This does not count $2.5 million for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Colombia, an unspecified amount to assist the Venezuelan migrant population in Colombia, and an unspecified amount of military and police assistance through Defense budget accounts (which totaled $55.4 million in 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service).
We estimate that 51 percent of U.S. assistance would go through accounts that provide economic and civilian institution-building aid, 18 percent would go through accounts that provide military and police aid, and 31 percent would go through accounts that might pay for both types of aid. So unlike the “Plan Colombia” period, aid to Colombia would be less than half military and police assistance. Economic aid, the Committee’s narrative report accompanying the bill specifies,
should include support for the presence of civilian government institutions in former conflict zones; the reintegration of ex-combatants; the development and basic needs of war-torn areas; civil society organizations that promote truth, justice, and reconciliation; advocacy for victims’ rights; protection of human rights defenders; verification of peace accord implementation; civic education for a culture of peace; and comprehensive rural development that advances the agrarian chapters of the peace accords.
As in past years, the bill includes human rights conditions: language holding up a portion of military aid until the State Department certifies that Colombia is doing more to hold accountable human rights violators, protect social leaders, and protect Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. In recent years, these conditions held up 20 percent of aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a program of mostly military aid that has usually provided about $38 million per year.
The 2022 House bill makes an important change to the conditions: applying them to police assistance as well. The amount held up pending certification would increase from 20 to 30 percent, and the conditions would apply not just to FMF but to International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), a much larger State Department-run program that is the largest source of aid to Colombia’s National Police. If this language appears in the final bill, it would be the first time in many years that human rights conditions would apply to police aid. The change is a result of mounting evidence of human rights abuses committed by police in the context of social protests in November 2019, September 2020, and since April 28, 2021.
Now that it is out of committee, the 2022 foreign aid bill will go to the full House of Representatives, which may approve it before the August congressional recess. The Senate, whose Appropriations Committee is evenly split between 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, will probably consider its version of the bill in September, though it’s possible it could begin work in late July. Once the House and Senate pass their versions, they must reconcile differences in the two bills, approve the final product, and send it to the President. The U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year starts on October 1, 2021.
Duque proposes an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” law
Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests have largely subsided, though concentrations persist in neighborhoods in Bogotá, Cali, and elsewhere. Ahead of the July 20 launch of a new congressional session, President Duque is telegraphing that his administration plans to introduce an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” bill in that legislature.
The law would increase prison sentences for vandalism, blocking roads, or attacking police, all of which are currently offenses under Colombian law. The law “already includes jail sentences of around eight years for obstructing public highways, violence against public servants and property,” Reuters reported.
Duque called for the new law at a June 30 promotion ceremony for the chief of Colombia’s embattled National Police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, who received his fourth star. Such a law is needed, he told the mostly police audience, “so that those who promote these practices do not try to get away with circumventing the rights of Colombians with impunity.” He called for a “clear and responsible” discussion of “what peaceful protest is and should be.” While he noted that most protest has been peaceful, there are many “vandals.”
Duque cited what happened to Camilo Vélez Martínez, a motorcyclist killed on June 25 when protesters stretched a cable across a street in southwest Bogotá. A protest leader in northwest Bogotá admitted to El Espectador’s Mónica Rivera that episodes like this point to a loss of discipline as public concentrations persist. “What we have seen is that they are infiltrating us and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to control the people. We control the compas, those who are with us, but we still have people who come to disturb the scene and then leave and go away.”
The political opposition saw in Duque’s statements an anti-democratic call to criminalize protest. “President Iván Duque announces an ’anti-riot law’ to legally shield the violent repression of young people,” said Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino. “Duque suffers from a serious mental and cognitive problem of connection with reality.”
The proposal comes at a time when opposition analysts like Laura Gil, director of La Línea del Medio, warn of increasing concentration of power in the executive branch. “The unthinkable is becoming a reality: the formal breaking of the rules of the game,” Gil writes. In that context, there is reluctance to give Duque’s governing Centro Democrático party greater power to decide who is a peaceful protester and who is a “vandal.”
Data about the Paro Nacional
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, the transitional justice tribunal set up by the 2016 peace accord) issued a report on July 1 warning that the Paro Nacional protests, and the government’s response, have affected the work of the post-conflict justice and truth system.
“The situation is worrying, since between April 28 and May 30, 2021, armed conflict events and affectations of civilians increased in 111 municipalities of interest for the Comprehensive System for Peace,” the JEP states. In those municipalities of interest, it has counted 13 conflict events and 89 “affectations,” way up from an average of 18 affectations during the same period in 2017-20. “This is evidenced by an increase in death threats, homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and massive events of forced displacement.” The JEP also notes a sharp increase, in the context of the protests, of “groups of armed civilians” carrying out violence against protesters.
It adds new and troubling statistics: “Colombia has been the country with the second highest rate of violent deaths per day of protest in the world (one death every 36 hours), and the 2021 national strike has the highest number of violent deaths of people who have participated in social protest scenarios in the last 44 years [in Colombia].”
As of June 28, the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz, which have closely monitored human rights abuses in the context of the protests, counted:
- 75 killings in the framework of the national strike, of which 44 were allegedly committed by the security forces. Through June 26, Temblores reported that “13 are in the process of clarifying whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the security forces,” and that “4 are attributable to armed civilians in which there are indications of possible involvement of members of the security forces.” A June 30 communiqué to the UN Human Rights Council from over 300 worldwide NGOs cites different numbers: “83 homicides have been reported, including at least 27 civilians killed by ordinary and riot police.”
- The communiqué from 300 NGOs cites a large number of missing or disappeared people: “327 people are still unaccounted for, with the authorities denying that about half of these disappearances ever took place.”
- 83 victims of “ocular violence”—damage to protesters’ eyes, usually by fired projectiles.
- 28 victims of sexual violence. As of June 26, Temblores also reported 9 victims of gender-based violence.
58 of the 75 killings occurred in the southwestern department of Valle del Cauca; that department’s capital is Cali, where 43 of the killings occurred.
An ongoing series at El Espectador is producing biographical profiles of some of those killed in the protests. “Most of them went out to demonstrate, and in response to their discontent they were met with bullets.”
As of July 2, Colombia’s National Police counted 3 of its members killed and 1,548 injured. It added that investigations of police personnel were underway for 16 cases of possible homicide, 40 cases of physical aggression, and 105 cases of abuse of authority. On 8,783 occasions in the context of protests, police had carried out “transfers for protection,” a controversial form of short-term custody of up to 12 hours, usually without charges, foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 police law. While being “transferred,” human rights groups claim that those in custody suffer abuse or are held in inappropriate locations.
- The House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a two-hour-plus July 1 hearing about Colombia’s recent protests. Commission Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) repeated his call for a suspension of U.S. police assistance to Colombia.
- The International Crisis Group published a thorough analysis of Colombia’s National Strike and what may come next. “In the short term,” it reads, “the government should embark on comprehensive police reform, support efforts at national and local dialogue, and invite international observers to negotiations as a trust-building measure.” The report disputes government claims that armed or criminal groups played important roles in the protests, but does indicate that such groups’ increasing activity—things “getting out of hand”—is a key reason why local protest leaders began to stand down in early June.
- The UN Verification Mission in Colombia published its latest quarterly report on implementation of the 2016 peace accord. Between late March and late June, “the Mission verified 16 homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported 49 killings of human rights leaders and defenders.” About half of 13,589 accredited former FARC combatants are now involved in individual or collective productive projects. The Bogotá-based think tanks CINEP and CERAC also produced their ninth report on verification of peace accord implementation as the “Technical Secretariat of the International Verification Component.”
- Úber Banquez Martínez, the former paramilitary leader who under the name “Juancho Dique” led a terror campaign in the Montes de María region 20 years ago, talked to El Espectador about his relationship with the region’s military leaders. Notably, Banquez is too scared to talk openly about the region’s political and economic leaders’ support for paramilitarism. “It is more dangerous to talk about the political system than about the Armed Forces, because they have a lot of power. They are alive, they are still alive and they are very dangerous.”
- Colombia’s National Police released composite sketches of two men believed responsible for shots fired on June 25 at a helicopter in which President Duque was traveling over Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. The sketches’ crude quality inspired ridicule on social media. Defense Minister Diego Molano hypothesized that the attack was the work of “a possible criminal alliance between the ELN’s urban front and the FARC’s dissidents of the 33rd front.”
- “The media most often show the anti-riot squads in their Darth Vader getups, the beatings and the shootings and the tear gas bursting into the air in great clouds. What appear less often are the ecstatic marches that are also celebrations of being alive after a year of Covid fear and loss,” writes veteran journalist Alma Guillermoprieto at the New York Review of Books.
- Colombia’s medical examiner’s office (coroner) counted 4,986 homicides in the first five months of 2021. This is 27 percent more than the first five months of 2020. Seven percent of the victims were women. “The gradual reopening after quarantines” may be a reason for the increase, security analyst Henry Cancelado told El Tiempo.
- Javier Tarazona and members of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes denounced on June 30 that former Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín has been collaborating with Colombia’s ELN guerrillas, and that the government maintains “safe houses” in Venezuela for ELN and ex-FARC dissident group members. FundaRedes often alleges Venezuelan government ties to Colombian armed groups and has been a key source of information about recent border-zone fighting between Venezuelan forces and ex-FARC dissidents. Two days after this denunciation, Venezuelan police arrested and imprisoned Tarazona and three colleagues.
- The armed forces reported seizing six tons of cocaine at a “complex of laboratories” in Samaniego, Nariño. The Defense Ministry claims that the site was run by the ELN, which has long been active in Samaniego.
- “Colombian President Iván Duque made the war against drugs one of the priorities of his administration,” reads a Defense Ministry document reproduced at the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website. It commits Colombia to eradicating another 130,000 hectares of coca in 2021 “but this time considering the option of resuming aerial spraying.”
WOLA’s latest urgent updates, split into two alerts, about the abuses committed within the context of Colombia’s national strike, as well as the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
The helicopter in which President Iván Duque and other top officials were traveling got hit by six bullets as it prepared to land in Cúcuta, capital of the conflictive Norte de Santander department in northeastern Colombia, on June 25. Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios, and Norte de Santander Governor Silvano Serrano were returning to Cúcuta from a visit to the municipality of Sardinata. All landed safely, with no injuries.
Sardinata is part of the Catatumbo region, which in 2019 made Norte de Santander Colombia’s number-one coca-producing department. It is an area of strong campesino organizations, but also has strong influence of armed groups like the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, a weak remnant of the old Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla group, and organized crime.
As of June 26 no group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the presidential helicopter.
This was the second major attack in 10 days on a difficult-to-reach government target in Cúcuta. On June 15, a car bomb injured 36 people at the headquarters of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade. It remains unclear how—as security camera footage reveals—the bomber was able to enter the base after a cursory security check an hour and a quarter before his vehicle exploded. The blast slightly injured some U.S. military trainers who had been present at the base.
The ELN denied responsibility for the bombing; in January 2019, the group had quickly admitted to a lethal bombing at the National Police academy in Bogotá. At Razón Pública, researcher Jorge Mantilla points to reasons why the ELN or ex-FARC dissidents might not be responsible. While he also casts doubt on “self-attack” hypotheses, Mantilla faults the government for a clear failure of counter-intelligence and force protection, asking how an attacker could so easily enter a base in one of Colombia’s most militarily fortified regions.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
The Truth Commission hosted three “recognition encounters” during the week, in which those responsible for war crimes met with, and showed contrition to, their victims. The highest-profile of these took place on June 23 in Bogotá, where FARC leaders who have admitted responsibility for kidnappings met with several people whom the group had held captive for years. The post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), has estimated that the FARC kidnapped 21,396 people during the conflict, either to extort ransom payments or to press for prisoner exchanges.
The best-known former hostage at the Bogotá event was Íngrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician whom the FARC held captive between 2002 and a July 2008 rescue. This was the first time Betancourt had agreed to meet with former FARC leaders. She participated at the invitation of the Truth Commission’s president, Fr. Francisco de Roux.
FARC leaders Rodrigo Londoño, Pastor Alape, Julián Gallo, and Pedro Trujillo voiced contrition. “We committed a serious crime, a product of the process of dehumanization into which we fall when we only see the world as divided between friends and enemies,” said Alape. “When we believe that all resources are valid to win the war.”
In her remarks, Betancourt noted that the ex-guerrillas’ participation was cause for “hope.” But she said she had wanted more. “I must confess that I am surprised that we on this side [the victims] are all crying, while the other side has not shed a single tear.” From some FARC leaders, she said she heard a “political speech” of contrition, but not enough words spoken from the heart.
Betancourt asked her former captors to reflect more fully on how they lost touch with their humanity, tying her remarks to the ongoing social protests that have swept Colombia since late April.
Interviewed by El Tiempo, Betancourt applauded the work the JEP did in documenting the FARC’s kidnappings and leading the ex-guerrilla leadership to recognize its responsibility. “Now what we are waiting for are the sentences, which I hope will be at the same level as the indictment,” she said, hoping that the JEP hands down punishments in conditions as austere as the peace accord allows. “It would be very sad if after having done this exercise, after weaving together all the experiences of so many people, we end up with justice condemning them to planting trees.”
On June 25 the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP, also known as the “Drug Czar”) released the U.S. government’s estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia in 2020. It found a 16 percent increase from 2019, from a record 212,000 estimated hectares of coca to an even greater record of 245,000 hectares. This coca was potentially used, ONDCP estimated, to produce 1,010 metric tons of pure cocaine, up from 936 in 2019—an 8 percent increase.
The release notes that the cultivation increase happened despite Colombia’s government reporting a record 130,000 hectares of manual eradication of coca bushes, and the seizure of nearly 580 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base.
In 2020, the Trump administration’s ONDCP release covering 2019 had called for more forced coca eradication, including aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate. The government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this controversial U.S.-backed “fumigation” program in 2015 due to public health concerns, but the current government of Iván Duque has been working to reinstate it.
The June 25 ONDCP release barely mentions eradication. It makes no mention of the (now probably unreachable) objective of cutting coca cultivation in half by 2023, which the outgoing Santos administration had agreed with the Trump administration in 2018.
The U.S. estimate emerged about two weeks after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) made public its estimate of 2020 cultivation. (ONDCP and UNODC are the two institutions that estimate coca cultivation in the Andes.) Unlike the White House, the UN agency found a downward cultivation trendline. The UN estimate of 143,000 hectares is a 7 percent decrease from 2019, and 102,000 hectares fewer than what the U.S. government estimates.
While the two entities’ coca estimates are rarely close, it has been unusual for their trendlines to diverge, as has now happened for two consecutive years. The Colombian government considers the UN number to be “official” but does not publicly dispute the U.S. figure.
The UN estimate of Colombia’s potential 2020 cocaine production, however, increased by 8 percent from 2019 to 2020. More cocaine from fewer hectares probably means taller coca bushes, higher-yielding crops, and more robust chemical extraction methods. The UNODC estimate of Colombian cocaine production—1,228 metric tons—is, in fact, higher than the U.S. estimate (1,010).
“Technicians from both countries and the United Nations will review [the statistics] to identify methodological criteria necessary to harmonize for the next measurement cycle,” El Espectador reported. We know more about how the UN derives its estimates than we do about the U.S. methodology. In coming weeks, we can expect UNODC to publish a full report presenting crop monitoring trends by region. That report usually includes a discussion of how the agency relies on satellite imagery and closer monitoring of selected regions. The U.S. government has been more secretive; the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report points to much extrapolation, noting that it “conserves limited personnel and technical resources by employing sample survey methodologies to estimate illicit crop cultivation.”
The committee of civil-society leaders—mainly union leaders—who called for a national strike (Paro Nacional) on April 28, only to see protests go on for many weeks, have stopped calling for street demonstrations for now. They are taking their demands to Colombia’s Congress, where they plan to work with sympathetic legislators to introduce a raft of bills when the next legislative session begins on July 20. Labor leader Francisco Maltés told Reuters that if the Comité del Paro’s demands go unmet, an even greater national strike will take place during the second half of the year.
The Comité does not command all protesters, of course, and groups of mostly young people continued to take to the streets in Bogotá’s poorer southern neighborhoods, in “resistance” sites around Cali, and in Medellín, Bucaramanga, Pasto, and Popayán. While demonstrations and blockades were mostly peaceful, violence between police and protesters broke out several times during the week. A protester was killed in Bogotá. In Tuluá, north of Cali, the decapitated head of a young man who had participated in protests was found in a plastic bag; police blamed local drug trafficking gangs.
As the country eased COVID-19 restrictions before vaccines were widely available, Colombia now finds itself in a devastating third wave of infections and deaths. Colombia recorded more than 23,000 new infections per day in June, about three times as many as in March, Public Radio International reported. More than 600 people are dying every day, well over double the number in the United States right now. Only India and Brazil are seeing more death. Intensive-care wards in major cities are over 95 percent full.
The government and human rights defenders continue to disagree vehemently about the extent of human rights abuses committed by security forces.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) counts 24 deaths linked to the protests and is investigating 11 more.
- As of June 18, the widely cited NGO Temblores counted 43 homicides and was investigating 21 more.
- As of June 22, an effort to cross and verify databases by the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacía found 47 people likely killed in the framework of protests, 44 of them protesters. La Silla notes that the Fiscalía is omitting 23 killed people from its statistic even though they appear to meet the agency’s criteria.
- Voicing “deep concern about allegations of serious human rights violations by the state’s security forces,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council that “from April 28 to June 16 we have recorded allegations of 56 deaths, including 54 civilians and 2 police officers.” Bachelet’s remarks, which contrast with the Colombian government’s official figures, drew an angry response from Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Alicia Arango, who had drawn attention for troubling statements about killings of social leaders while in her previous post as interior minister.
