Colombia peace update: May 22, 2021

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

Nationwide protest updates

As of May 20, the database of protest-related deaths maintained by the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz totaled 51 victims of fatalities: 50 civilians and one police agent. In 35 cases for which the groups could name an alleged perpetrator, 29 were police, of whom 18 were likely members of the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD). Six likely perpetrators were civilians. Of the 51 killings, 38 took place in Cali or its environs. Eight people died between May 17 and 20, all in the Cali metropolitan area.

José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, tweeted that his organization has received credible information about 58 deaths in the context of the protests, of which it has been able to confirm 19.

Major events

  • “Negotiations,” a mechanism more formal than “dialogues,” began on May 16 between the government and the Strike Committee, the group of mostly union leaders that convened the ongoing National Strike on April 28. The Committee’s most immediate of 19 demands is that the government withdraw the Army and the ESMAD riot police, cease excessive use of force, and allow the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to carry out a field visit.
  • On May 16 President Iván Duque ordered a “maximum operational capacity” deployment of soldiers and police to clear road blockades set up around the country. By the end of the week, dozens of blockades remained.
  • In an effort to get businesses to hire young people, Duque also said the government would subsidize 25 percent of the minimum wage of all workers between 18 and 28 years old.
  • Protests grew violent the evening of May 16 and on May 17 in Yumbo, near Cali. A harsh response to protests by the ESMAD riot police may have prolonged the chaos.
  • In a May 17 statement, the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), which represents numerous Indigenous communities in southwestern Colombia, said it was not participating in ongoing negotiations between the government and the Strike Committee.
  • President Duque confirmed on May 18 that Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez will also serve as foreign minister, replacing the departed Claudia Blum. As Colombian law requires presidential candidates to have held no other government office during the year prior to elections, this means Ramírez will not be a presidential candidate in May 2022. La Silla Vacía contends that a key reason for Blum’s departure from the foreign ministry was that she was being undercut by Vice-Minister Adriana Mejía, who sent a very strongly worded letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights without Blum’s approval.
  • Cali’s police chief, Gen. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, resigned on May 18 after four and a half months on the job.
  • Colombia’s Senate and House of Representatives voted on May 19 to oppose a healthcare system reform bill that the National Strike protesters had opposed.
  • A court in Ibagué, Tolima agreed on May 19 with the civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which argued that the police killing of protester Santiago Murillo should not go to the military justice system. Murillo was killed on May 1 in Ibagué; the Constitutional Court now must decide which justice system will try his killers.
  • The military justice system “has historically been criticized for its slowness in cases, for allegations of impunity in many others, or because many find it difficult to believe that justice can be served when those investigating are colleagues, friends or subordinates,” El Espectador pointed out to that system’s director, Fabio Espitia. He responded, “If any decision is issued affecting a member of the security forces, ideologues will use that decision to delegitimize the security forces.”
  • South America’s soccer federation CONMEBOL decided on May 20 that conditions in Colombia would not allow the country to host any games of the June 13-July 10 Copa América tournament.
  • On May 20 the Standard and Poor’s credit-rating agency downgraded Colombia’s foreign currency debt. This, the Economist notes, ends “a decade in which it had enjoyed investment-grade status.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano said on May 20 that forces in Cali had captured 25 people who “by way of outsourcing, supplied firearms and explosive devices to the protagonists of the latest riots.” Among those captured was an individual whom Molano alleged was involved in “politico-organizational activity of the masses” on behalf of the ELN’s urban units.
  • Indigenous protesters blocking the Pan-American Highway in Cauca allowed a three-day “humanitarian corridor” to allow vehicles transporting essential times to pass through from May 20 to 23. On May 20, masked individuals seeking to re-block the highway confronted Indigenous Guards in Caldono, Cauca.
  • On May 21 representatives of the government and the Strike Committee held a third meeting in the framework of ongoing negotiations. “Today we’re focused on pragmatic issues, and that is that 17 million people are suffering from hunger, 21 million are living in poverty,” said Strike Committee member Francisco Maltés of the CUT labor federation.
  • After nearly three days in Medellín, a minga (coming together) of Antioquia indigenous groups departed on May 21 after reaching agreements with the governor’s office about investments in health, education, housing, and other demands. The negotiation process seemed to go smoothly and respectfully.

