Colombia Peace Update: April 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decrees make changes to military justice system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

Tags: Weekly update

April 17, 2021

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