Missing or disappeared people
A June 23 overview of people missing or disappeared in the context of the protests, compiled by La Liga Contra el Silencio, finds a variety of estimates of the missing, some of whom may still be in custody of the authorities. The Fiscalía counts 84 people who have yet to be found.
- “Between April 28 and May 27, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances registered 775 missing persons, of which 327 have yet to be found.”
- “In the report that Temblores ONG, Indepaz and PAIIS delivered to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) during its visit to Colombia, 346 people were reported missing directly to these entities between April 28 and May 31.”
- Just in the department of Valle del Cauca, of which Cali is the capital, “the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network has a report of 179 people missing since the strike began. Of these, 75 remain unaccounted for. …More than twenty of the people found had been taken to police stations and held without the right to communicate with their families. Some of them had wounds from firearms and sharp weapons, and signs of torture.”
The La Liga investigation recounts the experience of a Bogotá protester who, after being detained, was one of several young men kept in the back of a truck that uniformed police drove around the city nonstop, changing drivers, for more than two days while they threatened to kill their captives.
Gender-based and sexual violence
- The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría), which has come under fire and may be undergoing senior management changes after a less-than-vigorous response to the protests’ human rights situation, counts at least 113 cases of gender-based violence, the BBC reports.
- Temblores counts 28 cases of protesters being sexually abused.
The need to reform Colombia’s National Police, which President Duque acknowledged with a series of modest proposals on June 6, continues to be a frequent topic of discussion.
- Ingrid Betancourt, the former FARC hostage, raised it in a June 21 meeting with Duque. “What we have seen is that the security forces confronted them as if they were confronting the traditional enemies of this war, without the peace transition having happened,” Betancourt told El Tiempo. “The security forces have not been able to adapt to the new reality of peace.”
- Defense Minister Diego Molano sent a letter to Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa refusing Barbosa’s June 1 request to provide information about protest-related human rights cases currently before the military justice system. Molano said that, due to recent reforms, the military courts are no longer under his direct command, and that it is up to the judges in each case to share information.
- American actor Kendrick Sampson, who is Black, wrote in El Espectador of extreme hostility from police while on a visit to Cartagena last December. “Two police officers pulled up behind me, yelling and gesturing for me to face the wall. This was the sixth time I had experienced Cartagena’s stop and frisk policy in five days.I thought I knew what to expect, but this time was far more violent.” He concluded, “Our political leaders are funneling the bulk of our taxes into violent, militarized policing and the oppression of Black and Indigenous communities worldwide, instead of bringing adequate housing, healing and care.”
- La Silla Vacía’s Daniel Pacheco sat down with a group of police, who voiced grievance and a sense that the allegations against them are unfair and out of context. “If you make a mistake in your actions, if you do wrong, if you go too far, go to jail, my friend. But if you do nothing, you just lost your life, my friend.”
- A Datexco poll gave President Duque an approval rating of just 16 percent, with 79 percent disapproval. 31 percent of Colombians surveyed approve of the National Police, compared with 64 percent disapproval. (March 2020 was the first time Datexco found the Police with higher disapproval than approval.) The Police’s anti-riot unit, the ESMAD, had 28 percent approval and 66 percent disapproval. The Army is still in positive territory, with 56 percent approval and 38 percent disapproval.
On June 21 Colombia’s Congress finished a legislative session that had begun on July 20, 2020. While Interior Minister Daniel Palacios celebrated that the legislature passed 49 laws during the past year, the session ended with the Senate failing to bring up for debate a law necessary to implement key elements of the 2016 peace accord.
The “Agrarian Specialty” law intended to fulfill a key commitment of the accord’s first chapter, which covers “comprehensive rural reform,” seeking to address issues of land tenure, rural inequality, and lack of state presence that have underlain so much of the armed conflict.
The law would have established a system of judges specializing in rural issues. While Colombia’s cities have 11 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, the country’s notoriously abandoned rural areas have only 6 judges per 100,000. Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute, which the peace accord gives a formal role in monitoring implementation, noted in May that “other important Point 1 [chapter 1] commitments depend on the implementation of this system.”
The bill passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, with apparent support from President Duque’s governing Centro Democrático (CD) party. But it ran into trouble in the Senate, even as it sailed through committee on May 25 by an 18-3 vote. The three opponents were CD senators.
Ultraconservative CD Senator María Fernanda Cabal, an outspoken defender of large landholders’ interests (her husband heads Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation, Fedegán), began to campaign against the bill. Cabal, La Silla Vacía reports, “recorded a video urging peasants to call their senators to oppose the ‘dangerous desk law’ that would create ‘an agrarian JEP where judges will begin to persecute rural property.’”
The congressional session neared its end without the bill coming up for Senate consideration. President Duque and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz told foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, that the Agrarian Specialty law would move ahead. But it did not. La Silla Vacía alleges that Duque was saying one thing and doing quite another.
The reason [for the bill’s expiration], as La Silla was able to confirm with two sources who have ways to know, was that the Government expressly asked [Senate President Arturo] Char not to place it on the agenda. Calendarizing is a key step for a bill to be voted on the following day.
“The Colombian Senate adjourned its session and did not consider the Agricultural Specialty Law,” tweeted Rep. Juanita Goebertus, who before her election was a member of the government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana. “The government committed to moving it forward. The Minister of Justice lied and betrayed his word. They swore to the entire international community that they are implementing the peace accord, and they’re laughing in our faces.”
After 23 years as top commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, Nicolás Rodríguez Batista alias “Gabino” is standing down at age 71. Rodríguez joined the ELN as a 14-year-old in 1965. He is among guerrilla leaders who remain in Cuba after the 2019 collapse of peace talks, and has been getting medical treatment there since 2018.
His replacement atop the group’s loose chain of command is longtime top leader Antonio García (the alias of Eliécer Chamorro Acosta), who is considered a hardline ideologue but has participated in past dialogues with the government. The new number-two ELN leader is alias Pablo Beltrán, who also remains in Cuba; he was the chief guerrilla negotiator during the peace process that failed following a January 2019 guerrilla bombing of Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The new number three leader, Pablo Marín, also known as “Pablito,” commanded the ELN’s largest unit, the Eastern War Front located in and around Arauca, and across the border in Venezuela. He is probably a skeptic of peace negotiations. Fighters under Marín’s command almost certainly carried out the 2019 bombing.
- “Given the large volume of reports we have received from Colombia since the start of the national strike on April 28, we are releasing English-language information about these human rights violations in two parts,” begins WOLA’s latest regular overview of Colombia’s human rights situation. It is, sadly, a long document.
- Colombia’s Defense Minister and National Police Chief told those at a June 22 press conference that Dairo Úsuga alias “Otoniel,” the maximum head of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, is “cornered and going hungry” as security forces pursue him in the country’s northwest.
- A graphical update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports a 101% increase in forced displacement in Colombia from January to May 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. The agency counted 29,252 people displaced in 63 events, with Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca the hardest-hit departments.
- Senators Rick Scott (R-Florida), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a resolution supporting Colombia’s government and condemning “efforts to undermine democracy.” It makes no mention of the Colombian security forces’ human rights record in the context of recent protests. Four Florida Republican House of Representatives members introduced an identical resolution in their chamber.
- Former top leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary confederation, who demobilized in the mid-2000s, told a transitional justice judge that they feel unprotected and fear for their lives. Among those participating virtually in the hearing was former maximum AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is in a U.S. immigration detention center, fighting deportation to Colombia after serving a drug trafficking sentence in U.S. prison. They said that 4,000 of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who demobilized in the so-called “Justice and Peace Process” have since been killed, some of them in Colombian prisons.
- The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported that six members of the Jivi indigenous nation were killed by ex-FARC dissident fighters in the state of Apure, which borders Colombia and has seen combat between dissidents and Venezuelan forces since March. The crime may have been retribution for the indigenous people’s theft of government food handouts from a truck.
- El Espectador profiles 11 social leaders and local government officials in Arauca whom authorities arrested in the early morning hours of May 27. Prosecutors allege that they are part of the support network for the “10th Front” ex-FARC group, believed to be aligned with dissident leader Gentil Duarte.
- The Bogotá-based think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of political violence, reports a decline in deaths resulting from political violence since December 2020.
On June 5, 23 organizations, including WOLA, called on the U.S. government to immediately stop all police and military assistance and arms and crowd control equipment sales to Colombia. They also urged the Colombian government to end violence by security forces, ensure accountability for abuses, search for the missing, and establish meaningful dialogue to address the underlying economic and racial inequality, as well as denial of basic human rights, which gave rise to the protests.
The full statement is below:
STATEMENT BY U.S.-BASED ORGANIZATIONS CALLING FOR A CUT-OFF OF SECURITY
AID TO COLOMBIA AND AN END TO REPRESSION OF PROTESTS IN COLOMBIA
As U.S.-based activists, advocates, and accompaniers of the human rights of all Colombians, we have seen with growing alarm in the weeks since the protests began in Colombia repressive actions by the Colombian security forces against largely peaceful demonstrations. The daily deluge from Colombian streets and countryside of horrific images and videos of abuses, and the myriad credible reports about the Colombian government’s systematic acts of repression, have demonstrated not only a continuing but an escalating attack on the core of human dignity. These images, accounts, and reports demonstrate a refusal of Colombian state agents to acknowledge some of the most basic and fundamental rights of the Colombian citizenry.
The escalation of repression by the police forces, the increasing involvement of the armed forces, and statements of support for these forces by high-level government ministers and supporters indicate a deafness of the Colombian government to the growing international and Colombian clamor for the repression to stop, for the human rights of all to be respected, and for the pursuit of genuine dialogue. Because the Colombian government appears dead set on continuing and escalating the repression against mostly non-violent and peaceful demonstrators, we call on the
Government of the United States of America to immediately stop all police and military assistance and arms and crowd control equipment sales to Colombia.
We urge the Colombian government to end the security force violence, ensure accountability for the abuses, search for the missing, and establish a meaningful dialogue to address the underlying economic and racial inequality and denials of basic human rights that gave rise to the protests.
Amnesty International USA
Center for International Environmental
Center for Justice and International Law
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on
Colombia Human Rights Committee
Denver Justice and Peace Committee
FOR Peace Presence
International Institute on Race, Equality
and Human Rights
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
School of the Americas Watch
United Church of Christ, Justice and
Washington Office on Latin America
Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
World BEYOND War
(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 19.)
Protests, negotiations, violence, and human rights violations continue
June 4 marked the 38th day of Colombia’s National Strike, probably the longest in more than 70 years. June 4 also saw the 12th meeting between government officials and the Strike Committee: a group of civil society representatives, including a large contingent of union leaders, who first called the Strike on April 28. Such meetings have been taking place since May 16.
The talks have not been advancing. Much of the discussion over the past week centered on the government’s demand that the Strike Committee call for an end to road blockades, which have choked off strategic roads between cities, leading to shortages and economic paralysis. The Committee meanwhile demands that the government do more to guarantee the physical security of protesters, including a softening of the security forces’ harsh and at times fatal crowd control tactics.
After a day of talks on June 3—cut short because government negotiators wanted to watch a Colombia-Peru soccer game—government representatives celebrated that agreement had been reached on 16 of 31 proposed preconditions to be met in order to move on to thematic negotiations. Speaking for the Strike Committee, Luciano Sanín of the NGO Viva la Ciudadanía said, “On 16 points we have an agreement, 11 need to be clarified, and on 9 there are major discrepancies, on issues such as the non-involvement of the military in protests, the autonomy of local authorities in the management of protests, the non-use of firearms in protests, the conditions for the intervention of the ESMAD [Police Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad] in protests, and the mechanism for monitoring the agreement.”
Nelson Alarcón of Colombia’s FECODE teachers’ union was also pessimistic about the 16 agreements: “That’s nothing at all, we had already reached a pre-agreement on 34 measures that the government dismantled with its comments.” Alarcón refers to a pre-agreement that the two sides had reached on May 24, but which the government ended up rejecting on May 27, by demanding that the Strike Committee lift road blockades before going any further. At the time, the National Police counted about 200 blockades around the country.
It appears that, on the government side, politicians from the hard line of the governing Centro Democrático party got the upper hand. The party’s founder, former president Álvaro Uribe, called for “rejecting any negotiation with the Committee, because negotiating with blockades and violence is to continue with the destruction of democracy.”
Strike Committee members allege that the government has adopted a strategy of delaying and hoping that the protests lose energy. La Silla Vacía observed that in the street, “there is no longer the same mobilization strength of the first weeks.” Fabio Arias of the CUT labor union told El Tiempo, “we know with absolute certainty they are mamando gallo [roughly, ‘jerking us around’].”
President Iván Duque insisted on the importance of ending road blockades before continuing negotiations: “Blockades are not a matter of negotiation, they are not a matter of tradeoffs, much less of transaction. They have to be rejected by everyone.” On May 30, thousands of people protesting the blockades marched in several Colombian cities; a Colombian Presidency communiqué celebrated that “thousands of Colombians, on behalf of millions, have sent a clear message.”
Legal groups like DeJusticia say peaceful blockades that don’t affect the rights of others are a form of free speech. The Strike Committee moved during the week to lift some of the most damaging blockades at key highway chokepoints, which had been carrying a significant public opinion cost for the protesters. “There are more than 40 ‘points of resistance’ that have been suspended thanks to the de-escalation,” Alarcón of FECODE said on June 1. “Today, therefore, the national government has no excuse to say that it won’t sign accords.” Fabio Arias of the CUT said that day that 90 percent of blockades had been lifted. By June 12, many inter-city bus routes began running again from Cali’s terminal.
By June 3, about 23 blockades remained around the country, but the government continued to insist. Committee members responded that not all road blockades were their responsibility. “We can’t order the removal of what we didn’t order to be set up,” said Hami Gómez of the ACREES student organization. At a protest concentration in Cali’s Puerto Resistencia (formerly Puerto Rellena) neighborhood, a protester named “Pipe” told Spain’s EFE news service that the Strike Committee doesn’t speak for them. “They don’t have the legitimacy to tell us to lift the blockades.”
Partly to counter perceptions that the protests are losing momentum, the Strike Committee is calling on protesters to converge on and “take” Bogotá on Wednesday, June 9.
Over the week the government set about implementing a decree, issued late on the evening of May 28, giving the armed forces a greater role in undoing blockades and controlling protests in eight departments [provinces] and thirteen cities, mostly in the country’s southwest. The decree draws on a section of the country’s Police Code allowing authorities to seek “military assistance” at times “when events of serious alteration of security and coexistence so require, or in the face of imminent risk or danger, or to confront an emergency or public calamity.” The measure may triple the combined police and military footprint in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, where the protests have been most intense.
The decree promises that governors and mayors who fail to cooperate with the military “assisters” will suffer “the corresponding sanctions.” It does not specify what those punishments would be. Jairo Libreros of Colombia’s Universidad Externado told El Espectador that there could be no such punishments, because “the military can’t be placed above civilian authorities.”
While the latest bimonthly Invamer poll found 89 percent supporting protests, it also found 61 percent support for militarizing cities when “vandalistic situations” break out.
“It is a partial and de facto internal commotion [state of siege decree], which circumvents constitutional control, involves the military in the management of protest, and subordinates civilian authorities to military commanders, thus configuring a coup d’état,” reads a declaration from the Strike Committee. “Having more security forces on the streets is not a step in the direction of peace,” Sebastian Lanz of Temblores, an NGO that monitors police abuse, told CNN. Former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo, a leading centrist presidential candidate, strongly criticized the decree on Twitter: “this is not a war, nor should we turn it into one.”
Legal challenges to the “military assistance” decree came quickly. In Cundinamarca, the department that surrounds Bogotá, the Administrative Tribunal called President Duque to testify “about the reasons that led him to determine the need for the military forces to provide temporary support to the work being carried out by members of the National Police.” Two opposition legislators, Sen. Iván Cepeda and Rep. David Racero, filed separate injunctions (tutelas) with the State Council demanding that the military assistance decree be suspended on grounds of unconstitutionality. Cepeda contended that the decree is a backdoor “state of siege” (estado de conmoción interior), avoiding the legal requirements that Colombian law entails for such a temporary expansion of military power and restriction of civil liberties. Both argued that the decree omits required legislative oversight, and places military authorities over civilian officials.
Iván Velazquez, a former auxiliary magistrate who led 2000s “para-politics” investigations before going on to head Guatemala’s Commission against Impunity (CICIG), said that he will also file a “public action lawsuit” against the decree. A detailed legal analysis from Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, lays out four key reasons why Duque’s military assistance decree is unconstitutional. Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, contended that Colombian law requires that only police be used to control protests.
The NGO Temblores continues to maintain a thorough database of protest-related violence, with its most recent update on June 2. The Defense Ministry issued its most recent update on June 4. Since protests began on April 28, both sources report:
|Temblores (June 2)||Defense Ministry (June 4)|
|Civilians killed||Up to 74 (45, plus 29 pending verification)||Up to 46 (18, plus 19 “not related to the protests” according to unclear criteria, plus 9 pending verification)|
|Security forces killed||2|
|Security forces wounded||1,253|
|Civilians missing or disappeared||327 (as of May 27, according to Coordinación Colombia-Europa-EEUU)||114 (111 being searched for, 3 denunciations of forced disappearance)|
|Arrests and detentions||1,649||1,389|
|Cases of eye damage||65|
|Discharges of lethal firearms||180|
|Victims of sexual violence||25|
|Victims of gender-based violence||6||9 (including 1 police agent)|
|Aggression against journalists||210 (as of June 3, according to the FLIP Press Freedom Foundation)|
|Attacks on the medical mission||256 (as of June 2, according to the Health Ministry)|
Last week saw fewer killings than the previous week, which was crowned by the bloodiest single day of protests, May 28, when 13 people were killed in Cali. Last week:
- In Cali, it appears that gunmen killed three people the evening of May 31. On the NGO Indepaz’s list of 75 people believed killed as of June 4, nobody has been killed outside Valle del Cauca, the department of which Cali is the capital, since May 17. Since then, between 26 and 35 people have been killed in Valle del Cauca.