Abuse allegations

  • As of May 19, 134 people were still “urgently” missing in the context of protests, according to official data cited by Verdad Abierta. The Fiscalía and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported locating 261 missing people, mostly in police custody.
  • At Vice, Joshua Collins tells the story of a 17-year-old protester who apparently took her own life in Popayán on May 14, two days after she said she was sexually abused by police. The police denied her story until a human rights lawyer released video of her arrest. El Espectador interviewed the victim’s mother.
  • A May 17 El Espectador feature profiles 14 young protesters who suffered severe eye damage from “non-lethal” police riot control weapons, particularly 12-gauge shotguns firing rubber projectiles.
  • Dairo Hidalgo, a respected artist and youth leader in Medellín’s poor Comuna 13 neighborhood, inexplicably appeared on a police “most wanted” poster featuring protesters accused of committing acts of violence and vandalism.
  • A shootout broke out the night of May 19 in Cali’s Calipso neighborhood between police and armed individuals near a supermarket. A young woman was killed in the crossfire.
  • A Washington Post multimedia team analyzed videos of police abuse and found that they show “how Colombian police appear to have crossed a lethal line.”
  • Protesters denounced on May 20 that police in civilian clothing fired on them in Cali. This is one of several denunciations of armed plainclothes people, at times alleged to be linked to security forces, firing on protesters in Cali.
  • By May 21, Defensoría had counted 23 cases of sexual violence, “within a universe of 106 reports of gender-based violence against women and persons with diverse sexual orientation.” As of that date, Temblores had counted 21 cases of sexual violence.
  • Attorney Víctor Mosquera said on May 21 that he is appealing to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission on behalf of a female police agent who suffered torture and sexual violence at the hands of a mob during protests in Cali on April 29.
  • “Yes, the National Police will reform,” the force’s commander, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, told El Tiempo in an article that ran on May 21. As of May 17, 122 disciplinary investigations had been opened regarding allegations of protest-related abuse. Gen. Vargas said that human rights training and certification would be a priority, along with “adjustments” to the ESMAD riot police. “We are the first to reject illegal behavior by an officer and we will ask for forgiveness when there’s a judicial decision,” Vargas told Reuters on May 17.

The U.S. angle

  • Marta Lucía Ramírez, now filling double duty as vice president and foreign minister, began a multi-day trip to the United States on May 21.
  • On May 19, the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee met to consider the Biden administration’s nomination of career diplomat Brian Nichols to be the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. In nearly two hours of questioning of Nichols and a second nominee, there was only one mention of Colombia, an exchange between Nichols and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) that took a minute and five seconds. Markey asked “what steps should the U.S. government be taking to decrease violence and suppression of ordinary citizens” in Colombia. Noting that “the situation in Colombia is complicated,” Nichols called for engaging the Duque government on “de-escalating challenges,” supporting economic recovery, and prioritizing “getting back on track to implementation of the peace agreement.”
  • In south Florida, where a recent poll found Latinos agreeing “that keeping socialism out of Florida is a bigger issue than jobs,” conservative leaders are “on the airwaves and social media telling Latinos not only that Marxist forces started the protests—but that President Biden and the Democrats are allied with those forces,” local journalist Tim Padgett told WRLN.
  • At Foreign Policy, Genevieve Glatsky looks into the Leahy Law or other human rights measures that might interrupt the flow of U.S. assistance to Colombia’s police.

