Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

Concerns Emerge About Irregularities in Government Peace Fund

Prosecutor-General (Fiscal General) Néstor Humberto Martínez sent a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos alleging corruption and influence-peddling within government agencies administering projects to implement the FARC peace accord.

“According to evidence obtained through technical controls and legal surveillance, it is noted that there exists a network of intermediaries who may be interested in winning project contracts for certain businesspeople or contractors, in exchange for undue economic benefits like percentages of these contracts’ value,” the letter reads. El Tiempo reported that the prosecutor’s office has videos and audios of this network’s members requesting payment for help getting chosen to carry out lucrative infrastructure, agriculture, fish-farming and similar project contracts for ex-combatants or communities affected by the conflict. The same intermediaries, El Colombiano reported, then pay bribes to contracting officials. The corruption extends to firms that oversee and evaluate the contracts.

The Fiscal said he decided to make his office’s investigation public after El Tiempo revealed a letter from the ambassadors of Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland to a vice-minister of the Treasury Ministry. That letter voices concern about the slowness and lack of transparency of contracting for projects funded by the Sustainable Colombia Fund (FCS), a US$200 million “peace checkbook” to which the three governments have contributed.

The ambassadors asked the Treasury Ministry for a meeting to discuss the recent exit of Marcela Huertas, the head of the FCS Technical Consultative Unit, and “the qualifications required for an optimal functioning of the FCS.” It adds, “the experience of recent months has shown that it is necessary to reinforce the functioning of these bodies and compliance with regulations.”

El Tiempo mentions an earlier document from the ambassadors, a confidential memorandum, that is more strongly worded. It refers to a “general concern about the integral management of the Sustainable Colombia Fund.” It calls for “establishing a clear route so that the execution of these resources no longer suffers from delays and occurs in a completely transparent manner.”

The Foreign Ministry pointed out that the ambassadors’ concerns “cannot be interpreted as accusations of corruption in the management of this aid fund’s resources. The comments make reference to procedures, operations, functioning, and compliance with fundamental regulations.” President Santos echoed this point. This is true: only the Fiscal’s letter appears to allege corruption.

The government announced that it would carry out an audit of the Sustainable Colombia Fund as foreseen in the grant agreements with the donor countries. The Comptroller’s Office (Contraloría) and Internal Affairs Office (Procuraduría) are also to increase their oversight of peace resources. “The only luxury that the country cannot allow itself is to let the peace process collapse due to poor administration of resources at the hour of its launch,” said Internal Affairs chief (Procurador) Fernando Carrillo, whose office is currently reviewing 1,800 contracts granted so far by the new transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).

El Colombiano notes that the government announced plans to increase post-conflict spending this year by 31.5 percent over last year, to a total of COP$2.4 trillion (US$852 million). The paper cites an estimated 15-year accord implementation cost of COP$128.5 trillion (US$45.6 billion), 86 percent of it (COP$110 trillion) to implement the accord’s rural reform chapter. The rest would go to implementing:

  • The political participation chapter (COP$4.3 trillion / US$1.5 billion);
  • The “end of conflict” chapter, mainly ex-combatant reintegration (COP$1.9 trillion / US$680 million);
  • The illicit crops chapter (COP$8.3 trillion / US$2.9 billion); and
  • The victims chapter, which includes transitional justice (COP$4.3 trillion / US$1.5 billion).

Troubles With FARC Dissidents Continue at Ecuador Border

Two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver remained captive of a former FARC “dissident” armed group somewhere along the Colombia-Ecuador border. Reporter Javier Ortega and photographer Paul Rivas Bravo of Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, along with their driver Efraín Segarra, have been hostages of the so-called “Oliver Sinisterra Front” since March 26. Relatives received a brief proof-of-life video this week.

Many members of this “front” were FARC militia members in the troubled port of Tumaco, Nariño, whose municipality borders Ecuador. The ex-guerrilla group numbers from several dozen to up to 400 members who either failed to demobilize, abandoned the demobilization process, or are newly recruited. Nariño, and Ecuador’s coastal provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabí, comprise what are probably the busiest cocaine trafficking routes in South America. The Oliver Sinisterra group exists mainly to participate in the drug trade, and authorities allege that it is tightly linked to Mexican cartels.

It is headed by Walter Patricio Artízala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian citizen who joined the FARC in 2007. Under his command, the group has carried out high-profile attacks this year: a roadside bomb that killed four Ecuadorian soldiers in Mataje, Esmeraldas; a car bomb against an Ecuadorian police station in San Lorenzo; and an attack on power lines that left Tumaco in the dark for days.

