We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Luis Fernando Arias, the Mayor Counselor of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC). We offer our deepest condolences to Luis Fernando’s family and the Indigenous movement.
Luis Fernando was a champion in defending the rights of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples. He was a forceful advocate for the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in Colombia’s 2016 peace accords, safeguarding the rights of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. During the peace negotiations in Havana, he was the leading Indigenous voice in ensuring that the accords accounted for the heavy impact that Colombia’s 50-plus years of conflict with the FARC had on Indigenous communities. WOLA staff worked with Luis Fernando over many years in efforts to elevate the voices of the victims of Colombia’s conflict, uphold Indigenous rights and to ensure that the U.S. government plays a positive role in helping secure a lasting peace for Colombia. He will be missed by his colleagues in D.C., and throughout Latin America.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Colombia offers documented status to Venezuelan migrants
In November 2020, the Interagency Platform for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM) estimated that 1.71 million migrants from Venezuela were living in Colombia: 770,246 documented, and 947,106 with “irregular migration status.” They are part of a flow of 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the collapsing country since 2015.
In a surprise February 8 move, Colombian President Iván Duque decreed that all Venezuelans who arrived in the country before January 31 may receive a “Temporary Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV) allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years, to work legally, and to access health and education services, including COVID-19 vaccines. Implementation of the new status could take up to a year, Ligia Bolivar of Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andrés Bello toldThe New Humanitarian, starting with the creation of a register of all undocumented Venezuelans.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Bogotá for the announcement and called it “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the Americas since the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” (Angélika Rettberg of the Universidad de los Andes told the BBC she also saw “a kind of gesture towards the new U.S. government, because it shows that their [Colombia’s] policy towards Venezuela is not just ‘stick,’ but also humanitarian ‘carrot,’ something that may be more in line with Joe Biden’s administration.”)
President Duque highlighted that Colombia will need more international aid to assimilate a community equivalent to nearly 4 percent of Colombia’s population, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Duque, the announcement was a sharp reversal from his earlier position of refusing vaccinations to undocumented Venezuelans. While Colombia has not suffered major outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan violence, analysts worry about worsening xenophobia, especially among informal and low-wage workers who perceive themselves as competing for scarce jobs with the new arrivals. Such tensions, MercyCorps’ Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told the New Humanitarian, “have been on the rise.”
“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America, we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said. Colombia’s move comes at a time when Peru and Ecuador have sent armored military vehicles to their common border to interdict migrants, and Chile has returned Venezuelans to their country on air force planes.
Cuba notifies Colombia of an imminent ELN attack
El Tiemporevealed a February 6 communication that the Cuban embassy in Colombia shared with the Colombian government, the chief of the UN Verification Mission, and two Catholic Church representatives. It reads: “Our embassy received information, whose veracity we cannot assess, about an alleged military attack by the Eastern War Front of the ELN in the coming days. We have shared this information with the ELN peace delegation in Havana, which expressed total ignorance and reiterated the guarantee that it has no involvement in the organization’s military decisions or operations.”
The “Eastern War Front” (FGO) is the ELN guerrilla group’s largest unit, based in the northeastern department of Arauca and over the border in Venezuela. Its commander, Carlos Emilio Marín alias “Pablito,” a 40-year member of the group, may be its most powerful member. The FGO carried out the January 2019 truck-bomb attack on Colombia’s police cadets’ school that killed 22 people and ended slow-moving peace negotiations in Havana. Several ELN negotiators have remained in Cuba since the talks’ breakdown; “experts assert that the alert to Colombia could be interpreted as Cuba distancing from its uncomfortable guests,” El Tiempospeculates.
High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz used the occasion to reiterate a demand that Cuba extradite the ELN leaders stranded in Cuba. The Havana peace talks’ protocols, signed by the Colombian government and international guarantors in 2017, made clear that if negotiations broke down, the ELN leaders would return to clandestinity in Colombia. The Duque government ignored these protocols, calling them a non-binding commitment made by the prior administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
As a result, the ELN leaders remain in Cuba. Their continued presence was the principal reason the outgoing Trump administration cited for its January 11 re-addition of Cuba to the State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
On February 7 El Tiemporevealed an internal, encrypted ELN communication, leaked from a government source, that appears to reveal internal division within the guerrilla group. Disagreements allegedly center on some units’ involvement in narcotrafficking and presence in Venezuela. The document also expresses frustration with ELN negotiators being “physically trapped” in Cuba.
High Commissioner Ceballos cited the document as proof that the ELN’s internal divisions make them impossible to negotiate with. From Havana, ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, who had headed the negotiating team stranded in Cuba, insisted that the document was fake. Later in the week, the ELN leadership called the Cuban government’s warning about an imminent attack a “false positive,” saying that such an attack “is not part of the ELN’s military plans.”
In other leaked ELN document news, Semanarevealed in late January a document retrieved from computers captured during an October military raid that killed Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” a vocal mid-level ELN leader, in Chocó. Using indirect language, the document appears to point to an $80,000 loan to the presidential campaign of Andrés Arauz, who led in February 7 voting in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections. (Arauz is the candidate aligned with Rafael Correa, the populist president who governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017.) On February 12 Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito to furnish this evidence to Ecuadorian counterparts.
Buenaventura’s population protests against violence, government inaction
In Buenaventura, the port that accounts for 70 percent of Colombia’s import-export activity, a paramilitary-derived gang that briefly dominated criminality in the city, “La Local,” underwent a December schism into two factions, the “Chotas” and the “Espartanos.” Daily street fighting has ensued, leaving much of the city’s 400,000 people in the crossfire. Estimates of the toll so far in 2021 range from 20 to 52 killed, and 112 to 1,700 families displaced.
Youth groups led days of protest against the situation during the week of February 1. These continue, using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura. When they manage to block port cargo transport for even a few hours, these protests get national attention.
The national government responded with a February 8 visit from Interior Minister Daniel Palacios. The minister promised increased rewards for information leading to the capture of gang leaders, the arrival of 120 more police, and “two detachments of Army Special Forces and a Navy reconnaissance platoon to assist with urban surveillance, adding up to more than 1,200 men from the security forces in Buenaventura.” The government also promised an increase in security cameras, a measure also being adopted in Buenaventura’s Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, a district whose organized population bans weapons and seeks to exclude members of all armed groups.
These security measures are not what the #SOSBuenaventura movement is demanding. “There’s already a police presence here, for many people they do not represent security,” Leonard Rentería, a youth leader and vocal protest organizer, toldEl Espectador. “People continue to be afraid because they do not see the police providing guarantees to protect their lives.”
The bishop of Buenaventura, Msgr. Rubén Darío Jaramillo, went further:
The people feel that there’s no authority, that the authority is the bandits who are in the street with their guns dominating the territories. They are the authority here… The security forces are supposed to defend citizens in their honor, their property, and their lives. But many make the mistake of allying themselves with criminals. They buy them with money. The bandits know that by buying the police they win, and there is nothing the people can do about it.
Thousands of Buenaventurans, dressed in white, lined the narrow port city’s main thoroughfare on February 10, forming a 21-kilometer (13-mile) human chain. Prominent participants in the protest included Bishop Jaramillo and Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal, who is starting his second year in office.
Vidal is Buenaventura’s first mayor who is not the product of a big political machine. He was a leader of the “Paro Cívico,” a social movement that shut down much of the city with three weeks of peaceful protests in mid-2017, demanding state investment in a city that, though the main port, is one of Colombia’s poorest. Paro Cívico members were threatened and killed in the ensuing years; given the forces arrayed against it, Vidal’s late-2019 election victory was remarkable.
As La Silla Vacía and Pares noted, though, the Paro Cívico has not been in the vanguard of the current anti-violence protests. While the movement has been supportive, it appears more focused on governing. Much of the new energy has come from youth leaders like Rentería, who described the Paro as “deactivated from the role it had assumed.”
Next week, President Duque is likely to have his first phone conversation with President Joe Biden since the U.S. election, La Silla Vacíareports, noting that the three-month delay “has no precedent in the contemporary U.S.-Colombia relationship.”
An annual report from Frontline Defenders, released February 9, found that 53 percent of murders of human rights defenders worldwide occurred in Colombia in 2020 (177 of 331). Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on February 10 finding serious fault with the Colombian government’s efforts to protect human rights defenders and social leaders. On February 11 U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We are concerned about ongoing violence against human rights defenders who play a vital role in building a just and lasting peace in Colombia. Reducing this violence and prosecuting these crimes is a top priority.”
With the murders of Antonio Ricaurte in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, and Juan Carlos Correa in San Andrés de Cuerquia, Antioquia, 257 former FARC members have been killed since the 2016 peace accord went into effect. Eight so far this year.
Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the former FARC political party Comunes, wrote a strikingly worded letter to former president Juan Manuel Santos, voicing alarm at ex-guerrillas’ security situation and asking for help getting a meeting with President Iván Duque. Santos responded that while he would try, Duque has not responded to his past overtures.
In Londoño’s at times tearful testimony and exchanges with victims last week before the transitional justice tribunal (JEP), La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez optimistically see “an opportunity… to process the truths of the conflict with a grammar that recognizes the emotions that are surfacing in the spaces of transitional justice, and processes them through a restorative justice that allows the country to clarify facts of the past and build a common future.”
“2020 deepened the deterioration of the media and the state of freedom of expression in the country,” reads the annual report of Colombia’s Free Press Foundation (FLIP). “Violence against the press occurs with the same systematicity and permissiveness as it did in past decades, during Colombia’s darkest years.”
Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano (profiled by Andrés Dávila at Razón Pública), told Reuters that U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, suspended since 2015, could restart “as early as next month.” The government, he says, will meet a series of safety, environmental, and consultation conditions set by the Constitutional Court “by the end of March.” Molano’s rapid fumigation timetable is not a sure thing, as legal challenges continue. Molano repeated the Duque government’s diagnosis that drug trafficking is “the biggest threat we have.” Cases of military corruption or human rights abuse, he toldSemana, are “individual and isolated.”
President Duque said that Colombia’s Army will soon inaugurate an elite counter-drug unit or “specialized command” meant to carry out a high-value targeting strategy against the heads of Colombia’s main drug trafficking organizations.
WOLA laments the February 13 death, from COVID-19 complications, of our longtime colleague Luis Fernando Arias, head of Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous Peoples (ONIC).
Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura.This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
Support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign:
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
2021 began with a wave of massacres, and security analysts are pessimistic
A new WOLA alert details more than 30 attacks on social leaders, journalists, opposition political leaders, and communities since late December. Colombia’s security situation continues to worsen in territories that were conflictive before the 2016 FARC peace accord. The first 35 days of 2021 saw 13 massacres kill 50 people in 7 of Colombia’s departments, according to the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (PARES).
“It’s as though we’ve gone back years in a spiral of violence,” wrote PARES’s deputy director, Ariel Ávila, at El Espectador. Ávila sees three differences from the pre-accord past: more violence along the Pacific coast, a government that seems “paralyzed” with the military “closed up in its barracks,” and a fragmented flux of criminal groups changing names, appearing and disappearing. He cites a boom in coca and gold prices creating criminal incentives, and worries that violence will get much worse as Colombia’s 2022 election campaign approaches. Ávila faults the ruling party—led by Álvaro Uribe, who as president oversaw a period of security gains—for “fighting the last war,” choosing incapable defense ministers, and ideologizing the strategy.
Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) also finds a jump in prices offered for coca (counterintuitive, since cultivation remains historically high), and fragmentation of armed groups. This fragmentation, he notes, calls into question the effectiveness of “high value target” strategies that pour resources into taking out easily replaced criminal-group leaders. Garzón adds that corruption in the security forces is “a serious problem, rarely denounced, but frequently reported in areas where illegal economies are highly prevalent.” His analysis, in La Silla Vacía, also highlights the “consolidated influence” that armed groups, especially the ELN and “Segunda Marquetalia” FARC dissidents, have in Venezuelan territory.
Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses, writing for the Universidad de los Andes’ 070, join Garzón in questioning the Duque government’s insistence that attacking drug supplies—especially eradicating smallholding farmers’ coca crops—is the key to easing the larger security crisis. Colombia’s government manually eradicated and seized record amounts of coca and cocaine in 2020, yet “some of the regions hardest hit by the FARC conflict are at risk of returning to the levels of violence experienced before negotiations began in 2012. That is, they may lose the security gains generated by the peace process.” Johnson and Vélez call for more emphasis on territorial governance, especially implementing the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET) foreseen in the peace accord’s first chapter. They criticize the Duque government’s flagship territorial governance strategy, called “Zonas Futuro,” for only strengthening military presence.
Over the past week, several stories in Colombian media documented security deterioration in specific regions.
El Espectadorprofiled Los Caparros, a paramilitary-descended group whose power is rising in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia, even though its nominal leader was killed in November.
Just to the north of Bajo Cauca, PARES reported on the neighboring Nudo de Paramillo region, where FARC dissidents are fighting the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.
Further north and east, conditions are worsening in the Montes de María region, which was hard-hit by paramilitaries and guerrillas 20-plus years ago but had since become less violent, La Silla Vacíafinds.
A massacre of four young men from Policarpa, Nariño, drew attention to bitter fighting between dissident groups, and with the ELN, near the Pan-American Highway in northern Nariño and southern Cauca.
In the urban core of the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura, a group that dominated most criminality, La Local, broke into two factions late last year, and now tens of thousands of residents are caught in a bloody crossfire. Other armed groups are fighting in the municipality’s vast rural zone. Numerous civil-society groups have issued an “SOS,” citing “perverse alliances between illegal armed groups and the security forces.”
