Rescuing Colombia’s Post-Conflict Transitional Justice System

It will be up to Colombia’s Top Court—and Perhaps the International Criminal Court—to Undo Damage Wrought by the Congress

“What to do with the worst human rights abusers” was the most controversial part of the peace accord that Colombia’s government reached with the FARC guerrillas a year ago, in November 2017. It was unrealistic to expect the FARC’s members, who weren’t defeated on the battlefield, to turn in their weapons only to report to long prison terms for their thousands of war crimes. It was also unrealistic to expect the peace accord to dishonor the conflict’s millions of victims with a blanket amnesty. It took the accord’s negotiators 19 months to come up with a formula that balanced these two extremes.

Still, the compromises within the peace accord’s language satisfied nobody. It was vague on issues like the conditions of confinement for individuals found guilty of serious human rights violations; how guerrilla and military commanders might be held accountable for their subordinates’ actions; how ex-guerrillas might serve penalties while also being able to participate in politics; and how to hold accountable civilians who, for instance, funded paramilitary groups that went on to kill tens of thousands.

Conservative critics argued that the transitional justice system’s formula is too lenient on ex-guerrilla war criminals, as it specifies five to eight years’ “restriction of liberty” in non-prison conditions. Human rights defenders fear that even this standard might not be rigorously applied to military personnel and third-party accomplices to human rights crimes.

This vague language was improved little by a constitutional amendment that Colombia’s Congress approved in March to green-light the accords’ transitional justice system. As WOLA pointed out at the time, this amendment violated the accords’ spirit in several ways: a weak interpretation of “command responsibility,” the insertion of language that makes it much harder to prosecute third-party civilians, and continued vagueness on other questions.

During the week of November 13, Colombia’s Constitutional Court and Senate took further steps that may pacify conservative critics, but that are alarming human rights advocates and victims’ groups. On November 14, the Court handed down a unanimous ruling upholding most of the constitutional amendment that passed in March. On November 16, Colombia’s Senate—following months of procedural delays—passed its version of a law to implement the new transitional justice system, known in the accord as the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP, by its Spanish initials). On November 27, Colombia’s House of Representatives passed its version of the law that would implement the JEP, which in most respects is similar to the Senate’s, and a day later the two chambers reconciled their versions into a single piece of legislation.

WOLA, along with most of our partners in Colombia’s human rights and victims’ rights communities, welcomes the long-delayed approval of the JEP, which is the backbone of the peace accord. Expectations are high: as of November 17, 3,491 ex-guerrillas and 1,714 current and former security-force personnel had signaled their intention to be tried within this new system.

However, we are deeply troubled by the Constitutional Court’s and the legislature’s actions. They deform some of the key tenets of the peace accord. They risk allowing too many top human rights violators to avoid accountability, and denying too many conflict victims their right to truth and dignity. And they may set Colombia on a collision course with the International Criminal Court.

The process is not over yet. The Constitutional Court must review this law’s constitutionality. The International Criminal Court may act if it appears that the JEP will allow war criminals to avoid punishment. So might the Inter-American human rights system.

WOLA urges these bodies to act to address the following concerns about the transitional justice system.

  1. The choices of judges and magistrates for the JEP were excellent. But the bill would undo these by disqualifying anybody who has done human rights work or accompanied victims during the past five years.

As mandated by the peace accord, an independent five-member panel of Colombian and international jurists selected the judges who will preside over JEP tribunals. They fulfilled this task efficiently and transparently. As Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute noted in a November monitoring report, the panel “established an important balance between interests in academia, the international community and social sectors.” Of the 38 magistrates and 13 alternates chosen, more than half (28) are women and 8 are Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Both proportions resemble those of Colombia’s overall population, the first time that has been true of any Colombian body with real decision-making power.

The implementing law, however, would summarily disqualify at least 15 of the chosen judges. Language would ban any magistrates who, in the past five years, have brought cases against the government, participated in peace negotiations, or taken part in any case related to the armed conflict.

This new requirement—not at all foreseen in the peace accord—was promoted by legislators from Cambio Radical, a party in President Santos’s ruling coalition tied to many regional political bosses and large landholders. Led by former vice-president and leading presidential candidate Germán Vargas Lleras, Cambio Radical has broken with Santos and mostly withdrawn its support for the FARC accord.

The proposed disqualification of judges is “serious and concerning because it is a discrimination against the legitimate practice of law, and against people who claim reparations in relation to human rights violations,” said Gustavo Gallón, the president of the Colombian Commission of Jurists and member of the accords’ Security Guarantees Commission.

It will be up to Colombia’s Constitutional Court to delete this language when it reviews the law, as it is required to do, in coming months.  “We believe that the Constitutional Court would throw it out,” Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera said. Rodrigo Uprimny of the legal think-tank DeJusticia is certain that’s what will happen:

“The Constitutional Court has already established that it violates due process to create new requirements or prohibitions to block a person who has already been chosen for a position. …This disqualification from the Senate will, therefore, have no effect. It was just a clumsy maneuver by some senators. But the issue should be taken seriously, as it exhibits a dangerous and unacceptable stigmatization against human rights defenders.”

All who care about “putting victims at the center” of the peace accord must hope that Rivera and Uprimny are correct.

  1. Neither the text of the law for implementing the JEP, nor the Constitutional Court decision, defines how austere the conditions of “restricted liberty” will be for those sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As long as they tell the JEP tribunals the full truth about their participation in war crimes, and make reparations to victims, defendants can be sentenced to up to eight years of “effective restriction of liberty.” This is not prison: confinement is to occur in a space no larger than one of the village-sized cantonment zones where the FARC disarmed, but the accord doesn’t specify the conditions within that space. The peace accord leaves that up to the judges in each case. Individuals will also be able to leave these spaces to carry out activities defined as reparations to victims.

How austere or luxurious, then, will conditions be within the “restricted liberty” zones? This thorny question is a “hot potato,” write Juanita León and Juan Esteban Lewin of Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative website: no institution wants to be forced to specify the answer. The Constitutional Court’s November 14 decision passes the “potato” to the Congress, requiring its JEP implementing law to “typify” the sanctions that war criminals would receive. However, the implementing law does not do this: it leaves the conditions of confinement up to the tribunal judges.

  1. The Court decision and the law for implementing the JEP includes  a watered-down standard of “command responsibility,” which could  allow dozens of top military commanders to avoid accountability. It may also make Colombia a top priority for the International Criminal Court.

As WOLA noted with alarm in March, the constitutional reform establishing the JEP watered down the definition of “command responsibility”—the extent to which leaders are liable for crimes committed by those below them in the chain of command—“in a way that almost certainly runs afoul of Colombia’s international human rights commitments.”

The Constitutional Court’s November 14 decision upheld that definition. As things stand now, Colombian military commanders can avoid accountability before the JEP by contending that they didn’t know about their subordinates’ illegal actions. As it is almost impossible to prove what a commander did or did not know at a given time, commanders at the level of battalion and higher are likely to avoid accountability. The constitutional amendment does not apply this softer standard to ex-guerrilla leaders, though: they will be liable if they “should have known” about the crimes committed by those they commanded.

“Should have known” is the standard set forth in Article 28 of the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which merely requires that the commander have had enough control of subordinates to prevent the abuse.

As Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute, failing to apply the “should have known” standard for its security forces may run afoul of the Court, which may decide to act against individual Colombian commanders if it determines that Colombia isn’t doing enough on its own to hold them accountable. By applying a weaker standard, Colombia’s Constitutional Court “may open the door for international tribunals to formally investigate high-ranking military commanders, government officials, or guerrillas,” according to the Colombian daily El Espectador.

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has been unambiguous about this. The JEP constitutional amendment’s definition, she wrote in October, “frustrates the object of command responsibility in international law” and means that “people with the material ability to prevent or to punish subordinates’ crimes, and who may have knowingly omitted doing so, could go unpunished.” It is true that the ICC prosecutor is not the same thing as the Court itself. But since the language, in its current form, makes it harder for those who suffered at the hands of the armed forces to receive justice than for those who suffered at the hands of the FARC, a future clash with the ICC is a strong possibility.

The weak definition of “command responsibility” is a direct result of pressure from Colombia’s powerful military. Hours before the peace accord was signed on November 24, 2016, the Colombian government quietly introduced, and demanded that the guerrillas accept, a key change to page 164 of its text: it eliminated a reference to the Rome Statute’s Article 28 as the standard for “command responsibility.” It did so to at the vehement insistence of the armed forces, whose commanders insist that Colombia acceded to the Rome Statute with a specific reservation against Article 28. The Senate’s final debate on the JEP-implementing law took place with Colombia’s defense minister and armed forces’ chief watching every moment in person. As the Colombian daily El Tiempo reported, “For these two and their advisors, it is vital that everything related to military commanders’ responsibility for subordinates’ crimes, among other norms, remain intact without even a single comma being introduced.”

  1. The Court’s decision, and the law for implementing the JEP, both stripped key language from the peace accord which would have compelled civilian third parties to appear and confess. There is now little hope of holding accountable landowners, narcotraffickers, local officials and other politically influential individuals who sponsored armed groups or even planned killings.

During the most intense years of Colombia’s armed conflict—the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s—guerrillas carried out the majority of kidnappings, child recruitment, indiscriminate bombings, and use of child combatants. However, they did not commit the largest number of homicides and massacres of civilians during this period. That grim distinction belonged to pro-government paramilitary groups, which were frequently armed and backed by civilians: landowners, right-wing politicians, organized crime figures, and some members of the security forces.

