Presidents Duque and Trump Meet in New York
Seven weeks into his presidency, Colombian President Iván Duque had his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, outside the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. “It was a great meeting,” Duque later told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth. “We are going to strengthen our relationship with the U.S.—not only the military cooperation, but also trade and development assistance. We also talked about Venezuela and got the president’s strong support for the refugee situation we’re facing due to the [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro regime.”
The leaders had an 18-minute exchange with reporters. Trump stressed the U.S. desire that Duque address Colombia’s recent increase in coca and cocaine production.
What I want — what I want and what we’ve discussed, and one of the reasons I was so happy to see the President’s victory — that was a great victory and there was a very worldwide, world-renowned victory because of his strong stance on drugs.
Now, if he comes through, we think he’s the greatest. If he doesn’t come through, he’s just another President of Colombia. (Laughter.) But I think he’s going to come through. I really do.
Semana reported that Duque has set a goal of reducing the number of hectares of coca grown in Colombia by 70 percent during his four years in office. This is a very ambitious goal. Even eradicating 70 percent of the coca that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime detected in Colombia in 2017 would mean 120,000 eradicated hectares per year (much of which would quickly be replanted); Colombia eradicated 18,000 in 2016 and about 60,000 in 2017. Getting to 120,000 would probably only be possible through a vast expansion in forced eradication through aerial herbicide spraying, and an intense series of confrontations with organized coca cultivators. Duque says he favors herbicide fumigation but has not yet announced a plan.
Asked about Colombia’s peace process, Trump appeared startled and unprepared.
Q Are you going to talk about FARC and ELN, the peace process?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Are you asking me that question? We’re going to be talking about everything.
Much of the presidents’ conversation surrounded the crisis in neighboring Venezuela. President Trump resisted commenting on a “military option” for dealing with Venezuela, though he did state that the Venezuelan military could easily overthrow President Nicolás Maduro if they so chose.
“It was known” that in their bilateral meeting, Trump “had discarded the idea of a military solution” for Venezuela, El Colombiano reported. The U.S. president supported his Colombian colleague’s plan for a concerted campaign of diplomatic pressure and sanctions to remove Maduro, including a six-country petition to the International Criminal Court alleging the Venezuelan government’s commission of crimes against humanity.
Duque criticized Venezuela in his Washington Post interview, calling the Caracas government “a narco-trafficking state. It is a human rights violator. They have been sponsoring and helping and providing safe haven to Colombian terrorists in their territory.” He concluded, though, that “I don’t think that a military solution is the solution, because that’s what Maduro wants. Maduro wants to create a demon so that he can exacerbate patriotism and remain in office.”
The Venezuelan armed forces meanwhile announced a deployment of troops to the Colombia-Venezuela border, in the state of Táchira across from Norte de Santander department. The commander of the Venezuelan military’s Strategic Operational Command said that the deployment’s purpose was to combat narcotrafficking and illegal groups’ cross-border activity. During the UN sessions, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence seized on this news to offer Colombia an explicit security guarantee.
News reports today are that the Maduro regime has moved military troops to the border of Colombia, as they have done in the past. An obvious effort at intimidation. Let me be clear: the United States of America will always stand with our allies for their security. The Maduro regime would do well not to test the resolve of the president of the United States or the American people in this regard.
Back in Bogotá, the leader of President Duque’s party, former president Álvaro Uribe, called on Venezuela’s military “not to aim at the sister country of Colombia, but to aim at the Miraflores [Presidential] Palace to kick out the dictatorship.”
Some FARC Leaders Reappear, Voice Discontent and Security Concerns
Some questions were answered in the crisis of at least nine top former FARC leaders who have gone missing in recent months. Some have “clandestinized” themselves citing security concerns, some have voiced fear of trumped-up judicial charges against them, and some, it is feared, may be inclining toward re-armed dissident groups.
In addition to Henry Castellanos alias “Romana”—an eastern-bloc chieftain responsible for numerous kidnappings who penned a letter ratifying his continued participation in the peace process—top Southern Bloc leader Fabián Ramírez also surfaced. Ramírez sent a letter to the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP) complaining about the inadequacy of the vehicle-and-bodyguard scheme that the Unit had assigned to him.
“I request for the third time that you resolve for me, quickly, the reinstatement of two missing bodyguards and a conventional car, which are part of my security scheme that the UNP, through its approved risk study, had given me for my protection since the beginning of this year,” Ramirez wrote. He added that he has never abandoned the peace process, although he left the demobilization site where he had been staying. Ramirez says he is now assembling a group of ex-guerrillas in the southern departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Huila to pursue income-generating projects. Ramírez writes that he seeks this reinforced security scheme because this work requires him to “be moving through zones where there are armed dissident-group personnel.”
For their part, three unnamed former FARC commanders have sought precautionary protection measures from the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, citing personal insecurity. The formal request went through lawyers, and the FARC leaders asked that their names be held in reserve. El Tiempo reported, though, that one of the three is among nine ex-FARC leaders whose wheareabouts are currently unknown.