In the far south, in Putumayo, fighting between guerrilla dissidents and paramiltary-descended criminals, compounded by forced eradication in the department’s robust coca fields, has brought a jump in attacks on social leaders.
In the northeast, near the Venezuela border, Norte de Santander department is in bad shape. There are two hotspots. In Catatumbo, the country’s largest coca-growing zone, the ELN is the strongest of many armed groups, with the Gulf Clan making new incursions. In the outskirts of Cúcuta—at half a million people, the largest city on the Colombia-Venezuela border—the ELN (perhaps with Venezuelan support) weakened a local paramilitary-descended group, Los Rastrojos, last year. But now the Gulf Clan is moving in, La Silla Vacíareports.
Government may make “official” the lowest existing estimate of social leader murders
On February 3 President Iván Duque announced a new “inter-sectoral table” to “unify information” about persistently frequent murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. Alarmed, critics pointed out that Duque was proposing to adopt the smallest available estimate of these killings, and that the move may be a sign of weakened checks and balances.
As several local leaders fall to assassins every week, different entities maintain varying estimates of how severe the problem is. While all are still verifying their 2020 numbers, estimates through 2019, laid out in a graphic in El Espectador’s good coverage of the “inter-sectoral table” proposal, come from:
The NGO Indepaz, which counted 805 murders between November 24, 2016 and the end of 2019.
The government’s human rights ombudsman, Defensoría del Pueblo, whose Early Warning System counted 571 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019. By July 2020, El Espectador reports, this had risen to 662.
The NGO Somos Defensores, which counted 465 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.
The government’s chief prosecutor’s office, Fiscalía, which employs statistics gathered by the Colombia field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which in turn counted 398 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.
President Duque’s new “unification” policy adopts as “official” the lowest of those estimates, the one used by the Fiscalía. Yet this figure, El Espectadorpoints out, is artificially the lowest “because, as the UN office itself has acknowledged, they are partial reports, as it does not have sufficient presence in territory to cover all cases.”
By subsuming the human rights ombudsman’s larger number to the Fiscalía’s, President Duque’s plan would throw out about 200 cases and seek to “silence” the Defensoría, worried Leonel González, the main data-keeper at Indepaz. The move also raises concerns about separation of powers. In Colombia’s system, the Fiscalía, Defensoría, and the internal-affairs office or Procuraduría are separate branches of government, beyond the executive’s control. But President Duque has managed to place close colleagues at the head of these agencies, especially the Fiscalía and Procuraduría, calling their independence into question. Lourdes Castro of Somos Defensores voiced concern in El Espectador about “the implications for democracy of this co-optation of the control bodies by the administration.”
Two big networks of Colombian human rights organizations, the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos and the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, quickly put out a statement rejecting Duque’s move as “a serious step backward.” They criticized Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa’s claims to have “clarified” a growing percentage of this smaller universe of murders, citing “misinterpretation…of the term ‘clarification,’ understanding it as any procedural advance.” The groups called out the Fiscalía for prosecuting trigger-pullers “without reaching the intellectual authors [masterminds] of the aggressions, much less dismantling the armed structures behind them.”
Meanwhile, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Bogotá, Juliette de Rivero, rightly recalled that a focus on statistics about murders is misplaced. “It would be a mistake to believe, given what is happening in the country, that the main objective should be to agree on figures. The important thing is to prevent killings, attacks, and threats against human rights defenders and social leaders, whether it be 10, 20, or 100 cases.”
The likely nomination of Brian Nichols, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Colombia, to be the Biden administration’s first assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs “will be good news for issues such as the protection of social leaders and the implementation of the Peace Accord,” predictsLa Silla Vacía. “Not necessarily for Duque and his circle of power.”
Diego Molano is Colombia’s new minister of defense, replacing Carlos Holmes Trujillo, who died of COVID-19 complications on January 26. Molano headed the big-budget “Acción Social” cash-transfer program during the Álvaro Uribe government, and had been serving as Iván Duque’s chief of staff.
“The Elders,” a group of former presidents, UN secretaries-general, and other retired luminaries, issued a statement—put forward by Colombian ex-president Juan Manuel Santos—calling on Joe Biden to revoke the Trump administration’s last-minute addition of Cuba to its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries. The principal reason for Cuba’s addition was its refusal to extradite ELN leaders who were present in the country for peace talks, when a vicious January 2019 ELN bombing led to those talks’ end. For Cuba to turn the negotiators over to Colombia would violate the talks’ agreed protocols. U.S. pressure “may make countries more hesitant to act as facilitators in the future.”
The human rights NGO Temblores published a compelling report documenting recent National Police human rights abuses and the need for meaningful police reform.
A new paper by four noted U.S. and Colombian analysts dives deeply into “gang rule” dynamics in Medellín, with the counterintuitive finding that “state efforts to expand services, crowd out gangs, and establish a monopoly on protection could have the opposite effect, driving gangs to increase rule.”
Sometimes, a report at Caracol Noticiasalleges, coca eradication teams “go to the fields where, according to the reports [from ‘diverse sources consulted’], they make agreements with the coca-growing communities. The owner of a plot may be told, for example, to allow them to uproot 50 bushes, and then they report having cut down three or four hectares of coca. It’s a win-win situation.” Last July, a Semanainvestigation made similar allegations about eradicators inflating their results.
With the impending exit of Roberto Pombo, the director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper El Tiempo, columnist Cecilia Orozco at El Espectadorworries that “the El Tiempo-Semana-RCN media axis, in the hands of Uribismo, might guarantee the electoral triumph of a more violent and annihilating ultra-right wing than we have suffered so far.”
UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi will visit Colombia next week. Obtaining international support for vaccinating Venezuelan migrants will be a main topic of discussion. President Iván Duque has said in the past that Colombia won’t offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans, but appears to be walking that back a bit.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Transitional justice tribunal issues first indictment of FARC leadership, for kidnapping
Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.
The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.
The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.
The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)
The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.
If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.
Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibility that a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)
The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-level FARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.
From U.S. diplomats, a new tone on peace accord implementation
The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.
During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:
“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:
On peace accord implementation: “We’ve seen some progress, but we’ve also seen some problems with implementation, including opposition from illegal groups.”
On social-leader killings and security: “This problem of massacres and attacks against certain groups and leaders is something that needs much more attention. …The government is fighting them [illegal armed groups], but evidently it has not set a policy to prevent the problems they cause.”
On aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas: “This time, the fumigation, the aerial spraying, will be the total responsibility of the Colombian government. We’re going to help them in certain aspects, but they’re going to buy the glyphosate, they’re going to control the planes, it’s not contractors, as before. So now it will be completely different.”
On governing party members’ meddling in the U.S. election: “If there are some frictions as a result of that, we’re going to overcome it. It wasn’t President Duque or his cabinet, but some politicians.”
U.S. returns paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo, a voracious child rapist
On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.
Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.
Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Colombia’s Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, died of COVID-19-related pneumonia on the evening of January 26. Trujillo was a leading contender to be the ruling Centro Democrático party’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election.
The FARC political party, recognizing that its acronym is a political liability (see kidnapping discussion above), officially changed its name to Comunes (“common people”).
Between January 1 and 24, the JEP counted “14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the security forces, 13 death threats against social leaders, 6 massacres, 5 assassinations of former combatants of the FARC-EP, 14 homicides of social leaders, 3 attacks and 7 armed confrontations between illegal groups.”
As of November, there were 1.71 million Venezuelans in Colombia (over 3% of Colombia’s population), of whom 770,246 had “regular migration status,” according to the latest situation update from UNHCR.
A report from the Peace Accords Matrix program at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute finds implementation of the peace accord’s ethnic provisions to be lagging. “Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun implementation.”
“We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living,” reads a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris from Francia Márquez, a Cauca-based Afro-Descendant environmental leader and winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
El Espectador hosted a worthwhile panel on implementation of the peace accord’s vital rural reform chapter, with two top officials, the lead author of a critical January report from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), a Kroc Institute expert, and an activist from Caquetá. Video here, summary here.
The newspaper also produced an excellent multimedia feature on women searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
With Panama’s border closed due to COVID-19, about 1,000 U.S.-bound migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and several African countries are stranded in makeshift tents on a beach in Necoclí, in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region, according to AFP.
Threats and killings—most likely by the ELN, although other armed groups are present—forced 11 town council members to flee the municipality of Argelia, in southern Cauca department.
The latest bimonthly Gallup poll, whose time series for some questions goes back to the late 1990s, shows growing discontent on many issues. La Silla Vacía shares the full poll as a Google Doc. Favorability ratings for the military and police have recovered a bit after scandals, though they remain low in part because of enforcement of pandemic lockdowns. Joe Biden has a 60%-11% favorable-unfavorable rating. By a 69%-24% margin, respondents see peace accord implementation as “on the wrong track.”
On January 21, a coalition of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and Campesino communities represented by the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) published a statement addressed to the Biden-Harris administration outlining recommendations for peacebuilding priorities in Colombia.
The recommendations include: a full commitment to the agreed terms of the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), resume peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and advance humanitarian minimums, dismantle illegal armed groups following community input, enforce agrarian reform, implement illicit crop substitution programs, and strengthen rural judicial institutions.
Below is the full English translation of the statement. The original Spanish statement is here.
January 21, 2021
Dear President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris,
We send a respectful greeting and our best wishes that the exercise of your mandate during these four years will be the beginning of a process of new horizons for humanity and planet earth in brotherhood, solidarity, and justice.
We write to you a day after your possession in the hope that our concerns can be received by you and taken into account in the political, economic, environmental, and labor decisions you are going to make in relations with our country.
Our Black, Indigenous, and Campesino communities live in remote parts of Colombia, that for more than 40 years, have lived in the midst of armed confrontation for political and social reasons. Today, we continue to suffer old and new violence. Persecution, torture, murder, enforced disappearance, displacement and violent dispossession of land, sexual violence, stigmatization, and forced to remain silent or we will be killed. New slavery.
More than 900 social, peace, and environmental leaders have been killed, and more than 200 peace signers have been killed. The Peace Agreement signed by President Santos in 2016 is today in crisis due to the series of breaches to what was agreed
We believe that peace is built on dialogue and compliance with agreements on social inclusion, on the cessation of discrimination and on respect for sources of life such as water and forests.
Neither investment nor development in the world nor in Colombia can be based on misery, exclusion, environmental devastation and armed violence, yes in respect for human rights, in the peace agreed, in reconciliation and respect for the land and all its wealth and a neat and respectful public force of rights.
In the midst of the pandemic, the undersigned wrote to President Duque to ask him for a cease-fire, in the face of what was to come, that illegality would consolidate his armed control, sadly protected by sectors of the Military Forces. We never received a precise answer. Today everything is more serious. We also sent this message to the ELN guerrillas and other new guerrillas. Also to the groups inherited from the paramilitaries such as the AGC, Comandos de Frontera, Los Caparrapps, La Local and Los Bustamante to a Global Humanitarian Agreement. The president ignored us, as well as United Nations Security Council resolution 2356 and Pope Francis’ call for peace.
We respectfully invite you to take into account in your agenda of cooperation with Colombia the following aspects:
1. Invitation to the government of President Duque to complete compliance with what was agreed with the FARC signatories.
2. A resumption of rapprochement with the ELN guerrillas on humanitarian agreements and the development of the six-point agenda for dialogue towards peace. 3. A public policy built from the territories and with the communities for the gradual and comprehensive dismantling of all armed structures
3. A public policy built from the territories and with the communities for the gradual and comprehensive dismantling of all armed structures inherited from paramilitarism.
4. An agrarian reform that makes it possible, with the provision of land, to clean up property, to create guarantees for the inhabitants of the territories and, in particular, for women, for those investors who wish to approach these territories in accordance with respect for human rights, democratic principles and principles of respect for the environment. Avoiding the implementation of any model of development that excludes direct dialogue with the legitimate owner inhabitants, which destroys vital sources of life such as water and forests necessary for the survival of humanity.
6. Implementation of an illicit crop substitution policy agreed with communities with international oversight.
7. Institutional inclusion in territories with civil State presence in our remote areas through justice houses with the presence of the Office of the Comptroller, the Office of the Attorney General’s Office and socio-environmental care units with a focus on human security and restorative law.
Without social and environmental inclusion, without respect for human rights, it will be difficult for the military solutions and investments to generate well-being and authentic contributions to new international relations at a time when global warming is accelerating, when COVID-19 continues, of cocaine trafficking.
Thanking you for your attention, with hope, from all consideration.
On January 22, Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient and renowned Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez published a statement to the newly sworn-in Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris. In powerful words echoing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia, the letter underscored how peace has yet to reach ethnic territories and “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations”. Márquez expressed profound concerns about structural racism, the ongoing assassinations of community social leaders and former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the operations of illegal armed groups, environmental exploitation, militarized counternarcotic policies, police brutality, and an “indolent government” that has failed to respond to the countless recommendations it has received from ethnic communities.
Márquez requested direct communication with Vice President Harris to help ensure the United States’ continued commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia. Support from the United States can help manifest the collective rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have acutely suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.
Below is the full English translation of the letter. The original Spanish-language letter is here.
