Colombia Peace Update: May 29, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. This week’s edition is several days late, as other program activities left insufficient time to draft it.

Nationwide protests enter a fifth week

Street protests, concentrations, and road blockades that began on April 28 continued all week around Colombia. As before, protests, vandalism, and security forces’ and third parties’ violent response were most intense in Cali and elsewhere in the country’s southwest.

As of May 28 Temblores, an NGO that tracks human rights abuse by police, had counted:

  • 43 people allegedly killed by the security forces, plus 27 cases under verification.
  • 1,133 “victims of physical violence.”
  • 175 uses of lethal firearms.
  • 22 victims of sexual violence and 6 victims of gender-based violence.

As of May 28 Temblores counted 47 people who had suffered eye injuries from “non-lethal” police projectile weapons, some of them probably misused by improperly aiming at protesters’ faces, a practice that human rights defenders also documented during protests in Chile. In a May 26 virtual session of Colombia’s Senate, Paola Holguín, a member of the governing Centro Democrático party, sparked outrage when she told opposition senators, “Don’t fool Colombians and don’t fool the international community and stop crying out of one eye.”

Among other non-governmental observers reporting violence:

  • As of May 26, Human Rights Watch had counted 63 people probably killed since the protests began, of whom it had been able to confirm 28: 26 civilians and 2 police agents.
  • The New York Times published an analysis of multiple citizen videos that “shows how officers used indiscriminate and, in some cases, lethal force against civilians.”
  • Colombia’s non-governmental Freedom of the Press Foundation (FLIP) counted more than 129 aggressions committed against nearly 150 reporters.

As of May 28, the government’s count included:

  • 45 civilians killed, of whom it categorized 17 of having a direct link to protest activities, 9 being verified, and 19 unlinked to the protests.
  • 2 police killed.
  • 168 disciplinary investigations opened against security-force members.
  • 1,081 civilians and 1,163 members of the security forces wounded. 5 security-force members who remain hospitalized.
  • 141 “impacts” on government infrastructure, plus 111 small urban police posts (CAIs) “affected.” Of the 153 stations of Bogotá’s Transmilenio transit system, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported on May 25, 139 were “affected,” nearly 50 so severely that they are inoperable.
  • 2,768 roadblocks.

The investigative website La Silla Vacía analyzed the violence statistics compiled by three entities: the government; Human Rights Watch; and Temblores in cooperation with another NGO, Indepaz. It found the largest discrepancy among the three in the number of deaths reported as “related to protests.” La Silla’s reporters asked the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) how it determined that 19 deaths were not protest-related. “As of the date of publication of this article, no response had been received either by phone or mail.” The human rights groups, which have not “dismissed” any cases, were “more transparent” than the government about their methodology.

Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, continued to see the most protests and related violence. At key intersections and traffic circles near poor neighborhoods, protesters have established weeks-long concentrations, blocking road traffic, fending off security forces, and adopting a communal or mutual aid ethic. Those on the front lines call themselves the ”Primera Línea.” (A 16-minute Vice video, posted May 28, gives an up-close look at some of these concentrations.)

May 19-23 saw frequent violence around a concentration and nearby supermarket in the eastern neighborhood of Calipso. At least two young people were killed, as was a 22-year-old policeman, one of two police killed in Colombia since protests began. Some of the violence was the work of an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Cali: armed civilians firing on crowds with no interference from nearby police.

On May 24 south of Calipso, in the Puerto Rellena area that protesters have renamed “Puerto Resistencia,” a gunman in a truck killed Armando Álvarez, a medical worker who had been tending to protesters. “Álvarez handled medical attention for injured people and accompanied the victims’ families, which is why he was known as the ‘guardian angel’ of Puerto Resistencia,” Contagio Radio reported.

May 28 was the worst day of violence in Cali, with about 13 deaths reported in several concentrations around the city. Most if not all of the killing was the work of armed men in civilian clothing. Citizen videos, including some from a particularly intrepid freelance photographer who goes by the Twitter and Instagram handle @jahfrann, show these armed men firing weapons alongside police, who don’t respond at all.