After the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization demobilized in 2006, its members underwent their own transitional justice process, known as “Justice and Peace,” involving full confessions. These confessions revealed the identities of about 13,000 Colombian non-combatants who allegedly aided and abetted the paramilitaries’ murderous offensives.

Some of these 13,000 may have been extorted into supporting the paramilitaries; others may have done so willingly, for reasons ranging from counterinsurgency to greed. But we still don’t know what happened, because Colombia’s regular criminal justice system failed to act.  The transitional justice system passed these names to Colombia’s criminal prosecutors, who did not follow up.

The FARC peace accord sought to rectify this with an innovative provision requiring that civilians credibly alleged to have “authored” war crimes appear before the JEP, where they might benefit from lighter sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations to these crimes’ victims. This provision held the promise of identifying, and thus finally dismantling, paramilitary support networks around the country. But it also alarmed politically powerful individuals throughout Colombia’s provinces.

In March, Colombia’s Congress responded to this alarm: its constitutional amendment establishing the JEP gutted the requirement that civilian accomplices participate. Non-combatants now need only appear before the post-conflict justice system “voluntarily.” The assumption—so far proven wrong—is that the regular justice system might uncover enough evidence to make real the threat that these individuals suffer real penalties—decades in prison—for their crimes. They would then see the JEP as the best option for themselves, and do right by their victims..

However, powerful civilian third parties generally haven’t felt threatened by Colombia’s regular justice system. As a magistrate in the paramilitaries’ “Justice and Peace” transitional justice process, Rubén Darío Pinilla sent information about many civilian collaborators to the regular criminal justice system. He told Colombia’s Verdad Abierta:

“The Court’s decision [to uphold civilians’ ‘voluntary’ participation] is serious, because it implies that there is going to be some risk that civilians who participated in a determining manner in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity may remain in impunity. And that risk exists because the names sent over from the Justice and Peace courts, which exceeded 13,000, haven’t generated the investigations that should be expected, even though there is evidence not just of participation, but also of responsibility, of people in sectors of business, mining, industry, agro-industry, and cattle mining, as well as of public officials, in cooperation with paramilitary groups.”

As the law stands right now, the JEP will have little opportunity to hold these individuals accountable or to ensure that their victims receive the truth, justice, and reparations that are their due. “The businessmen who financed the paramilitaries can breathe easy,” write León and Lewin in La Silla Vacía. “The ‘gray men’ that investigator Luis Jorge Garay talks about when describing those people who live in ‘legality’ but who are bridges to illegal groups, and those who make it possible, when a capo is taken down, for a new one to take his place the next day.”

If this provision stands, writes columnist María Jimena Duzán in the Colombian newsweekly Semana, the burden will fall on chief prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez, whose office tries cases in the regular criminal justice system. If he doesn’t act, the ICC might. Duzán writes:

“Martínez will have to investigate what until now he has not wanted to investigate. If he doesn’t do it, he is going to have the International Criminal Court on his back, which can enter with the argument that civilian third-parties who participated in the conflict are protected with impunity and that victims are being denied justice.”

  1. The Court’s and the legislature’s actions still leave unclear whether “false positive” killings will be tried within the JEP, even though most were unrelated to the armed conflict.

The JEP is meant to offer lighter penalties for war crimes committed in the context of Colombia’s armed conflict. It remains unclear whether this should apply to cases in which soldiers, often conspiring with common criminals, murdered civilian non-combatants, then presented them as combat kills in order to benefit from rewards given for high “body counts.” This happened between 3,000 and 5,000 times during the armed conflict, especially between 2002 and 2008, in a phenomenon known in Colombia as the “false positives scandal.”

WOLA agrees with Jorge Eliécer Molano, a lawyer who represents several “false positive” victims, that most “false positive” killings should not be considered conflict-related, and thus should remain in the regular, criminal justice system with long penalties for the soldiers and officers involved. Molano explained to El Espectador:

“First, the ‘false positives’ owed more to personal purposes (like getting leave time, medals, commendations, promotions, or in many cases, financial rewards). Second, they have no relation to the armed conflict: the armed conflict was used as a pretext for killing civilians who had nothing to do with it. Additionally, many of the cases deal with people presented as common criminals, which undoes much of these crimes’ purported ties to the armed conflict.”

The peace accord and subsequent legislation so far leave it up to tribunal judges, on a case-by-case basis, to decide whether a “false positive” murder is conflict-related or not. But they do not offer detailed criteria to guide judges’ decisions. This remains up in the air, even as criminal-court judges have suspended some trials for  years-old false positive cases out of an unsubstantiated belief that they will end up going to the JEP.

  1. War criminals may still be able to hold office. Or maybe not.

As a condition for turning in weapons, the FARC’s leadership insisted not only on avoiding long prison terms, but on retaining the ability to hold, and run for, political office. There is an obvious tension, though, between holding office and undergoing a JEP-mandated “restricted liberty” for war crimes. The Congress and Court have begun moving to resolve this tension, but the formula so far remains awkward.

The way it stands right now is that ex-guerrillas may run for office and hold political positions before the JEP has decided their guilt or innocence for war crimes. They merely need to sign a commitment stating their intention to “submit to the JEP.” FARC candidates for Colombia’s March 2018 legislative and May 2018 presidential elections, then, have a “green light,” as the JEP won’t even begin to act until well after these elections. So do the five FARC senators and five FARC House members who will get automatic seats in Colombia’s Congress for eight years regardless of the vote outcome.

Once the JEP sentences them to “restricted liberty,” however, the next steps are less clear. The court ruling states, “the JEP will determine the compatibility of political participation with the sanctions it imposes on the ex-combatants.” This may give the JEP the ability to decide whether a FARC political candidate can be blocked from participating in politics, if his or her sentence is incompatible with doing so. (For instance, if a JEP judge sentences maximum FARC leader “Timochenko” to perform demining in Putumayo, he can’t serve in Congress hundreds of miles away in Bogotá.)

On the other hand, this sentence could also be interpreted as giving the JEP the ability to issue penalties that would allow guilty ex-FARC leaders to participate in politics. This raises the bizarre possibility of an ex-guerrilla leader leaving his place of confinement in the morning, spending the day in Congress making laws, then returning to his place of confinement the evening.

  1. The timeline for setting up the JEP is excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, thousands of guerrillas and soldiers are in a legal limbo.

Even if the JEP’s implementing law goes into effect by the end of the year, we cannot expect the first trials to begin for some time. As was the case for the JEP constitutional amendment, the implementing law must undergo a thorough review by Colombia’s Constitutional Court. This will not be a speedy process. “It won’t be sanctioned before April or May of next year,” predicts Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez.

After that, it will take months to hire staff and build or re-purpose space for the JEP tribunals and other chambers to carry out their proceedings. We can optimistically expect to see the first trials begin during the latter part of 2018. Pessimistically, in 2019.

In the meantime, over 5,000 defendants remain in a legal limbo, unsure how the next eight-plus years of their lives will play out. This uncertainty could prove too much for many ex-guerrillas, especially former mid-level commanders, who may be tempted to give up on the process. It would be tragic to see more of them return to the jungle, joining the growing ranks of armed “dissident” groups that are taking control of territory and drug-trafficking in several former territories of FARC influence.

Conclusion

The process of crafting the JEP is not over. Opportunities remain to address these concerns, avoid unwanted outcomes, and iron out confusing provisions. Next year, when it rules on the implementing law, we hope that Colombia’s Constitutional Court will address the concerns laid out here and align the JEP more fully with the spirit of the peace accords. If not, the International Criminal Court may have a lot to say in coming years about command responsibility and persistent impunity for civilian accomplices.

These institutions must do their jobs. A lasting peace, with real guarantees for the conflict’s victims, demands it. WOLA and other human rights advocates worldwide will be watching closely.

Tags: Human Rights, Transitional Justice, Victims

November 30, 2017

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(1) In a decision announced late on May 17, Colombia’s Constitutional Court appears to have dealt a severe blow to implementation of the FARC peace accord. In a 5–3 vote, the magistrates did away with key parts of “fast track,” the special legislative authority the Court approved last December to allow swift passage of laws to enact the November 2016 peace accord’s commitments.

The new changes result from the Court’s consideration of a suit brought by Iván Duque, a senator from the opposition party led by former president Álvaro Uribe, the peace accord’s most vocal opponent. The Court struck down the ability to get a vote on a full bill without amendments or modifications (votar en bloque, similar to how the U.S. Congress approved free-trade agreements in the 1990s and 2000s). It also struck down a requirement that the executive branch approve of changes to implementing laws under “fast-track” (a protection against changes that might violate the accord’s commitments). The decision does not undo the few peace-implementation laws that have already passed, like the amnesty for ex-guerrillas not accused of war crimes.

Without “fast track,” the danger is that Colombia’s Congress might treat what was agreed after four years of negotiations in Havana as a mere suggestion. Legislative wrangling could delay, change unrecognizably, or quietly kill some of the government’s accord commitments.

We still need to see the actual text of the decision to interpret the potential damage. In the meantime, here is a sample of what analysts are saying.