- Indepaz’s list does not include Yorandy Rosero, a 22-year-old student killed during a protest at an oil installation, convened by indigenous groups in Villagarzón, Putumayo, in the country’s far south. A short drive from Putumayo’s capital, Mocoa, Villagarzón’s commercial airport shares its runway with a Counternarcotics Police base that, in the past, was used heavily for U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation flights. The Counternarcotics Police, not a crowd control force, were called on May 31 to control a demonstration at a well operated by a Canadian corporation, Gran Tierra Energy. Putumayo’s governor says that the protests were violent. Local police leadership insists that while protesters wounded some soldiers and police, the shots that killed Rosero did not come from police personnel. The victims’ mother, however, told Blu Radio, “there are witnesses of those who were with my son at the time he was shot, who say [the police] were very clearly shooting right in front of them.” The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is investigating; this case should be of interest to the U.S. government since, unlike the ESMAD, the Police Counternarcotics Directorate is a unit that does receive U.S. assistance.
- In another rural territory with several armed groups and much coca cultivation, northeastern Colombia’s Catatumbo region, protests have been ongoing since April 28 but have been peaceful, El Espectador reports. There, one of the protesters’ main demands is that the government fulfill peace accord commitments to rural and coca-growing communities.
- In Facatativá, a small city just beyond Bogotá’s outskirts in Cundinamarca, rioters vandalized and burned the courthouse on May 29, in an event that recalled the May 25 arson that burned the courthouse of Tuluá, Valle del Cauca to the ground.
- A freelance reporter was stabbed, he says by a policeman, near the “Portal Resistencia” (or Portal Américas) mass transit terminal in southern Bogotá’s working-class Usme district.
- Three women participating in protests in Barranquilla, aged 18 through 22, say they were taken to a police station on the night of May 21 and thrown into a jail cell with men whom the police encouraged to sexually abuse them. El Espectador reports: “As they told the Fiscalía, ‘the patrolman who received us entered the cells and began encouraging the prisoners, saying that fresh meat had arrived.’ Next, the complaint states that the same uniformed officer began to shout: ‘they are here to be raped, these are the rock throwers.’” They say they were beaten, stripped, and forced to pay the prisoners in order to avoid being raped. Barranquilla’s deputy police commander, Col. Carlos Julio Cabrera, told the El Heraldo newspaper that what happened was “confused” and is under investigation. The Colonel cast doubt on their story: “According to the officer, the young women did not show any aggression when they left the police station: ‘they came out without any incident and signed a book that we have.’”
UN bodies released two statements voicing alarm at protest-related violence. “These events are all the more concerning given the progress that had been made to resolve, through dialogue, the social unrest that erupted a month ago, following the start of a nation-wide strike against several social and economic policies of the Government,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a May 30 statement noting that “since 28 May, fourteen people have died, and 98 people have been injured, 54 of them by firearms.” The chief of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, who is co-mediating talks between the government and the Strike Committee, said “the serious events in Cali and other cities and departments demonstrate the need to strengthen dialogue as a fundamental instrument for resolving conflicts.”
The ESMAD anti-riot police continued to receive significant scrutiny. Indepaz lists the unit’s members as those most likely responsible for at least 18 killings, especially in late April and the first half of May.
A Razón Pública column by three scholars from Colombia’s National University questions why the unit is not being used as a last resort, why it often uses weapons indiscriminately and disproportionately, why it often chases protesters through city streets after already dispersing them, and why it often uses force without prior warning. Andrés Felipe Ortega, Farid Camilo Rondón, and Lina Paola Faciolince note that “The Esmad and the National Police showed a marked sentiment or prejudice against those who demonstrate publicly. This happens because of the belief that the demonstrators are vandals, because of the alleged infiltration of organized armed groups, which has not yet been proven in all cases, and because of the institution’s own ideas.”
The investigative website Cuestión Pública looked at 30 contracts for purchase of non-lethal crowd control materials since 2017, totaling about 22.5 billion Colombian pesos (US$6.1 million). Among its findings:
- “Through these [contracting] processes, elements for crowd control, armored tanks, electric and gas cartridges for Venom [vehicle-mounted launchers], stun grenades, gas launchers, fragmentable sphere launchers, pepper spheres, rubber projectiles, propellant and gas cartridges, and paintball markers and spheres were acquired. A batch of 222 12-gauge shotguns was also purchased in 2017.”
- “This entire battery of weapons was supplied by six companies. Two Colombian: Imdicol Ltda and 7 M Group; three American: Everytrade International Company (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS), Safariland LLC (authorized in Colombia by Nicholls Tactica SAS), and Combined Systems Inc (also authorized in Colombia by Imdicol Ltda); and the Italian, Benelli Armi SpA (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS).”
In recent weeks, though, most protester killings have been the work of people not in uniform. “We have registered 11 cases of violent interventions by civilians in the presence of the public forces,” reads the latest Temblores report. “This trend was seen again last Friday [May 28] in the city of Cali, evidencing the presence of armed agents, who omitted their duties and incurred in criminal acts by endorsing the illegal carrying of weapons and attacks against demonstrators.” That day, numerous citizen and security-camera videos showed men in plainclothes wielding, and at times firing, weapons while nearby police failed to act.
“The video shows at least ten policemen who do nothing,” reads a strong El Espectador editorial. “We have already seen this image on other occasions during this national strike. The echoes it brings from the past are not encouraging. Armies of death were born from such logic in this country.”
“In that place and at that very moment there were several law enforcement officers, who omitted their duty to prevent these events from happening and to capture these people,” recognized Gen. Fernando Murillo, the director of the National Police’s Criminal Investigations and Interpol Directorate (DIJIN). He announced that “a specialized team was appointed to carry out the investigation to identify, individualize, and prosecute these individuals and law enforcement officers, who will have to answer to the competent authorities.”
A gunman who appeared in May 28 videos confronting protesters alongside police in Cali’s wealthy Ciudad Jardín neighborhood went public trying to explain himself. Andrés Escobar, who identified himself as a businessman, posted a video on social media insisting that the gun he was shooting into the air can fire only non-lethal munitions like rubber bullets (arma de fogueo). Such weapons are easy to obtain in Colombia, even at shopping malls, El Espectador reported, though gaining a permit for more lethal firearms is difficult. Escobar added that he had no intention of killing anybody, and that he was angered by “vandals” in his neighborhood.
Escobar appeared to have no explanation for the inaction of nearby police. Further clues about the relationship between Cali police and plainclothes gunmen emerged from the case of Álvaro Herrera, a 25-year-old French horn player whose May 28 treatment in police custody swept through Colombian social media. Herrera was playing his horn as part of a “symphony” accompanying protests in southern Cali. When armed, un-uniformed men arrived and attacked the protesters, some of them roughed up Herrera and took him away—to a nearby police station. There, police beat the musician until he admitted he was a “vandal,” in a video that went viral.
Civilians have also been aggressively following former FARC combatants in Cali, like Natali González, who had served as the Cali municipal government’s deputy secretary for human rights and peacebuilding. Since protests began, unknown men in pickup trucks and motorcycles have been following González around the city; none has yet made contact with her. At least six other ex-guerrillas say the same thing is happening to them, reports El Espectador.
Another increasingly alarming phenomenon is forced disappearances or missing persons in the context of the protests. According to a June 4 La Silla Vacía overview, government data as of May 30 pointed to 111 people reported as missing, after deleting the names of others who were found, often in police custody. NGO counts are significantly higher: on May 26, Indepaz counted 287 people missing, and on May 27 the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (CCEEU) reported 327.
Adriana Arboleda of the Medellín-based Corporación Jurídica Libertad told La Silla that “The Fiscalía isn’t activating urgent search mechanisms, on the grounds that there is insufficient information.” Because it lacks information about many denounced cases of missing people, the prosecutor’s office is not acting quickly. “It is giving a different treatment than what the nature of the urgent search mechanism requires. Which is: with the information you have, you run as fast as you can and try find the person,” said Luz Marina Monzón, the director of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord.
Some of the missing may still be in government custody. An El Tiempo report contends that many people detained at protests have been held at least briefly in “unofficial” sites, with no record of where they are.
President Duque and other top officials insist that police abuses have not been systematic, and promise “zero tolerance” with agents who commit them. In public comments, Duque said that Colombian justice moved more quickly against those responsible for the September 2020 killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez than did U.S. authorities against the killers of George Floyd in May 2020.
In an interview with Spain’s El País, Duque reiterated his government’s allegation, for which almost no proof has yet been produced, that the violence accompanying protests has been “low-intensity terrorism” often carried out by “organized armed groups linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents.” He added that he opposed moving the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, where it has been since 1953, because placing the agency in another cabinet agency, like Interior, would lead to its “politicization.”
Because the police are in the Defense Ministry, crimes committed by police agents go first to the military justice system. On May 31, Reuters reported, National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas said “that information concerning officers who may have broken the law or not performed their duties has been sent to the military justice unit.” The military justice system, however, is meant to try acts of service, and has a poor record of convicting personnel accused of human rights crimes.
As an El Tiempo analysis points out, Colombian jurisprudence has determined that an agent’s alleged crime is not an “act of service” if “there is no ‘proximate and direct’ link between the offense and the service; if the offense is of such gravity that the link to the service is broken; and if there is doubt about any of these elements.” In such cases, the case must go to the civilian justice system, where the Fiscalía would prosecute it.
This distinction is pretty clear in cases like sexual abuse or torture in custody. Things get murkier in cases of improper use of force, when a police agent can argue that efforts to control disturbances were “acts of service.” On that basis, one of Colombia’s highest-profile cases, the November 2019 killing of 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz in downtown Bogotá with a shotgun-fired “beanbag” weapon, remains in the military justice system. On June 3, a military judge ordered the release of two detained police, a lieutenant and a major, who are under investigation for the May 1 shooting death of 17-year-old protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Fiscalía asked on May 11 for this case to be moved to civilian jurisdiction.
This week Colombia’s civilian chief prosecutor (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, sent a request to Defense Minister Diego Molano asking for detailed information about protest-related cases that have been sent to the military justice system. It asks for “the immediate referral of proceedings initiated by the military justice system for possible homicides, intentional personal injury, and sexual offenses.” Barbosa also asks that the military justice system hand over all documents related to armed civilians’ actions in protests alongside police.
Civilian courts issued a few noteworthy protest-related rulings over the past week. A court in Popayán, Cauca banned use in the city of the Venom, a vehicle-mounted apparatus for launching tear gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, and other “non-lethal” munitions, until the National Police develops protocols and trainings for its safe use. A judge ruling on a tutela in Pasto, Nariño ordered they city’s police, especially its ESMAD, to register the names of commanders and the weapons to be deployed, in advance of any crowd control operation. The Administrative Tribunal in Santander is studying whether to suspend the use of stun grenades and 12-gauge shotguns in crowd-control operations.
Inter-American Human Rights Commission will visit imminently
Following a back-and-forth during Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez’s May 24-28 visit to Washington (discussed in last week’s update), the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), will pay a field visit to Colombia on June 8-10. “During the visit, the CIDH will meet with various representative sectors of Colombia, including authorities from different levels of government, representatives of civil society, collectives, unions, and business-sector organizations,” reads a tweet from the Commission. “In particular,” the thread continues, “the CIDH will seek to listen to victims of human rights violations and their families to receive their testimonies, complaints, and communications; as well as to people who were affected by actions of violence in that context.”
On May 29, the CIDH tweeted some cautionary words about the Colombian government’s “military assistance” decree. “The CIDH reiterates the international obligations of the State in internal security, and the Inter-American standards that provide that the participation of the armed forces in security tasks must be extraordinary, subordinate, complementary, regulated, and supervised.”
On June 7, representatives of Colombia’s Fiscalía, Inspector-General (Procuraduría), and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) are to hold three separate “pre-meetings” with the CIDH to “present in-depth reports that fully respond to the requests for information that the Commission issued to each of them,” as expressed in a letter from Ramírez to CIDH secretary María Claudia Pulido.
Vice-President Ramírez proposed that the commissioners visit Cali, Popayán, Cauca; and the city of Tuluá, about 60 miles north of Cali, where protesters burned the courthouse to the ground on May 25. El Espectador noted that her letter made no mention of excesses committed by police or crimes involving armed civilians.
On June 3 the CIDH received a visit in Washington from a group of legislators from the most right-leaning segment of the already right-leaning governing party, the Centro Democrático. Senators and Representatives María Fernanda Cabal, Margarita Restrepo, Juan Manuel Daza, and José Jaime Uscátegui presented the commissioners with a dossier of acts of violence against members of the security forces allegedly committed by protesters. Among the allegations, El Espectador reports, is that the ex-FARC dissident faction headed by former guerrilla negotiator Iván Márquez provided about US$160,000 to maintain disturbances around the country.
Just weeks earlier, Sen. Cabal had a testy radio exchange with the Commission’s president, Antonia Urrejola, who corrected the Senator when she said there was no international right to peaceful protest, and accused the Commission of bias. The group also met with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, and its ambassador to the OAS, Alejandro Ordóñez.
FARC dissidents release some Venezuelan military captives
On May 30, Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, which often reports rumors about security developments along the Colombia-Venezuela border, said that a temporary cessation of hostilities had been reached between the Venezuelan military and the “10th Front” ex-FARC dissidents, who had been fighting inside Venezuela’s border state of Apure since March 21.
The next day, Venezuela recovered eight soldiers who had been held captive by the 10th Front since April 23rd. They appeared to be in good health. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino said that the troops “were rescued” in an operation called “Centenary Eagle.” Tarazona of Fundaredes said that they were freed in an arrangement that involved assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On May 11 the ICRC had confirmed receiving a communication from the 10th Front that it was holding the eight soldiers and was looking for a way to hand them over.
“We continue to search for two more soldiers,” read Gen. Padrino’s communiqué. Tarazona said that three soldiers are missing, and that another 20 have been killed in combat with the Colombian ex-guerrilla dissidents in Apure.
We’ve covered this combat in several previous weekly updates, and Kristen Martínez-Gugerli of WOLA’s Venezuela Program published a helpful FAQ this week. The fighting displaced more than 6,000 Venezuelans into Colombia; questions remain why Venezuelan forces are focusing efforts on the 10th Front, even as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group are also active and present in Apure.
Colombia meanwhile had planned to reopen its official border crossings with Venezuela on June 1, for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in March 20. That plan was abruptly halted on May 31, when the Foreign Ministry postponed the opening until September 1. On June 2, though, Colombia appeared to partially reverse itself again, announcing a gradual opening at crossings as biosecurity measures and other capacity get put into place.
- “Officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest,” reads a June 1 statement from WOLA.
- President Duque’s “total incapacity to read the historic moment,” former high commissioner for peace Sergio Jaramillo told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, “is pushing us back to ‘conflict’ mode.”
- “What is the Centaur state?” writes Julian Gomez Delgado in an interesting essay about Colombia’s political moment at Public Seminar. “It serves the interests of the upper classes, disciplines and regulates the lower classes, and is fearful of popular majorities. The parallel to a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a horse captures the dissonance of its approach to politics: a liberal state at the top cares for the upper classes, and a ‘punitive paternalism’ at the bottom fearsomely contains the popular majority. …Paradoxically at once democratic and authoritarian, instead of resolving social conflicts, the Centaur state reproduces them.”
- “A significant proportion of protesters in Colombia’s southwest are Indigenous or Black—making the military police’s racial violence against them into a key issue,” write scholars Arturo Chang and Catalina Rodriguez at the Washington Post.
- Colombian soldiers and police on May 27 killed Robinson Gil Tapias alias “Flechas,” the most recent leader of the Caparros, an organized crime group with great influence in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department. Forces killed Gil in that region, in the municipality of Cáceres, Antioquia. Bajo Cauca, a territory of coca fields, illicit mining, and trafficking corridors, is contested between the Caparros, the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary network, and smaller presences of the ELN and ex-FARC dissident groups. Defense Minister Diego Molano and National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas announced that this blow dismantled the Caparros, a group that can trace its lineage back to the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network. However, a faction of the group, under the command of alias “Franco,” still remains active in the Bajo Cauca region, El Tiempo reported. The Caparros’ largest rival in the Bajo Cauca, the Gulf Clan, also remains active. “This criminal group is the second most powerful in Antioquia and responsible for homicides against social leaders,” human rights defender Óscar Yesid Zapata told El Espectador. “What the structures do is mutate into other substructures and the only thing that is achieved is a change of command.”
- The Colombian government approved the extradition to the United States, to face narcotrafficking charges, of Alexander Montoya Úsuga, the cousin of the Gulf Clan’s maximum leader Dairo Úsuga. Montoya, alias “El Flaco,” had been arrested in Honduras as part of an operation that involved U.S. and Colombian personnel.
- A four-person commission from the Colombian government’s Land Restitution Unit went missing in Mesetas, Meta, on May 27. As of June 2, they remained missing. Mesetas, one of five municipalities from which the Colombian security forces pulled out during a failed 1998-2002 peace process with the FARC, today has a significant presence of ex-FARC dissidents.