In Cali’s La Luna neighborhood on May 28, protesters caught and beat to death a man who had shot several people, killing two. The gunman, Fredy Bermúdez Ortiz, turned out to be an off-duty agent of the Technical Investigations Corps (CTI), the Fiscalía’s judicial police.

Tuluá, a town about 60 miles north of Cali along the Pan-American Highway, saw intense violence on May 25. The previous day, four young people were massacred, in an event possibly unrelated to the protests, and flyers had circulated around the city threatening protesters. Clashes with police began the morning of the 25th, according to Spain’s EFE news service, “when authorities preventively detained a score of people, including some minors, after clearing blockaded roads on the city’s north and south sides, the mayor said.”

The situation escalated into a riot. By the end of the day, 18 businesses in downtown Tuluá were vandalized or looted, and—in images that shocked the country—the town’s courthouse was burned to the ground. An 18-year-old law student was killed, apparently by gunfire. Thousands of judicial case documents, few if any of them digitized, were lost. “Attacks like those of tonight in Tuluá stop being vandalism and become terrorist acts,” said Defense Minister Diego Molano, who added that authorities had arrested in Tuluá a suspected member of the “Dagoberto Ramos” ex-FARC dissident group, which is usually more active south of Cali.

Bogotá continued to see massive, and generally more peaceful, protests, with greatest numbers on May 26, the four-week anniversary of the general strike’s launch. These have been concentrated around the Monument to the Heroes, a park not far from the city’s financial district, and around the Las Américas mass-transit portal in a working-class area in the city’s southwest. Protesters have rechristened Portal Las Américas as “Portal de la Resistencia.”

Visiting Cali on the evening of May 28, following the city’s very violent day, President Iván Duque issued a decree authorizing the military to play a greater role in keeping public order in eight of Colombia’s departments (provinces): seven in the south and west, and one (Norte de Santander) in the northeast. Decree 575 activates “military assistance,” a legal authorization allowing the military’s temporary use for “emergency or public calamity.” The decree requires mayors and governors in the eight departments to cooperate with the deployed soldiers or “be subject to sanctions,” which are unspecified.

“About 7,000 uniformed personnel from all armed forces will be in the streets,” El Tiempo reported. Defense Minister Molano tweeted video of rucksack-bearing troops boarding aircraft as they deployed to Cali (and some to Popayán, the capital of Cauca to the south). “This deployment will almost triple our capacity throughout the province in less than 24 hours, ensuring assistance in nerve centers where we have seen acts of vandalism, violence and low-intensity urban terrorism,” Duque said. He added that the security forces will devote more intelligence resources to prove the government’s thesis that Colombia’s armed groups are behind acts of vandalism. “Islands of anarchy cannot exist in our country,” the President proclaimed.

Human rights advocates, including WOLA, voiced concern about the large deployment of troops, who have been trained and experienced in combat during Colombia’s armed conflict but have little experience in techniques that require a much lighter touch, like crowd control and de-escalation of tense situations.

Citing persistent examples of excessive use of force, opposition members of Congress sought a censure vote against Defense Minister Molano, who since taking office in February has made occasional headlines with aggressive statements. Molano’s resignation is among the many demands of the Strike Committee that organized the initial April 28 protests.

The legislature’s ability to terminate cabinet members via censure votes came about in the 1991 constitution, adjusted by a 2007 law. While the Congress has sought to censure ministers 29 times, no censure effort has ever succeeded in revoking one. The process has served mainly to draw attention to strong critiques of a minister’s performance.

The House of Representatives met for seven hours on May 24. After some strong speeches on both sides, in both chambers, by week’s end it did not appear that opposition legislators had the votes necessary to fire Molano. “Traditional politicians see this in two colors: that to vote for the motion is to vote for the strikes and [leftist politician and likely 2022 presidential candidate Gustavo] Petro,” a representative from the center-right Cambio Radical party told La Silla Vacía.