  • The government’s lead negotiator in the FARC talks, Humberto de la Calle, said the Court’s decision “opens the door to a cascade of modifications to what was agreed,” calling it a “swindle.”
  • Juanita León and Tatiana Duque of La Silla Vacía discuss the “hard blow” that the Court’s decision represents for the peace accord’s implementation, which they say is a “triumph” for Uribe’s right-wing opposition party. On the bright side, though, León and Duque say that congressional deliberation and compromise might restore to the accord some of the credibility it lost when voters rejected it by a 50.2 to 49.8 percent margin in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.
  • “The legalistic complexity of the debate is such that few Colombians have managed to understand the devastating effects that this decision has on the future of peace in Colombia,” wrote Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán.
  • Rodrigo Uprimny, a much-cited legal scholar from the think-tank DeJusticia, believes the decision was “legally incorrect” and worries that it might “make accord implementation slower and harder, as political groups opposed to or skeptical of peace could use the ability to introduce changes, and to vote article by article, to attempt, in bad faith, to block the accord’s implementation.”
  • Semana magazine lays out seven pessimistic effects that the decision will have on the peace process, concluding that “the ball is now in Congress’s court” at a bad time–just 10 months before the next quadrennial legislative elections.

(2) President Juan Manuel Santos visited Washington and met with Donald Trump at the White House. Trump appeared not to have been well-briefed about Colombia. “Trump did not mention Colombia’s hard-fought peace process until a reporter asked about it,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “He then praised Santos’ efforts. ‘There’s nothing tougher than peace,’ Trump said, ‘and we want to make peace all over the world.’”

Santos’s visit came just 13 days after the 2017 foreign aid budget became law, including the $450 million post-conflict aid package (called “Peace Colombia”) that the Obama administration had requested in February 2016. (The link points to $391 million in aid, because it doesn’t include assistance through the Defense Department budget and a few smaller accounts.)

As the Trump administration prepares to issue to Congress its request for foreign assistance in 2018—which is expected today—two senators appear to be occupying the Republican legislative majority’s “turf” on Colombia policy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) explained in a Miami Herald column that he opposes the FARC peace accord, but supports the “Peace Colombia” aid package with conditions. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) supports a more generous approach to lock in the peace accord’s security gains. Sen. Blunt, along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), co-chaired an Atlantic Council task force that issued a report coinciding with Santos’s visit, which endorsed aid within the “Peace Colombia” framework.

(3) The Colombian Presidency’s post-conflict advisor, Rafael Pardo, says the government will launch 12 pilot projects this year to start work on one of the most ambitious parts of the peace accord’s rural development chapter: a cadaster, or mapping of all landholdings in the country.

Tags: Post-Conflict Implementation, U.S. Policy, Updates

May 23, 2017

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Photo from Presidency of Colombia. Caption: “President Juan Manuel Santos greets a FARC member during a surprise visit to the La Carmelita disarmament zone in Putumayo.”

  • Ex-presidents and peace process opponents Álvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana had either a conversation or a brief contact with Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Good Friday. They were guests of one of the resort’s members, and the Miami Herald reports that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) may have helped arrange the meeting, or encounter, or whatever it was. The ex-presidents no doubt had at least a brief opportunity to express to Trump their opposition to the FARC peace accord.
  • Ex-president and sitting Senator Uribe sent a blistering missive to the U.S. Congress, and to much of the Washington community interested in Colombia, attacking the peace accord. The document included many false claims, which were rebutted by WOLA, by Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative journalism site, and by 50 members of Colombia’s Congress (PDF).
  • The occupation of formerly FARC-dominated territories by new armed groups was the subject of coverage by The Guardian in Cauca, La Silla Vacía in Chocó, and Rutas del Conflicto in Meta.
  • The dilemma of ex-FARC splinter or “dissident” groups is the subject of reporting by Verdad Abierta in Tumaco, Nariño, and Medellín’s daily El Colombiano, looking at the roughly 110-member “1st Front” in Guaviare.
  • FARC leaders are hinting that the disarmament process may be delayed as much as 90 days beyond the originally foreseen 6 months. They blame government slowness in complying with commitments. The government is reluctant to bear the political cost involved with granting such an extension.
  • The FARC is also hinting that it may want to allow its members to stay in the 26 disarmament zones after the 6-month (or perhaps 9-month) process concludes, or even to settle in them permanently.
  • President Juan Manuel Santos paid a surprise visit to one of those zones, in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, after visiting the site of a massive mudslide that killed hundreds in Putumayo’s capital two weeks earlier. VICE documented a visit to the site in Tumaco, Nariño.
  • Speaking of extensions, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said that, due to the legislature’s slowness in approving legislation to implement the peace accords, the government may seek to extend “fast track” lawmaking authority for another several months. The six-month authority expires at the end of May.
  • Colombian soldiers and police found a FARC arms cache in Putumayo. Opposition politicians called it a sign of guerrilla bad faith in the disarmament process. Maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño said the guerrillas are working with the UN mission to collect 900 arms caches hidden around the country.
  • WOLA called for the UN’s post-disarmament mission to make guaranteeing human rights, and the security of human rights defenders, a central focus of its work. This should include a prominent and autonomous role for the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • An essay in Semana looks at the international community’s growing concerns about the Colombian government’s continued stumbles in implementing the peace accord.
  • Verdad Abierta asks what will happen if the military’s thousands of “false positive” killings end up being tried by the special transitional-justice system established by the peace accords. Since many involved hiring criminals to murder civilians so that soldiers could win rewards granted for high body counts, these cases’ link to the armed conflict is tenuous at best.

Tags: Updates

April 21, 2017

Álvaro Uribe’s Questionable “Message to U.S. Authorities” About Colombia’s Peace Effort

On Easter Sunday Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, wrote a blistering attack on Colombia’s peace accords with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. He sent it in English as a “message to the authorities and the Congress of the United States of America.” It went to every U.S. congressional office, as well as to Washington’s community of analysts, advocates and donors who work on Colombia.

Inaccurate=pink. Debatable=orange.

Uribe, now Colombia’s most prominent opposition senator, is the most vocal critic of the peace process led by his successor, President Juan Manuel Santos. The ex-president’s missive leaves out the very encouraging fact that 7,000 members of the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, are currently concentrated in 26 small zones around the country, where they are gradually turning all of their weapons over to a UN mission. One of the organizations most involved in the illicit drug business has agreed to stop using violent tactics for political purposes and to get out of the drug economy. The process currently underway is ending a bloody conflict that raged for 52 years, and holds at least the promise of making vast areas of Colombia better governed, and less favorable to illicit drug production.

Colombia’s peace accord implementation is going slowly, and faces daunting problems. There is a responsible, fact-based critique that a conservative analyst could make. Uribe’s document is not that critique. It suffers from numerous factual inaccuracies and statements that are easily rebutted. Its fixation on the FARC, a waning force, deliberately lacks important facts regarding other parties to the conflict and it does little to explain how the United States can help Colombia address post-conflict challenges.

Here is WOLA’s evaluation of several of the points made by Álvaro Uribe in this document, and evaluations of their accuracy. The vast majority of his claims are either inaccurate, or debatable.

Statement:

“Coca plantations were reduced from 170,000 ha to 42,000 ha, now there are 188,000 ha according to the lowest estimate.”

Inaccurate. Two sources estimate Colombian coca-growing: the U.S. government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (working with the Colombian government). Their highest, lowest, and most current estimates of Colombian coca-cultivation are as follows.

Source Highest before current Lowest Most current
U.S. government 170,000 (2001) 78,000 (2012) 188,000 (2016)
UNODC 163,300 (2000) 48,000 (2012-13) 96,000 (2015)

No estimate shows a drop from 170,000 to 42,000 hectares. Both show the lowest estimate in 2012, two years after Uribe left office. 188,000 hectares is not the “lowest” current estimate, it is the higher of the two. Using the 188,000 hectare (U.S.) figure yields an increase from a baseline of 78,000, not 42,000.

Nobody denies that Colombia’s post-2012 coca boom is a problem, but Uribe’s statement exaggerates its severity still further.

Statement:

“THE CAUSE OF THIS DANGEROUS TREND: The government has stopped spraying illicit crops to please the terrorist FARC.”

Inaccurate. First, the October 2015 suspension of “spraying illicit crops” with herbicides from aircraft is one of seven causes for the boom in coca cultivation, which WOLA explained in a March 13 report. (The other six are a decline in manual eradication, a failure to replace eradication with state presence and services, a drop in gold prices, a stronger dollar, a promise that people who planted coca would get aid under the FARC peace accords, and an increase in organized coca-grower resistance.) Giving all explanatory weight to the suspension of herbicide fumigation is misleading, as even the State Department recognized that the program’s effectiveness was “significantly reduced” by “counter-eradication tactics” like swift replanting and pruning sprayed plants.

Tags: Fact-Checking, Post-Conflict Implementation, U.S. Policy

April 18, 2017

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald photo at WLRN. Caption: “A member of the FARC in Colombia’s Tolima province watches over guerrilla rifles turned over as part of the country’s peace agreement.”