- The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, is studying a request from a FARC victims’ group to have the top ex-guerrilla leadership deprived of liberty and suspended from their ten congressional seats. Seven top FARC leaders recently accepted the JEP’s formal accusation of responsibility for over 20,000 kidnappings committed during the conflict. The JEP has sought opinions about the possible suspensions from 18 academic departments and think tanks.
- Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, acknowledged in a radio interview that governing-party politicians “did do damage” when they acted to support Republican candidates in the 2020 U.S. congressional and presidential elections, that “they did create an important problem.” Santos insisted that the Duque government’s relationships with key U.S. Democrats have recovered.
- Opposition legislators failed to get the majority vote necessary to remove Defense Minister Molano via a censure motion. As noted in last week’s update, several members of both houses of Colombia’s Congress sought Molano’s censure based on security forces’ excessive use of force against protesters. The motion failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 109 to 36. The previous week, the Senate defeated it by 69 to 31.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. This week’s edition is several days late, as other program activities left insufficient time to draft it.
Nationwide protests enter a fifth week
Street protests, concentrations, and road blockades that began on April 28 continued all week around Colombia. As before, protests, vandalism, and security forces’ and third parties’ violent response were most intense in Cali and elsewhere in the country’s southwest.
As of May 28 Temblores, an NGO that tracks human rights abuse by police, had counted:
- 43 people allegedly killed by the security forces, plus 27 cases under verification.
- 1,133 “victims of physical violence.”
- 175 uses of lethal firearms.
- 22 victims of sexual violence and 6 victims of gender-based violence.
As of May 28 Temblores counted 47 people who had suffered eye injuries from “non-lethal” police projectile weapons, some of them probably misused by improperly aiming at protesters’ faces, a practice that human rights defenders also documented during protests in Chile. In a May 26 virtual session of Colombia’s Senate, Paola Holguín, a member of the governing Centro Democrático party, sparked outrage when she told opposition senators, “Don’t fool Colombians and don’t fool the international community and stop crying out of one eye.”
Among other non-governmental observers reporting violence:
- As of May 26, Human Rights Watch had counted 63 people probably killed since the protests began, of whom it had been able to confirm 28: 26 civilians and 2 police agents.
- The New York Times published an analysis of multiple citizen videos that “shows how officers used indiscriminate and, in some cases, lethal force against civilians.”
- Colombia’s non-governmental Freedom of the Press Foundation (FLIP) counted more than 129 aggressions committed against nearly 150 reporters.
As of May 28, the government’s count included:
- 45 civilians killed, of whom it categorized 17 of having a direct link to protest activities, 9 being verified, and 19 unlinked to the protests.
- 2 police killed.
- 168 disciplinary investigations opened against security-force members.
- 1,081 civilians and 1,163 members of the security forces wounded. 5 security-force members who remain hospitalized.
- 141 “impacts” on government infrastructure, plus 111 small urban police posts (CAIs) “affected.” Of the 153 stations of Bogotá’s Transmilenio transit system, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported on May 25, 139 were “affected,” nearly 50 so severely that they are inoperable.
- 2,768 roadblocks.
The investigative website La Silla Vacía analyzed the violence statistics compiled by three entities: the government; Human Rights Watch; and Temblores in cooperation with another NGO, Indepaz. It found the largest discrepancy among the three in the number of deaths reported as “related to protests.” La Silla’s reporters asked the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) how it determined that 19 deaths were not protest-related. “As of the date of publication of this article, no response had been received either by phone or mail.” The human rights groups, which have not “dismissed” any cases, were “more transparent” than the government about their methodology.
Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, continued to see the most protests and related violence. At key intersections and traffic circles near poor neighborhoods, protesters have established weeks-long concentrations, blocking road traffic, fending off security forces, and adopting a communal or mutual aid ethic. Those on the front lines call themselves the ”Primera Línea.” (A 16-minute Vice video, posted May 28, gives an up-close look at some of these concentrations.)
May 19-23 saw frequent violence around a concentration and nearby supermarket in the eastern neighborhood of Calipso. At least two young people were killed, as was a 22-year-old policeman, one of two police killed in Colombia since protests began. Some of the violence was the work of an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Cali: armed civilians firing on crowds with no interference from nearby police.
On May 24 south of Calipso, in the Puerto Rellena area that protesters have renamed “Puerto Resistencia,” a gunman in a truck killed Armando Álvarez, a medical worker who had been tending to protesters. “Álvarez handled medical attention for injured people and accompanied the victims’ families, which is why he was known as the ‘guardian angel’ of Puerto Resistencia,” Contagio Radio reported.
May 28 was the worst day of violence in Cali, with about 13 deaths reported in several concentrations around the city. Most if not all of the killing was the work of armed men in civilian clothing. Citizen videos, including some from a particularly intrepid freelance photographer who goes by the Twitter and Instagram handle @jahfrann, show these armed men firing weapons alongside police, who don’t respond at all.
In Cali’s La Luna neighborhood on May 28, protesters caught and beat to death a man who had shot several people, killing two. The gunman, Fredy Bermúdez Ortiz, turned out to be an off-duty agent of the Technical Investigations Corps (CTI), the Fiscalía’s judicial police.
Tuluá, a town about 60 miles north of Cali along the Pan-American Highway, saw intense violence on May 25. The previous day, four young people were massacred, in an event possibly unrelated to the protests, and flyers had circulated around the city threatening protesters. Clashes with police began the morning of the 25th, according to Spain’s EFE news service, “when authorities preventively detained a score of people, including some minors, after clearing blockaded roads on the city’s north and south sides, the mayor said.”
The situation escalated into a riot. By the end of the day, 18 businesses in downtown Tuluá were vandalized or looted, and—in images that shocked the country—the town’s courthouse was burned to the ground. An 18-year-old law student was killed, apparently by gunfire. Thousands of judicial case documents, few if any of them digitized, were lost. “Attacks like those of tonight in Tuluá stop being vandalism and become terrorist acts,” said Defense Minister Diego Molano, who added that authorities had arrested in Tuluá a suspected member of the “Dagoberto Ramos” ex-FARC dissident group, which is usually more active south of Cali.
Bogotá continued to see massive, and generally more peaceful, protests, with greatest numbers on May 26, the four-week anniversary of the general strike’s launch. These have been concentrated around the Monument to the Heroes, a park not far from the city’s financial district, and around the Las Américas mass-transit portal in a working-class area in the city’s southwest. Protesters have rechristened Portal Las Américas as “Portal de la Resistencia.”
Visiting Cali on the evening of May 28, following the city’s very violent day, President Iván Duque issued a decree authorizing the military to play a greater role in keeping public order in eight of Colombia’s departments (provinces): seven in the south and west, and one (Norte de Santander) in the northeast. Decree 575 activates “military assistance,” a legal authorization allowing the military’s temporary use for “emergency or public calamity.” The decree requires mayors and governors in the eight departments to cooperate with the deployed soldiers or “be subject to sanctions,” which are unspecified.
“About 7,000 uniformed personnel from all armed forces will be in the streets,” El Tiempo reported. Defense Minister Molano tweeted video of rucksack-bearing troops boarding aircraft as they deployed to Cali (and some to Popayán, the capital of Cauca to the south). “This deployment will almost triple our capacity throughout the province in less than 24 hours, ensuring assistance in nerve centers where we have seen acts of vandalism, violence and low-intensity urban terrorism,” Duque said. He added that the security forces will devote more intelligence resources to prove the government’s thesis that Colombia’s armed groups are behind acts of vandalism. “Islands of anarchy cannot exist in our country,” the President proclaimed.
Human rights advocates, including WOLA, voiced concern about the large deployment of troops, who have been trained and experienced in combat during Colombia’s armed conflict but have little experience in techniques that require a much lighter touch, like crowd control and de-escalation of tense situations.
Citing persistent examples of excessive use of force, opposition members of Congress sought a censure vote against Defense Minister Molano, who since taking office in February has made occasional headlines with aggressive statements. Molano’s resignation is among the many demands of the Strike Committee that organized the initial April 28 protests.
The legislature’s ability to terminate cabinet members via censure votes came about in the 1991 constitution, adjusted by a 2007 law. While the Congress has sought to censure ministers 29 times, no censure effort has ever succeeded in revoking one. The process has served mainly to draw attention to strong critiques of a minister’s performance.
The House of Representatives met for seven hours on May 24. After some strong speeches on both sides, in both chambers, by week’s end it did not appear that opposition legislators had the votes necessary to fire Molano. “Traditional politicians see this in two colors: that to vote for the motion is to vote for the strikes and [leftist politician and likely 2022 presidential candidate Gustavo] Petro,” a representative from the center-right Cambio Radical party told La Silla Vacía.
“No one should have been injured, in their personal integrity or life, by this violence,” Molano told the House of Representatives. “While I regret each one of those who have been affected, the responsibility is not of the police, but of those who generate violence.” He added his view that “institutions are under attack” in a coordinated way. “How curious that not only in Cali, but also in Bogota, in Barranquilla, in Cartagena, we have had systematic attacks on institutions. Why the mayors’ offices? Why the governors’ offices? What we see today in Tuluá, where a justice unit has just been incinerated.”
Negotiations continued, haltingly, in Bogotá between the government and the Strike Committee, which is largely made up of labor union leaders though other sectors have representation. Early in the week, media reported that the two sides has reached a “pre-agreement” laying the groundwork for more structured negotiations. The Strike Committee developed a list of short-term demands to discuss in these negotiations, focused mainly on labor rights, basic income and suspension of utility payments, access to education, and women’s rights.
By week’s end, though, negotiations remained as far off as they had been when the week began. Both sides had pre-conditions that remained unmet. The Strike Committee demanded that the government cease using excessive force and “guarantee the right to social protest.” The government demanded that the Committee publicly call for an end to road blockades that have contributed to shortages of basic goods.
“Some members of the Strike Committee have insisted on exclusively promoting the figure of ‘humanitarian corridors’ [exceptions allowing essential goods to pass through roadblocks], without condemning the blockades,” said the government’s chief negotiator following a meeting on May 27. “For the National Government, this point is non-negotiable.”
That government official is Emilio Archila, who as the Presidency’s High Commissioner for Stabilization is also responsible for most peace accord implementation. As the lead government representative in talks with the Strike Committee, Archila replaces High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos who, as discussed below, resigned on May 24.
Government and Strike Committee representatives were to meet again on May 30. The government’s insistence on lifting roadblocks is likely to be at the center of discussions.
Citing the Defense Ministry, Reuters reported on May 26 that 73 roadblocks were active around the country. The term in this case generally does not refer to the urban concentration sites where “Primera Línea” and other “resistance” groups have stopped city traffic: it refers to groups of people using barriers and debris to stop traffic on roads that are usually the only routes between major cities.
Highway roadblocks are leading to shortages of basic goods in urban markets and gas lines in some cities. They have blocked much cargo activity in Buenaventura, Colombia’s principal port. They threaten to affect fuel transfers from the key refinery in Barrancabermeja, Santander.
The roadblocks give protesters important bargaining power with the government. In a communique, the Strike Committee insisted that the “so-called blockades,” or “temporary and intermittent road closures,” are part of “legitimate possibilities” for protest.
Because they cause shortages and economic harm, though, prolonged roadblocks—those less “temporary and intermittent”—carry a large public opinion cost for the protesters. The cost is especially high when roadblocks stop ambulances and other vehicles on urgent medical missions, like oxygen deliveries. An especially strong outcry followed the death of an intubated newborn baby, in the pre-dawn hours of May 22, in a blocked ambulance on the road between Buenaventura and Cali.
Stopping roadblocks was the main demand of perhaps 10,000 white-clad protesters who marched in downtown Cali on May 25 to demand an end to the situation. Hundreds took part in similar marches in the provincial capitals of Neiva, Huila and Popayán, Cauca.
Vice President visits Washington
Colombia’s vice president and newly named foreign minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, paid a week-long visit to the United States—first New York, then Washington—to tell the Colombian government’s side of the story. As a member of the Conservative party—not the more right-populist Centro Democrático party of President Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe—Ramirez presented the government’s case to U.S. audiences in more moderate terms, avoiding some of the fire-breathing rhetoric of Uribe and other CD politicians.
In Washington, where Ramírez held about 20 meetings, those audiences included several members of Congress (Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Robert Menéndez (D-New Jersey), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida); Reps. Albio Sires (D-New Jersey) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts)); members of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH); non-governmental or semi-governmental organizations like WOLA, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Institute for Peace; OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro; and finally, on May 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. La Silla Vacía notes that Ramírez did not secure meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris or Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).
Secretary Blinken “expressed his concern and condolences for the loss of life during recent protests in Colombia and reiterated the unquestionable right of citizens to protest peacefully,” according to a State Department readout. “He welcomed the national dialogue President Duque has convened as an opportunity for the Colombian people to work together to construct a peaceful, prosperous future.” This was likely a reference to the slow-moving talks between the government and the Strike Committee.
The State Department’s public-facing remarks made no mention of concern about the security forces’ recent human rights performance. Following his May 28 meeting, Sen. Murphy raised the issue: “the Colombian authorities’ treatment of protestors—specifically the use of lethal force—is very disturbing. I communicated my concerns directly to Vice President Ramirez this week, and I specifically urged the Colombian government to immediately allow in international human rights bodies so that there can be an independent accounting of the violence that has consumed the country.” On the other end of the spectrum, after meeting with Florida-based Colombian business leaders, Sen. Rubio said he saw “an orchestrated attack against the stability of Colombia’s democratic future.”
At the White House’s May 24 press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether she was prepared to “denounce police brutality in Colombia… from this lectern.” A similar call came in a May 26 letter from three U.S. labor federations (AFL-CIO, SEIU, and Teamsters). Psaki responded obliquely:
Well, I will say we welcome announcements by the Colombian government to investigate allegations of excessive use of force by police. The Colombian government, as you know, has activated a special urgent search unit to investigate reports of missing persons, with 35 search teams deployed nationwide to follow reports received through their 24-hour hotlines.
We encourage the authorities to continue to work to locate all missing persons as quickly as possible, and we certainly encourage those actions.
Numerous human rights advocates had been making calls similar to Sen. Murphy’s: that the Colombian government accept an in situ visit from the CIDH, an autonomous body of the OAS. The CIDH on May 7 communicated to the Duque government its desire to pay such a visit. Being present in Colombia, CIDH President Antonia Urrejola told El Espectador, “would allow direct information to be gathered and a dialogue to be held with all sectors in order to generate recommendations to guide the roadmap for overcoming the crisis.”
On May 24, following a meeting with OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, Ramírez turned down a CIDH visit for the time being, on the grounds that “it is necessary to wait for the government’s investigative agencies themselves to finish their work” and share their information with the Commission. The refusal drew quick criticism amid observations that only governments like those of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela tend to reject CIDH visits.
By May 25, after meeting with Urrejola and other CIDH commissioners, Vice President Ramírez said the Commission was welcome after its June 29 regular public hearings about the situation in Colombia. The CIDH put out a statement “emphasizing the importance of a working visit as soon as possible.”
On May 26 Ramírez said the Commission could visit “any time it wants,” even “tomorrow and we wouldn’t have any problem.” Colombia sent a letter on the evening of May 27 accepting a visit. The letter asks that the Commission’s work cover protesters’ road blockades, including a request that they cease. Another letter, dated May 25, invites Almagro to visit.
On May 27, while the Vice President was in Washington, President Duque spoke at a virtual event hosted by two Washington-based think tanks, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Inter-American Dialogue. Duque said that abuses committed by security forces must be investigated, as well as violent acts committsed by civilians against security forces. He added that the Fiscalía is investigating 17 such cases.
Duque blamed acts of violence and vandalism on the “influence of armed groups that promote this type of behavior to create uncertainty.” Several days earlier, Duque had told Forbes, “The police on an annual basis undertake more than 30 million police procedures. Are there cases of abuse within 30 million police procedures? Yes, there are—there might be.”
Dialogue President Michael Shifter had some unvarnished words for Duque in his initial questioning, La Silla Vacía noted: “The perception in Washington is that your government has not been able to handle the crisis, that there are Colombians who are not happy with your work. We all condemn the vandalism, but the protests seem to have legitimate grievances, some longstanding, some new. There are credible reports of police abuse.”
New high commissioner for peace
Since the first days of the Duque administration Miguel Ceballos, a former Georgetown University professor and vice-minister of Justice, had served as high commissioner for peace. The position, created in the 1990s, leads government efforts to negotiate with armed groups, and usually with other groups making strong demands, like the Strike Committee.
Though President Duque later revealed that Ceballos had declared an intention to leave his post months earlier, the High Commissioner abruptly announced his resignation on May 24. In an interview with El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, Ceballos said he was unhappy that former president Álvaro Uribe, the founder of the governing Centro Democrático party, had made contacts with leaders of the ELN guerrillas without first consulting him. As High Commissioner, Ceballos was the official charged with authorizing such contacts.
Ceballos indicated interest in running for the presidency in 2022; with only modest name recognition and without support of a political party—he left the Conservative party in 2016—such a run would be a longshot.
President Duque quickly named a new high commissioner: Juan Camilo Restrepo, the vice-minister of agriculture for rural development. Restrepo is a controversial choice.