Santiago de Cali, January 22, 2021
Mrs. Kamala Devi Harris Vice President of the United States
I would like to begin by congratulating you on the historic step you just took. Becoming the first African-American woman Vice President of the United States is an achievement that brings hope to many women and people around the world. We recognize that this great moment is in part due to the historic efforts initiated by anti-racist social movements, and in particular, by women like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and many others who paved the way for a more just, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal society. I wish you and President Joe Biden every success in your administration, hoping that you will implement policies focused on the quality and care of life that guarantee human dignity and world peace.
My name is Francia Elena Márquez Mina. I am an Afro-Colombian woman and grew up in the Cauca department, in an ancestral territory located in the Pacific region of Colombia. Sadly, the region is stricken by armed conflict, structural racism, and lethal policies imposed by political leadership that has governed with its back to the most vulnerable communities in the country. The elite that rules and governs this State has obtained its wealth from the death, corruption, misery, and fear it has sown into Colombian society, maintaining us in the shameful status as the most unequal country in the region. Inspired by the struggle of my ancestors to fight for freedom, to recover their “stolen dignity”, and to protect and preserve their territory as a living space, I became an environmental activist and human rights defender, alongside the Black Communities Process of Colombia (PCN) and the elders of the communities who have taught me that “dignity has no price” and that “to resist is not to endure”.
Currently, I am President of the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Coexistence, a platform for ongoing dialogue and civil society participation. The platform serves as an advisory and consulting body to the National Government on these serious matters, as well as safeguards human rights protections. We have made countless recommendations to President Iván Duque Márquez to protect the lives of social and environmental leaders and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who have been systematically murdered in Colombia. Likewise, we have recommended that he provide collective protection assurances for rural and ethnic communities, seek negotiated solutions to the armed conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and advance the dismantlement of paramilitarism and all armed groups that continue to put the lives of our people at risk.
I am convinced of the need to make proactive and well-needed efforts to protect our lives, human rights, peace, and our country’s environment. Today, I dare to write you this letter, in the hope that it will be read by you, in order to establish a conversation that will allow us to coordinate the necessary actions to take care of life from a place rooted in maternal love and a common instinct of empathy.
For decades, the United States has invested in Colombia’s anti-drug policy with programs such as Plan Colombia, which have visibly resulted in increased human rights violations. Policies of forced eradication have been failures, as they have only served to worsen the humanitarian conflict in the country, primarily, in the territories of Afro-Colombians, Indigenous and impoverished peoples. We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living, voluntary illicit crop substitution programs, and autonomous communities who courageously decided not to plant coca in their territories despite pressure from armed groups.
Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people are tired of being in the midst of violent confrontations, and of seeing our rivers and lands become cemeteries and mass graves. We do not want to live confined or banished from the territories where we were born. Even in the midst of the pandemic that affects humanity today, the “stay-at-home” orders have not been an option for hundreds of families who have had to flee due to armed conflict in their communities.
As a social leader, it hurts to witness the daily assassinations of leaders, who like me, have raised their voice against the state of affairs. Through the work carried out by the Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento), it has been painful to witness the testimonies of Black Indigenous women who were not only sexually violated by armed men but also branded as was done in the time of slavery. It has been painful listening to mothers sing praises and write poetry to ease the pain of losing their children to the armed conflict. It is painful to know that economic conglomerates partner with illegal armed groups to banish and eliminate us.
I am sure that the majority of the people who voted for you and for President Biden did so in hope of taking the knee off of the necks of African Americans in your country. Police brutality is prevalent in our countries and needs to be eradicated with decisive actions that can be enforced under our leadership. As Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, we suffer the same situation; those who have imposed armed conflict, lethal politics, gender-based violence, structural racism––they keep their knees on our necks. They do not let us breathe. They murder us every day.
We face an indolent government that promises not only to shatter the dream of allowing those of us who suffered the consequences of war to live in peace, but that also refuses to hear the desperate cries of children like the son of social leader María del Pilar Hurtado, who was murdered in front of him in 2019. We consider 8 million victims enough to turn the page of violence and achieve a complete, stable and lasting peace with social justice. Our children and grandchildren deserve a Colombia in peace.
“Restoring the moral leadership of the United States around the world”, as you put it, implies a U.S. commitment to guaranteeing peace, the protection of social leaders, the eradication of racism and patriarchy, and the protection of the environment in Colombia and the world. We are aware of the support under the vice presidency of today’s President Joe Biden to the peace accord during its negotiations in Havana, Cuba. This U.S. support was realized through the Colombia Peace Plan and defined the Ethnic Chapter of the accord. However, given the State’s omission to peace accord implementation, we request that this be a priority for you, in order to manifest the collective rights of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples who have historically suffered the lasting effects of armed conflict.
I kindly request to establish permanent communication and conversation with you, on behalf of civil society organizations in Colombia, in order to contribute to the unification of peace in Colombia.
I am because we are (“Soy porque Somos”) Francia Elena Márquez Mina Lawyer National Award as Human Rights Defender 2015
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
U.S. inauguration spurs reflections about the bilateral relationship
As President Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump, Colombian media speculated about how the bilateral relationship might change.
One of the most likely shifts is renewed U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which Trump, in the final weeks of the campaign, derided as “the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels.” Biden, by contrast, had counseled President Iván Duque, at a 2018 event in Bogotá, that “the peace agreement was a major breakthrough and should not be minimized or ignored.”
In the new administration’s first days, the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave remarks strongly supportive of the accord’s implementation (discussed below), and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, along with the Bogotá embassy’s Twitter account, made clear that the accord’s implementation is once again a key U.S. priority.
President Duque, whose party, the Centro Democrático, opposed the accord in 2016, did not refer to it specifically in remarks congratulating Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. He noted “the defense of democracy, the fight against transnational crime, against drug trafficking, against terrorism; of course, cooperation, comprehensive development, the commitment to renewable energies and to confront the vicissitudes of climate change and, of course, to continue strengthening investment ties.”
Much media speculation surrounds the possibility of cooling relations amid accusations that members of the Centro Democrático improperly favored Donald Trump and other Republican candidates during the U.S. campaign. “Joe Biden has spoken, after the elections, with Latin American leaders, such as those of Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, but not with Ivan Duque,” notedEl Espectador.
“The interference of some Colombian political figures in the U.S. election was inappropriate and not very strategic, and has left its mark especially among members of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority,” Michael Camilleri, a State Department official during the Obama administration, told the paper. Added WOLA’s Adam Isacson at Caracol, “the bilateral relationship will remain just as close, but relations between the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático are not going to be the best.”
Opposition Senator Antonio Sanguino called for the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, who was accused by his cousin, former President Juan Manuel Santos, of improperly favoring Trump. The Ambassador attended Biden’s January 20 inauguration ceremony.
Biden’s arrival “opens space for citizen diplomacy,” said much-cited conflict analyst Luis Eduardo Celis, adding, “we must prepare the messages and mechanisms to tell the new President of the United States that there is a peace to be built in Colombia.” Letters asking for more explicit U.S. support for peace accord implementation came from the Defendamos la Paz coalition, and from 110 Afro-Descendant, indigenous, campesino, and victims’ organizations.
UN Security Council meets to discuss peace implementation
The Security Council met virtually on January 21 for a quarterly review of Colombia’s peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission, which produced its most recent report at the end of December.
“2021 is year five of the 15-year timeframe envisioned for the implementation of the entirety of the Peace Agreement,” said the UN Special Representative in charge of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu. “It is incumbent to ensure 2021 is remembered as the year in which bold steps were taken to bring to fruition the full promise of sustainable peace enshrined in the Agreement.”
The UN mission director said his office has been warning repeatedly about budget shortfalls in the Colombian government agency charged with providing physical protection to threatened social leaders and former FARC combatants. “More than 550 vacancies for bodyguards remain and over 1,000 requests for close protection are still pending review” at the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit, he said. These numbers far exceed results presented by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Blum, who highlighted “more than 200 schemes to protect former combatants” in 2020, along with 24 sentences handed down for killing ex-combatants, 40 cases under investigation, and 48 arrest warrants issued.
The Security Council should find it “intolerable that more than 250 ex-combatants—signatories to the Peace Accord—have been killed since its signing,” said Norway’s UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who called for strengthening the National Protection Unit and three bodies created by the peace accord: the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the Special Investigative Unit of the Fiscalía, and the Comprehensive Program of Safeguards for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders.
Even during the Trump administration, U.S. representatives at Security Council meetings tended to give statements generally supportive of Colombia’s peace process. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador, was explicitly supportive, signaling an early change in tone with the arrival of the Biden administration. “What can often be often lost, I think, in the specifics of our discussions in this topic is the magnitude of the peace agreement, and the profound impact it has already had on Colombian society,” Mills began. He went on to voice strong concern about attacks on social leaders and ex-combatants, urging Colombia’s government to increase its presence in rural areas and to punish those responsible.
Ambassador Mills also voiced support for Colombia’s “truly innovative” transitional justice system, a topic on which U.S. diplomats have generally avoided comment. In 2019, the U.S. ambassador at the time even supported President Duque’s unsuccessful efforts to weaken this system.
Community leaders threatened in El Salado, a town that suffered an emblematic massacre
The village of El Salado, in El Cármen de Bolívar municipality, in the once-conflictive Montes de María region a few hours’ drive from Cartagena, is known throughout Colombia for the massacre and displacement its residents suffered at the hands of paramilitaries between February 16 to 21, 2000. About 450 AUC members killed 60 people amid days of uninterrupted torture and rape, while the security forces failed to respond.
The name “El Salado” evokes the worst moments of Colombia’s armed conflict. Those memories revived this week as 11 community leaders received a written death threat. A flyer circulated by the so-called “Black Eagles” on January 18 reads, “The people who appear on this list, whose pictures or names are here, leave, or we will come for you at any time.” El Salado social leaders have also received text messages reading, “Either you leave or you die. We know where you are,” “this is how we started 21 years ago,” and “we already know where every family member lives.”
The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) responded by sending a delegation to El Salado, led by Vice-Ombudsman Luis Andrés Fajardo. 2019 and 2020 “early warning” reports from the Defensoríapoint to a growing presence of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization, which moves cocaine through the Montes de María en route to the Caribbean coast. The National Police stated that it was sending an elite team along with representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía).
The name “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras) frequently appears on death threats sent to human rights defenders and social leaders around the country. But the group does not seem to have visible leadership or hold any territory. “The Black Eagles don’t exist,” said Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. “These are people, surely not among those wanted by the law, who use the ‘Black Eagles’ emblem to threaten. The authorities, led by the Fiscalía, must determine the threats’ origin. The problem is that this is never investigated.”
As the FARC political party begins an “extraordinary assembly” meeting that some key leaders are skipping, leader Rodrigo Londoño declared an intention to abandon the name “FARC,” in order to ease formation of coalitions and to distinguish the group from armed dissidents. Fundación Paz y Reconciliación analyst Ariel Ávila toldEl Tiempo that a name change “would help the Farc party to get off the list of terrorist organizations.”
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission ordered precautionary measures for Ricardo Calderón, an intrepid investigative journalist who, during his longtime tenure at Semana magazine, revealed several major corruption and human rights scandals in Colombia’s armed forces, particularly in military intelligence. Calderón is one of many reporters who left Semana after a recent management change, but he continues to receive threats.
Judicial proceedings have begun for Bogotá police accused of killing civilians during a violent citywide police response to anti-police brutality protests last September, in which police killed 13 people over two days. Defense lawyers are seeking to have officers John Antonio Gutiérrez, José Andrés Lasso, and Andrés Díaz Mercado tried in the military justice system instead of the regular criminal justice system, arguing that their role in four of the killings was an “act of service.”
Voráginelooks at the grim human rights and security situation in southern Chocó’s San Juan River valley, a major narcotrafficking corridor with very little government presence beyond sporadic sweeps from security forces and coca eradicators.
After a year of massacres, police brutality, political upheaval, a worsening pandemic, and more in Colombia, peace feels more tenuous than ever before. Hundreds of social leaders have been targeted, threatened, and killed in the last year. 90 massacres—the highest number since before the 2016 Peace Accord—were carried out, largely in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.
In response and in partnership with social leaders in Colombia, WOLA is launching a digital advocacy campaign, Con Líderes Hay Paz. The campaign aims to protect Colombia’s activists who are building peace in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities all over the country. In the last few months, WOLA has been working with social leaders—documenting their stories and boosting their voices—in order to raise awareness of the crisis Colombia faces today.
To pave the way towards a more peaceful, just, and equal society, the Colombian government must bring to justice those who threaten them and their communities, while increasing protections and supporting the work of social leaders. The international community—including the U.S. government, the European Union, the United Nations, and civil society groups—must play an important role in pushing the Colombian state to take prompt action in carrying out these efforts.
We encourage you to join the story. By subscribing to the campaign, you will receive exclusive access to the stories of courageous social leaders, advocacy materials and resources, and previews of the campaign’s upcoming documentary podcast REBUILDING PEACE—premiering February 2021.
Support their work. Protect their lives.
Únete a la historia: Con Líderes Hay Paz
Después de un año de masacres, brutalidad policial, agitación política, una pandemia que sigue empeorando y más en Colombia, la paz se siente más tenue que nunca. Cientos de líderes sociales han sido atacados, amenazados y asesinados en el último año. Hubo 90 masacres en el país, el número más alto desde antes del Acuerdo de Paz del 2016. Las masacres se concentraron en gran parte en comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas.