  • By now, the UN mission in Colombia has inventoried more than 7,000 weapons that over 6,900 FARC members have brought to 26 disarmament sites around the country. The FARC is handing these arms over to the UN in phases.
  • FARC members concentrated at the disarmament site outside Puerto Asís, Putumayo, have offered to help with rescue and rebuilding efforts after mudslides and flooding destroyed much of the departmental capital, Mocoa, which is about two hours’ drive away.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, visited Colombia in their role as international representatives of a government-FARC commission to monitor compliance with the peace accords’ commitments.
  • The investigative journalism website Verdad Abierta finds some truth to FARC allegations that elements of Colombia’s military have been trying to coax guerrillas away from the sites where they are to disarm collectively, so that they might enter the Defense Ministry’s program for individual deserters.
  • The new administration in the United States has said almost nothing about future U.S. support for peace implementation in Colombia. So every statement that does come out is important, like this one from April 3:

“Right now as the United States works through its budget process both for the current budget here that we’re in right now, Fiscal Year 2017, as well as the next budget year, we are evaluating how our assistance funds can be best utilized to support the highest U.S. priorities. Supporting the peace process in Colombia has traditionally been a high priority for the United States. We look forward to working with the Colombian Government in order to make sure that our assistance dollars are utilized as effectively as possible.”

  • On the evening of March 28, Colombia’s Congress approved the transitional-justice system envisioned in the peace accords. This system, the “Special Peace Jurisdiction,” will try and punish war crimes that were ordered, planned, or committed by the FARC, the Colombian government, or private citizens. WOLA, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others have criticized some of the changes to the original accord that Colombia’s Congress added, and that we hope Colombia’s Constitutional Court will correct.
  • Two prominent generals imprisoned for their role in human rights crimes have signed up to have their cases considered by the new Special Peace Jurisdiction. This holds out the possibility of reducing their sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations. As many as 2,000 convicted or accused military personnel may choose the transitional justice route.
  • “The discourse rejecting indulgence for the eternal enemy—the FARC—helps avoid speaking of what is truly feared: that economic, military, and political elites’ ties to atrocities might be placed in evidence,” reads a tough analysis of transitional justice by human rights lawyer Michael Reed Hurtado at Razón Pública.
  • A coalition of Colombian human rights groups voiced strong concern that the country’s new transitional justice law does not give “high level entity status” to a new Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons in the attorney-general’s office, as envisioned in the peace accord.
  • As peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas continue to struggle, violence continues. An ELN ambush in the northeastern department of Arauca, where the guerrilla group is at its most activekilled two soldiers on March 27. A Colombian armed forces aerial bombardment killed 10 ELN guerrillas at an encampment in the Catatumbo region, also in northeastern Colombia, on April 1. Meanwhile the La Silla Vacía investigative journalism website denounced an intimidating message from one of the ELN’s most powerful leaders, and Jesuit peace activist Francisco de Roux, in his regular El Tiempo column, criticized arrests of civil-society leaders charged with ELN ties, and called for an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
  • A potentially fatal flaw in the FARC peace accords is their failure to address the “partial collapse” of Colombia’s state, argues the University of Chicago’s James Robinson in a speech at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes.

Tags: Updates

April 4, 2017

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

  • Colombia’s draft law creating a transitional justice system to try war crimes, two elements of which WOLA strongly critiqued last week, has not yet passed. The legislature failed to reach a quorum last Wednesday night. A new vote will be attempted the night of Tuesday the 28th.
  • FARC and government representatives met in Bogotá over the weekend to review the peace accords’ implementation so far. It was the two teams’ first formal meeting since the accords’ November 24 signing. A joint communiqué commits the government to finishing construction of disarmament zones by April (finally), and to speed up mechanisms to guarantee security for political activists. The FARC promised to turn over its final list of all its members.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, will be named on March 30 as international representatives to the FARC peace accords’ Committee of Oversight, Stimulus, and Verification of Implementation. This body, with the Spanish acronym CSIVI, will produce regular evaluations of both sides’ compliance with their accord commitments.
  • According to government estimates, about 5 or 6 percent of the FARC’s membership refused to demobilize and are considered “dissidents.” Another 2 percent are deserters from the demobilization process. This is considered low by the standards of post-conflict processes, but there are many months to go.
  • One of the main FARC dissidents, Carlos Carvajal alias “Mojoso” of the 14th Front in Caquetá, turned himself in to authorities. He had led a group of dissidents of unknown size: estimates run from eight to sixty. “Mojoso” will be tried within the regular justice system. He may have yielded in the face of dogged pursuit by his former comrades in the FARC, even though the guerrillas have purportedly been observing a ceasefire.
  • Women in the FARC were the subject of feature stories at The Intercept, The Guardian, and Agénce France Presse, while the Miami Herald portrayed guerrilla painter Inty Maleywa.
  • The acting mayor of Tumaco, the Pacific coast port that is the seat of Colombia’s number-one coca-growing county, alleged that undemobilized FARC members were illegally campaigning in favor of a candidate for an upcoming special mayoral election.

Tags: Updates

March 28, 2017

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Disarmament

“There is now an inventory of 14,000 FARC weapons that will soon pass into the UN Mission’s hands,” President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted shortly after Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced that figure. Villegas added that around 11,000 of the arms that the FARC will “leave aside” are rifles. The UN verification and monitoring mission has so far received 507 arms, most of them from FARC members who have been authorized to act as the organization’s representatives outside the disarmament zones. The FARC has also turned over to the UN the coordinates of its arms caches and stockpiles. A new overview (in Spanish) of how the “laying aside” of weapons is to occur, produced by the Bogotá-based Fundación Ideas para la Paz, points out that the process is likely to take more than the originally planned 180 days.

Construction continues to go painfully slowly at the 26 zones where 7,200 FARC members are gathered to turn in weapons over six months. The UN mission reported [PDF] March 14 that no zone has reached 90 percent completion, and 13 are still at less than 10 percent. “Despite months of planning,” the Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss reported, “many of the camps don’t have adequate potable water, bathrooms, cafeterias, recreational facilities and other amenities that the guerrillas say they were promised,” which is hurting morale at the sites. Poor conditions at the zones appear to be causing a trickle of guerrilla desertions, which is in danger of becoming a flood.

“There is still time to correct the government’s inability to implement the accords,” Sen. Claudia López said. “There seems to be no problem introducing legislation, but to carry something out 200 kilometeres away from Bogotá seems to be too much to ask.”

Uncertainty meanwhile surrounds how the demobilization process will incorporate somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 FARC militias—part-time support personnel—whom the revised peace accord expects to report to the 26 concentration sites for up to a week of registration. About 700 have already done so. The actual number of militia members is unknown, and as most live in cities, it is unlikely that many will bother to emerge from clandestinity and journey to the FARC’s remote rural sites.

Transitional Justice

Defense Minster Villegas announced that he has signed a list of 817 imprisoned members of the security forces who are to request parole under the transitional justice system foreseen in the FARC-government peace accord. Contagio Radio obtained a list of 150 of them that includes some generals and colonels notorious for high-profile cases of human rights abuse.

Much press coverage during the week surrounded the 72 changes that Colombia’s Senate made to a bill creating a transitional justice system to judge guerrillas, military personnel, and civilians who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Reaching agreement on this topic was the most difficult part of the four-year negotiation between the government and the FARC.

The Senate did a favor to civilians accused of contributing to war crimes by making their participation in transitional justice “voluntary” and raising the threshold of evidence needed to bring cases. The Senate did a favor to retired military officers by redefining commanders’ responsibility for their units’ behavior in a way that might allow many to avoid punishment. And it upended the accord on political participation by banning ex-FARC members from politics until they get a sort of certificate stating that they have complied with their peace accord commitments.

Because of these changes, two prominent Green Party senators who are strong negotiation supporters—Claudia López and Antonio Navarro Wolff—voted against the Senate measure. The bill must now go to reconciliation with the House version, then it becomes law, then the Constitutional Court must review it. Meanwhile, Congress must pass a separate law to establish the new justice system’s operational procedures. The International Criminal Court may also choose to review the law, and if the Senate language on “command responsibility” is still in it, the ICC may decide that Colombia is not complying with its international human rights commitments.

(Sources: Semana magazine, El Espectador editorial, Verdad Abierta)

Human Rights

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) annual report on Colombia (EnglishSpanish – summarized in an earlier blog post) expressed concerns about legislative efforts to water down transitional justice, attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders, and the slow pace of the government’s peace accord implementation so far.

For the first time, a FARC leader was a panelist at the report’s launch press conference at a Bogotá five-star hotel. Julián Gallo, until recently known as “Carlos Antonio Lozada,” sat two spots from Police General Carlos Mena at the panelists’ table.

Interviewed by the daily El Espectador, Todd Howland, the longtime director of the OHCHR office in Colombia, did not hide his anger at the changes Colombia’s Senate wrought to the transitional justice bill.

At the dialogue table we worked hard to comply with international standards. In the end something was obtained that isn’t perfect, but isn’t bad. That took years of work. It was too big an effort for the Congress not to take it seriously afterward. That effort was based on an interest in victims’ rights, but now the congresspeople acted as though nothing had happened in Cuba.

Tags: Updates

March 21, 2017

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Photo of an unbuilt Disarmament Zone

Much of the FARC disarmament zone in Catatumbo remains unbuilt. Colombian Senator Iván Cepeda posted this photo to his Twitter account while visiting the Caño Indio site on Saturday.

Transitional justice

With the right-wing opposition abstaining, the pro-government coalition in Colombia’s Senate passed, by a 61–2 vote, a law to create the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz or JEP), the new transitional-justice system. Tribunals will judge ex-guerrillas and military personnel who carried out war crimes, as well as civilians who may have ordered, planned, or funded them. The next step is reconciling differences in the law’s House and Senate versions.