Contagio Radio notes that he headed Colombia’s Association of Banana Producers, some of whose members are suspected of supporting paramilitary groups in the past. During Restrepo’s tenure, the Association published declarations of Raúl Hasbún, a northwest Colombian banana-zone businessman who went to prison for actually being a paramilitary leader. Restrepo later headed a company, AUGURA, that donated 33 million pesos (then about US$11,000) to the campaign to defeat the 2016 peace accord in a plebiscite held in October of that year.
The former FARC political party, Comunes, criticized Restrepo’s nomination in a statement issued May 27. “How is he going to implement the accord if he doesn’t even agree with it or believe in it?” it reads.
The 2022 U.S. aid request
On May 28 the Biden administration sent to Congress its detailed budget request for the 2022 fiscal year. It would provide Colombia with $453,850,000 next year, which is $8,525,000 or 2 percent less than what Congress specified for Colombia in the 2021 foreign aid appropriation.
Of that $453 million, $216 million (in fact, probably $252 million adding likely judicial aid) would go through USAID accounts that pay for economic development and civilian institution-building, including peace accord implementation. $42 million would definitely be military or police aid. $196 million (in fact, probably $160 million subtracting likely judicial aid) would go through State Department accounts that can pay for either military/police or economic aid, like counter-narcotics programs. This latter category includes $21 million for demining programs, an amount that has stayed steady since 2017.
This amount does not include an unspecified amount of additional aid to help Colombia attend to the Venezuelan migrant population.
An additional amount of aid reaches Colombia’s military and police outside this foreign aid budget. It goes through the Defense Department’s budget, which includes its own separate “train and equip” authorities. While we don’t know how much that Defense aid would be for 2021 (and don’t have the 2020 Defense number yet either), between 2016 and 2019 it ranged from $55 million to $96 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The $453.85 million 2022 request for Colombia closely follows the same lines as appropriations passed since the outgoing Obama administration’s 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package became law:
- $402.4 million in 2017
- $436.7 million in 2018
- $422.2 million in 2019
- $461.1 million in 2020 (plus about $124 million in counter-drug funds that the Trump administration transferred to Colombia after stripping it from Central America aid)
- $462.4 million in 2021
The only notable adjustment is a proposed $14 million decrease in the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, from $189 million in 2021 to $175 million in 2022. This program supports drug eradication and interdiction operations, as well as assistance to the Fiscalía and other parts of Colombia’s justice system. INCLE is by far the largest source of assistance to Colombia’s National Police, which is currently under a cloud as evidence of protest-related abuses continues to mount.
- WOLA and four other groups hosted a May 28 event, with archived video, about police violence in the context of protests.
- Two articles in Colombian media outlets by WOLA’s Adam Isacson look at the protests’ meaning and the potential U.S. role. “People are no longer afraid to express what they feel,” reads an interview with El Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco. At Razón Pública, a column discusses how the National Strike is being viewed from Washington.
- Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which the 2016 peace accord gives a role in verifying both sides’ compliance with commitments, issued on May 25 its fifth report on accord implementation. “A significant difference exists between the current peacebuilding funds and what is needed to meet the goals established in the Framework Plan for Implementation,” it finds.
- The Defensoría counted 34 murders of social leaders during the first three months of 2021. This would be a significant drop from 54 it counted during the first quarter of 2020. (The NGO Indepaz, which often has the highest of all major estimates, had counted 42 social-leader killings as of March 31.)
- Several U.S. and Colombian human rights organizations met on May 28 with officials from the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to discuss concerns.
- Four men armed with assault rifles entered a former FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in rural Tumaco, Nariño, on May 24. They threatened a demobilized guerrilla at his home, then departed.
- Pilar Rueda, who coordinates the gender team at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s (JEP) Investigations and Accusations Unit, told El Espectador she is “sure” that the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal will do more to take up the many cases of sexual violence committed during the armed conflict with the FARC.
- At La Silla Vacía, Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz looks at violence data for the first four months of 2021 and finds a troubling increase in homicides and other measures. “While the pandemic may be part of the explanation, the state’s security strategy, along with the fragmentation of illegal armed groups, plays a central role. Above all, because the increases recorded, specifically in conflict zones, surpassed the records of the pre-pandemic years to levels we had not seen in the past decade.”
- Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned Colombia’s ambassador to Moscow to explain comments by Defense Minister Molano, who had said Russian “cyberattacks” were helping to drive the country’s ongoing protests.
- A proof-of-life video was sent to the mother of Army Colonel Pedro Enrique Pérez, who disappeared while off duty on April 18, after visiting a hotel with a woman in Saravena, Arauca, a municipality on the Venezuelan border with a large presence of armed groups. Col. Pérez is believed to be in Venezuelan territory, a captive of the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group, which operates on both sides of the border.
- As of May 28, eight Venezuelan soldiers remained captive of the 10th Front dissidents in Apure, across the border from Arauca. Fighting between Venezuela’s security forces and the 10th Front has been frequent since March 21. In a new proof of life video, some of the soldiers appeal to the Maduro regime for help arranging their release.
- On May 27 the Fiscalía arrested and charged 11 people in Arauca with conspiracy to support the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group. The 10th Front is the same group that has been fighting Venezuelan government forces across the border from Arauca, in Apure. Among the arrested is an official from the Arauca city mayor’s office and several members of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca (ACA), a large and politically active local campesino organization. At least one ACA member was arrested at 4:00 AM and taken away in a truck without license plates.
- Between 2:00 and 4:00 AM on May 24, police operating on Fiscalía orders carried out nine raids on residences in Cali and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, arresting seven people whom they accused of being part of the support network of the “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group. El Espectador noted with alarm that three of those arrested are directors of a well-regarded cooperative set up after the peace accord to help former combatants earn a living.
- “The Duque government is on its way out and has neither the will nor the legitimacy to address the underlying issues behind the National Strike,” writes Andrei Gómez Suárez of Rodeemos el Diálogo. Therefore, “it is necessary to prepare the conditions for a national dialogue when the next government arrives with sufficient determination to make the necessary structural transformations.”
- “It is easy to deduce that it is the government itself that has contributed to the prolonged and increasingly massive strike,” writes Sandra Borda of the Universidad de los Andes.
- “In the last month, 14,782 Colombians have died from Covid, and 84,724 since the pandemic began, almost double the number of all combatants killed during the entire armed conflict in Colombia measured since 1958,” reports La Silla Vacía, in coverage of the latest bimonthly Invamer poll, which in fact shows the pandemic low on the list of Colombians’ main concerns.
Here’s an English translation of an interview of WOLA’s Adam Isacson with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Sunday’s edition of Colombia’s El Espectador.
“People are no longer afraid to express what they feel”
Politics 22 May 2021 – 10:00 p. m.
By: Cecilia Orozco Tascón
A conversation with Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an influential think tank in the U.S. capital. Isacson discusses the law and order situation in Colombia, its impact on the Biden administration, the international impact of allegations of police abuse, and the possibility of “authoritarian populism” winning the 2022 elections.
You have been an analyst of the political situation in Colombia for more than 20 years from the research centers where you have worked. To what do you attribute the social explosion of April and May 2021, outside the moment created by the pandemic and by a tax reform bill that was – to say the least – inopportune?
This could be the same social explosion that began in November 2019. If the year-end holidays and then the pandemic had not interrupted it, we would probably be talking about 18 months of continuous social unrest. The economic despair did not disappear; the anger at the government’s lack of empathy did not disappear; the pain for the lack of implementation of the Peace Agreement and the massacre of social leaders in remote territories did not disappear. On the contrary, all of the above were aggravated during the pandemic.
The country has not been, like other Latin American countries, a country of massive and sustained protests for days and weeks. Nor has it usually overthrown presidents. But this time, peaceful demonstrations and violent acts after them have been going on for almost a month continuously. What changed from its past, so that people decided to go out constantly despite the risk of COVID contagion and the danger of being injured or killed in the riots?
The big change came with the 2016 Peace Accord, because it reduced people’s fear of exercising their freedom of expression. The demobilization of the FARC removed the stigma attached to public protest. Prior to 2016, Colombia had a very large, violent, nationwide guerrilla group that was perceived as an existential threat. It was easy to label anyone who went out to protest as a “guerrilla” in order to delegitimize them, and many people did not dare to demonstrate because of that association. After the accord, the stigma disappeared or is much weaker. The Duque government still tries to present some protesters as linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents. However, these are regional groups that do not represent a great danger to the cities and it is not so convincing. In short, there is more political space for people to take to the streets and they are no longer afraid to express what they feel.
So, could it be said that although citizens knew they could demand their rights, they repressed themselves?
Yes. There was fear of expressing themselves publicly because of the stigmatization of being labeled as “guerrillas” and also because of the social contempt with which the demonstrators were viewed.
People from the governing party and those in uniform maintain that there is a systematic process: first, the massive, peaceful, daytime marches. Then, the nighttime ones that turn into riots produced by individuals who destroy public and private property. Do you think there is a “terrorist” plan of forces opposed to the Duque administration?
Something similar was seen in the United States during the protests that erupted after the assassination of George Floyd. In the daytime, they were peaceful, massive, disciplined, and inspiring. At night, especially in the first two weeks, a small number of people would break windows, set fire to property and clash with the police. On some occasions, these were young people who had become politically radicalized and were filled with hatred for the police, whose aggressive response then inflamed them even further. In others, they were criminals seeking economic gain, almost always through looting. In both cases, the fringe of late-night agitators gave the Trump administration the pretext to use rhetoric delegitimizing Black Lives Matter protesters and their demands. Trump focused his attacks against the demonstrations on something called “antifa” – short for “anti-fascist” – which is more a political posture than an actual group. There has no coordination of violence in the United States. A similar position now appears in Colombia: there is very little evidence of a national movement of violence, but the government tries to blame that activity on armed groups and even international agitators.
Regarding your mention of the “antifa” (supposed leftist extremists who would go, city by city, exporting vandals and vandalism), is the Trump strategy and that of the Colombian government when it blames the “castrochavistas” for vandalism and looting, is it the same and does it intend the same effects?
The term “castrochavista” is the closest thing there is to “antifa”: it means almost the same thing and is the same pretext to justify a violent official response and to disqualify the demonstrators.
But what would the government get out of lying? In any case, gaining time while the social order deteriorates does not seem to be beneficial for the administration nor for its party in the medium or long term when it is discovered that it was only trying to hide its inability to solve a problem?
It is a distraction that serves to avoid facing conversations with protesters, for example, about inequality, just as Trump did not want to talk about racism. It’s a way to put off decisions you don’t want to make by inventing phantoms that distort reality.
The electoral period will soon begin in the country. A scenario of street vandalism, looting and public disorder would be favorable to those who have traditionally fed on voters’ fear. Would this strategy of the ruling party, successful in the past, work in today’s Colombia?
The Democratic Center will use the scenes of violent disorder in the streets to mobilize its electoral base, that is, the roughly one third of Colombians who are hardcore Uribistas. The governing party needs that third of the country to vote massively, but what about the more moderate voters, who seem to share many of the protesters’ demands? They are unhappy with the violence of the protests, but they are also shocked by videos of police brutality. As long as the non-Uribista candidates do not propose anything that scares moderates – just as the slogan “defund the police” scared some moderates in the United States – the appeal of the Democratic Center may be limited to its most rabid base.
Taking into account the situation of permanent social unrest in the country, which does not seem likely to subside immediately, and according to your office’s analysis, do you see the possibility that democracy could be interrupted in Colombia?
It seems very unlikely to me that there will be a rupture of the constitutional order in Colombia. For that to happen, it would require a broad consensus on an opposition candidate or party, or the security forces declaring their lack of confidence in the president. But the picture is different: the opposition is divided, all institutions continue to support the current democratic rules, very few people are seriously calling for Duque’s resignation and most political actors are focused on the impending election campaign.
And what would be the attitude of the United States if there were a total rupture of democracy, for example, declaring and extending the figure of internal commotion [state of siege] or suspending next year’s elections?
In the case of a declaration of internal commotion, as it is a constitutional mechanism, perhaps the U.S. government would keep silent. But if an unconstitutional maneuver is made, such as postponing the elections or extending the current presidential term, I think the Biden administration would speak out because, at that point, the credibility of the United States would be at stake: it cannot criticize Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador for what is happening in each of those countries, and remain silent if its best friend in the region does the same.
The Duque government and his party have been conducting a prolonged fear campaign against the supposed possibility of Colombia becoming “another Venezuela”. In the analysis of Washington officials, is there also this fear of the popularity and high vote of political figures who are opposed to Duque and Uribe and would oppose a leftist triumph?
My perception is that Joe Biden sees himself as one of the few “post-populist” presidents in the world, who managed to remove an authoritarian from power by winning an election. His administration has distanced itself from or opposed populists on the left (Maduro), center (Bukele), and right (Bolsonaro). It could be expected to show the same discomfort with a candidate in Colombia, right or left, Uribista or socialist, who seeks to weaken institutions or collapse democratic checks and balances. At the same time, I do not believe that the Biden administration would oppose a leftist candidate who respects institutions and works within the framework of democratic rules.
U.S. Congressional leaders have called for suspending or not renewing aid to the Colombian police force because of evidence and reports of abuses of power in riot control, and because of protesters killed and injured by ESMAD intervention. How likely is it that the Biden administration will suspend its aid?
We have confirmed that the ESMAD does not receive aid, although it buys equipment manufactured in the United States. As for the institution, unless the human rights situation continues to worsen, it is unlikely that there will be a total suspension of aid to the National Police because the relationship with the United States is very close. It extends from eradication to drug interdiction, to DEA operations, to the establishment of Carabineros units, to the training of forces from other countries. However, there may be some important changes. Since Police General (r) Rosso Jose Serrano fired thousands of officers [in the 1990s], the institution was believed to be less corrupt, more respectful of human rights and more professional. Videos and accounts of abuses in the current protests and the aggressive words of the directors of the Colombian Police and Defense Ministry have alerted U.S. policymakers to the fact that the institution is now badly troubled. The United States is wrestling with its own need to implement police reform, and policy actors in Washington will be examining the situation in Colombia from that perspective.
From several think tanks there are proposals for dialogue to find a solution to the national crisis. Among these proposals, there are two directed to the United States: a. To demand an immediate reform of the Police. b. That while the ESMAD’s protocols are being reviewed, the sale to Colombia of “crowd control” material (dissuasion weapons, gases, tanks) be suspended. Could these requests be well received in Washington?
I believe that both proposals enjoy sympathy among Biden administration officials. But again, because of the long and close relationship with the Colombian police, they will prefer to speak privately. U.S. government officials should be aware that publicly expressing concern about unacceptable behavior by a partner does not mean breaking with that partner.
Does it mean that they privately scold and ask them to correct or else they will receive a financial or arms ban reprimand?
Yes. In some cases, if, for example, a military unit is prohibited from receiving aid by the Leahy Law (the U.S. will not provide foreign military assistance to human rights violators), such a prohibition will be communicated privately to the state. Where such lists [of banned units] exist, they are also kept in reserve. Uniformed personnel who have not been cleared or whose names are in the database of suspected human rights violators may not receive training in the U.S. or enter the country. [Note: “enter the country” was added by editors. Visa denial does not automatically accompany Leahy Law disapproval.]
In one of your articles, recently published by El Espectador, you state that if the Biden administration pushes the Duque administration to opt for the path of dialogue to face the current crisis, “it would be developing a framework” for all Latin America where several countries are facing “authoritarian populism”. What do you mean by this term and to which political phenomena are you referring to?
Worldwide, democracy is in retreat as leaders are being elected who ignore institutional controls, constantly lie, attack the media, call their opponents “terrorists” or worse, and seek to stay in power by any means. Venezuela and Russia were the pioneers, but it also happened in Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, El Salvador and many other countries. The United States just had such a president for four years, and he is leading one of our two main political parties. What is happening in Colombia today is a big test: whether democratic institutions can channel desperate social demands, stemming from generations of inequality, or not. The Peace Accord was a great vote of confidence in these institutions. Can Colombia resolve this crisis through dialogue without violence and without resorting to a populist figure? If so, Colombia would be an astonishing example for the rest of the world in this troubled beginning of the 21st century.
Or else, could “authoritarian populism” win in the 2022 election?
It is quite possible that an authoritarian populist candidate could win, yes. At both ideological extremes there may be candidates who see institutions as obstacles or who see themselves as the saviors of the country.
You are not only an expert in security matters but also in human rights. Could the Colombian state be subject to sanctions promoted by Washington, the United Nations and other organizations for the violation of the rights of demonstrators, in addition to the fact that it already has a negative record for the assassination of defenders, social leaders, and former combatants?
This really depends on the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] and the Colombian justice system. We know that human rights violations are occurring at an unacceptable level. Will Colombian institutions identify those responsible and hold them accountable? Will they do so in an efficient manner so that the victims don’t have to wait 10 years for a result? If so, it would be a hopeful break from a very bitter history of impunity in Colombia. If not, then, yes, there will be sanctions. U.S. law, for example, prohibits aid to units (police or military) that commit abuses with impunity. And the Inter-American System and the International Criminal Court are also there for cases in which a country’s judicial system proves unwilling or unable to bring to justice perpetrators of serious human rights violations.
It has been seen that the Duque government’s response to protests has been violent repression, even of peaceful demonstrations. While the official language is partially conciliatory, the shock troops (ESMAD and others) are authorized to attack, reduce, and capture. How can the Biden administration call out the national administration for its handling of street grievances?
Although the Biden administration values human rights much more than the Trump administration, it also thinks about stability and the geopolitical reality of the continent. It is concerned about any symptom of instability in a country considered a close ally, in a region facing challenges from Russia and China, sometimes through Venezuela. Meanwhile, the United States has a longstanding relationship with the Colombian police and doesn’t want to risk it with public criticism. That said, U.S. officials can’t possibly support the brutal tactics of units such as ESMAD, because they know that such tactics prolong and escalate protests unnecessarily. They must be aware that such practices continue to worsen the instability they are so concerned about.