En asociación con líderes sociales en Colombia, WOLA está lanzando una campaña de promoción digital, Con Líderes Hay Paz. La campaña tiene como objetivo proteger a los activistas de Colombia que están construyendo la paz en las comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas de todo el país. En los últimos meses, WOLA ha estado trabajando con líderes y lideresas sociales—documentando sus historias y amplificando sus voces—con el fin de crear conciencia sobre la crisis que enfrenta Colombia hoy.
Para allanar el camino hacia una sociedad más pacífica, justa e igualitaria, el gobierno colombiano debe llevar ante la justicia a quienes amenazan a los líderes sociales y a sus comunidades, al tiempo que aumenta las protecciones y apoya su trabajo. La comunidad internacional, incluido el gobierno de Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea, las Naciones Unidas, y los grupos de la sociedad civil, debe desempeñar un papel importante para presionar al Estado colombiano para que tome medidas rápidas para llevar a cabo estos esfuerzos.
Te animamos a unirte a la historia. Al suscribirte a la campaña, recibirás acceso exclusivo a las historias de valientes líderes sociales, materiales y recursos de incidencia, y avances del próximo podcast documental de la campaña REBUILDING PEACE/CONSTRUYENDO LA PAZ, que se estrenará en febrero 2021.
On January 20, Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos la Paz, DLP) published a statement addressed to President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in regard to the current state of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord between the Colombian State and the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. DLP is a broad coalition composed of many sectors of national and international civil society and of which WOLA forms part of.
The statement expressed deep concern about the faltering implementation of the accord and the various obstacles brought forth under the Iván Duque administration and throughout the tenure of the former Donald Trump administration. Core components of the accord like the transitional justice system have either been sidelined, are advancing slowly, or face explicit opposition by the executive, which undermine the rights of victims of the armed conflict. Since the accord’s ratification in late 2016, at least 248 former FARC combatants—individuals committed to the peace process—and over 1,000 community social leaders have been assassinated.
Recognizing the significant contributions of the Obama administration in advancing the historic peace process, DLP requests bold foreign policy support by the Biden-Harris administration to ensure comprehensive implementation of the accord. Advancing the accord will help protect community social leaders and former combatants, safeguard the victims of the conflict, and support sustainable illicit drug policy.
The original Spanish-language statement is here. The English translation of the statement is here.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Trump administration, citing the ELN talks’ outcome, puts Cuba on the U.S. terrorist sponsors list
On January 11, with nine days left to the Trump presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government was once again designating Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” alongside North Korea, Syria, and Iran. President Barack Obama’s administration had removed Cuba from this “terrorist list” in 2015.
The measure carries penalties, like bans on assistance and arms sales, that already apply to Cuba through other laws. The Biden administration can remove Cuba, American University’s William LeoGrande explains, by submitting “a presidential report and certification to Congress, which then has 45 days to reject the certification before it goes into effect.”
The main pretext cited for re-listing Cuba involves Colombia. In May 2018 Colombia’s government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host ELN-government peace talks. At the talks’ April 2016 outset, all involved—including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These made clear that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was skeptical about peace talks.
In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police Cadets’ School, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government rejected the protocols: it demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves demand to leave Cuba as detailed in the protocols.
Critics of the State Department decision pointed out that Havana is being punished for assisting a peace process and obeying its rules. “They felt they were doing what they were asked to do, then being accused of being terrorists themselves,” said a source whom The Washington Post described as “a former senior U.S. official familiar with Latin American policy.”
“Efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable,” read a letter from nine Democratic senators, led by incoming Appropriations Committee Chairperson Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont.)
“I am outraged,” said the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York).
“If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts,” read a statement from the government of Norway.
The Colombian government’s two lead negotiators during the FARC peace process warned “that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments.”
On the other side, legislators from Colombia’s ruling rightist Centro Democrático party signed a letter calling on President Duque to consider breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba. And Colombia’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, tweeted that “The Government of Colombia will be forceful against diplomats who attempt to act and interfere within the country.”
Presidency peace and stabilization official reports results, responds to critics
The Colombian Presidency official who oversees most peace accord implementation, Emilio Archila, told El Espectador that he doesn’t know why critics accuse his government of focusing too exclusively on certain aspects of the accord, like the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). “A very small part of it,” he surmised, “is that it is in the political opposition’s interest that we arrive at [the election year of] 2022 with the idea that not enough is being done, and perhaps the opposition has done better than me.”
Archila had choice words for Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco, who upon the release of HRW’s annual worldwide report said that “in Colombia you turn over a stone and a sicario comes out,” while accusing the government of “a fundamentally military response” to human rights problems. “This is an insulting statement regarding Colombia,” the presidency official replied.
In interviews and in the release of monthly results reports, Archila pointed to a Defense Ministry “intelligence bubble” to follow up on risks and threats against ex-combatants “which has saved the lives of several.” Presidency documents cite 1,134 mostly small development projects delivered in the PDETs’ 170 municipalities (counties). Archila rejected criticism that delivery of these projects has not been as consultative as the accords envisioned. To criticisms that the projects have been too small to bring fundamental change in rural Colombia, he responded that larger projects, like tertiary roads, are coming but take longer.
FARC party spokesman Pastor Alape Lascarro toldEl Espectador that the PDETs “are not responding to the expectations of the communities, carrying out works that are not within the framework established in the Peace Agreement.” He questioned the long-term sustainability of economic projects offered to ex-combatants, while recalling that 253 of 13,185 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the accords’ signature.
Environmental defender Gonzalo Cardona is assassinated
On January 11 the Fundación ProAves, which seeks to protect birds and other wildlife in Colombia, announced the murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, coordinator of a ProAves preserve in Tolima department that provides refuge for the endangered yellow-eared parrot. ProAves had reported Cardona missing on January 8, and confirmed a few days later that he had been killed.
Cardona was a founding member of the environmental group , working in Roncesvalles municipality in west-central Tolima since 1998 to save a bird species whose population in Colombia’s central cordillera, by then, had fallen to 81. His work there during some of the conflict’s most intense years placed him in periodic danger, as rural Tolima was a key battleground between the FARC and government forces. But it made a difference: a late 2020 census counted 2,895 yellow-eared parrots in the preserve.
Cardona’s likely killers are not known. “It is outrageous that the second most biodiverse country on the planet continues to lose its great defenders to violence,” read a statement from Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute.
In more dismaying news, Francisco Javier Vera, an 11-year-old environmental activist in Cundinamarca, received a grisly threat of death and torture this week in a comment posted to his Twitter account.
Sign up for Con Líderes Hay Paz, WOLA’s new digital advocacy campaign in support of Colombia’s threatened Afro-descendant and indigenous social leaders and human rights defenders.
Iván Márquez, the FARC leader who headed the guerrillas’ negotiating team in Havana then rearmed in 2019, released a video endorsing the idea of a recall vote to remove President Duque. At the request of Colombia’s National Police, Twitter shut down Márquez’s account, and that of his longtime dissident collaborator Jesús Santrich. YouTube followed suit. National Security Advisor Rafael Guarín tweeted that Márquez will be “taken down” like Pablo Escobar.
The Duque government is inexplicably removing the Interior Ministry security detail for Iván Velásquez, the former auxiliary magistrate who suffered extensive illegal surveillance while investigating the “para-politics” scandal, then went on to head Guatemala’s CICIG anti-corruption body.
The restart of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing regions, which was likely to begin in the first months of 2021, may be delayed for weeks or months further. A judge in Nariño accepted an injunction (tutela) filed by Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, alleging that required prior consultations have been insufficient.
Sixteen women were killed in Colombia during the first thirteen days of 2021, a sharp rise in the rate of femicides.
President Duque reiterated his government’s refusal to offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans in Colombia, saying it would cause “a stampede.”
At War on the Rocks, Andrew Ivey explores “integral action” as a direction for the Colombian military’s post-conflict role. While we don’t share his conclusion that the military should play eminently civilian roles like carrying out development projects, Ivey presents detailed information about the evolution of the armed forces’ thinking.
In response to the Trump administration’s addition of Cuba to the U.S. government’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, here is an English translation of a statement published on January 15 by the leaders of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.
STATEMENT BY FORMER COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT PEACE NEGOTIATORS
In view of the decision by the outgoing U.S. administration to include Cuba on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and the call by Colombia’s ruling party, the Democratic Center, to “review” relations with that country and make “substantive decisions”, we wish to say the following, based on our own experience in Cuba:
During the nearly five years (2012-2016) that the Colombian government delegation was negotiating in Havana with the FARC, we enjoyed the strong support of the Cuban government, which used its best resources to ensure the success of the talks, together with Norway. In a situation that was not exactly one of abundance, Cuba made available to us a multiplicity of houses, conference rooms and—much more importantly—its most experienced diplomats, in Havana and Bogotá, to facilitate the negotiations in the best possible way. We say with total certainty: without Cuba’s commitment and contribution there would have been no peace agreement in Colombia.
During this time, Cuban authorities exercised special vigilance over the FARC delegation, to ensure that their presence in Havana was in keeping with the purposes of the peace process. As a joke, they once told us: “We don’t even let the FARC exercise together, so that no one will think that they’re setting up a camp here”. They always made clear that the FARC was in Havana to negotiate peace, and for nothing else. As representatives of the government of Colombia, despite all the differences that we may have with the regime of Cuba, we are obliged to recognize and thank the generous spirit and the professionalism that Cuba deployed in favor of peace in Colombia.
It is thus an outrage and an act of unequaled state ingratitude with the Republic of Cuba that, in the framework of similar negotiations with the ELN, the government of Iván Duque demanded that Cuba surrender members of that delegation to Colombian authorities. To do so would go against the protocols signed by the government of Colombia and the international guarantors, which called for the return of the ELN negotiators to their places of origin should the talks break down. The fact that the ELN committed an atrocious act of terrorism at the National Police Cadet School in Bogotá—which we condemn most vehemently—and that the government, as is its right, abandoned the negotiation, does not change the terms of what was formally agreed upon by Colombia in the framework of the peace process.
Like the members of the FARC delegation at the time, all members of the ELN delegation were authorized by the Colombian government to participate in the negotiations, and their outstanding arrest warrants had been lifted. The current government preferred to ignore Colombia’s international obligations and to play along with an ideological strategy of the outgoing U.S. administration, which from the beginning had the objective, as was easy to foresee, of putting Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
Now the Democratic Center, the ruling party, is calling with characteristic incoherence for “decisions” to be taken against Cuba, forgetting that its leader Alvaro Uribe, when president of Colombia, had asked Cuba to receive an ELN delegation to begin exploratory peace talks. Between 2005 and 2007, there were eight unsuccessful rounds of negotiations in Havana between the Uribe government and the ELN, for which the government authorized as representatives, among others, the ELN’s military commander, Antonio García, and the current head of the delegation in Havana, Pablo Beltrán, as well as countless civil society organizations.
In those same years the ELN kidnapped 236 civilians, according to official figures, and did not release any. And yet the Uribe government probably never thought of demanding the extradition to Colombia of the ELN peace delegation to answer for those acts, because it knew that would mean breaking the rules of the game that allow for negotiations.
What is at stake, then, is not only peace with the ELN or U.S. relations with Cuba, but the very possibility of carrying out peace negotiations. As the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs said a few days ago, if countries that facilitate peace efforts run the risk of ending up designated as sponsors of terrorism, from now on they will think twice before committing to such efforts.
Who would believe that the United States might ask Qatar to extradite the members of the Taliban peace delegation, who are negotiating in Doha, because of the terrorist acts that the Taliban are still committing in Afghanistan today, and which the United States itself is denouncing? In the case of Afghanistan, the attitude of the outgoing U.S. administration has been exactly the opposite: in the agreement it signed with the Taliban, it even committed itself to removing them from the list of terrorist organizations without their having signed any peace agreement with the Afghan government, much less laying down their arms.
Beyond coherence, the heart of the problem is that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments. The Duque government preferred to lend itself to the Trump administration’s ideological agenda, bringing Colombia’s international relations to a new low. Now that the Trump administration is ending its term by attacking its own electoral process and violating its own constitution, it is time for Colombia to turn around and seek a new, more constructive relationship with the United States.
We strongly encourage the incoming administration of President-Elect Biden to review the decision to include Cuba on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries as a result of its facilitation of Colombia’s peace process, and we stand ready to testify about our experience.
Humberto de la Calle, Former Head of Government Negotiating Team Sergio Jaramillo, Former High Commissioner for Peace
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.
U.S. Congress passes 2021 foreign aid bill
On December 27 Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s budget for 2021, including the foreign aid appropriation (see “Division K” here). As in nearly all of the past 30 years, that bill makes Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The law appropriates $461,375,000 in State Department and USAID-managed aid for Colombia this year, about $30-40 million more than the past few years’ laws and about $50 million more than the Trump White House had requested in February.
The proportions between programs and priorities are similar to prior years. Our best estimate (derived here) is that 47% of the $461 million will go to economic and civilian institution-building aid programs; 18% will go to strictly military and police aid programs; and 34% will go to programs, mainly counter-drug programs, that can pay for either type of aid but for which we don’t have a breakdown.
In addition to the $461 million in the foreign aid bill, a significant but unknown amount of military and police aid will come from the Defense Department’s $700 billion-plus budget. In 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service, Defense accounts contributed another $55.39 million or more to benefit Colombia’s security forces.
As in previous years, the law includes human rights conditions holding up about $7.7 million in military aid until the State Department can certify to Congress that Colombia is holding gross human rights violators accountable, preventing attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society leaders, protecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, and holding accountable senior military officers responsible for “false positive” killings.
