Colombia Peace Update: March 6, 2021

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

Prosecutor asks to acquit Álvaro Uribe

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) recommended on March 5 that former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) not be prosecuted for allegations of witness tampering. The case had Uribe, the founder of President Iván Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, under house arrest between August and October. It now goes to a judge, whose decision about whether to drop charges is certain to be appealed.

Here is a quick overview of what has happened:

  • In 2012 ex-president Uribe accused a political opponent, then-representative Iván Cepeda, of visiting imprisoned former paramilitary leaders and bribing them to give false evidence tying Uribe to paramilitary groups. Cepeda, whose senator father was killed in 1994 by paramilitaries working with an official who would take a leading position in Uribe’s presidential intelligence service, was investigating Uribe’s possible links to the rightwing armed groups.
  • Because the accusation was against a sitting member of Congress (Rep. Cepeda later became a senator, along with Uribe, in 2014), Colombia’s Supreme Court took up the case investigation.
  • In 2018, the Supreme Court determined that Iván Cepeda had neither paid nor pressured the former paramilitaries with whom he had met, exonerating him. Instead, in a bombshell finding, the Court turned the tables and announced it would be investigating Álvaro Uribe and his attorney for “procedural fraud and bribery”: essentially, offering bribes to a cast of characters of minor ex-paramilitaries in exchange for false testimony. The charges could carry a prison term of up to 12 years.
  • On August 12, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered Senator Álvaro Uribe placed under house arrest at his ranch in Córdoba. It issued a 1,500-page document laying out evidence against Uribe and his attorney, Diego Cadena, including videos, audios, intercepts, and WhatsApp transcripts. A February 28 column by investigative journalist Daniel Coronell recalls some of the incriminating conversations.
  • On August 18, Uribe resigned his Senate seat, which placed him outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. On September 3, the Supreme Court handed the case over to the Fiscalía, which since January 2020 has been headed by Francisco Barbosa, a friend of Iván Duque’s since college. The Fiscalía had six months to decide whether to proceed with the case, a term that expired last week. The prosecutor put in charge of the case, Gabriel Jaimes, had worked in the past as “right-hand man” for one of the most conservative figures in Colombian politics, former inspector-general, current OAS Ambassador, and Uribe supporter Alejandro Ordóñez.
  • Uribe was released from house arrest on October 10.
  • On March 5, Gabriel Jaimes asked the judiciary to terminate (or “preclude”) the investigation against Álvaro Uribe, writing that Uribe’s conduct didn’t “have the characteristic of crime,” and that any crimes that may have been committed didn’t involve Uribe.

“Thank God for this positive step,” Uribe tweeted. Uribe’s attorney Jaime Granados, who has defended several politicians and military officers accused of human rights crimes, told media that Jaimes’s request to drop the case “was the only possible conclusion the investigators could reach.”

Sen. Iván Cepeda retorted that “Prosecutor Jaimes practically became Uribe’s lawyer… the positions of the Prosecutor’s Office are a mirror of Uribe’s arguments and his defense.” Cepeda’s attorney, Reinaldo Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, called Jaimes’s decision “reckless. The road to impunity continues its course, but it can be stopped, we hope, by the judges of the Republic.”

The prosecutor’s request to drop the case must now go before a judge, which is supposed to happen within five business days but may take longer. If the judge grants the request to end the investigation, Sen. Cepeda—who is classified as a “victim” in this case—can appeal it. If the judge finds that the investigation should continue, the Fiscalía can appeal it.

An appeal will take months. If the appeals judge agrees with the Fiscalía, then the Uribe case is over. If the appeals judge finds ground to continue Uribe’s prosecution, then the Fiscalía must either come up with new arguments (out of a short list of allowed arguments) to drop the case, forcing the courts to do this all over again—or it must prosecute Álvaro Uribe, apparently against its prosecutors’ will.

The Uribe case is likely to drag on, then, for many more months, steadily overlapping the campaign for Colombia’s March 2022 presidential elections.

Illicit crop eradication the subject of several notable new documents

Two State Department reports that became public last week congratulated Colombia’s government for its aggressive approach to illicit crop eradication and its movement toward reinstating a controversial program to eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

On February 23, the State Department delivered to Congress a required report, which became public on March 1, certifying that Colombia is following a strategy to cut coca production by 50 percent by 2023. This document notes a “historic level of manual eradication despite challenges from the COVID-19, a dramatic increase in coca grower protests opposing manual eradication, and a rise in violent attacks against eradicators. Significant progress has also been made to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program that meets the administrative and oversight requirements established by the Colombian constitutional court.” (Colombia suspended aerial herbicide eradication in 2015, citing public health concerns.)

On March 2, the Department issued its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a global overview. Its Colombia section laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

Both documents came as a surprise to some Colombian analysts who expected the Biden administration to adopt the more critical approach to forced eradication laid out in the December report of a bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. That body, whose members included some individuals considered close to the new administration, wrote that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Even if it does intend to adopt such a new tone on eradication, the six-week-old Biden administration, which still lacks officials in many key positions, may not yet have the bandwidth to do so.

Five documents issued since February 26 are sharply critical of the U.S. and Colombian governments’ current approach to coca. All conclude that forced eradication, especially when not paired with alternatives, exacerbates violence and weakens governance in rural areas that badly need it.