Here is an English translation of a piece that ran in Colombia’s Razón Pública on Monday.
Written by Adam Isacson May 24, 2021
Although many U.S. congressmen have rejected police violence in Colombia, the Biden administration continues to remain silent. Why?
Four weeks of the national strike have passed and the administration of Joe Biden has not said much about the current situation in Colombia.
The silence is partly explained by the fact that the U.S. government has other priorities and that politicians and diplomats do not like to speak publicly about the behavior of their allies when they disagree with them. The unfortunate consequence is that silence is misinterpreted as indifference or as an act of support for the security forces in Colombia.
But what is happening in Colombia has not gone unnoticed in Washington. A large number of progressive members of Congress, moved by videos of police brutality, has expressed outrage at the human rights violations, mostly committed by government forces. A small number of conservative voices have repeated some of the Duque government’s arguments: that the protests are the work of organized agitators.
More moderate legislators have either said nothing or taken a Solomonic position: “both sides are to blame.” For now, it appears that the Biden administration’s response follows the line of the moderates, who remain silent.
Some of the U.S. voices calling on the Duque administration to curb police violence are already well known in Colombia.
Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern was the first to speak out on the issue. McGovern has visited Colombia repeatedly over the past twenty years and now heads the powerful House Rules Committee.
On May 3, he tweeted, “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend. U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”
The “Leahy Law” prohibits military assistance (though not the sale of military equipment) to foreign security forces with a pattern of serious human rights violations, without effective state action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although ESMAD does not receive U.S. assistance, the tear gas they use is made in the United States. But the Colombian state buys these and other equipment with its own funds.
On May 11, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who gives the law its name, tweeted, “It is shocking to see the violent police response by the Colombian govt of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters. Legitimate grievances, while no excuse for violence or vandalism, should be a cause for dialogue, not excessive force. If the Colombian govt has solid evidence that protests are being orchestrated by terrorists, as alleged, produce the evidence and arrest the perpetrators. If not then law abiding Colombians will understandably lose patience with their leaders.” Senator Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the most powerful members of the chamber, and a veteran Colombia watcher.
Another high-level Democrat who strongly criticized the Colombian government was New York Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, who has championed the rights of Colombian Afro-descendants and now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On May 4, Meeks tweeted, “I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable.”
Other progressives, including Senator Edward J. Markey, Texas Democratic Representative Joaquín Castro and New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also expressed their concern on social media and in press releases.
On May 14, 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where they asked the State Department to:
- more forcefully denounce police brutality;
- suspend all aid to the Colombian police;
- stop the sale of riot control equipment;
- publicly reject statements by Colombian officials linking protesters to terrorist groups; and
- urge and even facilitate dialogue.
While progressives have been notably active, U.S. right-wing figures have been rather quiet.
On May 6, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”
If this sounds vaguely like the rhetoric of “molecular revolution dissipated” it is because many of Senator Rubio’s Colombian constituents are aligned with Uribismo. In South Florida, the Colombian protests are a frequent topic of conversation on Spanish-language radio, where commentators view the demonstrations as the result of a “hybrid warfare” strategy by the left.
Rubio’s tweet is the only statement on the strike that I have seen from a Republican member of the U.S. Congress. But that doesn’t mean the right is staying silent: a conservative Washington think tank called the Center for a Secure Free Society released a report on May 17 entitled “Asymmetric Assault on Colombia,” in which it argued that “the Colombian people, especially the peaceful protestors, are not the culprits in the crisis—they are the victims.”
They claim that the protesters, who lack agency, have been misled by international agitators. The report continues: “As some of the most vulnerable in society, the poor and middle class in Colombia are targeted as tools of asymmetric warfare by foreign and domestic adversaries to the Colombian state”.
The moderates and the Biden administration
As vocal as progressives are, and will continue to be, they alone will not get the Biden administration to act decisively against police violence in Colombia.
Much depends on what moderates in the Democratic Party, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., or Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, do or say. Both have so far remained silent.
These and other lawmakers, who are heard by Biden, do not dismiss the progressives’ arguments, although they may not share some recommendations, such as freezing police aid. And they are more likely to be in touch with the Colombian embassy and business community.
For its part, the Biden administration has expressed only mild concern. On May 4, Juan Gonzalez, White House National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted, “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” Two days later Gonzalez told The Hill: “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”
The State Department issued a statement on May 4 with a message to both sides: “All over the world, citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights.”
A long-standing relationship
The Biden administration wants to be cautious for a primarily geopolitical reason: it does not want to clash with one of its few strong allies in the region, one that shares borders with Venezuela, while Chinese and Russian influence appears to be growing. At the same time, the Biden administration doesn’t ignore the long and deep relationship the United States has maintained with the Colombian police, forged since before the fight against the Medellin and Cali cartels.
I estimate that U.S. cooperation with the Colombian Police will amount to about $150 to $160 million in 2021 (out of a total police and military aid package of about $250 million, which in turn is part of a $520 million aid package). The purposes of this cooperation include:
- coca eradication;
- cocaine interdiction;
- cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in operations against drug traffickers;
- intelligence sharing with police Special Investigation Units (SIU);
- assistance in increasing the presence of rural police (Carabineros) and police posts in conflictive territories;
- cooperation on extraditions and Interpol cases; and
- cooperation on training other countries’ forces.
The relationship between the U.S. government and the Colombian police runs deep: you can see it in the large number of olive green uniforms circulating in the corridors and on the sidewalks if you visit the U.S. embassy in Bogota.
So it is not hard to understand why Biden administration officials are reluctant to talk about freezing aid or sales to the police, and why their public statements have been far softer than those of the UN, the European Union and the OAS mission.
Nationwide protest updates
As of May 20, the database of protest-related deaths maintained by the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz totaled 51 victims of fatalities: 50 civilians and one police agent. In 35 cases for which the groups could name an alleged perpetrator, 29 were police, of whom 18 were likely members of the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD). Six likely perpetrators were civilians. Of the 51 killings, 38 took place in Cali or its environs. Eight people died between May 17 and 20, all in the Cali metropolitan area.
José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, tweeted that his organization has received credible information about 58 deaths in the context of the protests, of which it has been able to confirm 19.
- “Negotiations,” a mechanism more formal than “dialogues,” began on May 16 between the government and the Strike Committee, the group of mostly union leaders that convened the ongoing National Strike on April 28. The Committee’s most immediate of 19 demands is that the government withdraw the Army and the ESMAD riot police, cease excessive use of force, and allow the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to carry out a field visit.
- On May 16 President Iván Duque ordered a “maximum operational capacity” deployment of soldiers and police to clear road blockades set up around the country. By the end of the week, dozens of blockades remained.
- In an effort to get businesses to hire young people, Duque also said the government would subsidize 25 percent of the minimum wage of all workers between 18 and 28 years old.
- Protests grew violent the evening of May 16 and on May 17 in Yumbo, near Cali. A harsh response to protests by the ESMAD riot police may have prolonged the chaos.
- In a May 17 statement, the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), which represents numerous Indigenous communities in southwestern Colombia, said it was not participating in ongoing negotiations between the government and the Strike Committee.
- President Duque confirmed on May 18 that Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez will also serve as foreign minister, replacing the departed Claudia Blum. As Colombian law requires presidential candidates to have held no other government office during the year prior to elections, this means Ramírez will not be a presidential candidate in May 2022. La Silla Vacía contends that a key reason for Blum’s departure from the foreign ministry was that she was being undercut by Vice-Minister Adriana Mejía, who sent a very strongly worded letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights without Blum’s approval.
- Cali’s police chief, Gen. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, resigned on May 18 after four and a half months on the job.
- Colombia’s Senate and House of Representatives voted on May 19 to oppose a healthcare system reform bill that the National Strike protesters had opposed.
- A court in Ibagué, Tolima agreed on May 19 with the civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which argued that the police killing of protester Santiago Murillo should not go to the military justice system. Murillo was killed on May 1 in Ibagué; the Constitutional Court now must decide which justice system will try his killers.
- The military justice system “has historically been criticized for its slowness in cases, for allegations of impunity in many others, or because many find it difficult to believe that justice can be served when those investigating are colleagues, friends or subordinates,” El Espectador pointed out to that system’s director, Fabio Espitia. He responded, “If any decision is issued affecting a member of the security forces, ideologues will use that decision to delegitimize the security forces.”
- South America’s soccer federation CONMEBOL decided on May 20 that conditions in Colombia would not allow the country to host any games of the June 13-July 10 Copa América tournament.
- On May 20 the Standard and Poor’s credit-rating agency downgraded Colombia’s foreign currency debt. This, the Economist notes, ends “a decade in which it had enjoyed investment-grade status.”
- Defense Minister Diego Molano said on May 20 that forces in Cali had captured 25 people who “by way of outsourcing, supplied firearms and explosive devices to the protagonists of the latest riots.” Among those captured was an individual whom Molano alleged was involved in “politico-organizational activity of the masses” on behalf of the ELN’s urban units.
- Indigenous protesters blocking the Pan-American Highway in Cauca allowed a three-day “humanitarian corridor” to allow vehicles transporting essential times to pass through from May 20 to 23. On May 20, masked individuals seeking to re-block the highway confronted Indigenous Guards in Caldono, Cauca.
- On May 21 representatives of the government and the Strike Committee held a third meeting in the framework of ongoing negotiations. “Today we’re focused on pragmatic issues, and that is that 17 million people are suffering from hunger, 21 million are living in poverty,” said Strike Committee member Francisco Maltés of the CUT labor federation.
- After nearly three days in Medellín, a minga (coming together) of Antioquia indigenous groups departed on May 21 after reaching agreements with the governor’s office about investments in health, education, housing, and other demands. The negotiation process seemed to go smoothly and respectfully.
- As of May 19, 134 people were still “urgently” missing in the context of protests, according to official data cited by Verdad Abierta. The Fiscalía and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported locating 261 missing people, mostly in police custody.
- At Vice, Joshua Collins tells the story of a 17-year-old protester who apparently took her own life in Popayán on May 14, two days after she said she was sexually abused by police. The police denied her story until a human rights lawyer released video of her arrest. El Espectador interviewed the victim’s mother.
- A May 17 El Espectador feature profiles 14 young protesters who suffered severe eye damage from “non-lethal” police riot control weapons, particularly 12-gauge shotguns firing rubber projectiles.
- Dairo Hidalgo, a respected artist and youth leader in Medellín’s poor Comuna 13 neighborhood, inexplicably appeared on a police “most wanted” poster featuring protesters accused of committing acts of violence and vandalism.
- A shootout broke out the night of May 19 in Cali’s Calipso neighborhood between police and armed individuals near a supermarket. A young woman was killed in the crossfire.
- A Washington Post multimedia team analyzed videos of police abuse and found that they show “how Colombian police appear to have crossed a lethal line.”
- Protesters denounced on May 20 that police in civilian clothing fired on them in Cali. This is one of several denunciations of armed plainclothes people, at times alleged to be linked to security forces, firing on protesters in Cali.
- By May 21, Defensoría had counted 23 cases of sexual violence, “within a universe of 106 reports of gender-based violence against women and persons with diverse sexual orientation.” As of that date, Temblores had counted 21 cases of sexual violence.
- Attorney Víctor Mosquera said on May 21 that he is appealing to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission on behalf of a female police agent who suffered torture and sexual violence at the hands of a mob during protests in Cali on April 29.
- “Yes, the National Police will reform,” the force’s commander, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, told El Tiempo in an article that ran on May 21. As of May 17, 122 disciplinary investigations had been opened regarding allegations of protest-related abuse. Gen. Vargas said that human rights training and certification would be a priority, along with “adjustments” to the ESMAD riot police. “We are the first to reject illegal behavior by an officer and we will ask for forgiveness when there’s a judicial decision,” Vargas told Reuters on May 17.
The U.S. angle
- Marta Lucía Ramírez, now filling double duty as vice president and foreign minister, began a multi-day trip to the United States on May 21.
- On May 19, the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee met to consider the Biden administration’s nomination of career diplomat Brian Nichols to be the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. In nearly two hours of questioning of Nichols and a second nominee, there was only one mention of Colombia, an exchange between Nichols and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) that took a minute and five seconds. Markey asked “what steps should the U.S. government be taking to decrease violence and suppression of ordinary citizens” in Colombia. Noting that “the situation in Colombia is complicated,” Nichols called for engaging the Duque government on “de-escalating challenges,” supporting economic recovery, and prioritizing “getting back on track to implementation of the peace agreement.”
- In south Florida, where a recent poll found Latinos agreeing “that keeping socialism out of Florida is a bigger issue than jobs,” conservative leaders are “on the airwaves and social media telling Latinos not only that Marxist forces started the protests—but that President Biden and the Democrats are allied with those forces,” local journalist Tim Padgett told WRLN.
- At Foreign Policy, Genevieve Glatsky looks into the Leahy Law or other human rights measures that might interrupt the flow of U.S. assistance to Colombia’s police.
- At the New York Times, Amanda Taub discusses how, in Colombia and elsewhere, police violence backfires by escalating, prolonging, and encouraging more people to participate in protest movements.
- At Spain’s El País, Sally Palomino points out how the response to protests, especially in Cali, has highlighted longstanding racism and classism.
- “Despite decent growth since the early 2000s, inequality remains high,” recalls a report in the Economist. “At the current rate of improvement, it would take 11 generations for descendants of a poor Colombian to attain the average income, estimates the OECD.”
- At the Washington Post, Erika Moreno of Creighton University finds serious fault with the Defensoría, which lacks effective independence from the executive. “[T]he agency will probably follow what it has done in the past and give a mild response to accusations against members of the military and security apparatus.”
- At La Silla Vacía, director Juanita León reflects on how the dividing lines around Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—the “yes” and “no” sides of the October plebiscite—are similarly drawn around the National Strike. “While the Uribistas consider that the way out is more authority and a strong hand, the Yes supporters believe that what is needed is to deepen social reforms and deliberation.”
- Also at La Silla, negotiation expert Julián Arévalo discusses some of the “best practices” for successful dialogues that President Duque and his government are ignoring right now.
Jesus Santrich is killed in Venezuela
One of the best-known former FARC leaders was killed, probably in Venezuela’s state of Zulia, probably during the beginning of the week. Seuxis Hernandez alias Jesús Santrich, a 53-year-old, nearly blind guerrilla ideologue who returned to arms in 2019, was killed under circumstances that remain unclear.
Jesús Santrich was very close to Iván Márquez, the top leader who led the FARC’s negotiating team in Havana between 2012 and 2016. At the negotiations, Santrich was noted for his hardline views and occasional inflammatory statements.
In April 2018, police arrested Santrich on charges of conspiring to send cocaine to the United States during the post-peace accord period. Video appeared to show Santrich, who was brought into a meeting with DEA informants by Iván Márquez’s nephew, assenting to a drug deal. A year later, Santrich was released from prison when the transitional justice tribunal (JEP) decided there was insufficient evidence to prove that Santrich had committed a crime. Upon his May 2019 release, Santrich was sworn into Colombia’s House of Representatives—then disappeared several days later. He resurfaced in August in a video alongside Iván Márquez and other former guerrilla leaders, carrying a weapon as Márquez announced their rearmament as a dissident group called the “Segunda Marquetalia.” (Marquetalia was the site of the 1964 Army attack that gave rise to the FARC.)
A May 18 statement from the Segunda Marquetalia alleged that Colombian Army commandos entered Venezuelan territory and intercepted a vehicle in which Santrich was traveling, just over the border from Colombia in the northern Serranía de Perijá region. The statement said the troops killed Santrich, cut off his pinky finger, and flew back into Colombia in a yellow helicopter.
Defense Minister Diego Molano confirmed that the government had heard word of Santrich’s death. The Venezuelan government has said nothing. No image of a body has emerged.
Colombian media published other rumors, among them that Santrich was killed by mercenaries seeking reward money, or that the killing was the work of a rival, larger FARC dissident band, the “First Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who had rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized.
Because Santrich was more of an ideologist than a military strategist or financial coordinator, and probably commanded few if any fighters, his death may have little impact on the balance of power between the Colombian armed groups that operate with much freedom inside Venezuela. These include the Segunda Marquetalia, the First Front, the ELN, and smaller paramilitary-descended or narcotrafficking groups. For the Segunda Marquetalia, the loss of Santrich is probably more of a symbolic than a strategic blow.
His killing draws attention to Zulia, another part of the chaotic Colombia-Venezuela border, after more than two months of fighting further south and east in Venezuela’s Apure state, across from Colombia’s Arauca department. There, the 10th Front, apparently part of the Gentil Duarte organization, has faced the Venezuelan military’s largest offensive in many years. The 10th Front has perhaps 300 fighters, a Colombian Army source tells La Silla Vacía, of which about 60 are in Colombia.
That offensive may have hit the population of Apure’s borderlands harder than it has hit the 10th Front. More than 6,000 Venezuelan citizens have fled to Colombia, denouncing brutal abuse at the hands of the Venezuelan military and other security forces. The 10th Front, however, has hit the Venezuelan military quite hard, killing at least 16 soldiers. It continues to hold eight soldiers captive, and is reportedly in talks with at least a faction of the Venezuelan Army.