After some very concerning military intelligence scandals in 2020, the law includes a new condition on the $7.7 million: the State Department must also certify that Colombia is holding accountable those responsible for “illegal surveillance of political opponents, government officials, journalists, and human rights defenders, including through the use of assets provided by the United States.”
Killings of former FARC combatants accelerate
The UN Verification Mission’s latest quarterly report, dated December 29, voices strong concerns about “248 killings of former combatants (six women), including 21 during the reporting period (two women, three of indigenous origin and two Afro-Colombians) and a total of 73 during 2020.”
The problem is worsening. Five demobilized FARC combatants were murdered over a 12-day post-Christmas period.
Rosa Amalia Mendoza Trujillo and her infant daughter were among several victims of a December 27 massacre in Montecristo, Bolívar.
Manuel Alonso, killed on December 27 on the road between Florida, Valle del Cauca, and Miranda, Cauca.
Yolanda Zabala Mazo, killed on January 1, together with her sister, on January 1 in Briceño, Antioquia.
Duván Armed Galíndez, shot on January 2 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
Diego Yule Rivera, who had been displaced from Caloto, Cauca after receiving threats, was shot in Cali on January 7.
This, according to the FARC political party, brings the number of assassinated ex-combatants to 252 since the peace accord went into effect.
The chief prosecutor’s office’s (Fiscalía’s) Special Investigative Unit has managed 289 cases of killings and other attacks on ex-combatants, the UN report informs. Of these, the Unit has achieved convictions of responsible parties in 34 cases, while 20 cases are on trial, 38 are under investigation, and an additional 49 have arrest warrants issued.
The report notes that conditions are most perilous for ex-combatants in the zone surrounding the triple border between Meta, Caquetá, and Guaviare departments in south-central Colombia. This area, once the rearguard of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, is now under the strong influence of the largest FARC dissident organization, the 1st and 7th Front structure under alias “Gentil Duarte.”
Coca eradication hits record level as a restart of fumigation nears
In an end-of-year security declaration, President Duque announced that Colombia, with U.S. backing, had met its 2020 goal of eradicating 130,000 hectares of coca. This is a manual eradication record, the first time Colombia has exceeded 100,000 hectares and an area “roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles” according to AFP. The 130,000-hectare goal will remain in place, Duque added, for 2021.
(Any discussion of eradication statistics must mention mid-2020 allegations from former officials and contractors, who contend that eradication teams may have inflated their results by as much as 30 percent.)
Duque added that Colombian forces had seized 498 tons of cocaine in 2020, which would shatter the 2017 record of 434.7 tons.
We probably won’t find out how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2020 until the U.S. government and UN Office on Drugs and Crime release their estimates in mid-2021. In the meantime, the Colombian government continues to move closer to relaunching a program, suspended in 2015 for health concerns, that would eradicate coca by spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft.
On December 19 and 20 Colombia’s environmental authority (ANLA) held a virtual public hearing on one of the main requirements that must be fulfilled to relaunch fumigation: the National Police’s application to modify its environmental management plan to allow aerial glyphosate spraying. This hearing was delayed for months, as communities in remote areas with poor internet service objected to holding a “virtual” consultation due to pandemic restrictions.
At the hearing, National Police Gen. Julio Cesar González presented a summary of the force’s proposed modifications to the environmental management plan (available here as a large trove of Google documents). “We’re going to go to areas that are already deteriorated, so we don’t expect to affect them further. This is based on technology, and aerial spraying will focus on large plots.” The General insisted that the spray program’s technology has advanced over what it was before, allowing greater accuracy over the area to be sprayed and the amount of herbicide to be applied. More than 60% of the spray mixture will be conditioned water, glyphosate will be 33% (less than some commercially available mixtures), and the rest will be a mineral coadjuvant.
Diego Trujillo, the delegate for agricultural and environmental issues at Colombia’s inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría), voiced concerns about the proposed renewal of spraying. He argued that it runs counter to the peace accord’s commitments, and relies on purchases of Chinese-produced glyphosate that, according to El Espectador’ssummary, “led in 2015 to an investigation into corruption in the this herbicide’s acquisition, which was was not recommended by health and environmental authorities.”
Mauricio Albarracín of the legal NGO DeJusticia objected to the process, citing a lack of prior and informed participation of possibly affected communities who were being asked to consider an environmental management plan “that consists of more than 3,000 pages, contains language that is not accessible to the possibly affected population, and suffers a lack of transparency in information.” Albarracín added that information about harms and risks is “insufficient, poorly structured and biased,” and that the spraying plan fails to meet the obligation to implement the 2016 peace accord in good faith. (The accord sets aside aerial spraying as a last resort, when coca growers who have been offered help with alternatives persist in growing the crop, and when conditions on the ground are too dangerous for manual eradication.)
María Alejandra Vélez, director of the University of the Andes’ CESED (Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), argued that fumigation is not cost-effective and could carry unacceptable health and environmental risks. Vélez, an economist, found fault with the police proposal’s methods and quality of information.
Following the hearing, the daily El Espectador published a tough editorial titled “insisting on the useless.”
Presidency officials are investing their time complying with the requirements imposed by the Constitutional Court to resume an ineffective and insufficient activity that destroys ties with communities in the most affected areas. One would think that after decades of failure, the political consensus in Colombia would show signs of reflective capacity. But this is not the case. The useless is presented as the magical solution.
Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s homicide rate fell 4.6% in 2020 to a rate of 23.79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest level since 1974. However, the country suffered a jump in massacres—killings of three or more people at a time—with 89, claiming 345 victims.
President Iván Duque said that his government has no intention of providing COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “Of course they won’t get it,” he toldBlu Radio. “Imagine what we would live through. We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”
La Silla Vacíawades through the Fiscalía’s record on bringing social leaders’ killers to justice, and finds 30 percent of cases have reached the indictment stage but only 7 percent have concluded with a conviction. Meanwhile, WOLA published a second alert, just before Christmas, about threats to social leaders, a week after warning of a large number of urgent situations. And on January 1 Gerardo León, a community leader in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, became the first murdered Colombian social leader of 2021.
Colombia expelled two Russian diplomats, accusing them of espionage. The Putin government followed suit, expelling two diplomats from Colombia’s Moscow embassy.
As of December 22, Joe Biden still hadn’t given a call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his post-election congratulations. If a call has taken place since, the Colombian government hasn’t announced it. Governing-party officials’ meddling in the U.S. campaign is the most likely explanation for the presidential ghosting.
Colombia has a new National Police chief. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, an officer with an intelligence background and the son-in-law of 1990s chief Gen. Rosso José Serrano, replaces Gen. Óscar Atehortúa, whose tenure was marked by protests against brutality and allegations of corruption. An El Espectadoreditorial urges the new chief to carry out badly needed reforms to the force.
Hernán Giraldo, a former top paramilitary leader from northern Colombia whose name is synonymous with systematic rape of young girls, is being extradited back to Colombia nearly 13 years after being sent to the United States to serve a sentence for another crime, drug trafficking.
Retired military officers are becoming more politically active. La Silla Vacíareports on a late October meeting at which former soldiers and police agreed to form a political party to run candidates in 2022 national elections, in order to counter what they see as “a radical left.” Meanwhile retired Gen. Jaime Ruiz, president of Colombia’s hardline association of former officers (ACORE), shared with El Nuevo Siglo his view that, largely because of the FARC peace accord, “2020 was not a good year for the security forces.”
December 31 was the deadline the government set for the FARC to hand over all illegally obtained assets, as mandated by the peace accord. The ex-guerrillas appear to have fallen short on turning over land and property, but claim that they face security and legal obstacles to doing so. El Espectadorexplains the “ABC” of the controversy.
Here is an English translation of the stirring end-of-year message published by the President of Colombia’s Commission for Clarification of the Truth, Father Francisco de Roux.
“From the encounter with thousands of survivors of Colombia’s armed conflict who carry the memory of the kidnapped and false positives; from the pain of the soldiers, police and former guerrillas without legs; from destroyed villages, displaced peasants, indigenous and Afro-descendant people dispossessed of their territories, abused women, children driven to kill, families searching for the disappeared, and thousands who fled into exile; and also from the pain left by COVID-19; we extend the most sincere embrace on behalf of the Truth Commission.
The tragedy of the conflict contains the truth of hatred, caused by power and greed, that broke us as a human community and calls us to change. We build Colombia together, from our cultural, ethnic, political, gender, and generational differences, or there will be no peaceful future for anyone.
We invite you to look directly at where we went wrong when we soaked the human and ecological wealth we have in blood and vengeance, when we made it natural to live among war, lies, corruption, injustice, and cocaine.
We urge, from the cries of victims on all sides, the ELN, the FARC dissidents and the Second Marquetalia of Ivan Marquez, Romaña and Jesus Santrich, to lay down their arms. Sixty years of war have made it clear that armed confrontation does not make social revolution, but causes suffering and terror for a people who cry ‘stop that war, stop it on all sides, stop it now.’
We ask the government not to stop extending a truly effective hand of peace to the insurgents, because we do not despair of the human being within them. We also ask it to go beyond the serious implementation of the PDET (Territorial Development Plans), to assume the totality of the peace and comprehensive rural reform, and to surround with political and ethical protection the mission of the institutions of the System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, and particularly the demanding task of the JEP.
We invite the institutions to put themselves at the service of the life and human greatness of each person, to the inclusion of all without borders.
We propose a dialogue to transform security. Not to reverse the steps taken by the Military Forces when they tried to change the objective of the war to that of an Army at the service of peace, despite the fact that there are still guerrilla and criminal groups. We invite to a security created by trust: when citizens believe in each other and trust in their institutions. The exaltation of weapons from all sides creates mistrust and provokes war, it does not give security.
We urge politicians on the campaign trail to move away from the marketing of votes and to have the audacity to listen in order to seek together the non-repetition of the tragedy, so as not to allow the intolerable to happen again.
In the new year, may lies and fears fall, and let us set in motion, from the truth, a future of hope, reconciliation and brotherhood in which we rescue the dignity we deserve as the people of Colombia.”
Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.
Consultation puts a restart of fumigation on the front burner
On December 19 Colombia’s environmental authority, the ANLA, is holding a long-awaited public hearing about resuming coca fumigation. The term refers to a U.S.-backed program that uses aircraft spraying the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca. The hearing is a step toward ANLA’s deciding whether to award the controversial program an environmental license, one of several prerequisites that Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set for its restart.
Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years and over 1.8 million hectares sprayed, following a World Health Organization literature review’s finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Since then, the government was slow to implement an alternative—whether on-the-ground eradication or building state presence and services in coca-growing zones—and coca cultivation surged.
The December 19 public hearing centers on the 4,000-page modification that the National Police—which runs the spray program—is proposing to the ANLA’s environmental management plan for the spraying. The hearing responds to a March request from four NGOs, Acción Técnica Social, Elementa, Viso Mutop, y Dejusticia. The pandemic has delayed it: courts ruled that communities in remote areas far from internet access could not be consulted “virtually.” A higher court overruled that in October, however, finding that virtual consultations could go ahead.
The groups that called for the hearing contend that the spray program is risky and ineffective. DeJusticia’s co-founder, Rodrigo Uprimny, notes, “The argument against fumigation is simple: it is not effective, it has serious negative effects, its legal viability is precarious, and there are better strategies.” María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs (CESED) contends that fumigation causes “a loss of state legitimacy,” a “balloon effect” as coca cultivation moves elsewhere, and conflict with the peace accords’ offer of help with crop substitution.
Should this process lead to a restart of spraying, we can expect Colombian organizations—including those that called for the December 19 hearing—to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. An analysis from DeJusticia advocates finds “poor transparency and access to information in the process, weak evidence, and failure to comply with constitutional orders,” while little is known about the health study that Colombia’s equivalent of the CDC (the INS) has been required to carry out. A joint letter from numerous Colombian organizations found that “the government is not complying with the legal and constitutional mandate to respect consultation and free, prior, and informed consent in eradication plans in ethnic territories,” and demanded that the December 19 hearing be suspended.
Coca fumigation has been the subject of numerous WOLA reports and commentaries, a November 30 joint letter with Colombian partners, and an event we co-hosted on December 9.
International warnings about massacres and social leader killings
“I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence,” reads a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that counts 375 people murdered in 2020 by massacres and targeted social leader killings. A summary of the statement was featured for at least two days this week on the main page of the United Nations’ website. During the past week, strong concerns about massacres (defined as the killing of multiple people at a time) and social leader murders also came from:
The 29th semi-annual report of OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA), drawing attention to “illegal armed groups’ territorial and social control.”
A Verdad Abiertaresource that allows a reader to view brief biographical and geographical information about 602 social leaders killed between January 2016 and September 2020, selecting for year, region, and stage of judicial investigation.
WOLA’s monthly alert about the human rights situation, which “cannot stress enough that international actions are required to stop the human rights rollbacks occurring as a result of the inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace accord.”
Two reports warn about security along the Colombia-Venezuela border
Two high-credibility security think tanks released reports raising alarms about worsening security conditions at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Even as pandemic measures stop all legal border crossings, violent organized crime activity has increased, in a way that mixes dangerously with the neighboring governments’ poor diplomatic relations.