The Senate’s major changes to what was agreed in the peace accord are:

  • Defining “command responsibility” for war crimes to a standard below that of the Rome Statute ([PDF], the international law creating the International Criminal Court), to which Colombia is a signatory. Article 28 of that statute says that commanders are legally responsible for war crimes that they, “owing to the circumstances at the time, should have known” about. The Senate version of the law, reflecting strong pressure from retired military officers, waters that down to commanders having “effective control of the conduct” of those who committed the crime. Former officers are likely to try to evade accountability by claiming that killers under their command were not under their control. If it stands, this is not going to go down well with the International Criminal Court or with human rights groups, including WOLA.
  • Weakens the JEP’s ability to punish civilians who aided war crimes: they now cannot be tried if the evidence against them comes only from the JEP’s own proceedings.
  • Puts off for a later law to determine how the JEP will go about deciding, case-by-case, what past drug-trafficking activity is a “political crime” that can be amnestied.

(Sources: La Silla Vacía (Colombia), March 14; El Tiempo (Colombia), March 14; El Espectador (Colombia), March 14.)

Colombia’s ability to implement the accords

Analysts are voicing worry, or outright pessimism, about the Colombia’s government’s ability—or will—to honor its peace accord commitments. Alejandro Reyes, a prominent Colombian scholar who advised Santos’s first agriculture minister, told the Los Angeles Times that he sees big pushback coming from a nexus of landowners and organized crime:

Researcher Reyes said carrying out those ambitious plans is a tall order for the government because as much as one third of the 15 million acres in question is now controlled by violent drug traffickers and other criminal groups.

“Many narcos and mafiosos have tried to seem legitimate by becoming huge landowners, mainly for cattle ranches,” said Reyes. “You can be sure they will react against any efforts to implement agrarian reform.”

In a piece published at Spain’s daily El País, Enrique Santiago, a Spanish lawyer who served as legal advisor to the FARC during the peace talks, ripped into the Colombian government’s poor implementation of the accords so far.

“The ZVTN [disarmament zones] were to have been built before December 1… but today it is an exception to see one with even half of its infrastructure built,” Santiago observes. “On December 30 the amnesty law was approved… however, judges haven’t applied it.… As of today they have approved less than 70 amnesties of guerrillas, five authorizations of transfer to ZVTNs, and no paroles.” The guerrillas’ own security is also at stake, Santiago adds: “One of the accord’s most important measures is the creation of a specialized Investigative Unit for the dismantling of paramilitary organizations… but the current Prosecutor-General, ignoring the peace accord, seeks to impede this special unit’s launch.”

El Tiempo reporter Marisol Gómez visited a FARC demilitarization zone in the northwestern department of Chocó that had only 31 guerrillas present because facilities still weren’t ready yet.

Violence in Chocó

Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, has also been the site of numerous recent paramilitary incursions into zones of former FARC influence. These, along with fighting between the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group and the ELN guerrillas, have already displaced hundreds in the Upper Baudó River region, in the almost completely stateless southern half of Chocó.

The military

More than two dozen retired generals and admirals wrote a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos voicing concern that the FARC’s disarmament sites will become permanent “independent republics,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Meanwhile Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said that 420 military personnel accused of war crimes (or perhaps accused or already sentenced for war crimes, it’s not clear) have already agreed to have their cases tried by the new Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

Tags: Updates

March 15, 2017

Confronting Colombia’s Coca Boom Requires Patience and a Commitment to the Peace Accords

by Adam Isacson

In the vast areas of Colombia’s countryside where evidence of government is scarce, you can see the bright green bushes once again growing up to the roadside. They’re usually knee-high, indicating that they were planted recently. They’re in the same parts of the country as before: farmers don’t seem to be cutting down new forest and growing in new areas. Usually, it is one of several cash crops on a farmer’s land: at least some of the legal crops are more profitable, he or she will tell you, but with prices fixed by armed groups or organized crime, coca offers the steadiest income.Colombia is in the midst of a coca boom, perhaps its largest ever. The numbers show an explosion in plantings of the bush that produces leaves indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia (and a few in Colombia) have used for centuries, and drug traffickers today use to make cocaine. Using methods that it does not discuss, the U.S. government estimated 159,000 hectares of coca planted in Colombia in 2015 (a hectare is about two and a half acres). When it releases its 2016 estimate—reportedly on March 14—the U.S. number could reach or exceed 180,000 hectares for the first time ever. (The United Nations releases its own estimates, in cooperation with Colombia’s National Police, usually in June. Using a methodology that its reports endeavor to explain, the UN found 96,000 hectares in 2015. Though the U.S. and UN estimates diverge widely, they tend to follow similar trendlines—and both are increasing.)

Cocaine production is increasing along with the coca bushes. In 2016, Colombian security forces, mostly the police and navy, seized 379 tons of the drug, shattering earlier records and more than doubling the annual haul between 2010 and 2014. And Colombia has already interdicted 51 more tons in the first two months of 2017.

Though evidence-based research has cast doubt on illicit drug supplies’ ability to drive demand, U.S. authorities say that the coca boom is affecting cocaine consumption in the United States, which—though still at decades-low levels—is increasing for the first time in several years. In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [PDF] found a second consecutive annual increase in past-month U.S. cocaine users. The State Department’s March 2 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) stated [PDF] that “the number of overdose deaths within the United States involving cocaine in 2015 was the highest since 2007.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 56.7 percent more cocaine in 2015 than in 2014, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration [PDF].

The U.S. government, the UN, and analysts cite several reasons for the increase in Colombian coca production. These include:

Tags: Drug Policy, Post-Conflict Implementation

March 13, 2017

The Activists Key to Consolidating Colombia’s Peace Are Facing Increased Attacks

by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Sonia Londoño

With the end of 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, civil society activists are playing a key role in constructing a lasting peace and democracy in Colombia. Sadly, the human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other community leaders conducting this vital effort are under threat. Since the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the start of its implementation, attacks against civil society activists have increased at an alarming rate. While the FARC accord has significantly reduced overall violence in the country, the demobilization of these fighters has created vacuums throughout the country, which are in turn being occupied by paramilitary successor organizations that are making their presence known through selective killings and death threats.

If implemented accordingly, the peace accord is has potential to further a number of promising social reforms. Among other things it is designed to lead to rural land reform, guarantee political participation for historically-excluded political sectors, facilitate the reincorporation of FARC guerrillas into civilian life, deepen consultation with marginalized ethnic groups, provide alternatives to rural farmers who grow coca, and fulfill the rights of truth, justice and reparations for millions of victims. But these goals necessarily clash with certain interests, and the possibility of achieving them is leading to illegal armed groups’ attacks against activists. Worst affected are members of newer political movements like the Marcha Patriotica, ethnic minority activists and community organizers in rural areas. The Colombian government must prevent further harm from taking place to these activists. Perpetrators of these acts should be prosecuted and brought to justice immediately. If these attacks continue, the peace accord with the FARC and nascent peace talks with the National Liberation Army will be seriously undermined. Ultimately, the success or failure of a lasting peace in the country will depend on the government’s ability to ensure justice for these crimes.

The Statistics Alone are Sobering, But the Story is Deeper

Unfortunately, the news on the ground has been bleak: a number of Colombian organizations report that since September 2016, the security situation faced by civil society activists has been rapidly decreasing. While the numbers differ depending on multiple definitions of human rights defenders, activists and community leaders, what is certain is that all reports point to the problem getting worse. Somos Defensores reports that from January to December of 2016, 80 social leaders were killed. The majority of these murders took place in Cauca Department. INDEPAZ, on the other hand, reports that during that same period, 117 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed. They also add that in Valle del Cauca (5), Cauca (43), and Nariño (9) departments, a combined total of 57 activists were killed (two thirds of the total). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office, meanwhile stated that since the November 24, 2016 signing of the accord, 13 of the 53 killings of civil society figures recorded by that office in all of 2016 took place.

The trend has not gone entirely unnoticed. On November 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a statement of concern regarding the killings of human rights defenders in Colombia in 2016. The Commission found that while the numbers of death threats and intimidation faced by human rights defenders are down from 2015, the number of actual killings is up. It also urges Colombia to include in its investigations the premise that these individuals were murdered due to their work defending human rights. On February 7 the IACHR condemned the killing of another 7 people in 2017. It is particularly concerning that five of the seventeen killed were ethnic minorities, including two women.

The impact of murders, attempted murders, threats and aggression against activists has a disproportionate impact on indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. This disproportionate impact is true numerically speaking–one source states that 30 percent of those civil society activists killed are ethnic minorities—as well as sociologically. Such killings cause disastrous effects on ethnic minorities’ collective, organizational processes and their ability to work together to advocate for their land, ethnic and cultural rights. .

In addition to the threats faced by community leaders, we also see illegal armed groups targeting ethnic leaders’ extended family members. Given this, it is necessary that a differentiated approach is taking when creating prevention and protective measures for these leaders and their communities. Constitutional Court Orders 004, 005 and 092 on Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and Women IDPs contain useful information on how to prevent the displacement of key communities. In many circumstances collective protective measures are required rather than individual ones. With U.S. Embassy support the Association for Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) worked to help develop collective measures for Afro-Colombian leaders and displaced communities at risk in urban and rural environments. However, Colombian authorities never followed through with implementing what was required. Access to justice for these communities is often more challenging, so it is the clear responsibility of the government to break down the barriers that exist for ethnic groups’ entry into the judicial system.