Venezuelan military analyst Jackeline Benarroche told Tal Cual that the Venezuelan military’s performance in Apure leaves big questions about its combat capacity, its professionalism, and the obsolescence of some of its equipment. “They sent many troops to try to control, but they did not evaluate well the nature of the people they were going to confront, nor the scope of the situation and the migration to Colombia.” At Efecto Cocuyo, analyst Javier Mayorca sees the border tensions worsening further: “It is not going to end in the immediate future, it can be prolonged and extended in geographical terms. If one connects the dots, one begins to see an increasingly extensive border area where there are various interests in dispute.”
High court rescues special congressional seats for victims
By a 5-3 vote on May 21, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld—rescued from oblivion, really—a key commitment of the peace accord’s second chapter. For the next two congressional terms (2022-2030), Colombia’s 172-seat House of Representatives will have 16 more seats. Each will be held by an elected representative of conflict victims, from one of the zones hit hardest by the conflict with the FARC. These representatives may not be from established political parties, including the party formed by the former FARC: they should come from victims’ organizations.
This commitment of section 2.3.6 of the peace accord had appeared dead. In 2017, a bill to create the special congressional districts for victims passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November. 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.
Legal challenges to revive the “special peace districts” foundered in lower courts, and this promise of the accord appeared nearly dead. In December 2019, though, Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case and review the 2017 Senate vote.
The Court has not issued details of its decision yet, so timetables are not clear. But it appears certain that most of Colombia’s 9 million victims will soon have a louder voice in the legislature.
- Somos Defensores published its annual report covering attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia in 2020. The group counted 199 murders of social leaders, a 60 percent increase over 2019. The report profiles the 95 people the group verified as murdered during the second half of the year.
- A video of members of the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group threatening a community just 15 minutes’ drive from Montería, the capital of Córdoba department, shows the continued power of paramilitarism in this region of northwestern Colombia, La Silla Vacía explains. At the same site, Reynell Badillo Sarmiento and Luis Fernando Trejos contend that more than “paramilitarism,” what plagues Córdoba is “criminal governance,” noting that “it is difficult to argue that the AGC [Gulf Clan] is a paramilitary group.”
- With U.S. backing, a team of Colombian police came up with a list of recommendations for Haiti, which is suffering a rash of kidnappings, Reuters reports.
- After revelations that it has sustained contacts via intermediaries with the ELN, the Duque government named Tulio Gilberto Astudillo Victoria alias Juan Carlos Cuéllar, a captured member of the group, to serve as a “gestor de paz” (official peace intermediary). Cuéllar has played this role before. This new status will allow Cuéllar to be freed from prison.
- Security forces in Santander captured alias “Matamba,” a narcotrafficker who leads an armed group called La Cordillera Sur, active in northern Nariño department. The Fiscalía believes him to be aligned with the Gulf Clan, though the police say he had forged a pact with the Nueva Marquetalia FARC dissident group, El Espectador reports.
- The Fiscalía ordered house arrest for Cristian Saavedra Arias, the soldier who shot and killed Juliana Giraldo, a trans woman, at a checkpoint in Miranda, Cauca in September 2020.
- While the AP noted that leading 2018 leftist candidate Gustavo Petro has maintained a surprisingly low profile during the protests, government-aligned Semana magazine put a chaotic image of Petro on its cover with the headline “Petro, enough is enough!”
- “The fact that, despite all the evidence against it, the Colombian state continues to try to reinstate glyphosate spraying [to eradicate coca, with U.S. backing] only demonstrates this administration’s disinterest towards its most vulnerable citizens,” writes Olga Behar in an excellent overview essay in Spanish at the Washington Post.
On May 10, Diakonia and eight other international organizations—including WOLA—published a statement denouncing the armed violence against the Indigenous communities of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC) who are participating in national protests. From pick-up trucks, armed men fired at Indigenous persons, and state security agencies did not act to stop these episodes or arrest the culprits. The statement also alerts of possible violent acts that may occur against members of these civil society organizations and their offices.
Indigenous and other protestors deciding to participate in the National Strike and exercise the right to protest does not turn them into enemies of the state, nor do they lose their right to be protected from criminal actions. The Colombian state has a commitment to protect the rights of all citizens, in accordance with international human rights treaties, the Colombian Constitution, and the law.
The State has an Obligation to Prevent Further Aggressions against Indigenous Communities of the CRIC and Other Protesters
May 10, 2021
The international NGOs signed to this statement express concern over the armed violence, which took place in Cali yesterday, against the Indigenous communities of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC) who are participating in national protests. On repeated occasions, armed men from pick-up trucks fired at Indigenous persons, and state security agencies did not act to stop these episodes or arrest the culprits. Since the demonstrations started, 47 people—who were peacefully protesting—have been killed by either members of the security forces, or by armed men who shoot from vehicles or fire weapons in front of members of state security agencies.
Last night, the CRIC headquarters in Bogotá was vandalized and destroyed. We are alerting of possible violent acts that may occur against the CRIC headquarters and other social organizations in Popayán, as well as the headquarters of other organizations throughout the country. We are also warning of the potential aggressive acts against members of these organizations. As such, we note that state authorities have an obligation to protect the life and physical integrity of the members, property, and facilities of these organizations. Indigenous and other protestors deciding to participate in the National Strike and exercise the right to protest does not turn them into enemies of the state, nor do they lose their right to be protected from criminal actions.
Democracy in Colombia is not sustainable if armed groups, acting with total impunity and in a systematic manner, are able to attack people who express their disagreement with the government. These episodes, which expose before the public the possible complicity of security forces in attacks against protestors, as well as explicit attacks by members of the security forces recorded in countless videos, blur the rule of law and the legitimacy of the government and other authorities. The Colombian state has a commitment to protect the rights of all citizens, in accordance with international human rights treaties, the Colombian Constitution, and the law.
Nationwide protest updates
The security forces’ response to Colombia’s nationwide protests became less lethal over the past week. Three people involved in protests were killed in the 8 days between May 7 and 14, increasing the overall confirmed toll from 39 to 42, according to a database maintained by the non-governmental organizations Temblores and Indepaz.
Heavy, and often outraged, international scrutiny of the police and military response has likely contributed to restraint. So has a reduction in the protests’ overall intensity, as formal negotiations begin. While large turnouts continue in Bogotá, Medellín, and elsewhere, they are not consistently large every single day. Colombia’s southwest, though, remains very active, especially the cities of Cali, Valle del Cauca; Popayán, Cauca; Neiva, Huila; and Pasto, Nariño.
As of 11:30pm on May 12, Temblores had counted 39 killings committed by security forces; 1,055 “arbitrary detentions,” 442 “violent interventions in the framework of peaceful protests” including 133 uses of lethal firearms and 30 protesters suffering eye damage, and 16 cases of sexual violence.
Hundreds of people are still missing, with most probably in police custody. Sebastian Lanz, the co-director of Temblores, told Vice that some are being charged with crimes, but others “have ended up in unauthorized ‘clandestine’ detention centers where ‘there is no legal authority to verify the human rights situation there,’” or in “special centers for protection“ where people may be held without charges for up to 12 hours.
Geography of protest
Activity remains widespread geographically. On May 12, the protests’ two-week mark, the Defense Ministry’s “Unified Command Post” counted 170 protest activities in 391 of Colombia’s 1,123 municipalities (counties). That day, Defense Minister Diego Molano said that protesters continued to block 80 roads around the country.
In Cali early in the week, protesters maintained blockades stopping most road traffic in and out of the city. Some of these protesters were members of an Indigenous minga (“coming together”) that brought thousands from Cauca, to the south of Cali, to show solidarity with protesters in Colombia’s third-largest city. The blockades generated reports of shortages of goods in Cali, including gasoline, and an inability to get export cargo to Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port.
The Defense Ministry deployed 10,000 police and 2,100 soldiers to Cali. Most road blockades were lifted peacefully, but the military and police used heavy force in Siloé, a neighborhood in western Cali that has seen many casualties. On May 9, assailants in civilian clothes shot at indigenous protesters in broad daylight, wounding eight. The minga pulled back to Cauca on May 12, citing government plans for “an armed police and paramilitary attack against our delegations” if it stayed in Cali.
A road blockade in Buga, along the Pan-American Highway north of Cali, was the site of bitter, prolonged clashes between protesters and a combined police-military force on May 13. No deaths were reported. In fact, the Temblores and Indepaz database shows no new deaths in the Cali metropolitan area since May 7. Still, of the 42 fatalities on this list, 29 happened in Cali or the neighboring municipality of Yumbo.
In Cauca’s departmental capital of Popayán on May 12, police threw to the ground and sexually abused a 17-year-old girl who had been using her phone to record abuse during a protest. The girl was taken to an “Immediate Reaction Unit” (URI)—a facility of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía)—where she reported what was done to her. After being freed hours later, the girl reportedly took her own life. Popayán human rights lawyer Lizeth Montero said that a total of three underage girls denounced sexual abuse at the hands of police on May 12.
News of the abuse spurred angry protests in Popayán on May 14, during which some protesters burned down the URI where the girl had been taken. During the police response, an ESMAD anti-riot policeman fired a projectile, possibly a tear-gas canister, into the neck of 22-year-old college student Sebastián Quintero Múnera, killing him.
Rural areas appear to be joining the protests in increasing numbers. About 5,000 coca-growers from rural Cauca converged on Popayán to demand that the government comply with peace accord commitments to assist with the transition to licit crops, and that the government abandon plans to restart a program to eradicate coca by fumigating fields with herbicides from aircraft.
Lucas Villa, a 37-year-old activist who was known for his ebullient nature—he appeared often in videos dancing during protests—died in a hospital in Pereira, Risaralda, on May 10. A gunman on a motorcycle hit Villa with eight bullets during a peaceful protest in Pereira on May 5.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking aggravated homicide charges against a Cali motorcycle police officer who, in a much-shared April 28 video, repeatedly shot and killed a 17-year-old who had run up and kicked him. This is the fourth case of a protest-related fatality for which the Fiscalía has filed charges. On May 12 Prosecutor General Francisco Barbosa told Colombia’s House of Representatives that the Fiscalía had counted 14 homicides so far; by that date Temblores and Indepaz had confirmed 41, including 1 policeman.
Investigations haven’t moved in the case of Maycolt Stiven Florido, a Bogotá barber attacked April 30, on video, by 12 police who accused him wrongly of throwing stones. The police knocked out three of Florido’s teeth, among other injuries, while stealing the equivalent of US$135 and his mobile phone.
Negotiations are getting underway
President Duque met on May 10 with the Comité del Paro, the group of mostly union leaders that called for the initial April 28 protests. The three hour exploratory meeting yielded little other than a government announcement that it is willing to open a process of negotiations with the Comité, managed on the government side by High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos.
President Duque announced on May 11 that the government would pay tuition for public university students who come from the bottom three levels of the government’s six-layer income system. The measure would waive tuition for 97 percent of students in public universities.
On May 14 the Comité del Paro, after a long meeting with mediators from the UN and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference, agreed to the negotiations framework proposed by the government, and the first round of talks is to occur on May 16.
“If the National Government thinks that this process will be managed under the same scheme of the ‘great national conversation’ of late 2019 [after November 2019 protests], consisting of listening, taking notes, and then sitting in front of a computer to see what can be accommodated in the government’s plan and then coming out with what seems feasible, this new dialogue won’t calm things down either,” warned an El Espectador editorial.
An El Tiempo analysis outlines some of the points that a dialogue between the government and protest leaders would be likely to cover. They include basic income guarantees; affordable college education; reopening of schools closed by the pandemic; suspending forced coca eradication, especially fumigation; ending gender, ethnic, and sexual-orientation discrimination; withdrawing a controversial health care reform; and more participation in the national Covid vaccination plan.
La Silla Vacía profiles the 20 members of the Comité del Paro, finding the group to be overwhelmingly male and representative mainly of workers in the formal economy. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), organizers of the “minga” (coming together) that brought thousands of its members to Cali, issued a statement declaring that it does not feel represented by the Comité del Paro.
134 environmental groups signed a statement supporting the protests. They added a list of demands including securing communities’ prior and informed consent, opposing large extractive projects, and opposing coca eradication with the herbicide glyphosate.
Foreign Minister Claudia Blum resigned after 18 months in office, amid a steady drumbeat of international communications voicing concern about the severity of the government’s response to protests. “The country will reject external pronouncements that do not reflect objectivity and seek to fuel polarization in the country,” Blum had said a week earlier. The comment was not well received. Blum was the second cabinet minister to quit since the protests began. Alberto Carrasquilla, the author of the proposed tax hike that first detonated the protests, resigned as finance minister on May 3.
A Datexco telephone poll of 700 adults found 75 percent in favor of the national strike, 15 percent against, and 10 percent with no opinion. 82 percent disapproved of the government’s management of the situation.
President Duque told the New York Times “he did not believe the police department needed significant reform. He said that the police have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward abuse, and pointed to the fact that the police inspector general has opened at least 65 investigations into alleged misconduct.”
National Police Commander Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas is among authorities who insist that the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, along with both of Colombia’s principal networks of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident bands, are behind disturbances. While members of these groups may be taking advantage of disorder to pursue drug trafficking and other criminality, sources in the security forces tell El Espectador that evidence does not point to them playing a leading or coordinating role.
“What we are seeing here,” Gen. Vargas told El Tiempo’s María Isabel Rueda, “is a systematic attack against the police. This has happened in Chile and in other countries around the world, including the United States. There are organized systematic attacks, platforms in foreign countries, with a lot of false news and disinformation, that want to attack the Police for its role in crime containment, not public and peaceful demonstration.” He added, “In the ELN’s computers, in those of the FARC dissidents, we have found intentions to systematically attack the credibility of the police.”
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the maximum leader of President Iván Duque’s Centro Democrático party, called on May 13 for a greater military role in maintaining order during the protests, during an address before Colombia’s House of Representatives. Uribe warned that people exercising their right to “legitimate defense” might begin “the organization of private justice, with all its cruelty and the deinstitutionalization that the country had overcome.”
El Espectador recounted leaked audio of a Google Meet conversation between legislators from the governing Centro Democrático party and business leaders from Pereira, Risaralda. The CD legislators rejected any negotiation with groups carrying out road blockages and suggested boycotting advertising for all media outlets whose reporting has been unfavorable to the government and the security forces.
Business-sector representatives on this call recalled the “dissipated molecular revolution” thesis, popularized by a Nazi-sympathizing Chilean polemicist and advanced by former president Uribe, which contends that even peaceful protest is part of a dispersed, transnational leftist plot to overthrow the government. “They are looking to take over a government and I feel that businessmen have remained quiet on this issue. We need to support the institutional framework, because they have taken advantage of us, light years, in letting the outside world know what is happening in Colombia.”
Of the 11 million Colombians between ages 14 and 28, 3 million (27 percent) are neither employed nor in school. These “ni-nis” are heavily represented in the ongoing protests.
The Ministry of Finance said that the protests are costing the economy about half a trillion pesos (US$135 million) per day.
Comments and analyses
55 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the State Department to more forcefully denounce police brutality in Colombia, to freeze police aid and sales of crowd control equipment, and to promote dialogue.
The leads of the Colombian government’s negotiating team during the 2012-16 peace process with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo, published a series of 10 recommendations in El Tiempo outlining how dialogue might go forward, suggesting a big role for young members of Congress and the use of mechanisms envisioned in the peace accord. “If we were able to reach an agreement between the government and the FARC, our institutions can do the same with the citizenry. But this requires, in addition to political will and respect for the other side, methods to reach agreements and guarantees for the participants.”
“One way to move forward is to stop thinking about the peace agreement in terms of concessions made to the much-disliked former FARC combatants,” reads an Americas Quarterly analysis from former finance minister Mauricio Cárdenas. “The peace agreement is about building a new social contract, where marginalized groups will have more political representation while bringing the state in, in the form of roads and schools, to some parts of Colombia for the first time in our history.”
“By helping Colombia move toward dialogue,” WOLA’s Adam Isacson writes in a May 12 New York Times column, “the Biden administration would be developing a template for engaging with counterparts throughout Latin America, where several countries battered by the virus are confronting authoritarian populism amid stark social divides.”
In a May 13 WOLA podcast, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli explains why she’s optimistic that ongoing protests “can allow for more diverse voices to take up leadership in the country” and why she rates the US government’s response so far as “3 or 4 out of 10.”
Government acknowledges outreach efforts to the ELN
The Duque government’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, announced that the government has approved or participated in 32 meetings over the past 17 months “to verify the ELN’s true will to seek peace.” Outreach, Ceballos said, has included 22 meetings with intermediaries in the Vatican Nunciature in Bogotá, 6 meetings with intermediaries in the presidential palace, often with President Duque’s participation, and 4 trips to Havana, at which Catholic Church and UN representatives spoke to ELN leaders. The OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA) also took part in some of the meetings.
A few top ELN leaders remain in Cuba after a January 2019 bombing at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá brought an end to an earlier peace process. Though protocols for the end of those talks called for their low-profile return to Colombia, the Duque government refused to allow that and demanded their extradition. In the meantime, the ELN ex-negotiators remain in Cuba and available for exploratory talks.
The first Cuba “good offices” trip took place in February 2020, when Father Darío Echeverri, who for years has played an important go-between role in peace efforts, traveled to Havana in representation of the Vatican. Echeverri was accompanied by Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. Subsequent meetings in Cuba took place in September and November 2020 and March 2021.
At the time, the Duque government, with Ceballos playing the most vocal role, was ramping up diplomatic pressure on Cuba to extradite the ELN leaders stranded on the island. This week Pablo Beltrán, a top ELN leader and former negotiator who is among those still in Havana, told El Tiempo that Colombia’s government has been a reluctant participant in the exploratory talks, giving most credit to the Church and the international community.
