Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of March 25-31)

“Dissident” Group Kidnaps Reporters on Ecuador Side of the Border

The Pacific coastal border region between Colombia and Ecuador has heated up amid an offensive launched by a fast-growing dissident group made up mainly of former FARC members and militias who have rearmed. The “Oliver Sinisterra” group, named for a former FARC commander killed in combat with Colombia’s army, is led by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian border-zone citizen whom the FARC recruited in 2007. It has between 70 and 450 members.

Guacho’s group is disputing control of criminality in this zone, the busiest maritime cocaine trafficking corridor in all of Colombia, with the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group, the ELN guerrillas, and another FARC dissident group headed by alias “David.” Spain’s El País newspaper reported in January that Guacho does business with four drug cartels, including the Urabeños and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, said in mid-March that the group “is at the Sinaloa Cartel’s service.”

Guacho’s group has carried out the most spectacular attacks in the region so far this year. In January, it set off a car bomb in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties. On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding eleven.

On March 26, the dissidents kidnapped three reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper from the border zone, and appear to have brought them to the Colombian side. Ecuadorian authorities say they are in contact with the kidnappers and that the captives are in good health.

On the night of March 26, the Pacific port city of Tumaco, near the border, was blacked out after Guacho’s group bombed an electricity pylon. It took several days to restore power. This city of 200,000 people—never a peaceful place—has been hit by a wave of violence, with 67 homicides during the first 85 days of 2018.

FARC dissident groups like Guacho’s are growing quickly around the country. Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía said last week, “Today there are 1,200 of them dedicated to narcotrafficking and criminal economies; depending on the region, they make alliances with other armed groups.” Ariel Ávila of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank estimated that 800 of them are guerrillas who have abandoned the demobilization process, and the rest are new recruits. Of the 242 (out of 1,100 total) Colombian municipalities, or counties, where the FARC once had influence, Ávila told El Colombiano, dissidents are now active in 48. A “high source” in the governor’s office of Nariño department, which includes Tumaco, told the La Silla Vacía investigative site that Guacho has been in conversations for a possible alliance with what may be the country’s largest dissident group, that of alias Gentil Duarte in south-central Colombia. The site could not confirm this rumor.

Government Forces Kill Urabeños’ Third-in-Command

On March 28 Colombia’s National Police announced the killing of Aristides Meza, alias “El Indio,” whom it characterized as the number-three commander of the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Meza, whom the police said was wanted by U.S. authorities, was killed by an aerial assault in Montelíbano, Córdoba. According to the release, “El Indio” commanded 200 men and

directed the criminal activities of the “Gulf Clan” [one of several names used to refer to the Urabeños] on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and in the Magdalena Medio region.… In addition, he coordinated criminal alliances with narcotrafficking structures in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, for the permanent export of loads of cocaine, by sea and land, to the United States and Europe.… According to the [Police intelligence] investigation, the capo paid between 10 and 15 million pesos [US$3,000 to US$5,000] for virgin girls and adolescents, and loved imported products, especially whisky, cariar, cheese, and other canned goods.

InsightCrime reports that Meza’s killing is the latest result of “Operation Agamemnon II,” the Colombian security forces’ effort to take out the Urabeños’ leadership. In the last seven months, this operation killed Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez alias “Gavilán,” the group’s number-two leader, and top boss Luis Orlando Padierna alias “Inglaterra.” This puts the Urabeños, led by top fugitive Dairo Úsaga alias “Otoniel,” badly off balance, according to InsightCrime:

With a number of top lieutenants out of the picture, Otoniel will have to replace his inner circle with people who do not necessarily have the same level of experience and knowledge as their predecessors.… Now that the Urabeños’ operations on the Pacific coast are leaderless, competing groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) could try to scoop up territory that the weakened group no longer has the power to control.

EPL-ELN Combat Worsens in Catatumbo

Tensions continue in Catatumbo, a region of highly organized campesinos and extensive coca cultivation in Norte de Santander department, following a March 14 shootout that signaled the breakdown of a years-long truce between two leftist guerrilla groups. The FARC, the ELN, and a small local group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), had long coexisted. But with the FARC out of the picture and the EPL undergoing leadership changes, intensifying ELN-EPL competition has worsened the security situation.

A March 26 update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that since March 14, insecurity has affected more than 20,300 people in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Carmen, Hacarí, Sardinata, El Tarra, and Convención. 12,500 have been unable to access basic goods and services. About 3,000 are confined to their communities. More than 2,400 have been displaced. Over 2,360 children have been unable to attend school.

An extensive report by Verdad Abierta explains what is going on. Analysts cited place much of the blame on the EPL which, after losing its top leader to a Colombian Army raid in late 2016, embarked on a “disorderly” process of expansion that “violated tacitly established norms” between the guerrilla groups. “For the past two years,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based Fundación Progresar told the website, “the EPL arrived in ex-FARC territories to carry out punitive practices on the population, bringing the community together and saying: ‘These are the new rules and those who don’t comply, die.’ This happens in a very complex context, because in Catatumbo there are strong civil-society processes, the Community Action Boards have already developed codes of conduct… there are organized and politicized communities on which the EPL came to impose itself through violence, even killing social leaders, which is why their problems with the ELN began.”