“In the 24 border municipalities of Colombia, during 2020, 472 people have been assassinated, 63 of Venezuelan nationality; 24 have been massacred; 1,365 persons have been forcibly displaced and 13 have been kidnapped,” reports the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación in a 55-page report on The Situation of Security and Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela Border. “On the Venezuelan side,” however, the Foundation could obtain “no known figures that would allow us to specify” how bad the situation is.
“Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings,” reports the International Crisis Group’s Disorder on the Border: Keeping the Peace between Colombia and Venezuela. “High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.”
Both reports find the Rastrojos, a paramilitary-derived organized crime group, losing ground to the ELN along the border between Norte de Santander, Colombia and Táchira, Colombia: a more densely populated part of the border especially coveted by smugglers. The Rastrojos were found to have helped Venezuelan Assembly President (recognized by several dozen countries as Interim President) Juan Guaidó to cross overland into Colombia in February 2019. Since then, Venezuela’s security forces have cracked down on the group, along with the ELN, which moved quickly to fill the vacuum and to consolidate its dominance on the Venezuelan side on the border.
The Venezuelan government appears to have aided and abetted the ELN, the Crisis Group notes, as Caracas officials “view the ELN as a supplement to the state’s border defenses and seem willing to overlook occasional clashes between its fighters and the Venezuelan military.”
Other groups, like FARC dissidents, remnants of the EPL guerrillas, Venezuelan gang networks, and Mexican cartel middlemen, are also very active, adding to the chaos. “The Colombian army, for its part, is under orders not to rock the boat” in order to minimize the likelihood of conflict, the ICG finds.
The Fiscalía is investigating 2,314 cases of “false positive” cases involving 10,949 members of the Army, including 22 generals, involving 3,966 victims, according to a September document that the prosecutor’s office sent to the International Criminal Court.
Despite the sharp rise in massacres and social leader killings, Colombia’s 2020 homicide rate to date is 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents, which Colombia’s Police say is the lowest in 46 years.
Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses take issue with government claims that nearly all 250 killings of ex-FARC guerrillas are related to narcotrafficking.
“Of the 75 municipalities with the most coca or substitution leader killings…there were specialized judges in only 3 (Puerto Asís, Tumaco, and Cúcuta) and criminal judges in 6. There were judicial police in 11 and specialized prosecutors in 7,” reads a La Silla Vacíaanalysis of the justice system’s absence.
Prominent center-left columnists Ramiro Bejarano, María Jimena Duzán, and Cecilia Orozco continued to question former Fiscal General Néstor Humberto Martínez, whom they accuse of plotting with the U.S. DEA to entrap participants and supporters of the peace process between 2017 and 2019.
Colombian officials are forecasting that within two months, a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones—suspended for public health reasons in 2015—will restart. A major step along the way, a nationwide consultation with communities, is scheduled to start on Saturday.
Honorable Congressmen of the Republic of Colombia Honorable Members of the Congress of the United States of America Social organizations defending human rights and environmental rights
Re: Urgent call for non-reactivation of glyphosate fumigation in Colombia.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Elementa DDHH, Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo, La Red en Movimiento, Corporación Viso Mutop, and Consultoría para los derechos humanos y el desplazamiento (CODHES), write to express deep concern about the imminent reactivation of glyphosate fumigations in Colombia, ignoring the guidelines given by the Constitutional Court in Ruling T-236 of 2017, as well as the historical and documented serious impact on health and the dire consequences in terms of the environment and forced migration in the country.
The national government of Colombia, through various mechanisms, has expressed its determined interest to reactivate glyphosate fumigations for crops of illicit use; a decision motivated, in part, by pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump within the framework of the war on drugs.
Despite the various stages that must be carried out based on the guidelines given by Colombia’s Constitutional Court regarding an eventual reactivation of fumigations, like modifying the Environental Management Plan (PMA) and carrying out hearings with communities, these have not been fulfilled, since campesino and indigenous communities and civil society organizations have not been able to participate in virtual hearings with the government. On the contrary, the national government, through the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, announced in October of this year that aerial spraying will be resumed to combat drug trafficking.
Glyphosate spraying has been shown to be risky to human health, to negatively affect ecosystems, to threaten indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and their sacred territories, as well as the campesino economy and its efforts at alternatives to coca cultivation. The consequences in terms of food insecurity and the loss of productive capacity in rural areas have generated massive displacement within and outside of Colombia, with humanitarian impacts widely documented since 2000 by international organizations and governments of neighboring countries.
Glyphosate was classified by the WHO in 2015 as probably carcinogenic, and has been proven to cause death in animals essential to the preservation of the ecosystem, as well as in nearby water sources. Likewise, by affecting other non-illegal crops, it puts the food security of communities at risk and increases economic precariousness in these regions, thus generating forced internal and cross-border displacements and conflicts between public forces and the population, affecting the legitimacy of the state in these territories. All these consequences show how aerial spraying with glyphosate is a practice that leads to violations of the right to life, integrity and dignity of the population living in these regions, since it has also been proven to be correlated to respiratory diseases and miscarriages.
In addition, the Final Peace Agreement between the National Government and the former FARC-EP guerrilla group, which is part of the constitutionality bloc, in Point 4 on “Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs”, agreed to a Comprehensive National Program of Substitution of Illicit Crop Use -PNIS, which incorporates voluntary eradication and plans for immediate family care, which would be hindered and affected by the reactivation of glyphosate fumigation. It should be noted that glyphosate spraying has proven to be unsustainable over time, since it does not offer economic alternatives to the cultivating families, and its use is followed by a high percentage of replanting—the opposite of the case of voluntary substitution, for which it has been demonstrated that very few families return to illicit crops.
As if the adverse effects of glyphosate were not enough, the return to these practices makes even less sense when analyzing these methods’ effectiveness compared to their economic costs, since according to figures given by UNODC and the government itself, eradicating a hectare of crops with glyphosate costs 80% more than complying with a family’s voluntary crop replacement plan. In fact, the total estimated cost of carrying out voluntary crop substitution processes with 80,438 families is 2.8 trillion Colombian pesos, while between 2005 and 2014, 79.9 trillion were spent on aerial spraying with glyphosate.
For this reason, community, ethnic, human rights and environmental rights organizations reject the reactivation of glyphosate fumigation and call on the Congress of the Republic of Colombia, the Congress of the United States, and interested organizations to support alternatives to eradication and glyphosate fumigation, taking into account the innumerable scientific and community contributions that demonstrate the serious effects in terms of human and environmental rights, as well as the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs.
We share as an annex to this communication a brief but profound analysis of the serious consequences on the rights to life, integrity and dignity of the population in case of reactivation of glyphosate spraying in the country.
WOLA – The Washington Office on Latin America Elementa DDHH Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo Red en Movimiento: investigación y acción en migraciones La Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el desplazamiento (CODHES) Corporación Viso Mutop
 Red en Movimiento: Investigación y acción en migraciones is a network of academics from different universities and social organizations in Colombia that seeks to make a social and political impact on the public agenda and opinion around the phenomena of migration in the city and the country. It is integrated by researchers, professors and activists from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Universidad de Los Andes, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Universidad Externado de Colombia, and Universidad Santo Tomás.
 Today there is a complaint against the Colombian state before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the use of glyphosate that led to a campesino woman’s miscarriage. Meanwhile Monsanto (through its parent company Bayer) has been compelled by US courts to pay damages on several occasions for the causal relationship between the use of Roundup (a herbicide whose main component is glyphosate) and the development of cancer in several people, some of the most emblematic of whom are the cases of Dewayne Johnson, Edwin Haderman, and Alva and Alberta Pillod.
 Source: – UNODC. 2020. Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops – PNIS (report n° 21). Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/colombia/2020/Mayo/INFORME_EJECUTIVO_PNIS_No._21.pdf and Response of the Directorate for the Substitution of Illicit Crops to a freedom of information request of the House of Representatives. October 2018.
Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.
Fumigation is coming
Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, told the Blu Radio network that a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation might restart in as little as “between a month and a half and two months.”
Five years ago, citing health concerns, the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos suspended this program, which used aircraft to spray the controversial herbicide glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015. The current government of Iván Duque is working to restart the program, with U.S. funding and exhortations from Donald Trump: “you’re going to have to spray.”
That requires meeting a series of requirements laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, among them consultations with communities and studies of environmental and health impact. The consultations had been slowed by the pandemic: a court in Nariño found that “virtual” exchanges were impossible with communities in remote areas far from internet coverage. That decision, though, was reversed by an October higher-court ruling. Now, 17 consultations are ongoing, and the environmental licensing authority, ANLA, will hold a final national consultation beginning on December 19.
Though Minister Ruiz’s maximum-two-months is on the fast end of estimates we have heard for when fumigation might restart, it is not implausible.
At a December 9 event WOLA hosted with five experts from around Colombia, speakers warned about potential damage that a renewed aerial glyphosate spraying might cause: to human health, to the environment, to indigenous cultures, and to nearby crops needed for food security. Speakers warned that a fumigation program would be costly, would cause forced displacement, and, under most circumstances, would violate the peace accords’ fourth chapter. They warned that a renewed fumigation program could inspire a wave of protest in coca-growing zones, especially if carried out under current conditions of insufficient prior consultation and few opportunities to receive crop substitution assistance.
FARC dissident activity around the country
Concerning reports from around the country point to increasing activity of FARC dissident groups. These are armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who rejected the peace accord in 2016, ex-guerrillas who demobilized but later rearmed, and new recruits. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación’s (PARES) latest report on the country’s security situation estimates that about 30 such groups, totaling perhaps 2,600 members, are active in 113 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). It places them in three categories:
Those networked under the 1st and 7th Front structure headed by Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who refused to demobilize in 2016. PARES estimates that 65% of dissidents are in this network.
The “Nueva Marquetalia” network headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks but rearmed in 2019.
Smaller, “dispersed” groups, often headed by very young people.
After Iván Márquez and several other top ex-FARC leaders launched their “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group in August 2019, Gentil Duarte’s larger dissident network appeared to rebuff their outreach. Now, “Police say there is a war to the death in the areas [the two dissident networks] aspire to control, such as Putumayo, Nariño, Catatumbo, and Cauca,” according to a December 10 story in El Espectador, which relies heavily on National Police information.
That story warns that Nueva Marquetalia is moving into the heartland of Gentil Duarte’s group, seeking to traffic cocaine along the Guaviare River between Meta and Guaviare. A December 7 half-ton cocaine seizure in Puerto Concordia, Meta, may indicate that Iván Márquez may have sent a powerful emissary to do this: Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” who twenty years ago was one of the most feared FARC members because he pioneered ransom kidnappings along main roads out of Bogotá. Much of the cocaine produced in Meta and Guaviare goes through Arauca into Venezuela, then by air or boat to Central America and Mexico, or on to Europe.
To the west of Puerto Concordia, in La Macarena, Meta, dissidents are believed to be behind the murder of Javier Francisco Parra, the director of Cormacarena, the Colombian government’s regional environmental body. Parra was known as a defender of Caño Cristales, a tourist destination famous for its uniquely colored algae. The site’s accessibility was widely hailed as a tangible benefit of the peace accord.
Another feared member of the Nueva Marquetalia, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa”—who headed the FARC’s brutal, elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Column—was dispatched to Putumayo. There, he made an alliance with that department’s most powerful regional organized crime group, called “La Constru” or occasionally “La Mafia Sinaloa,” and with remnants of the FARC’s 48th front. All are fighting the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group, which is aligned with Gentil Duarte, for control of Putumayo’s lucrative trafficking routes through Ecuador and out to the Pacific, and down the Caquetá river into Brazil and on to Europe.
Colombian press reports from the past week also find a worsening humanitarian situation in Nariño’s Pacific coastal region. In the busy port of Tumaco, “where, curiously, there are hundreds of Mexicans these days,” Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador about the wave of violence that followed the September collapse of a two-year truce between two local dissident groups, the Frente Óliver Sinisterra and the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico.
Several hours north and inland from Tumaco, in the violent Telembí Triangle region, La Silla Vacíareports on fighting between the Óliver Sinisterra, the Gentil Duarte-tied 30th Front, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, for control of the Patía River’s trafficking routes. Violence broke out six months ago, during the pandemic, and has been worsening ever since. Further north along the coast, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA alerted about combat between dissidents and other groups causing mass displacements in Iscuandé, Nariño.
In all of these reports, a common theme is the near-total absence of Colombia’s state. Usually, the only government presence is military—and in places like coastal Nariño, there is only so much even a corruption-free armed forces could do. In La Silla Vacía, the general heading the local armed forces task force “recognizes that the Patía River is too extensive and connects with a maze of smaller rivers that are impossible for the security forces to control in their entirety.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his first overseas trip as chairman will be to Afro-descendant regions of Colombia , a country he knows well (and, some contend, controversially).
Colombia’s Senate approved a round of 19 military promotions, including those of Army Generals Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo and Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sánchez, who commanded units during the 2000s alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings.
Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian from Caucasia, in northeastern Antioquia’s convulsed Bajo Cauca region. Verdad Abierta also focused on the Bajo Cauca region, publishing a three–partseries, with some striking photos, about armed group activity and social leaders’ precarious situation.
At a virtual hearing of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, representatives of Colombia’s Truth Commission denounced obstacles that the government has placed in the way of their work, such as security forces’ refusal to turn over requested documents. Colombian government representatives declined even to participate in the hearing.
A UNDP-PRIO-Universidad de los Andes poll of 12,000 residents of the 170 post-conflict “PDET” municipalities found reduced overall perceptions of armed-group control, and 80% support for programs that reintegrate former FARC combatants.