“No one should have been injured, in their personal integrity or life, by this violence,” Molano told the House of Representatives. “While I regret each one of those who have been affected, the responsibility is not of the police, but of those who generate violence.” He added his view that “institutions are under attack” in a coordinated way. “How curious that not only in Cali, but also in Bogota, in Barranquilla, in Cartagena, we have had systematic attacks on institutions. Why the mayors’ offices? Why the governors’ offices? What we see today in Tuluá, where a justice unit has just been incinerated.”

Negotiations continued, haltingly, in Bogotá between the government and the Strike Committee, which is largely made up of labor union leaders though other sectors have representation. Early in the week, media reported that the two sides has reached a “pre-agreement” laying the groundwork for more structured negotiations. The Strike Committee developed a list of short-term demands to discuss in these negotiations, focused mainly on labor rights, basic income and suspension of utility payments, access to education, and women’s rights.

By week’s end, though, negotiations remained as far off as they had been when the week began. Both sides had pre-conditions that remained unmet. The Strike Committee demanded that the government cease using excessive force and “guarantee the right to social protest.” The government demanded that the Committee publicly call for an end to road blockades that have contributed to shortages of basic goods.

“Some members of the Strike Committee have insisted on exclusively promoting the figure of ‘humanitarian corridors’ [exceptions allowing essential goods to pass through roadblocks], without condemning the blockades,” said the government’s chief negotiator following a meeting on May 27. “For the National Government, this point is non-negotiable.”

That government official is Emilio Archila, who as the Presidency’s High Commissioner for Stabilization is also responsible for most peace accord implementation. As the lead government representative in talks with the Strike Committee, Archila replaces High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos who, as discussed below, resigned on May 24.

Government and Strike Committee representatives were to meet again on May 30. The government’s insistence on lifting roadblocks is likely to be at the center of discussions.

Citing the Defense Ministry, Reuters reported on May 26 that 73 roadblocks were active around the country. The term in this case generally does not refer to the urban concentration sites where “Primera Línea” and other “resistance” groups have stopped city traffic: it refers to groups of people using barriers and debris to stop traffic on roads that are usually the only routes between major cities.

Highway roadblocks are leading to shortages of basic goods in urban markets and gas lines in some cities. They have blocked much cargo activity in Buenaventura, Colombia’s principal port. They threaten to affect fuel transfers from the key refinery in Barrancabermeja, Santander.

The roadblocks give protesters important bargaining power with the government. In a communique, the Strike Committee insisted that the “so-called blockades,” or “temporary and intermittent road closures,” are part of “legitimate possibilities” for protest.

Because they cause shortages and economic harm, though, prolonged roadblocks—those less “temporary and intermittent”—carry a large public opinion cost for the protesters. The cost is especially high when roadblocks stop ambulances and other vehicles on urgent medical missions, like oxygen deliveries. An especially strong outcry followed the death of an intubated newborn baby, in the pre-dawn hours of May 22, in a blocked ambulance on the road between Buenaventura and Cali.

Stopping roadblocks was the main demand of perhaps 10,000 white-clad protesters who marched in downtown Cali on May 25 to demand an end to the situation. Hundreds took part in similar marches in the provincial capitals of Neiva, Huila and Popayán, Cauca.

Vice President visits Washington

Colombia’s vice president and newly named foreign minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, paid a week-long visit to the United States—first New York, then Washington—to tell the Colombian government’s side of the story. As a member of the Conservative party—not the more right-populist Centro Democrático party of President Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe—Ramirez presented the government’s case to U.S. audiences in more moderate terms, avoiding some of the fire-breathing rhetoric of Uribe and other CD politicians.