Citizen groups in Teorama and El Tarra have organized marches to demand that the armed groups respect international humanitarian law and keep them out of the conflict. “The armed groups’ response [to the protests] didn’t take long in coming,” reports El Espectador. “In the town of Filo Gringo, El Tarra, where combat affected the school and other civilian assets, EPL members threatened the promoters of a protest.”

Three Social Leaders Killed in a Week in Bajo Cauca Region

The Bajo Cauca—several municipalities in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín—may be the most violent part of Colombia right now. The cause in this longtime cocaine-producing region is fighting between the Urabeños and a local organized-crime group called “Los Caparrapos.” Along with neighboring southern Córdoba department, Bajo Cauca leads the country in forced displacement so far this year. And it has seen an alarming wave of killings of social leaders.

Víctor Alfonso Zabaleta, the president of a Community Action Board in Cáceres municipality and a participant in a government coca-substitution program, was murdered on March 25 along with another campesino. That same day, Jorge Miguel Polanco, a former Community Action Board leader, was killed along with his son. As reported last week, Community Action Board leader José Herrera was killed on March 20 in Caucasia.

The problem is worsening nationwide. On March 27 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) put out a statement reiterating “its concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders registered this year in Colombia.”

According to the Ombudperson’s Office, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia over the first months of 2018.… According to an Ombudperson’s report, between January 2017 to February 2018, there have been 121 murders of human rights defenders.… The Commission observes with concern that plenty of those murdered human rights defenders carried out actions aimed at implementing the peace agreements related to land distribution. In addition, the Commission has received consistent reports indicating that indigenous and Afro-Colombians human rights defenders are exposed to aggravated violence.

Neo-paramilitary groups may be responsible in many cases, the IAHRC said: “In regards to the perpetrators of those murders, the Nation’s Chief Prosecutor has indicated, in December 2017, that he has identified the presence of ‘self-defence’ strongholds which could be acting systematically to some degree in several regions of the country.”

El Espectador noted that

Of 156 murders of leaders currently under investigation by the National Police Elite Corps and the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps, 68 have made investigative advances, and 117 people have been arrested for their presumed material responsibility for these acts. However, although in some cases it is known who ordered the killings of these human rights defenders, it’s clear that the faces of the ‘intellectual authors’ of a great majority of these homicides remain an enigma.”

Of those 156 cases under investigation, El Espectador concludes, 98 are in the initial inquiry stage, 18 are under formal investigation, 31 are in the trial stage, and 9 have achieved guilty verdicts and sentences. “These statistics make clear the long work that lies ahead.”

Senate Hold on U.S. Ambassador Nomination

The Washington Free Beacon, a pro-Trump U.S. website, reports that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is blocking the confirmation of the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Joseph MacManus. Under Senate rules, a single senator can prevent any presidential nominee from getting a vote by putting a “hold” on the process. “The hold can last for the rest of the congressional year,” the Free Beacon explains, “and force President Trump to either nominate a new person for the role or wait until January when a new Congress begins to nominate Macmanus again.”

MacManus is a career Foreign Service officer, whose Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing on March 8 was mostly uneventful. He is opposed on the far right, however, because he was on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal staff during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which became a cause celebre for Clinton’s political opponents. During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, asked MacManus about his role in Benghazi, but did not pursue the line of questioning very far.

Opponents of MacManus’s nomination may also want president Trump to nominate a political appointee—a non-diplomat who shares the president’s “America First” outlook—instead of a career diplomat. The Free Beacon article speculates that the arrivals of hardliners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to the posts of secretary of state and national security advisor might spell an end to MacManus’s nomination and the naming of a more ideological appointee. It’s not clear, though, how a more extreme nominee could win approval in the Senate, where Republicans hold a fragile 51-49 majority and where the Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), is a Trump critic who will retire at the end of this session.

New Reintegration Agency Chief

Joshua Mitrotti, the longtime director of the Colombian Reincorporation Agency (ACR), has left his post, La Silla Vacía reports. The Agency attends to ex-combatants who seek to reintegrate individually into civilian life, and some aspects of the reintegration of those reintegrating collectively, as most of the FARC has sought to do. Mitrotti said he had told President Juan Manuel Santos two months ago of his desire to leave his post for personal reasons. He will be replaced by Andrés Stapper, a lawyer with 11 years’ experience at the ACR.

La Silla Vacía notes that the reincorporation process is in rough shape, as the government and guerrillas never agreed on a collective reincorporation policy.

The good news is that of 12,535 ex-FARC combatants accredited by the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, more than 12,000 have a bank account where they are receiving 24 monthly payments of about 90 percent of minimum wage ($220). More than 11,000 are signed up with the national health system and 8,000 with the national pension system. 3,976 have received at least a few days’ vocational training.

But there have been “few advances” on “productive projects,” usually agricultural investments, “which are thought to be how they would make a long-term living.” The FARC want the government to disburse 8 million pesos (nearly US$3,000) to each ex-member, as agreed in the accord, so that they may launch their projects. The government does not want to turn over the money until all ex-guerrillas have received training and all projects have been approved by a body that includes the ACR director, the National Reincorporation Council. Of the 26 zones where FARC members congregated to demobilize in early 2017, only four have active, approved productive projects currently underway.

In-Depth Reading

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