On November 24, 2020—four years after the signing of the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian State and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos la Paz Colombia, DLP) published a statement addressed to Ambassadors before the United Nations Security Council. DLP, a broad coalition comprised of many sectors of Colombian civil society and of which WOLA forms part, urged the Security Council to demand a greater commitment to peace accord implementation from the Colombian government.
DLP’s statement expressed deep concern with ongoing threats against the physical and legal security of FARC ex-combatants, the assassinations of social leaders, and a disturbing trend of massacres. Rather than taking the measures in the accord to prevent and condemn violence in the territories, the government uses the violence as an excuse to deepen its campaign to discredit the peace process. The coalition also noted that in international mediums like the Security Council, the government maintains a pro-peace discourse while simultaneously engaging in an anti-peace discourse domestically.
The window of opportunity for peace remains open. DLP trusts in the Security Council’s cooperation to use existing mechanisms to verify and defend human rights throughout this path to peace and to demand the Colombian government hold to its commitments.
A translation of the full statement is below. The original Spanish version is here.
We address you as Defend the Peace, Colombia’s peace movement, to denounce the threats against the physical and legal security of ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), as well as the assassinations of social leaders in the territories.
1. Physical safety at risk
The latest report of the United Nations Verification Mission, presented to the Security Council in September 2020, says: “since the signing of the peace accord, the Mission has verified 297 attacks against former members of the FARC-EP, including 224 murders (of which 4 were women), 20 disappearances, and 53 attempted murders (of which 4 were women)”. From October to November, the FARC-EP reported 18 additional murders.
So far in 2020, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia received information on 110 cases concerning killings of human rights defenders, of which 51 have been confirmed and the others are under verification. As of October 31, of the 61 massacres reported this year, 51 were documented with 195 deaths.
The United Nations Verification Mission is in charge of verifying point 3.4 of the accord, which outlines the security guarantees for ex-combatants, human rights defenders, social and political movements. It also addresses the struggle against successor paramilitary organizations and includes unfulfilled government commitments.
The National Commission for Security Guarantees, created by the accord, is meant to formulate public policy on security and crime in order to protect the people involved in the implementation of the accord. To date, this body has yet to formulate this public policy. For two years, the President, who presides over the Commission, only attended three meetings; the Special Jurisdiction for Peace was forced to take action and enforce precautionary measures for ex-combatants and summon the meeting.
Not only has the government failed to take the measures in the accord to prevent and condemn violence in the territories, the government also uses the violence as an excuse to deepen its campaign to discredit the peace process, insisting that the causes of violence lie with the accord. On the contrary, the peace accord provides the elements necessary to stop the violence, of which the government continues to turn its back on.
It is important to note that a significant number of assassinations and massacres mainly take place where the Armed Forces have deployed the most troops.
In the 1980s, Colombia experienced the extermination of a political party with the murders of more than 2,500 members of the Patriotic Union. The defenders of peace ask the Security Council to help avoid repeating history.
2. Legal security at risk
Colombia’s transitional justice system—the Comprehensive System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Repetition—is under attack by President Duque, his government and the ruling party.
In open interference with the independence of the judicial branch, President Duque has dictated orders to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
Several paramilitary commanders have expressed a willingness to submit to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The President told the judges that “in that justice system [the transitional justice system] there is no room for members of paramilitary groups, as they can submit to the ordinary justice system under other normative frameworks “.
The Colombian government demands the truth from the FARC-EP. But it also outright rejects the truth when it is told. Members of the FARC-EP not only confessed their responsibility in the murder of conservative leader Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, but also pledged to deliver evidence during pertinent procedural hearings.
The President dismissed this act, asserted that the country is still waiting to know the real perpetrators and causes, demanded that the JEP make a prompt determination of the veracity of the claims, and suggested the JEP undertake an investigation for false self-incrimination. The President insists that “it was the murderous bullets of drug trafficking,” and not the FARC-EP that killed Gómez Hurtado, in attempts to delegitimize the JEP.
The governing party presented a project to reform the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, announced a popular referendum to repeal it, and proposed changing the composition of the Truth Commission. President Duque filed objections to the statutory law of the JEP, which failed in Congress and ultimately delayed the start of processes for months.
The onslaught of the government and its party against transitional justice and against the peace accord does not stop.
As such, Defend the Peace brings to the Security Council’s attention the Colombian government’s responsibility, by omission, of attacks and assassination attempts against those building peace. We also bring to its attention the opposition against the transitional justice system—the backbone of the peace accord—by the President, his representatives, and his political party. We note that in international mediums like the Security Council, the government maintains a pro-peace discourse. In Colombia, the government maintains an anti-peace discourse.
We’ve seen how several post-conflict contexts make the transition from Chapter VI to Chapter VII when one or more parties do not comply with what was agreed upon. It is our conviction that, if effective and immediate measures are not taken to prevent killings and massacres as well as guarantees aren’t made for the legal security of ex-combatants, the international commitments assumed by the Colombian state could end up turning the Colombian case into an “international threat to peace and security,” in the terms developed by the Security Council’s practice in the last decade.
Defend the Peace, a platform that integrates a broad coalition comprised of diverse and representative sectors of Colombian society, brings together the peace accord negotiators from the government and the FARC-EP, social leaders and human rights defenders, victims’ and women’s organizations, Indigenous and Afro-descendants, ex-ministers and congressmen, unions, businessmen, and intellectuals.
We respectfully request that you demand from the Government of Colombia a greater commitment to the peace accord, its implementation, its signatories, and the new generation of Colombians. Our window of opportunity for peace remains open; we trust in the cooperation of the Security Council not to close it.
We are united by the desire for peace and we know that we have mechanisms from the United Nations to verify and defend human rights and to accompany us in this path to peace.
Coca and Eradication Four Years into Colombia’s “Post-Accord” Phase 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Four years after the signing of a historic peace accord, hundreds of thousands of Colombian families continue to rely on the coca crop. The government, with U.S. support, has already broken its annual record for forced eradication, during the pandemic, and little of it has been coordinated with food security or rural development assistance. Now, a revival of a controversial aerial herbicide fumigation program is looming.
How are coca cultivating communities responding? How does all of this relate to the peace accord? What might happen if fumigation restarts? What are the costs of eradication, both financially and in terms of rights? Will pursuing the same strategies pursued during the past 30 years really yield a different result? What happened with the peace accords’ crop substitution program? What would a better coca policy look like? How should the new U.S. administration adjust its assistance programs?
WOLA, Elementa, CODHES, the Instituto Pensar of the Universidad Javeriana, the Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, and the Corporación Viso Mutop look forward to addressing these topics on Wednesday, December 9, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (U.S. eastern and Bogotá time).
Event Details: Wednesday, December 9 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST
Nancy Sánchez Méndez Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, Mocoa, Putumayo
Adriana Muro Elementa DDHH, Colombia-México
Adam Isacson WOLA, Washington D.C.
Pedro Arenas Corporación Viso Mutop, Bogotá
Marcela Ceballos Instituto Pensar, Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá
Simultaneous interpretation will be available.
Afro-Descendant Rights in the Americas: The Perspective of Transnational Activists in the U.S. and the Region 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Friday, 11 December 2020
In May 2020, the video of George Floyd’s unjust death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota was widely circulated, as the world confronted the unprecedented COVID-19 health crisis. Outrage over Floyd’s death and that of many other African Americans at the hands of the police fueled protests across the United States. The health crisis, its economic fallout, and the limited capacity of countries to fully respond revealed how structural inequities, racism, and the economic order can lead to serious consequences for Afro-descendants in the region.
While such inequities are historic, the multiple crises led to conversations on racism, police brutality, and the state of human rights for Afro-descendants. Racism and abuses are long-standing in the Americas, yet do not receive the same level of global scrutiny. The U.S. Black Lives Matter movement and its antiracist efforts became the forefront of discussions on these matters. While globally less known, numerous resistance and civil rights movements in the Americas work to advance Afro-descendant rights, fight racism, and push for justice and equality. These transnational networks woven over the years provide mutual solidarity among peoples of the African diaspora in the region.
In March 2019, WOLA organized a daylong conference to take stock of the rights of Afro-descendant communities from a regional perspective. During that engagement, activists and academics examined these issues within the framework of the UN International Decade on Afro-descendants. Join WOLA on December 11 at 9:00 a.m. EST, as we continue this conversation integrating the developments affecting the African diaspora in the U.S. and region in the past year. Darryl Chappell, President and CEO of the Darryl Chappell Foundation, will moderate this upcoming conversation with key activists that for decades have done transnational work on the rights of Afro-descendants in the United States and across the Americas.
Event Details: Friday, December 11, 2020 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. EST
Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.
Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission calls for changes
The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, an independent, bipartisan entity established by a 2017 law, published a report based on a year and a half of work on December 1, and discussed its findings at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on December 3. Its Colombia recommendations call for some breaks with how the United States has engaged for decades on drug supply control.
The Commission began work in mid-2019, charged with evaluating U.S. counternarcotics programs in the Americas and recommending improvements. Its chair, Shannon O’Neil, is an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; other commissioners included a former commander of U.S. Southern Command; a former ambassador to Brazil; two former Republican and one former Democratic members of Congress; and two Colombian-American former Obama administration officials, Dan Restrepo and Juan González, who frequently represented the Biden campaign in 2020 appearances before Colombian media.
The report flatly declares that “while Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure.” It calls for a more nuanced, long-term, and cooperative approach.
The Commission backs implementing the peace accord’s first chapter, on rural reform, praising its Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) which “if carried out…would be unprecedented.” It endorses building tertiary roads, land titling, and financial inclusion.
It calls for a Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control license, an exception to “terrorist list” prohibitions that would allow U.S. programs finally to support development and reintegration projects involving FARC ex-combatants.
It recommends relegating forced coca eradication to a lower priority. “Sending workers and security forces into remote areas to eliminate small plots of coca is a wasteful and ultimately fruitless effort.”
The commission calls for protecting local social leaders, with specific mention of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and women’s leaders.
President Duque criticized the Commission’s findings, insisting that Plan Colombia brought coca cultivation down from 188,000 hectares in 2000 to 60,000 in 2014. He did not address why these gains were so quickly reversed later in ungoverned territories.
Defense bill requires report on misuse of military intelligence aid
The U.S. Congress is poised to pass the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the 1,000-plus-page law governing the Department of Defense. The House-Senate committee that resolved differences in both chambers’ version of the law included, in its narrative report, a requirement that the Defense Department inform about Colombian military intelligence bodies’ misuse of assistance to spy on reporters, legislators, human rights defenders and other civilians. Explosive revelations of such spying rocked Colombia in January and May.
The House version of the bill had required an extensive report about these human rights scandals. The Republican-majority Senate’s bill did not. Though the reporting requirement was relegated to narrative report language, the Defense Department still has 120 days from the NDAA’s passage to furnish an unclassified report describing credible allegations of misused aid since 2016, steps the Department took in response, and steps the Colombian government has taken to hold those responsible accountable, and to avoid future misuse.
El Tiempo’s November 30 edition revealed that, on September 22, a prominent Army colonel had sent President Duque a strongly worded resignation letter.
“I have absolutely lost confidence in the institutional High Command, headed by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro, commander of the National Army, which, without a shadow of a doubt, not only prevents me from continuing under his orders but also goes against my Christian principles and values such as loyalty, fidelity and transparency,” reads the missive from Col. Pedro Javier Rojas, who since 2011 has directed the Army’s Doctrine Center.
In this position, Rojas played a central role in rethinking the Army’s doctrine for a post-conflict mission set. The “Damascus Doctrine” (a Biblical reference to truth being revealed) was central to Colombia’s Partnership and Cooperation Program with NATO. It encourages a more professional army to work jointly and to prepare for more complex threats. Its development was a top priority of Gen. Alberto Mejía, who headed the armed forces durign the latter part of Juan Manuel Santos’s administration, coinciding with the signing and early implementation of the FARC peace accord.
Col. Rojas alleges that Gen. Zapateiro, the current army commander, is doing away with the Damascus Doctrine, erasing references to it. Zapateiro’s defenders, including the hardline association of retired officers ACORE, contend that the doctrine remains the same but is being rebranded to eliminate associations with Gen. Mejía and ex-president Santos, who are unpopular with the Army’s right wing.
Col. Rojas told El Tiempo that the problem goes deeper: “There is a clear internal leadership crisis. We have 25 fewer generals than we should have, and officers from other ranks have also left.”
“What is clear,” notesEl Espectador, “is that this situation shows that there are considerable differences within the high commands of the National Army.”
How land theft was legalized
“If land in Colombia were a cake cut into ten pieces, one person would control nine of the pieces,” begins a series of videos featured by the “Rutas del Conflicto” project of Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. The four-chapter presentation, “How They Took Our Land,” explains how Colombia’s remarkably unequal land concentration worsened in recent years. While paramilitary groups played a brutal role, the videos show graphically, with thorough documentation, that mass land theft from campesinos also depended on unscrupulous government officials, military officers, and prominent businessmen.
The video series, produced by lawyer Yamile Salinas of the INDEPAZ think tank, names names. It shows how this model of mass land theft was piloted with the military-paramilitary campaign of massacres and forced displacement in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region in the 1990s. It goes on to show how the model was perfected in the Montes de María region of Colombia’s Caribbean during the early 2000s, in the oilfields of eastern Meta in the late 2000s, and more recently in the massive deforestation currently taking place in the ancestral lands of the Nukak people in Guaviare.