In Washington, where Ramírez held about 20 meetings, those audiences included several members of Congress (Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Robert Menéndez (D-New Jersey), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida); Reps. Albio Sires (D-New Jersey) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts)); members of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH); non-governmental or semi-governmental organizations like WOLA, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. Institute for Peace; OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro; and finally, on May 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. La Silla Vacía notes that Ramírez did not secure meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris or Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).

Secretary Blinken “expressed his concern and condolences for the loss of life during recent protests in Colombia and reiterated the unquestionable right of citizens to protest peacefully,” according to a State Department readout. “He welcomed the national dialogue President Duque has convened as an opportunity for the Colombian people to work together to construct a peaceful, prosperous future.” This was likely a reference to the slow-moving talks between the government and the Strike Committee.

The State Department’s public-facing remarks made no mention of concern about the security forces’ recent human rights performance. Following his May 28 meeting, Sen. Murphy raised the issue: “the Colombian authorities’ treatment of protestors—specifically the use of lethal force—is very disturbing. I communicated my concerns directly to Vice President Ramirez this week, and I specifically urged the Colombian government to immediately allow in international human rights bodies so that there can be an independent accounting of the violence that has consumed the country.” On the other end of the spectrum, after meeting with Florida-based Colombian business leaders, Sen. Rubio said he saw “an orchestrated attack against the stability of Colombia’s democratic future.”

At the White House’s May 24 press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether she was prepared to “denounce police brutality in Colombia… from this lectern.” A similar call came in a May 26 letter from three U.S. labor federations (AFL-CIO, SEIU, and Teamsters). Psaki responded obliquely:

Well, I will say we welcome announcements by the Colombian government to investigate allegations of excessive use of force by police. The Colombian government, as you know, has activated a special urgent search unit to investigate reports of missing persons, with 35 search teams deployed nationwide to follow reports received through their 24-hour hotlines.

We encourage the authorities to continue to work to locate all missing persons as quickly as possible, and we certainly encourage those actions.

Numerous human rights advocates had been making calls similar to Sen. Murphy’s: that the Colombian government accept an in situ visit from the CIDH, an autonomous body of the OAS. The CIDH on May 7 communicated to the Duque government its desire to pay such a visit. Being present in Colombia, CIDH President Antonia Urrejola told El Espectador, “would allow direct information to be gathered and a dialogue to be held with all sectors in order to generate recommendations to guide the roadmap for overcoming the crisis.”

On May 24, following a meeting with OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, Ramírez turned down a CIDH visit for the time being, on the grounds that “it is necessary to wait for the government’s investigative agencies themselves to finish their work” and share their information with the Commission. The refusal drew quick criticism amid observations that only governments like those of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela tend to reject CIDH visits.

By May 25, after meeting with Urrejola and other CIDH commissioners, Vice President Ramírez said the Commission was welcome after its June 29 regular public hearings about the situation in Colombia. The CIDH put out a statement “emphasizing the importance of a working visit as soon as possible.”

On May 26 Ramírez said the Commission could visit “any time it wants,” even “tomorrow and we wouldn’t have any problem.” Colombia sent a letter on the evening of May 27 accepting a visit. The letter asks that the Commission’s work cover protesters’ road blockades, including a request that they cease. Another letter, dated May 25, invites Almagro to visit.

On May 27, while the Vice President was in Washington, President Duque spoke at a virtual event hosted by two Washington-based think tanks, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Inter-American Dialogue. Duque said that abuses committed by security forces must be investigated, as well as violent acts committsed by civilians against security forces. He added that the Fiscalía is investigating 17 such cases.

Duque blamed acts of violence and vandalism on the “influence of armed groups that promote this type of behavior to create uncertainty.” Several days earlier, Duque had told Forbes, “The police on an annual basis undertake more than 30 million police procedures. Are there cases of abuse within 30 million police procedures? Yes, there are—there might be.”

Dialogue President Michael Shifter had some unvarnished words for Duque in his initial questioning, La Silla Vacía noted: “The perception in Washington is that your government has not been able to handle the crisis, that there are Colombians who are not happy with your work. We all condemn the vandalism, but the protests seem to have legitimate grievances, some longstanding, some new. There are credible reports of police abuse.”