  1. A February 26 research report from the International Crisis Group found that “security operations that pay far greater heed to the need to protect civilians and invigorate rural reforms would be more effective.” Principal author Elizabeth Dickinson presented her findings at a joint event with WOLA on March 5, and in a column at NPR that same day.
  2. 22 U.S. and international civil society organizations, including WOLA, sent a March 1 letter to President Biden encouraging him to make implementation of the 2016 peace accord a central tenet of U.S. policy toward Colombia. “We urge the United States not to restart the aerial spraying program, which will be seen as undermining the accords and will drive farmers and communities away from cooperating,” the letter reads.
  3. A multimedia series published on March 1 by El Espectador, “The Battle to Substitute Coca,” tells the story of post-peace accord eradication and crop substitution from the perspective of San José del Fragua, a municipality in Caquetá. It thoroughly explores the complexities surrounding the increasingly frustrating experience of the peace accords’ neglected crop substitution program.
  4. Also in El Espectador, Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published a March 4 column arguing that aerial fumigation “is condemned to failure and will increase violence and set the country aflame.”
  5. Longtime drug policy scholar Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz published a detailed paper that he had written in 2020 to inform the work of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. (English here.) Garzón found that “the current approach by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the right one; however, in practice it has come up against the inertia of anti-drug policy, in which the reduction in coca crops—measured in number of hectares eradicated—is considered the main indicator of success.” He adds, “The image of a plane spraying hectares of coca is useful to show that the state is acting rigorously and promptly, but it clearly falls short if the goal is to create fundamental change. The benefits of this tool are limited to the very short term, while the costs in terms of state legitimacy and the relationship with local communities last a very long time.”

The JEP rejects two “para-politicians” and keeps one

A small number of civilian leaders serving criminal sentences since the 2000s for supporting paramilitary groups—so-called “para-politicians”—has agreed to cooperate with the post-conflict transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). This week, the case of one advanced, while the post-conflict tribunal is kicking out two others.

Álvaro “El Gordo” García was a senator and powerful political boss from Sucre, a small department on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It is among the poorest third of the country’s 32 departments. García was sentenced to 40 years in prison for helping to organize the AUC paramilitary confederation’s bloc in the Montes de María region, which carried out some of the bloodiest massacres of the entire conflict during this century’s first years. The JEP is trying Sen. García, who directed the 2000 Macayepo massacre, as a paramilitary member—not as a third-party supporter.

The JEP has agreed to take García’s case, which could earn him a shorter sentence under non-prison conditions, as long as he tells the full truth about what happened in the Montes de María and provides reparations to his victims. If he reveals what he knows, La Silla Vacía reports, García could take down with him a large number of people. “Nothing moved in Sucre without ‘Gordo’ knowing about it. If he starts to tell everything he knows, there will be no one left with a head,” a “person who worked in politics with Garcia for several years” told the investigative website. “Those guys (the paramilitaries) took over the department and the municipalities with the complacency of the police, the DAS [disbanded presidential intelligence agency], the Fiscalía and the judges,” added “a politician who was in office during those years.” For now, “El Gordo” García remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison.

Another Sucre politician from that era is on the verge of being ejected from the JEP’s jurisdiction. Salvador Arana was the department’s governor during the early 2000s, then went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Chile before the justice system caught up with him and found him guilty of colluding with paramilitaries, including to kill political rivals. The JEP has refused to release Arana from his Barranquilla prison pending trial, and last week threatened to suspend him from the transitional justice system within 30 days if he failed to show more commitment to tell the truth and recognize his victims. So far, the JEP contends, Arana “has simply accused the victims of being collaborators of the FARC, of administrative corruption, and of manipulating witnesses.”

A third “para-politician” is out: Ramiro Suárez Corzo, the 2003-07 mayor of the busy Venezuelan border city of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, has been ejected from the JEP’s purview after three years, and will not get an opportunity for a lighter sentence. Like Arana, Suárez has been in prison for colluding with paramilitaries, who killed at least one of his political rivals. Like Arana, the JEP accuses him of failing to make significant new contributions to the truth about his case, instead denying his guilt and accusing his accusers.

Links

  • WOLA is pleased to launch a new multimedia resource and toolkit for protecting Colombia’s threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. Visit our Con Líderes Hay Paz campaign.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update summarizes numerous alarming cases brought to our attention in recent weeks.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) plays an important role in the Urabá region of northwestern Colombia, where paramilitaries displaced thousands of farmers during the conflict, and large-scale farmers appropriated their land. El Espectador and Verdad Abierta revealed that the new Defensoría representative in Urabá, José Augusto Rendón, is a lawyer who aggressively defended the region’s new landowners against victims’ efforts at land restitution. On several occasions Rendón predicted that violence would result if victims got their land back. Several national human rights organizations received the nomination “with absolute bewilderment and dismay.”
  • The latest bimonthly Invamer Gallup poll of urban Colombian public opinion shows only 6 percent of respondents believing that the security situation is improving, tied for a record low along a time series going back to 2008. President Iván Duque’s approval rating remains at 36 percent, where it was two months ago. By a two-to-one margin, respondents opposed Duque’s offer of legal status to Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, which was well received internationally.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano reported that the armed forces killed (or in his term, “neutralized”) 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte” by bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare.
  • The Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which as noted above saw horrific massacres during the 2000s, was relatively peaceful in the 2010s. Troublingly, El Espectador and the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris published reports from the region documenting an increase in threats against social leaders and indications that paramilitary-descended “Gulf Clan” is making inroads.

Tags: Weekly update

March 7, 2021

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