When it comes to the exact number of killings and attacks against Afro-descendant and indigenous leaders and communities, there are, generally speaking, no comprehensive statistics available. The reasons for this are many: institutional racism, underreporting by ethnic minorities due to fear of reprisals, corruption of local officials and the complex geographical dynamics found in the rural and urban areas they live in. Given this, it is likely that the problem is worse–and less addressed–than what is actually reported. When looking at the Somos Defensores figure of 80 leaders killed in 2016, it is noteworthy that 22 of those killed or, 27 percent of the total, were ethnic minorities (15 indigenous and 7 Afro-Colombians).

Recent Cases of Concern to U.S. Policymakers

WOLA issues periodic action alerts about threats and attacks against civil society. While all cases are of concern, there some are of particular interest to U.S. policymakers. In January, three members of the Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) were killed: Afro-Colombian Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera and her husband Joe Javier Rodallega from Valle del Cauca Department, and Wiwa indigenous leader Yoryanis Isabel Bernal Varela of Cesar Department. Ms. Bernal Varela was an outspoken leader for the rights of indigenous Wiwa, Kogui and Arhuaco women. She was disappeared and fifteen days later found dead with a bullet in her head. Ms. Mosquera was a tireless advocate for the rights of youth in the Community Council of Bajo Calima. She and her partner were killed in Buenaventura. Meanwhile, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice in Peace that legally represents CONPAZ suffered security incidents. Also in January, Marino Cordoba of the AFRODES and the Ethnic Commission suffered the murder of two of his relatives at the hands of Gaitanista paramilitaries in Chocó. This came just a few months after his son was killed by these same men in October 2016. AFRODES leaders continue to face security challenges throughout the country.

The Indigenous Association of Northern Cauca (ACIN), the Wayuu territorial authorities, and the Afro-Colombian Community Councils of Northern Cauca (ACONC) continued to face assassination attempts, attacks and death threats. The ACIN and ACONC are engaged in defending their ancestral lands from illegal mining, environmental damage and the encroachment of illegal armed groups. After the many publicized deaths of indigenous children due to malnutrition, dehydration and the humanitarian crisis in their region, Wayuu authorities advocated for cleaning up corruption and mismanagement of funds by Colombia’s Child Welfare Agency (ICBF). They have also denounced the environmental damage caused by the Cerrejon coal mine. The latter has resulted in stigmatization of Wayuu communities in the press and death threats. Particularly worrisome is the deteriorating security situation faced by members of the San Jose de Apartadó Peace Community in Antioquia, and Operation Genesis victims in Cacarica, Chocó, who have denounced paramilitary activity in their regions.

Relevant Mechanisms in the Accords and Steps Forward

The peace accord with the FARC signed on November 24 includes mechanisms that guarantee the physical protection for human rights defenders and guarantees for them to do their work. In the political participation (point 2 of the accords) it stipulates that adequate normative and institutional prevention, protection, evaluation and monitoring of will take place to guarantee the security for leaders and organizations of social movements and human rights organizations. The accord states that “security guarantees are a necessary condition for consolidating the construction of peace and coexistence.” It also highlights the importance of civil society activists in the implementation of the plans and programs set forth by the accord.

The third point of the accords, the end of the conflict section, includes an agreement “to guarantee security by fighting criminal and other organizations responsible for homicides and massacres that target defenders, social and political movements, or who threaten persons who participate in the implementation of the accords and construction of peace.” This includes actions against “organizations referred to as successor paramilitary organizations and their support networks.” This point then proceeds to include the agreement that several mechanisms will be developed to address this problem. These include a National Commission to Guarantee the Dismantlement of Criminal Organizations, which would be responsible for attacks against defenders, social and political movements that include paramilitary successor groups. It calls for the creation of a Special Investigation Unit to dismantle these criminal organizations and their networks, the integration of an Elite Corps within the National Police and an integral security system for policy development. Lastly, it sets forth basic guarantees for prosecutors, judges and other public servants involved in this fight.

The press coverage reveals that in his conversation with President Juan Manuel Santos, President Donald Trump indicated that he would personally see to it that Colombia receives the assistance package needed to consolidate peace, which will first require approval from the U.S. Congress. Such an indication of support for Colombia’s peace is a positive first step. We would also encourage policymakers to prioritize operationalizing the commitments found in the accord pertaining to protecting human rights defenders, community leaders and political parties, and dismantling paramilitary successor groups.

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Post-Conflict Implementation

February 15, 2017

Colombia’s ELN Peace Talks Explained

by Geoff Ramsey and Sebastian Bernal

After a months-long delay, today the Colombian government is finally starting formal talks with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The negotiations are sure to raise questions about Colombia’s post-conflict future, the implementation of the peace accords with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and ongoing human rights issues. With today’s launch of the peace negotiations’ public phase in Quito, Ecuador at 5:00 p.m. local time, here is an overview of the process.

Talks with the ELN were first announced in 2016. Why the delay?

While a joint statement announcing the beginning of talks was released in March 2016, the beginning of the Quito negotiations was delayed over the government’s insistence that the rebels release all hostages and kidnapping victims. (The government held the FARC to the same standard in 2012; the larger group renounced kidnapping months before the announcement of formal talks.) This included Odín Sánchez, a former lawmaker and member of a political family dynasty that has been linked to paramilitary and corruption scandals in the department of Chocó. Until his release from captivity last week, Sánchez had been held since agreeing to swap places as an ELN hostage with his brother, former Chocó Governor Patrocinio Sánchez Montes de Oca. Odín Sánchez’s February 2 release, on top of the February 6 release of a soldier taken captive by the group in January, removes a final barrier to the formal start of talks.

Why are the ELN talks important?

While most attention on Colombia’s armed conflict has focused on the roughly 7,000-strong FARC, the ELN—with up to 2,000 members—retains an active presence in the country, mostly in northeastern Colombia though their influence also extends to Chocó and other parts of the Pacific coast. With the FARC beginning to demobilize, there is concern that the ELN, along with criminal organizations and neoparamilitary groups, could move to fill territorial and economic power vacuums that the FARC leave behind. Reaching a peace accord with the ELN would help ensure that the group does not expand its area of influence or recruit disenchanted FARC deserters. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance in ELN-controlled areas that have long suffered from a lack of state presence and strong democratic institutions.

For the United States, a peace deal would ultimately mean the effective dissolution of another group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as well as a potential boost to anti-drug efforts at a time when authorities are slowly taking steps toward a new strategy to address coca production in rural Colombia.

What will the negotiations look like?

It has taken more than two years of intricate exploratory talks—a period marked by setbacks like the kidnapping of Odin Sanchez as well as that of Spanish journalist Salud Hernández—to finally reach a point where both the government and the ELN can pursue dialogues with a formal agenda.

Moving forward, the two negotiating teams will be headed by former Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo and the ELN’s Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” who is viewed as a moderate among the ELN’s five-member Central Command. On paper, the talks’ agenda and methodology remain quite vague. However, from the joint statement on the negotiations (PDF) it appears the process will seek to include the perspectives of civil society and community actors. According to the negotiating parties the agenda will cover the following points:

  • Participation of society in constructing peace
  • Democracy for peace
  • Transformations for peace
  • Victims
  • The end of the armed conflict
  • Implementation

How will talks with the ELN differ from the accords signed with the FARC?

From a practical standpoint, negotiating with the ELN will be a different experience than with the FARC. Unlike the larger guerrilla group, the ELN’s command structure is not as centralized. While it is headed by a five-person Central Command, and a 31-member National Directorate below that, ELN columns operate with a high degree of regional autonomy. This means that decision-making processes and internal deliberations could take longer, and the risk of dissenting factions—or subordinate units that simply ignore orders—is higher.

Although the last two points of the agenda echo items discussed in the FARC talks, it remains to be seen how already agreed-upon elements of justice, reparation, non-repetition, and truth will be harmonized with the accord reached with the FARC in Havana. The government would be wise to avoid revisiting these areas after undergoing a long and unfinished process of designing a new set of transitional justice institutions. Reopening themes covered with the FARC would delay a process that is already destined to face the pressures of an upcoming presidential election in 2018, after which President Juan Manuel Santos will leave office.

The challenge the parties will face during the negotiations’ initial phase is to decide who will participate in this process, and what will be the mechanism to receive thousands of proposals and ideas generated by Colombia’s diverse civil society. As Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank has pointed out, a key difference between the ELN and FARC talks will be the former’s insistence on expanding talks to include a broader social base. And the government, for its part, appears to recognize that: Juan Camilo Restrepo has assertedthat “dialogue with the remote communities of Colombia will be decisive in the negotiations with the ELN.” In this process, groups like the Ethnic Commission and other victim’s organizations who were heard in Havana may play a large role in organizing communities in rural Colombia for participation in the talks.

International facilitation of this process will be provided by Ecuador as a hosting country. Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela pledged to serve as guarantors and will reportedly also host subsequent negotiating rounds, while Norway will play the same guarantor role it played during negotiations with FARC.

What would a constructive U.S. role in the ELN process look like?

The U.S. role in this peace process will likely be drastically different than with the FARC talks, which hosted a full-time special U.S. envoy who played a constructive role in moving the accords along. By contrast the Trump administration has been relatively quiet on the peace accords in Colombia so far, although on February 6 a State Department spokesperson issued a statement confirming U.S. support for the search for peace in Colombia, as well as praising “advances in demobilization.”