New high commissioner for peace

Since the first days of the Duque administration Miguel Ceballos, a former Georgetown University professor and vice-minister of Justice, had served as high commissioner for peace. The position, created in the 1990s, leads government efforts to negotiate with armed groups, and usually with other groups making strong demands, like the Strike Committee.

Though President Duque later revealed that Ceballos had declared an intention to leave his post months earlier, the High Commissioner abruptly announced his resignation on May 24. In an interview with El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, Ceballos said he was unhappy that former president Álvaro Uribe, the founder of the governing Centro Democrático party, had made contacts with leaders of the ELN guerrillas without first consulting him. As High Commissioner, Ceballos was the official charged with authorizing such contacts.

Ceballos indicated interest in running for the presidency in 2022; with only modest name recognition and without support of a political party—he left the Conservative party in 2016—such a run would be a longshot.

President Duque quickly named a new high commissioner: Juan Camilo Restrepo, the vice-minister of agriculture for rural development. Restrepo is a controversial choice.

Contagio Radio notes that he headed Colombia’s Association of Banana Producers, some of whose members are suspected of supporting paramilitary groups in the past. During Restrepo’s tenure, the Association published declarations of Raúl Hasbún, a northwest Colombian banana-zone businessman who went to prison for actually being a paramilitary leader. Restrepo later headed a company, AUGURA, that donated 33 million pesos (then about US$11,000) to the campaign to defeat the 2016 peace accord in a plebiscite held in October of that year.

The former FARC political party, Comunes, criticized Restrepo’s nomination in a statement issued May 27. “How is he going to implement the accord if he doesn’t even agree with it or believe in it?” it reads.

The 2022 U.S. aid request

On May 28 the Biden administration sent to Congress its detailed budget request for the 2022 fiscal year. It would provide Colombia with $453,850,000 next year, which is $8,525,000 or 2 percent less than what Congress specified for Colombia in the 2021 foreign aid appropriation.

Of that $453 million, $216 million (in fact, probably $252 million adding likely judicial aid) would go through USAID accounts that pay for economic development and civilian institution-building, including peace accord implementation. $42 million would definitely be military or police aid. $196 million (in fact, probably $160 million subtracting likely judicial aid) would go through State Department accounts that can pay for either military/police or economic aid, like counter-narcotics programs. This latter category includes $21 million for demining programs, an amount that has stayed steady since 2017.

This amount does not include an unspecified amount of additional aid to help Colombia attend to the Venezuelan migrant population.

An additional amount of aid reaches Colombia’s military and police outside this foreign aid budget. It goes through the Defense Department’s budget, which includes its own separate “train and equip” authorities. While we don’t know how much that Defense aid would be for 2021 (and don’t have the 2020 Defense number yet either), between 2016 and 2019 it ranged from $55 million to $96 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The $453.85 million 2022 request for Colombia closely follows the same lines as appropriations passed since the outgoing Obama administration’s 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package became law:

  • $402.4 million in 2017
  • $436.7 million in 2018
  • $422.2 million in 2019
  • $461.1 million in 2020 (plus about $124 million in counter-drug funds that the Trump administration transferred to Colombia after stripping it from Central America aid)
  • $462.4 million in 2021

The only notable adjustment is a proposed $14 million decrease in the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, from $189 million in 2021 to $175 million in 2022. This program supports drug eradication and interdiction operations, as well as assistance to the Fiscalía and other parts of Colombia’s justice system. INCLE is by far the largest source of assistance to Colombia’s National Police, which is currently under a cloud as evidence of protest-related abuses continues to mount.