Analyses

  • At the New York Times, Amanda Taub discusses how, in Colombia and elsewhere, police violence backfires by escalating, prolonging, and encouraging more people to participate in protest movements.
  • At Spain’s El País, Sally Palomino points out how the response to protests, especially in Cali, has highlighted longstanding racism and classism.
  • “Despite decent growth since the early 2000s, inequality remains high,” recalls a report in the Economist. “At the current rate of improvement, it would take 11 generations for descendants of a poor Colombian to attain the average income, estimates the OECD.”
  • At the Washington Post, Erika Moreno of Creighton University finds serious fault with the Defensoría, which lacks effective independence from the executive. “[T]he agency will probably follow what it has done in the past and give a mild response to accusations against members of the military and security apparatus.”
  • At La Silla Vacía, director Juanita León reflects on how the dividing lines around Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—the “yes” and “no” sides of the October plebiscite—are similarly drawn around the National Strike. “While the Uribistas consider that the way out is more authority and a strong hand, the Yes supporters believe that what is needed is to deepen social reforms and deliberation.”
  • Also at La Silla, negotiation expert Julián Arévalo discusses some of the “best practices” for successful dialogues that President Duque and his government are ignoring right now.

Jesus Santrich is killed in Venezuela

One of the best-known former FARC leaders was killed, probably in Venezuela’s state of Zulia, probably during the beginning of the week. Seuxis Hernandez alias Jesús Santrich, a 53-year-old, nearly blind guerrilla ideologue who returned to arms in 2019, was killed under circumstances that remain unclear.

Jesús Santrich was very close to Iván Márquez, the top leader who led the FARC’s negotiating team in Havana between 2012 and 2016. At the negotiations, Santrich was noted for his hardline views and occasional inflammatory statements.

In April 2018, police arrested Santrich on charges of conspiring to send cocaine to the United States during the post-peace accord period. Video appeared to show Santrich, who was brought into a meeting with DEA informants by Iván Márquez’s nephew, assenting to a drug deal. A year later, Santrich was released from prison when the transitional justice tribunal (JEP) decided there was insufficient evidence to prove that Santrich had committed a crime. Upon his May 2019 release, Santrich was sworn into Colombia’s House of Representatives—then disappeared several days later. He resurfaced in August in a video alongside Iván Márquez and other former guerrilla leaders, carrying a weapon as Márquez announced their rearmament as a dissident group called the “Segunda Marquetalia.” (Marquetalia was the site of the 1964 Army attack that gave rise to the FARC.)

A May 18 statement from the Segunda Marquetalia alleged that Colombian Army commandos entered Venezuelan territory and intercepted a vehicle in which Santrich was traveling, just over the border from Colombia in the northern Serranía de Perijá region. The statement said the troops killed Santrich, cut off his pinky finger, and flew back into Colombia in a yellow helicopter.

Defense Minister Diego Molano confirmed that the government had heard word of Santrich’s death. The Venezuelan government has said nothing. No image of a body has emerged.

Colombian media published other rumors, among them that Santrich was killed by mercenaries seeking reward money, or that the killing was the work of a rival, larger FARC dissident band, the “First Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who had rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized.

Because Santrich was more of an ideologist than a military strategist or financial coordinator, and probably commanded few if any fighters, his death may have little impact on the balance of power between the Colombian armed groups that operate with much freedom inside Venezuela. These include the Segunda Marquetalia, the First Front, the ELN, and smaller paramilitary-descended or narcotrafficking groups. For the Segunda Marquetalia, the loss of Santrich is probably more of a symbolic than a strategic blow.

His killing draws attention to Zulia, another part of the chaotic Colombia-Venezuela border, after more than two months of fighting further south and east in Venezuela’s Apure state, across from Colombia’s Arauca department. There, the 10th Front, apparently part of the Gentil Duarte organization, has faced the Venezuelan military’s largest offensive in many years. The 10th Front has perhaps 300 fighters, a Colombian Army source tells La Silla Vacía, of which about 60 are in Colombia.