The most dramatic action so far, though, is the kidnapping of the El Comercio group, which is dominating the news in Ecuador. The dissidents captured the reporters while they were working on a story near the border, and have since held them almost totally incommunicado. The reporter’s brother asked that the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments not attempt a rescue mission that might endanger the hostages’ lives. “They shouldn’t take such drastic measures, we prefer a negotiation to risking their lives. We haven’t discussed that with my parents. This is the first case like this in the country, this is something new for us.”

Ecuador is deploying more troops to the border region. Since January, the Colombian armed forces’ Joint Task Force Hercules has included 10,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen deployed in Nariño. Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas told reporters, “We have offered all all support in intelligence, mobility, special forces, and military coordination” to the effort to free the hostages, though he added, “so far we don’t have documentation indicating that the journalists are in Colombian territory.”

Local ELN Leader Killed Upon Crossing from Venezuela

The Colombian military ambushed and killed José Trinidad Chinchilla, a top commander of the ELN’s Luis Enrique León Guerra front in northeast Colombia, as he was passing from Venezuela to Colombia via an unofficial border crossing. The April 1 operation, in a rural part of Tibú, in Norte de Santander’s troubled Catatumbo region, came after “a long intelligence effort, which included four unsuccessful operations,” El Colombiano reported.

Chinchilla, alias “Breimar,” joined the ELN 22 years ago and had long been active in Catatumbo. He was considered the mastermind of a 2012 kidnapping of two German citizens, who were held for five months but eventually released.

“It concerns us that the ELN is planning and carrying out attacks in Colombian territory from Venezuela, both along the Norte de Santander and Arauca borders,” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said in February. The minister alleged that, except for those involved in negotiations in Ecuador, all top ELN leaders are taking refuge in Venezuela, including Gustavo Giraldo alias “Pablito,” the head of the ELN’s Northeastern War Front in Arauca, the guerrilla group’s largest structure. “Pablito” is probably the member of the ELN’s five-person Central Command who is least supportive of negotiations.

Two FARC Members Killed in Less than 48 Hours

Two members of the Alternative Revolutionary Force of the Common People (FARC), the party descended from the demobilized guerrilla group, were killed on April 3 and 4. Nelson Andrés Zapata Urrego, a 32-year-old who was known as “Willinton” during his time in the FARC’s 4th Front, was shot by two masked men who intercepted him in the rural zone of Remedios municipality, Antioquia. In Piamonte, Cauca, an assailant shot 34-year-old Darwin Londoño Bohórquez, once known as “El Loco,” six times while he was eating alone in a restaurant.

According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), 52 demobilized FARC members were killed between January 2017 and March 2018. About 13,000 former FARC members are currently at large throughout the country (including those who have re-armed as dissidents).

Some of those killings, including a multiple murder in Nariño in February, were committed by the ELN. This week, four FARC leaders traveled to Quito, Ecuador, to discuss the issue with ELN leaders who are in the city to participate in peace talks with the government. In a video posted to his Twitter account, one of the FARC leaders, Pastor Alape, said, “We agreed to carry out clarification activities and, most important, they guaranteed to us that there is no ELN policy against the FARC.”

Meanwhile in Quito, the fifth round of talks between the government and ELN continues, with the topic shifting to the details of a possible new bilateral ceasefire. “If the agenda is to advance, it requires that the ceasefire be indefinite,” without an end date like a 100-day truce that lasted from October to January, chief government negotiator Gustavo Bell told El Tiempo.

Government Cites Progress in De-Mining

President Santos announced that of 673 municipalities with a presence of landmines, 225 are now mine-free. (Colombia has about 1,100 municipalities, or counties.) “We have advanced to 33 percent of the total,” Santos said. That is the total of municipalities: in fact, de-miners have cleared about 6.08 million square meters (2.35 square miles) of a total of 52 million square meters (20 square miles) believed to be contaminated with mines, laid mostly by guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

Sergio Bueno, the director of Colombia’s Department for Integrated Action Against Anti-Personnel Mines (DAICMA), celebrated “a very important reduction” in the number of landmine victims. In 2012, landmines killed or wounded 589 Colombians. That fell to 56 in 2017 and 14 so far in 2018.

The country has increased its de-mining personnel strength from 1,300 to 5,478 trained people. Support for this effort comes from the “Global Demining Initiative for Colombia,” a 23-donor, US$144.5 million fund (including US$42 million pledged so far from the United States).

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