Links

  • WOLA and four other groups hosted a May 28 event, with archived video, about police violence in the context of protests.
  • Two articles in Colombian media outlets by WOLA’s Adam Isacson look at the protests’ meaning and the potential U.S. role. “People are no longer afraid to express what they feel,” reads an interview with El Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco. At Razón Pública, a column discusses how the National Strike is being viewed from Washington.
  • Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which the 2016 peace accord gives a role in verifying both sides’ compliance with commitments, issued on May 25 its fifth report on accord implementation. “A significant difference exists between the current peacebuilding funds and what is needed to meet the goals established in the Framework Plan for Implementation,” it finds.
  • The Defensoría counted 34 murders of social leaders during the first three months of 2021. This would be a significant drop from 54 it counted during the first quarter of 2020. (The NGO Indepaz, which often has the highest of all major estimates, had counted 42 social-leader killings as of March 31.)
  • Several U.S. and Colombian human rights organizations met on May 28 with officials from the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to discuss concerns.
  • Four men armed with assault rifles entered a former FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in rural Tumaco, Nariño, on May 24. They threatened a demobilized guerrilla at his home, then departed.
  • Pilar Rueda, who coordinates the gender team at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s (JEP) Investigations and Accusations Unit, told El Espectador she is “sure” that the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal will do more to take up the many cases of sexual violence committed during the armed conflict with the FARC.
  • At La Silla Vacía, Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz looks at violence data for the first four months of 2021 and finds a troubling increase in homicides and other measures. “While the pandemic may be part of the explanation, the state’s security strategy, along with the fragmentation of illegal armed groups, plays a central role. Above all, because the increases recorded, specifically in conflict zones, surpassed the records of the pre-pandemic years to levels we had not seen in the past decade.”
  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned Colombia’s ambassador to Moscow to explain comments by Defense Minister Molano, who had said Russian “cyberattacks” were helping to drive the country’s ongoing protests.
  • A proof-of-life video was sent to the mother of Army Colonel Pedro Enrique Pérez, who disappeared while off duty on April 18, after visiting a hotel with a woman in Saravena, Arauca, a municipality on the Venezuelan border with a large presence of armed groups. Col. Pérez is believed to be in Venezuelan territory, a captive of the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group, which operates on both sides of the border.
  • As of May 28, eight Venezuelan soldiers remained captive of the 10th Front dissidents in Apure, across the border from Arauca. Fighting between Venezuela’s security forces and the 10th Front has been frequent since March 21. In a new proof of life video, some of the soldiers appeal to the Maduro regime for help arranging their release.
  • On May 27 the Fiscalía arrested and charged 11 people in Arauca with conspiracy to support the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group. The 10th Front is the same group that has been fighting Venezuelan government forces across the border from Arauca, in Apure. Among the arrested is an official from the Arauca city mayor’s office and several members of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca (ACA), a large and politically active local campesino organization. At least one ACA member was arrested at 4:00 AM and taken away in a truck without license plates.
  • Between 2:00 and 4:00 AM on May 24, police operating on Fiscalía orders carried out nine raids on residences in Cali and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, arresting seven people whom they accused of being part of the support network of the “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group. El Espectador noted with alarm that three of those arrested are directors of a well-regarded cooperative set up after the peace accord to help former combatants earn a living.
  • “The Duque government is on its way out and has neither the will nor the legitimacy to address the underlying issues behind the National Strike,” writes Andrei Gómez Suárez of Rodeemos el Diálogo. Therefore, “it is necessary to prepare the conditions for a national dialogue when the next government arrives with sufficient determination to make the necessary structural transformations.”
  • “It is easy to deduce that it is the government itself that has contributed to the prolonged and increasingly massive strike,” writes Sandra Borda of the Universidad de los Andes.
  • “In the last month, 14,782 Colombians have died from Covid, and 84,724 since the pandemic began, almost double the number of all combatants killed during the entire armed conflict in Colombia measured since 1958,” reports La Silla Vacía, in coverage of the latest bimonthly Invamer poll, which in fact shows the pandemic low on the list of Colombians’ main concerns.

Tags: Weekly update

June 3, 2021

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