FARC dissidents still fighting Venezuelan forces, and each other, in Apure, Venezuela
Venezuelan officials say that 16 soldiers and at least 9 FARC dissident fighters have been killed since fighting broke out March 21 across the border from Arauca, Colombia, in the Venezuelan state of Apure. Sporadic fighting continues on Venezuelan soil between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group, which announced this week that it is holding about eight Venezuelan soldiers captive. Though information is spotty, an NGO reports that fighting is also now occurring in Venezuela between the two FARC dissident groups active in the zone.
The panorama in Apure is confusing. In addition to the ELN guerrillas, which are very present but appear uninvolved in the current combat, are “dissidents” led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the FARC peace process. Their rank-and-file includes many new recruits with no FARC background.
The dissidents are affiliated with two national networks. The first, the 10th Front, is part of the “1st Front” structure headed by alias Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized. The Gentil Duarte network is the largest FARC dissident organization in the country. The second is the “Segunda Marquetalia” (Marquetalia is the site of the 1964 army attack that led to the FARC’s origin), headed by alias Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana and destined for a Senate seat. Márquez rearmed, along with several other hardline FARC members, in 2019.
Numerous analysts cited in past updates have alleged that the Venezuelan regime is targeting the 10th Front—for unclear reasons—and favoring the Segunda Marquetalia.
The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported on May 8 that 10 Venezuelan soldiers had gone missing in Apure following combat with the 10th Front. On May 11 the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that it had received a communication from the 10th Front indicating that it was holding eight Venezuelan soldiers who had been captured during fighting on April 23, and was looking for a way to hand them over. Tarazona posted this letter to his Twitter account, as well as proof-of-life video of some of the captives.
“In addition to a military defeat on April 23, the government today has [suffered] a communications defeat due to its determination to manage the situation in Apure without transparency before the families of the military and the country,” tweeted Marino Alvarado of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea. “Maduro, [Minister of Defense Gen.] Vladimir Padrino, and Adm. Remigio Ceballos [strategic operational commander of the armed forces] owe the country an explanation. A serious minister in the face of such a military and communications disaster would resign.”
FundaRedes also reported that 10th Front and Segunda Marquetalia fighters engaged in combat on May 12 in the town of Bruzual, more than 100 miles inside Venezuelan territory in northwestern Apure. Fundaredes claims that the fighting killed four and wounded several others. Combat between the 10th Front and Segunda Marquetalia has been rare in both Colombia and Venezuela, but appears to be growing more frequent.
- Citing a failure to provide prior advance consultation, a court in Nariño suspended all forced coca eradication in Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities’ lands in Tumaco and nine other municipalities along Nariño’s Pacific coast. (Tumaco was sixth among Colombia’s largest coca-producing municipalities in 2019.) The ruling prohibits the on-the-ground manual forced eradication that security forces and eradicators have been carrying out. Colombia’s Constitutional Court will soon rule on two other legal challenges (tutelas) to the Duque government’s imminent restart of glyphosate fumigation from aircraft. Those challenges, too, argue insufficient consultation with ethnic communities.
- On May 11 the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution adding to the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. The Mission is now charged also with verifying the sentences handed down by the transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP). These sentences, up to eight years in duration, are likely to be “restrictions of rights and liberties” and/or “works and tasks with restorative and restorative content,” referred by the Spanish acronym TOAR. The Security Council resolution came several days after seven top FARC leaders took the historic step of pleading guilty to the JEP’s charges of masterminding thousands of kidnappings.
- In testimony before the JEP, retired Army captain Adolfo Guevara told how he collaborated with the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network’s Northern Bloc while serving in active duty in 2002. “He not only narrated how he executed people to ‘legalize’ them as ‘positives’ in the Gaula [anti-kidnapping unit in] Magdalena in 2002,” El Tiempo reports, “but also assured that his actions were known and required by other military units.” Guevara alleged that Gen. Mario Montoya, who went on to head Colombia’s army in the mid-2000s, collaborated with the paramilitaries.
- Colombia’s navy reported seizing nine semi-submersible drug trafficking vessels along its coasts and waters so far this year.
Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.
This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.
The present crisis in Colombia demands genuine, broad-based dialogue, which in turn would renew the original promise of the 2016 peace accord. Getting there, though, means overcoming some stiff internal hard-lien opposition. The U.S. government can help by distancing some very powerful people in the country who prefer escalation over dialogue. Read a new column by WOLA’s Adam Isacson at nytimes.com.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
By: Antonia Quintero, Spring 2021 Communications and Colombia Intern
*This article is based off of an interview with Yuvelis Natalia Morales, a youth environmental leader that forms part of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life, and Territory (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio, AGUAWIL) in Puerto Wilches, Santander department.
In Colombia, women bear the brunt of the violence as victims and lead rebuilding efforts in their communities. Women social leaders utilize their knowledge, skills, and struggles to comfort and uplift others in their communities. Many defend sustainable agricultural and environmental practices. They campaign for voluntary eradication of illicit crops and replace these with legal crops and play an active role in resisting large-scale development projects, even confronting powerful petroleum and other extractive companies. Others push against the presence of illegal armed groups in their communities and demand political participation. Colombia’s social leaders are fighting to protect communities hardest hit by decades of violence, particularly in the country’s Afro-descendant, Campesino, and Indigenous communities. These efforts are crucial to bringing the commitments in Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord to life.
One of these leaders is Yuvelis Natalia Morales from Puerto Wilches, a town located along the Magdalena River in the northeastern department of Santander. Yuvelis is a youth environmental leader that forms part of the Committee for the Defense of Water, Life, and Territory (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio, AGUAWIL). As a student studying technology in environmental resource management, Yuvelis has dedicated her life to defending Puerto Wilches’ natural environment and abundant natural resources sought after by powerful economic interests. Like a river, women social leaders in Colombia continue to give and feed life into their communities. In the same way that fracking has adverse effects on the rivers, so does the lack of government support, corruption, and violence on the country’s social leaders.
The Magdalena Medio region is characterized by its richness in water sources such as rivers and marshes. The rural communities, who have historically protected these resources, suffer internal displacement, violence, and are murdered for defending this ecology. In 2020, Colombia was the country with the most environmental defenders killed globally, with 64 registered homicides. The lack of implementation of the 2016 peace accord increases violence in the territories with the presence of illegal armed groups who fight to control legal and illegal economies. Historically, oil extraction has functioned as an enclave economy in the municipality without generating benefits for the population.
Petroleum companies such as Ecopetrol and Exxonmobil have sought fracking operations in Puerto Wilches for the area’s richness in oil, through a pilot program approved by the Colombian government in December 2020 against the community’s wishes. Yuvelis recounted in an interview with WOLA, that in her opinion, they have done so while disregarding the local inhabitants and their community’s rights. According to Yuvelis, the municipal government fails to provide access to education and support to social leaders who raise awareness of these issues. It is her view that the companies have taken advantage of the community’s social and economic conditions and their lack of knowledge of the area’s biodiversity. Additionally, the local fishing industry has been impacted by the extraction of hydrocarbons, leaving irreparable damages to water sources and the territories. These damages directly affect community members who make a living in the fishing industry, such as Yuvelis’ father.
Additionally, the people of Puerto Wilches live in fear because of the impact of the armed conflict and persisting violence in the territories. People are murdered every day “as if they are made out of paper.” Isolated by Puerto Wilches’ geography, the community, as Yuvelis states, becomes “the community of nobody.” The armed conflict has created such a lasting impact that the people are unaware of the petroleum companies’ true intentions. Consequently, because of a lack of knowledge and education, they are unaware of the biodiverse significance brought in by the Magdalena River. It then becomes easy for these people to give away land, votes, or the entire municipality to have food and general security.
AGUAWIL is an organization of young professionals in the community, like Yuvelis, who have made an effort to educate themselves further on their environment. They have focused on using grassroots activism to raise awareness on the issue of fracking and the impact the pilot projects would have on the area. Through their local neighborhood efforts, they have primarily connected with women in the households. Although there is a general conception that women have no active part in opposing fracking, AGUAWIL has benefitted from the women who have taken their message to heart. They are often uneducated, living in impoverished conditions, and subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, and the women do not want the same for their daughters. As a result, the empowered women have channeled the information about AGUAWIL’s work to other community members and have played a significant role in garnering support for the start-up committee against fracking.
Members of AGUAWIL and other human rights and environmentalist organizations have undergone death threats, assassination attempts, forced displacements, and gender violence after denouncing the irreparable damage to water sources and opposing fracking pilot projects in the region. They have also called attention to the alleged corruption in companies and environmental institutions in different municipalities in the Santander department. They have received pushback in many other forms. They have been called “guerrillas” (guerrilleros), and more than eight AGUAWIL committee members have been threatened, consequently leading to the relocation of some, including Yuvelis, for their safety. Even so, they continue working to advocate and garner support from afar.
Most of the demands made by Yuvelis and others in Puerto Wilches are very basic. They point to the need to educate and raise awareness within the communities of their human rights. They want their communities to be able to defend themselves and manage their futures. This is why Yuvelis dedicated herself to environmental studies to elevate the awareness and education of her hometown. Educating the community helps people recognize that they don’t have to accept low wages and hard work despite the few opportunities in the area. It’s precisely the efforts of social leaders like Yuvelis that help promote peacebuilding, reconciliation, and ultimately meet the needs of communities across Colombia.
“It is very difficult to defend in Colombia, very difficult,” Yuvelis reflects. The government has not protected or helped elevate social leaders’ work across Colombia, including AGUAWIL. She urges that if the government does not do any good towards social leaders, they also need not aggravate the situation. She calls on the international community and human rights organizations to advocate and garner support for social leaders and their causes and help defend human rights.
You can help support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign to support Colombia’s post-accord peace process.
Since April 28, thousands of people throughout Colombia have exercised their right to protest—triggered by a controversial, government-proposed tax reform plan—and have been met with unacceptable violence by members of the Colombian National Police (Policía Nacional de Colombia). The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is pleased to learn that President Iván Duque has withdrawn the plan, which would have placed a severe burden on the middle class through regressive sales taxes. The legislation’s withdrawal provides the country with an opportunity to build a consensus on ways to address the country’s fiscal gap, without deepening inequalities that were further exacerbated by the pandemic. It is also a victory for the many Colombians who exerted their right to protest in order to guarantee democratic governance in Colombia. Such widespread, multisectoral, and regional protests were extremely rare before Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.
Despite this victory, WOLA condemns the disproportionate use of force employed by the anti-riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) and other police units against protestors, as well as the hostile words of high-level officials and influential politicians. Many of these public figures reacted to the protests in ways that escalated violence, stigmatized protesters, and served a larger anti-peace accord agenda, for instance by attacking the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP).
In light of these events, which have left dozens of people killed or injured, WOLA calls on the Biden administration and 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 on April 28.
On that day, Colombian civil society initiated national protests against a presidential tax reform proposal erroneously titled the “sustainable solidarity law,” (ley de solidaridad sostenible). Divisions existed among multiple social movements whether to proceed with protests in the midst of a grim wave of the pandemic. Ultimately, the government’s brazen efforts to squash the right to protest emboldened thousands of people to take to the streets throughout the country. The police responded repressively using a disproportionate, and in several instances lethal, use of force, with the justification that it acted to restore order and stop looting. According to data compiled by the Defend the Life Campaign (Campana para defender la vida), so far, public security forces are responsible for 21 homicides, several whom were youth; 208 wounded individuals, including 18 cases of serious ocular injuries; 42 aggressions and abuses committed against human rights defenders and journalists; 10 cases of sexual assaults against women; and 503 mostly arbitrary detentions.
The police’s response was particularly brutal in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, where at least 10 individuals were killed by police on Friday, April 30. The Minister of Defense Diego Molano’s problematic tweets equating the Minga, an Indigenous collective peaceful protest action, with terrorists, and former President Álvaro Uribe’s tweets defending police use of firearms against protestors—later removed by Twitter for violating community guidelines that prohibit glorifying violence—fueled the repression against protestors. On Saturday May 1, President Duque announced he would deploy troops into several cities, a move rejected by the Mayors of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. Given the tax reform’s retraction, we expect militarization will not take place but the announcement itself was concerning as soldiers are trained for combat, not for distinguishing between peaceful protesters and rioters.
The police response to country-wide protests in November 2019, September 2020, and April-May 2021 force us to reexamine the need to apply stronger human rights protections to U.S. assistance that benefit the Colombian National Police. The ESMAD must not receive U.S. assistance, as it has an egregious record of committing gross violations of human rights with impunity. Any assistance to the ESMAD probably is a violation of the Leahy Law—which prohibits U.S. funding to security forces implicated in human rights violations—and should remain so. WOLA strongly recommends that sales of crowd control materials to Colombia be suspended pending evidence of stricter adherence to proper procedures for de-escalation and use of lethal and non-lethal force.
La violencia policial en Colombia es inadmisible, los legisladores estadounidenses deben tomar medidas
Desde el 28 de abril, miles de personas en toda Colombia han ejercido su derecho a la protesta, provocada por una controvertida reforma tributaria propuesta por el gobierno. Pero estos manifestantes han sido recibidos con una violencia inadmisible por parte de los miembros de la Policía Nacional de Colombia. La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) se complace en saber que el presidente Iván Duque ha retirado la propuesta, que habría supuesto una grave carga para la clase media a través de impuestos regresivos sobre las ventas. El retiro de la legislación le da al país la oportunidad de lograr un consenso sobre las formas de abordar la brecha fiscal del país, sin profundizar las desigualdades que fueron exacerbadas por la pandemia. También representa una victoria para los muchos colombianos que ejercieron su derecho a la protesta para garantizar la gobernabilidad democrática en Colombia. Tales protestas a gran escala, multisectoriales y regionales, eran muy poco comunes antes de los históricos Acuerdos de Paz de 2016 en Colombia.
A pesar de esta victoria, WOLA condena el uso desproporcionado de la fuerza utilizado contra los manifestantes por el Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD) y otras unidades policiales, así como las declaraciones hostiles de altos funcionarios y políticos influyentes. Muchas de estas figuras públicas reaccionaron a las protestas agravando la violencia, estigmatizando a los manifestantes y sirviendo a una agenda más amplia contra los Acuerdos de Paz, por ejemplo, atacando a la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP).
Ante estos hechos, que han dejado decenas de muertos y heridos, WOLA pide al gobierno de Biden y al Congreso de Estados Unidos que condenar los excesos policiales, distanciar a Estados Unidos de la retórica incendiaria de los funcionarios, y exigir al gobierno colombiano reformar el ESMAD y que responsabilizar a quienes han violado los derechos humanos desde el inicio de las protestas el 28 de abril.
Ese día, la sociedad civil colombiana inició protestas nacionales contra una propuesta de reforma tributaria presidencial erróneamente titulada “ley de solidaridad sostenible.” Con divisiones entre múltiples movimientos sociales sobre si las protestas se debían realizar en medio de una grave ola de pandemia, al final, los esfuerzos flagrantes del gobierno por aplastar el derecho a la protesta impulsaron a miles de personas a salir a las calles en todo el país. La policía respondió de forma represiva haciendo un uso desproporcionado, y en varios casos letal, de la fuerza, con la justificación de que actuaba para restablecer el orden y detener los saqueos. Según datos recopilados por la Campaña para Defender la Vida, hasta el momento las fuerzas de seguridad pública son responsables de 21 homicidios, varios de los cuales eran jóvenes; 208 personas heridas, incluidos 18 casos de lesiones oculares graves; 42 agresiones y abusos cometidos contra defensores de los derechos humanos y periodistas; 10 casos de agresiones sexuales contra mujeres; y 503 detenciones, en su mayoría arbitrarias.
La respuesta de la policía fue particularmente brutal en Cali, Valle del Cauca, donde el viernes 30 de abril al menos 10 personas fueron asesinadas por la policía. Los problemáticos tuits del ministro de Defensa, Diego Molano, en los que igualaba a la Minga, una acción de protesta colectiva indígena pacífica, con ser terroristas, y los tuits del expresidente Álvaro Uribe, eliminados posteriormente por Twitter por violar las políticas de la comunidad que prohíben glorificar la violencia, en los que defendía el uso de armas de fuego por parte de la policía contra los manifestantes, alimentaron la represión contra estos. El sábado 1 de mayo, el presidente Duque anunció que desplegaría tropas en varias ciudades, una medida que fue rechazada por los alcaldes de Bogotá, Medellín y Cali. Dada la retracción de la reforma tributaria, esperamos que la militarización no tome lugar, pero el anuncio en sí es preocupante, ya que los soldados están entrenados para combatir, y no para distinguir entre manifestantes pacíficos y agitadores.
La respuesta de la policía a las protestas que tomaron lugar en todo el país en noviembre de 2019, septiembre de 2020, y abril a mayo de 2021, nos obligan a reexaminar la necesidad de mayor rigurosidad en condicionar a la protección de derechos humanos, la asistencia estadounidense que beneficia a la Policía Nacional de Colombia. El ESMAD no debe recibir asistencia de Estados Unidos, ya que tiene un historial atroz de cometer graves violaciones de los derechos humanos con impunidad. Cualquier ayuda al ESMAD probablemente sea y deberá seguir siendo considerada una violación de la Ley Leahy, la cual prohíbe la financiación estadounidense a fuerzas de seguridad implicadas en violaciones de derechos humanos. WOLA recomienda firmemente que se suspenda la venta de materiales antidisturbios a Colombia hasta que se demuestre una adhesión más estricta a los procedimientos adecuados para la desescalada y el uso de la fuerza letal y no letal.
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.
- 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.”