The FARC submitted a 10-page report to the Peace Committee of Colombia’s Congress alleging that only 87 of the guerrillas’ 14,000 ex-members have received government funds to carry out productive income-generating projects, as laid out in the peace accord. Seventeen such projects are so far under consideration or nearing approval, covering about eight percent of the FARC’s membership, but only two have yet been approved and begun to receive funds. The report claims that on a less-formal basis, former FARC fighters have started 259 income-generating projects on their own, two-thirds of them with their own funds and 12 percent of them with international support.
Displacement is Up Sharply
The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a human rights group that has closely tracked forced displacement trends for over 20 years, issued a report counting 38,490 Colombians displaced by violence during the first eight months of 2018. This represents an increase over 2017.
CODHES counts 126 events of mass displacement. Of the victims, 8,376 were members of Afro-Colombian communities and 7,808 were indigenous. The majority of displacements happened in three departments; Norte de Santander, Antioquia, and Nariño. Fighting for territorial control between illegal armed groups, principally the ELN, EPL, post-paramilitary groups, and guerrilla dissidents, was the main cause.
Rightist Parties Advance Plan to Try Military Human Rights Cases Separately
Legislators from the governing Democratic Center party, together with the center-right Radical Change party, introduced legislation that would create a new chamber in the new transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to judge current and former military personnel accused of war crimes.
A procedural law for the JEP, passed in June and awaiting Constitutional Court review, freezes human rights cases against military personnel while the Congress designs a new chamber to judge them separately from former guerrillas. The bill introduced this week would do that—though the Constitutional Court could invalidate the whole effort if, when it completes its review, it strikes this provision from the June procedural law.
The law calls for the new chamber’s judges to be experts in international humanitarian law with prior knowledge of how the armed forces function. It would allow military personnel who recognize their crimes, tell truth, and give reparations to victims to serve their sentences in special military facilities. After five years, they could be released on probation.
By contrast, former guerrillas who fulfill their truth and reparations duties would be held in “restricted liberty”—a term that the judge in each case will need to define, though it can’t be prison—for up to eight years.
The chief of the Democratic Center bloc in the Senate, former president Álvaro Uribe, introduced the bill, arguing that “the Armed Forces of a democratic country can not be equalized, put on the same level as those who have committed terrorist acts.”
ELN Talks Remain Stalemated; Venezuela Removed from Guarantor Countries
The Duque government, which pulled back its negotiating team last week, continues to suspend talks in Havana with the ELN guerrillas until the group releases all individuals it has kidnapped and agrees to cease hostilities. The ELN this week put out a statement claiming that, if the Duque government changes the rules and agenda agreed with the prior government of Juan Manuel Santos, then it is showing that “the Colombian state is unable to keep its word” from one government to the next. The guerrilla delegation in Cuba tweeted a picture of its negotiators sitting across a table from a row of empty chairs with the caption “We’re ready here. The counterpart is missing.”
President Duque, in New York, insisted on his terms: “I have every wish to be able to establish a dialogue with the ELN, but you have heard me say it: I hope that the basis of the construction of a dialogue will be the liberation of all the kidnapped and an end to criminal activities.”
Duque also announced that Venezuela was no longer welcome to be one of the ELN talks’ “guarantor” countries, a list that also includes Norway, Brazil, and Chile. Duque blamed Venezuela’s harboring of ELN fighters on its soil, which made the neighboring government less than an honest broker. “A country that has sponsored the ELN in its territory, that has protected it, that has allowed criminal acts against the Colombian people to be formed from its territory, is far from being a guarantor, it is a dictatorship that has been an accomplice of many criminal activities, I’m not saying that for the first time.”
“Most of the ELN kingpins are in Venezuela,” Duque told the Washington Post. “It’s impossible to come to consider a ceasefire when part of their troops or of their membership is in another country,” said High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos. The ELN’s chief negotiator, Pablo Beltrán, dismissed allegations of guerrilla presence in Venezuela as “a myth that has been invented in Washington,” adding, “I don’t see any association between a ceasefire and where the ELN’s leaders are.”
Semana cites a recent opinion column by Carlos Velandia, a former ELN leader who went by the name “Felipe Torres” and is now a go-between for peace talks, voicing the belief that in the event of a conflict involving Venezuela, the ELN might take Venezuela’s side on Venezuelan soil.
Semana notes that Venezuela had played a big role in getting the ELN talks started during the Santos government, “the dialogues’ public phase—which opened in 2017—was even achieved and announced from Venezuela.” The magazine sees no other country stepping up to fill the vacuum.
Which country can join the group? Among the guarantors who were there when the table opened is also Cuba, but that idea doesn’t convince the government at all.
Norway, Brazil and Chile are also in the group of guarantor countries. But each has its own problems to serve even as a place to relaunch the table. Brazil is in a presidential campaign and is quite divided about it. Norway has its attention placed on the [FARC] post-conflict and the chances of it serving as the venue for negotiations are very low. Chile has had a better disposition, it even offered itself as headquarters when Ecuador withdrew as a guarantor country following a wave of “terrorist attacks” on the border.
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- Juanita Velez, “Guaviare: La Prueba de Que la Sustitucion Funciona Si Llega a Tiempo” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), September 27, 2018).
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