“We wanted to show how this displacement and dispossession runs throughout the whole country,” Salinas toldEl Espectador. “The model is being perfected, and it is moving through several territories involving all actors: the guerrillas, the ‘paras’, public servants, and big companies.”
An Army report submitted to the Truth Commission contends that the institution did not collaborate widely with paramilitary groups during the conflict, omitting mention of many emblematic cases.
The pandemic has been the largest of many obstacles faced by the Truth Commission, which must finish work in November 2021, Santiago Torrado writes at Spain’s El País.
Leyner Palacios, an Afro-descendant social leader and survivor of the 2002 massacre in Bojayá, Chocó, is the 2020 winner of the National Human Rights “defender of the year” Prize given by the Church of Sweden and the Swedish development organization Diakonia. The “lifetime achievement” prize went to another well-known Chocó Afro-descendant leader, Marino Córdoba of AFRODES.
La Liga Contra el Silencio reports on increasing paramilitary activity in Santa Marta, Magdalena, once a stronghold of the AUC blocs headed by “Jorge 40” and Hernán Giraldo. Further west along the Caribbean coast, El Espectadorreports on rising paramilitary activity in the Montes de María.
Perhaps because members of Colombia’s governing party campaigned improperly for Republican candidates in the United States, President-Elect Joe Biden hasn’t yet made a pro forma phone call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his congratulations, La Silla Vacíareports.
On November 20, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress convened a hearing to discuss how the United States can leverage its role in Latin America and in multilateral institutions to protect the lives and culture of Indigenous people in the Americas. The hearing centered on many countries in the region and several speakers focused on issues specific to Colombia and its peace process. Congress representatives Jim McGovern, Deb Haaland, Christopher Smith, Hank Johnson, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Raul Grijalva led the event. Keith Slack, Director of Strategic Impact and Campaigns at EarthRights, provided an in-depth overview about violence against Indigenous groups in Colombia.
In Colombia, over 242 Indigenous leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the 2016 peace accords, including over 47 killed between January and June 2020. In their opening remarks, Representative Smith stressed how these assassinations often occur because Indigenous communities in Latin America are exploited for profitable gain and are further undercut by the lack of protection from their governments. Representative Haaland called attention to the Colombian government’s protection efforts for Indigenous leaders, but as evidenced by continued attacks against these leaders, concerted follow-up actions are rarely upheld. Representative Johnson revealed he has traveled to Colombia on several occasions and further documented that the rights of Indigenous communities in Colombia are sidelined. Racial discrimination is an underlying factor as to why these communities are recurrently exploited. Representative Jackson Lee also expressed concern at the lack of human resources dedicated for Indigenous people to protect their land, and ultimately stated that the rights of Indigenous people are human rights.
On behalf of non-governmental organization Amazon Watch, Leila Salazar-Lopez provided recommendations to protect Indigenous communities in the Amazon region. Over 73,000 Indigenous people throughout the multistate region have been killed by the COVID-19 disease, many who are elders and holders of cultural knowledge. Despite these distressing circumstances caused by the pandemic, agribusiness expansion and land grabbing has accelerated, as a result of illegal arson empowered by complicit government enablement and systemic racism. Salazar-Lopez called for a multi-year moratorium for any destruction; the strengthening of local and multilateral environmental agencies, so strategies from both Indigenous peoples and scientists inform policies implemented by governments; the endorsement of the Amazon Climate platform, to support ecosystem restoration efforts and Indigenous land rights; and the protection of environmental defenders.
Melania Canales Poma, President of the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Women of Peru, spoke on collective and individual rights for Indigenous people in the region. The extractivist policies of mining and agriculture when intersected with gender and Indigenous communities further deprive Indigenous women of their agency. Indigenous women must be included in all facets of the policy change process. Additionally, Policy Director of the Bank Information Center Jolie Schwarz discussed the weak state of multilateral accountability. In Colombia, Schwarz noted how the World Bank approved an $8 billion loan in 2016 following ratification of the peace accord. The loan was supposed to support territorial planning commitments but failed to consult with Indigenous people. These communities were entirely removed from the planning process. For these reasons, Schwarz recommends that the United States and the international community protect Indigenous rights in all aspects of development projects, provide rigorous assessments of the impact on Indigenous communities throughout a project, and outline clear procedures for raising concerns over potential violations of Indigenous sovereignty.
Violence against Indigenous groups in Colombia has become acute during the pandemic. Keith Slack described the situation as a “potential ethnocide,” acknowledging the land grabbing role of corporations, drug cartels, and paramilitary groups that advance the destruction of Indigenous cultures. The mass murder of Indigenous people occurs every day in Colombia and has become worse with COVID-19 lockdowns that prevent Indigenous leaders from changing location, a key protection strategy. Slack stressed there needs to be respect for Indigenous sustainability and the right to refuse the exploitation of land without fear of retaliation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is set to hear the case of Indigenous violations, and a successful outcome will set an important precedent. Recommendations to the incoming Biden administration include ensuring that human rights protection bodies are responding accordingly to violations; establishing transformational partnerships between governments, the private sector, civil society, and Indigenous peoples; implementing comprehensive global guidelines through the State Department for adequate protection of at-risk human rights defenders; and pushing Congress to adopt further legislation for corporate responsibility in grave human rights abuses in the region.
Indigenous communities throughout Latin America continue to greatly contribute to food security, environmental protection, and conflict resolution. However, they are in crisis and the hearing urged for the creation of a working group on Indigenous peoples. Brian Keane, a former USAID advisor on Indigenous People’s Issues for U.S. Foreign Assistance, provided several recommendations for the Biden administration. It needs to continue reforming U.S. foreign assistance. There needs to be model that respects Indigenous sovereignty because they are not passive participants of development, but rather active catalysts that move their interests forward. Traditional knowledge and their sustainable practices are key in promoting viable living structures and must be included in the development process. Keane also proposed that a Native American representative should fill the Secretary of the Interior position. The Biden administration must ensure full implementation of USAID’s policies on promoting the rights of Indigenous people and ensure that these policies are also enforced in large infrastructure projects. The United States needs to reengage in multilateral efforts to protect human rights, which includes supporting the work of the UN with Indigenous groups and placing them at the forefront of the UN Security Council.
Ultimately, the United States must repair its relationship with Indigenous groups, who have been neglected by the Trump administration. In Colombia, this relationship is strengthened by supporting the full implementation of the 2016 peace accord.
Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.
Fourth anniversary of the FARC peace accord
On November 24, 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño signed a revised peace accord at a ceremony in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón. Four years later, analysts tend to note an intensification of violence in the past year or two, especially compared to the immediate pre- and post-conflict period. Most find Colombia’s armed conflict fragmenting into a collection of regional conflicts with different dynamics. Some contend that the government has not adapted to this new reality.
Here are some analyses published to coincide with the fourth anniversary:
An infographic from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz counts 65% more armed-group actions (318) in the fourth year after accord than it counted in the last year before the accord (192). The ELN, in first place, slightly exceeds dissidents’ activity.
“The question beginning to be asked is whether the window of opportunity opened by the accord has closed and we are in the midst of a new cycle of political-military violence, or whether we are just going through a difficult patch in a transition to peace,” notes Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.
CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds a slight increase in conflict-related violence so far in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Sergio Jaramillo, the Santos government’s high commissioner for peace during the FARC dialogues, praised some aspects of the Duque government’s accord implementation, but voiced concern about rising violence in “post-conflict” territories.
El Espectador published a timeline widget highlighting major peace and conflict events over the past four years.
Oft-cited political scientist Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín talked about his new book warning of “A New Cycle of War in Colombia.”
“The country has improved a lot in many political and social areas, but there has been a huge deterioration of security in the last two years. We’ve had over 70 massacres and a rise in killings and illegal economies in various areas,” Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación toldAl Jazeera.
“Strengthening the state’s presence in conflict-affected areas is a work in progress, which needs to be accelerated,” wrote former European Union Special Envoy Eamon Gilmore.
JEP hearing on ex-FARC protections
On November 25 the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) held an 8-hour hearing about threats and killings of demobilized guerrillas. The day before—the 2016 peace accords’ fourth anniversary—Paula Osorio, whose body was found in Yuto, Chocó, became the 243rd former FARC member to be murdered.
Just over 13,000 FARC members demobilized in 2017. At the current rate of one killing every five days, 1,600 ex-combatants will be dead by the end of 2024, said the director of the JEP’s Investigation and Accusations Unit (UIA), Giovanni Álvarez.
The JEP had ordered the government to take “precautionary measures” to protect former FARC members among its defendants. If they are killed or intimidated from testifying, ex-combatants will neither be able to clarify their crimes nor provide restitution to victims.
Álvarez summarized a JEP report about attacks on ex-combatants. Nearly all victims were rank-and-file guerrillas: only 10 of the dead had leadership positions. All but six were men. All of the killings have been concentrated in 17 percent of the country’s 1,100 municipalities.
Martha Janeth Mancera, the acting vice-prosecutor general, testified that as of November 11 the Fiscalía had “clarified”—identified the likely killers—in 108 of 225 cases (48%) it had taken on. She said that of these 108 cases, 44% were likely carried out by FARC dissident groups, 11% by the ELN, 10% by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, and 6% by other criminal structures. Mancera did not specify the likely killers of the other 29 percent.
The dissident groups, Álvarez pointed out, should not be considered as a monolithic bloc. There are two main networks—Gentil Duarte’s group active in 155 municipalities and Iván Márquez’s “Segunda Marquetalia” active in 44—plus “openly narcotized and lumpenized” groups active in 38 municipalities.
The acting vice-prosecutor said that to date, the body had managed to bring 33 cases of ex-combatant killers to sentencing. She blamed the lack of greater progress on a lack of specialized judges “so that we can manage to advance.” She added that the Fiscalía had identified likely masterminds, rather than just “trigger-pullers,” in 52 cases of ex-combatant killings, attempts, threats, or disappearances.
She added that, when ex-combatants receive threats, the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit has been too slow to respond. “We send the alert to the National Protection Unit, but, it must be said calmly, this process is very slow. The most agile thing is to report to the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), which carries out the relocation of the ex-combatant.” In some cases, she added “we’ve had to send more than 10 official requests in which we say that this is an extreme risk case.”
Somos Defensores report
Somos Defensores is a non-governmental organization that documents attacks and killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. It takes care to verify cases, and its numbers are usually similar to those kept by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The group’s latest report, covering the third quarter of 2020, hasn’t yet been posted to its website, but summaries appear at El Espectador and Verdad Abierta. They indicate that:
40 human rights defenders were killed, in 15 departments of Colombia, between July and September.
The number of murders stood at 135 by the end of September. Somos Defensores’ tally surpassed its figure for all of 2019, 124, in August.
Counting all types of aggression for which a responsible party can be alleged, neo-paramilitary groups are believed responsible for 54 attacks, FARC dissidents for 20, the ELN for 11, and the security forces for 8.
The organization noted that it may be undercounting, as the pandemic has made it difficult to verify killings in the remote territories where they often happen.
Human Rights Watch asked Colombia’s Senate not to promote Army Generals Marcos Evangelista Pinto and Edgar Alberto Rodríguez, who commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings in the 2000s.
HRW also released a report on March prison protests, just as the COVID-19 lockdowns began, that led to the killing of 24 prisoners in Bogota’s La Modelo jail. According to coroners’ reports, the wounds on the prisoners’ bodies indicated that prison guards were shooting to kill.
Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said that forces have eradicated 111,131 hectares of coca so far in 2020, on track for the government’s goal of 130,000 hectares by year’s end.
On November 24, the fourth anniversary of the final peace accord, a FARC party senator for the first time presided over a meeting of Colombia’s Senate: Griselda Lobo Silva, once the romantic partner of deceased maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, is the Senate’s second vice-president during the chamber’s 2020-21 session.
A November government decree allows lands seized under Colombia’s asset forfeiture laws to be handed over to ex-combatants for approved productive projects. Transferring land to former guerrillas who sought to become farmers was a question the peace accord had omitted.
A La Silla Vacíainvestigation finds 7,491 complaints of police abuse or brutality since 2016, not one of which has even reached the indictment phase.
Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez, of the recently founded Conflict Responses think tank, map out the FARC dissident group phenomenon around the country.
The New York Times published a feature about the arduous journey of Venezuelans leaving Colombia because the pandemic dried up economic opportunities. Once they find that Venezuela is “in free fall,” many are going back to Colombia.
The U.S. Air Force sent two giant B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Colombia for “Brother’s Shield,” a Colombian Air-Force-led exercise. The planes, which ceased production in 1962, also participated in the annual regional UNITAS naval exercise, hosted this year by Ecuador.
The government’s High Counselor for Stabilization issued a statement reminding the FARC that it has until December 31 to turn over all promised illegally acquired assets.
WOLA’s latest human rights update documents 28 cases and developments of concern since mid-September.
The Bogotá daily El Espectador ran a wide-ranging interview with WOLA’s Adam Isacson.
WOLA’s Adam Isacson had a conversation this week about peace and security in Colombia with Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador. That newspaper posted an edited transcript of the interview to its site on the evening of November 26. Here’s a quick English translation.
“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson
For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.
Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.
The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.
Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?
They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.
Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?
If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.
You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.
Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.
WOLA has been following the peace process.
As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.
And with regard to crop substitution…
It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.
Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?
The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.
How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?
We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.
The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.
Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?
Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.
I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.
Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?
I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.
Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.
Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?
For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.
In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?
Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.