That offensive may have hit the population of Apure’s borderlands harder than it has hit the 10th Front. More than 6,000 Venezuelan citizens have fled to Colombia, denouncing brutal abuse at the hands of the Venezuelan military and other security forces. The 10th Front, however, has hit the Venezuelan military quite hard, killing at least 16 soldiers. It continues to hold eight soldiers captive, and is reportedly in talks with at least a faction of the Venezuelan Army.

Venezuelan military analyst Jackeline Benarroche told Tal Cual that the Venezuelan military’s performance in Apure leaves big questions about its combat capacity, its professionalism, and the obsolescence of some of its equipment. “They sent many troops to try to control, but they did not evaluate well the nature of the people they were going to confront, nor the scope of the situation and the migration to Colombia.” At Efecto Cocuyo, analyst Javier Mayorca sees the border tensions worsening further: “It is not going to end in the immediate future, it can be prolonged and extended in geographical terms. If one connects the dots, one begins to see an increasingly extensive border area where there are various interests in dispute.”

High court rescues special congressional seats for victims

By a 5-3 vote on May 21, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld—rescued from oblivion, really—a key commitment of the peace accord’s second chapter. For the next two congressional terms (2022-2030), Colombia’s 172-seat House of Representatives will have 16 more seats. Each will be held by an elected representative of conflict victims, from one of the zones hit hardest by the conflict with the FARC. These representatives may not be from established political parties, including the party formed by the former FARC: they should come from victims’ organizations.

This commitment of section 2.3.6 of the peace accord had appeared dead. In 2017, a bill to create the special congressional districts for victims passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November. That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption.

Legal challenges to revive the “special peace districts” foundered in lower courts, and this promise of the accord appeared nearly dead. In December 2019, though, Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case and review the 2017 Senate vote.

The Court has not issued details of its decision yet, so timetables are not clear. But it appears certain that most of Colombia’s 9 million victims will soon have a louder voice in the legislature.

Links

  • Somos Defensores published its annual report covering attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia in 2020. The group counted 199 murders of social leaders, a 60 percent increase over 2019. The report profiles the 95 people the group verified as murdered during the second half of the year.
  • A video of members of the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group threatening a community just 15 minutes’ drive from Montería, the capital of Córdoba department, shows the continued power of paramilitarism in this region of northwestern Colombia, La Silla Vacía explains. At the same site, Reynell Badillo Sarmiento and Luis Fernando Trejos contend that more than “paramilitarism,” what plagues Córdoba is “criminal governance,” noting that “it is difficult to argue that the AGC [Gulf Clan] is a paramilitary group.”
  • With U.S. backing, a team of Colombian police came up with a list of recommendations for Haiti, which is suffering a rash of kidnappings, Reuters reports.
  • After revelations that it has sustained contacts via intermediaries with the ELN, the Duque government named Tulio Gilberto Astudillo Victoria alias Juan Carlos Cuéllar, a captured member of the group, to serve as a “gestor de paz” (official peace intermediary). Cuéllar has played this role before. This new status will allow Cuéllar to be freed from prison.
  • Security forces in Santander captured alias “Matamba,” a narcotrafficker who leads an armed group called La Cordillera Sur, active in northern Nariño department. The Fiscalía believes him to be aligned with the Gulf Clan, though the police say he had forged a pact with the Nueva Marquetalia FARC dissident group, El Espectador reports.
  • The Fiscalía ordered house arrest for Cristian Saavedra Arias, the soldier who shot and killed Juliana Giraldo, a trans woman, at a checkpoint in Miranda, Cauca in September 2020.
  • While the AP noted that leading 2018 leftist candidate Gustavo Petro has maintained a surprisingly low profile during the protests, government-aligned Semana magazine put a chaotic image of Petro on its cover with the headline “Petro, enough is enough!”
  • “The fact that, despite all the evidence against it, the Colombian state continues to try to reinstate glyphosate spraying [to eradicate coca, with U.S. backing] only demonstrates this administration’s disinterest towards its most vulnerable citizens,” writes Olga Behar in an excellent overview essay in Spanish at the Washington Post.

Tags: Weekly update

May 24, 2021

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