Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021

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

Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three groups active now are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

Tags: Weekly update

March 28, 2021

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