This is a welcome remark following recent statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in written responses to questions submitted for his nomination hearing process expressed an intent “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement [with the FARC], and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a review of the Havana accords will in fact give the administration every reason to support them. We also believe that the talks with the ELN are worthy of support, though we caution that they will require much patience. In the meantime, we call on both sides in the talks to move quickly toward a bilateral, verified ceasefire, or at least a series of gradual de-escalation measures. While the guarantor countries have already pledged to provide key support, the United States can play a positive role by refraining from opposing or making destructively critical statements about the ELN process, and encouraging a discussion that is both inclusive of civil society, as the ELN wants, and carried out with discipline, clarity, and purpose, as the government and most stakeholders want.

Tags: ELN Peace Talks

February 7, 2017

5 Ways Supporting Peace in Colombia Benefits U.S. Interests

This week, the United States Senate is expected to hold a final confirmation vote for President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. While his nomination is expected to be confirmed, in his written testimony Tillerson made a remark regarding the longstanding U.S.-Colombia partnership that merits some clarification. When asked about Colombia’s historic peace accord, which ends 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, he suggested he would “review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a look at the details will prove that Colombia’s peace agreement deserves full U.S. support. For one thing, the agreement holds immense benefits for the Colombian people, particularly those communities that have been most affected by over five decades of violence. But support for a lasting peace also carries promise for the United States as well, and it is directly in line with U.S. interests.

Last year saw widespread bipartisan support for a $450 million aid proposal for Colombia, which was approved by both houses of Congress. However, the 2017 foreign aid bill has not yet passed. When it does, this $450 million should be sustained or increased. Below are five reasons why doing so is in the U.S. interest.

1. Consolidating Security Gains will Require Sustained Investment

The accords have had a drastic effect on violence in Colombia. The historic ceasefire between the armed the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been accompanied by a major drop in homicides: the country reported 12,262 in 2016, down 25 percent from when the peace talks began.

However, neither the Colombian government nor the United States can remain complacent. Now that the rebels are beginning to demobilize, a state presence—infrastructure, basic services, access to justice—must be established in the roughly one-fifth of Colombia’s territory with heavy FARC presence. By continuing its support, the U.S. government can ensure that the benefits of peace go beyond simply an end to fighting. Post-conflict transitions elsewhere have clearly shown the limits of military aid alone, underscoring the importance of focusing resources on strengthening democratic institutions and expanding state presence.

2. More Integrated, Long-Term Efforts are Needed to Address Drug Trafficking

According to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, coca crop cultivation in Colombia has increased by 40 percent. With coca cultivation on the rise, now is not the time to cut U.S. aid. Instead, the United States should be helping Colombia in its efforts to build state presence in in coca-growing areas, and present rural Colombians with sustainable economic alternatives.

Fortunately, the peace accord lays out the blueprints for an innovative program that aims to supplement mandatory eradication with coca reduction through community engagement, a plan that will be aided by the participation of former FARC rebels. The plan will require resources and could benefit from parallel U.S. funding, but it holds far more promise for reducing coca crops in the long term than the failed policies of the past.

3. Peace Can Prevent Proliferation of Illegal Armed Groups

While the FARC—the country’s largest guerrilla group—have signed the accords and are participating in demobilization efforts, other smaller armed groups remain active. The United States has a role to play in ensuring that talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) move forward, and that criminal networks and neo-paramilitary actors across the country do not fill the vacuum left by the FARC. There are already reports that criminal gangs are moving to take control of traditional FARC areas and dissuade rebel elements from demobilizing. In order to ensure that these efforts are not successful, the United States will need to provide generous support for increasing state presence and programs to reintegrate ex-combatants.

4. Supporting Peace in Colombia is a Bipartisan Policy

The Plan Colombia aid package, despite its shortcomings, has been hailed in Washington as a rare successful foreign policy initiative with broad bipartisan support. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike backed the initiative across five U.S. presidential terms. In today’s polarized political climate, supporting U.S. funding for Colombia’s post-conflict future represents an opportunity to show the public that lawmakers of both parties remain committed to working together to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

5. U.S. Support for Vulnerable Populations is Key to Deepening Colombian Democracy

U.S. policy towards Colombia has long been rooted in support for the country’s democracy. Over the last two decades, U.S. aid has been increasingly focused on the needs of vulnerable populations in Colombia, namely indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Because these same groups are among the hardest hit by Colombia’s armed conflict, supporting civil society efforts in their communities is essential in order to secure a lasting peace and help Colombia make its democracy more inclusive.

U.S. assistance will continue to be fundamental in Colombia’s post-conflict transition. Today, civil society leaders in rural areas are under serious threat. Despite the nationwide reduction in violence since the accords, community activists and rural organizers are being targeted by criminal organizations in a wave of threats and killings around the country. Continuing to fund civil society organizations and community initiatives in these areas would send a powerful message to those who are opposed to making political participation safe for all in Colombia.

Tags: Post-Conflict Implementation, U.S. Policy

February 1, 2017

Some of the Many Reasons Why the United States Should Keep Supporting Colombia’s Peace Accord

The Trump administration’s likely secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has declared an intention “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.” WOLA is confident that once he reviews those details, Mr. Tillerson will conclude that the 2016 agreement, which ends 52 years of fighting between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group, deserves strong support.

There are many practical reasons for such a conclusion. Here are a few.

1. The 2016 government-FARC accord, and accompanying UN-monitored ceasefire, have brought Colombia’s violence to decades-low levels. The gains are not irreversible: they depend on strong accord implementation. In 2016, only 216 members of the Colombian security forces, guerrilla groups, or paramilitary groups died in situations that could be defined as combat—a 46 percent drop from 2015, and a 93 percent drop from a decade earlier. Even before an August 29 bilateral ceasefire shut down FARC-government violence almost completely, CERAC, the Colombian think-tank that most methodically tracks violence statistics, reported that Colombia’s conflict was in its least intense since it began 52 years ago. Overall, Colombia reported 12,262 homicides in 2016, a 25 percent drop from 2012, the year the FARC peace talks started.

Before 2012, intensified security operations had brought important drops in combat and violence. But battlefield progress slowed notably after about mid-2008. This made clear that a military victory over the FARC would take many more bloody years, while a peace accord might bring the conflict to a much more rapid end—as it did last year. After a several-year plateau, violence measures did not drop further until the FARC negotiations reached an advanced phase.

2. Right now, the FARC guerrillas’ membership is gathering to demobilize and disarm. The United States must help Colombia to minimize dissidences and rearmament. As many as 14,000 FARC members and militias have arrived, or are on their way, to the village-sized sites where they will spend six months demobilizing, turning in their weapons to a UN mission, and entering either civilian life or trial for war crimes. Arrivals at the 26 zones should be complete by the end of January. While this process is behind schedule, the delays owe to logistical difficulties, not bad faith.


A UN rendering of one of the village-sized zones where FARC guerrillas are reporting for demobilization and disarmament.

These security gains are remarkable, but they are fragile. FARC dissidences are emerging in several parts of the country—a normal phenomenon at this phase in post-conflict processes, but a worrying development. Organized crime groups and the smaller National Liberation Army guerrillas are poised to fill territorial power vacuums that the FARC leave behind, if Colombia’s state proves unable to fill them first. To keep these challenges under control, Colombia will need generous, determined, and active U.S. support for increasing state presence and reintegrating ex-combatants—not criticism or opposition.

3. This is a historic opportunity to de-mine the world’s second-most mine-affected country. Anti-personnel mines have killed or injured more than 11,000 Colombians since 1990. The overwhelming majority have been planted by guerrillas, and the threat of violence has impeded their removal. With the peace accord in place, Colombia has big plans to accelerate de-mining: with a 10,000-person force and international (including U.S.) support, it has set a goal of being mine-free by 2021. But for this to happen, mine-clearers need to do their work without fear of attack, and they need ex-guerrillas to tell them where the mines are. Both require the conflict to be definitively over, and the peace accord can guarantee that.


Part of a Colombian government map showing sites identified as needing demining in San Miguel, Putumayo. This detail is approximately 6 by 9 miles in size.

4. It opens the way for reparations of millions of conflict victims, offering hope of breaking a generations-old cycle of violence. The Colombian government’s National Unit for Victims, which began work in late 2011, has approved the provision of reparations to over 297,000 people who suffered a lost relative, forced displacement, torture, sexual violence, or another tragedy as a result of the conflict. As impressive as this sounds, over 6.3 million Colombians are in fact registered with the Unit, and determined to be “subject to assistance and reparations.” (The total number of registered victims exceeds 8.3 million, or one-sixth of the entire population.)

The signing of a peace accord offers hope that the reparations process might accelerate for this enormous population. It also holds out hope that FARC members—who carried out a minority of homicides and displacements but a majority of kidnappings, landmine use, and child recruitment—will, in compliance with their accord commitments, participate in reparations and tell victims the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones. The victims’ assistance process must go forward, and the U.S. government should support it.

Tags: Post-Conflict Implementation, U.S. Policy

February 1, 2017

Social Leaders Face a Wave of Attacks in Colombia. The Peace Accord’s Credibility Hinges on Immediate Action to Stop It.

With the FARC guerrillas likely to begin disarming very soon, this should be a time of hope, even joy, in rural Colombia. Instead, though, it is a time of fear. The last several weeks have seen the worst wave in years of murders of social leaders, indigenous leaders, land-rights activists, and human rights defenders. The renewed violence casts doubt on whether space for non-violent political activity will truly exist in Colombia’s “post-conflict” period.

The Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Bogotá-based think-tank supported by the business sector, counts 71 homicides and 17 homicide attempts against social leaders so far in 2016. (The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, using the definition of “human rights defenders,” counts 52 homicides and 35 attempts [PDF].) Ideas for Peace found the most attacks happening in the Pacific coast departments (provinces) of Valle del Cauca (whose capital is Cali) and Cauca; the south-central department of Caquetá; the northwestern department of Antioquia (whose capital is Medellín); and the northeastern department of Norte de Santander. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of human rights groups, counts 30 murders of social leaders since August 29, the day the Colombian government and FARC declared a bilateral ceasefire. The UN High Commissioner’s office counts 13 since the September 26 signing of the first peace accord with the FARC.

The wave of terror elicited statements of concern since the second half of November from the UN and its High Commissioner, the OAS, and the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, which compared it to the late 1980s-early 1990s massacre of more than 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-linked leftist political party.

WOLA has also been sounding alarms about this. See our November 21 memo to U.S. authorities, a December 2 joint statement, and a December 2 alert listing dozens of recent cases.

Among the social leaders most recently murdered, or who barely escaped murder, are the following individuals.

Jhon Jairo Rodríguez Torres, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 1

A longtime local leader in the township of Palo, Rodríguez co-founded the Association of Campesino Workers of Caloto in 2003, and was active in several local organizations, including the Marcha Patriótica, a recently created, largely rural political movement that is widely viewed as a building block for the FARC’s transition to a non-violent political party. His body was found by a roadside, next to his motorcycle, with three bullet wounds.

José Antonio Velasco Taquinás, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 11

Velasco was a member of several campesino organizations in Caloto, and of the Marcha Patriótica. The Center for Historical Memory describes Velasco as “recognized by the community as a great friend and community member who stood out for having good relations with the whole community. On November 11 he was found in the area known as La Trampa, in Caloto, with a bullet wound in the head.”

Argemiro Lara, from Ovejas, Sucre, attempted murder on November 17

Lara is part of a community of campesino leaders organized to re-claim the La Europa hacienda, from which they were displaced by paramilitaries during the early 2000s. This case is very well known, and Lara has received so many threats that he is protected by the Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit. On November 17 in Sincelejo, Sucre, Lara’s bodyguard shot and killed a hitman who had drawn a gun.

Erley Monroy Fierro, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18

Monroy was a leader of the Losada-Guayabero Environmental Campesino Association (ASCAL-G), very active in local human rights and campesino networks including the Marcha Patriótica, and a vocal opponent of oil exploration and fracking. He was shot in the neighboring municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, about three miles from the base where Colombian Army’s Cazadores Battalion is headquartered. He was 54 and a lifelong resident of this region, a traditional FARC stronghold.

In May, Monroy and other local activists denounced
that “soldiers from the Battalion were patrolling together with three people in civilian clothing, taking photographs of leaders,” and that “graffiti with the name ‘AUC’ had appeared on the road” near San Vicente del Caguán, according to Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative journalism website. (The AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was a national network of right-wing paramilitary groups that formally disbanded in 2006.)

San Vicente del Caguán and La Macarena—two of five municipalities that hosted failed peace talks with the FARC between 1998 and 2002—are a flashpoint for violence against social leaders. San Vicente’s mayor, elected in October 2015, comes from the Democratic Center, the rightist political party of former president Álvaro Uribe. Mayor Humberto Sánchez told reporters he does not believe Monroy’s killing was politically motivated, speculating that he “was likely killed by disgruntled neighbors.” Sánchez had also accused Monroy’s campesino organization of being guerrilla collaborators, and said that the spate of AUC graffiti owed to “the guerrillas preparing the ground for assassinations of campesinos and cattlemen and using that to justify their actions.”

Didier Losada Barreto, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18

Losada was president of the Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, a sort of local elected advisory commission) of Platanillo township in La Macarena, and a member of DHOC, the Foundation for the Defense of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of East-Central Colombia, a local human rights network, as well as the Marcha Patriótica. He was at home with his family when two masked men burst into his home and shot him nine times.

Hugo Cuéllar, from La Macarena, Meta, attempted murder November 19

Cuéllar was president of the Community Action Board of La Victoria township in La Macarena, and a member of ASCAL-G, the same organization as Erley Monroy.

He was walking home from Monroy’s wake with his daughters, when two men on a motorcycle shot him. “They followed him all the way home on the motorcycle and then shot him,” Cuéllar’s sister told the Miami Herald. “And then they pointed at the girls, but the gun didn’t go off.”

Danilo Bolaños, from Leiva, Narino, attempted murder November 19

Bolaños, a member of the Association of Campesino Workers of Nariño (Astracan), was on his motorcycle, returning from a meeting of local pro-peace groups, when a hitman riding on the back of another motorcycle fired six shots at him from a handgun. All missed. Verdad Abierta reports that he had not received any threats beforehand, “and the only thing he know of was a pamphlet with the ‘self-defense groups’’ initials that had circulated in Leiva, without mentioning either him or Astracan.”

Rodrigo Cabrera Cabrera, from Policarpa, Nariño, murdered November 20

Like many of the victims listed here, Cabrera was a member of the Marcha Patriótica. “As a member of the Marcha Patriótica, he actively supported diverse peace initiatives,” reports the Center for Historical Memory, including the designation of a village in Policarpa as a zone for FARC disarmament.

Cabrera had not been threatened before the 20th, when two masked men intercepted his motorcycle and shot him 12 times.

Rather than push for an investigation, the mayor of Policarpa, Claudia Inés Cabrera (no relation), denied that the murder had any political motivation. The victim “isn’t recognized as a community leader,” she said. After a security meeting between the mayor and local law enforcement, a statement contended that Cabrera’s father said “he was apathetic about politics and had never belonged to a political group.” The victim’s father, Sergio Cabrera, told reporters that no, “he liked politics, but not too much. He was a man of peace.” Lizeth Moreno, a local Marcha Patriótica leader, noted that “in her communiqué, the mayor doesn’t even reject the homicide, she justifies it saying that Rodrigo presumably had a [criminal] past.”

Froidan Cortés Preciado, from Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, murdered November 23

Cortés, a boat mechanic and member of the Marcha Patriótica and at least two local human rights networks, had been organizing protests against forced coca eradication in the rural zone of Buenaventura. A red boat with three black-clad men who were unfamiliar to eyewitnesses brought Cortés from his workshop to his home, where they shot him to death.

Marcelina Canacué, from Palermo, Huila, murdered November 25

Canacué, a 60-year-old member of her township’s Community Action Board and of the Marcha Patriótica, was shot three times on a road near her home. Though active, she was not considered a prominent social leader. “She was part of the Marcha Patriótica, one of those people who goes to all of the events and meetings,” an acquaintance told the Center for Historical Memory.

At a meeting with Huila’s governor the next day, local leaders denounced an increase in acts of vandalism and the presence of paramilitaries “hidden and poised to pounce” (agazapados). Police never arrived at the crime scene to investigate the killing. Canacué’s body remained on the roadside from 8:30 AM until 1:00 PM, when the funeral home came to recover it.

Jorge Humberto Chiran, from Cumbal, Narino, attempted murder November 28

Unidentified people threw an explosive device at the home of Chirán, governor of the Gran Cumbal indigenous reserve. On November 3, Chirán, who works with the local Marcha Patriótica, had received a threatening pamphlet from a group calling itself the “Military Bloc of the Southwest Pacific of Nariño.”

Carlos Ramírez Uriana, from Fonseca, La Guajira, attempted murder December 3

Ramírez, a leader of the Mayabangloma reserve of the Wayúu indigenous community, was shot three times by an individual waiting for him outside his residence. He is recovering from his wounds. Southern Guajira indigenous authorities say they have “detected in several communities unknown subjects on high-powered motorcycles.”

Creating a Climate of Fear

The sharpness of the increase in murders during the post-first-accord period is striking. It looks almost as though a switch got thrown somewhere within Colombia’s darkest, most reactionary quarters. Still, experts warn against attributing all this killing to a coherent nationwide conspiracy against the peace talks.

Carlos Guevara, who runs the Human Rights Observatory at the Colombian group Somos Defensores, told Verdad Abierta that the first accord’s rejection in an October 2 plebiscite did worsen the situation significantly. Because there was no accord in place, the protection measures it foresaw for opposition social movements could not be implemented, even as the FARC began clearing out of zones that it controlled or influenced. With the FARC presence reduced, other groups have moved into these zones and begun to threaten existing organizations.

Guevara cautioned, though, against blaming everything on the right wing:

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Implementation, Political Participation

December 5, 2016

Peace is Ratified. When is “D-Day?”

Update as of 8:15PM EST: The Colombian government and FARC have issued a joint communiqué assuring that the accord “enters into force after ratification by the Congress. As a consequence, ‘D’ Day is today, according to the terms of the Accord.” This clears up much of the question, making it likely that Colombia will follow the first, and most desirable, of the three timetables discussed below. However, if Colombia’s Constitutional Court decides to torpedo “fast track” authority, uncertainty about D-Day may resume.

Over two days this week, both chambers of Colombia’s Congress debated, then voted to ratify (refrendar), the government’s revised peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group. Both votes were unanimously in favor, with abstentions from opponents, principally from ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center Party and some Conservative party members.

The vote was the substitute for a second national plebiscite on the accord. On October 2 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos convened a national plebiscite to ratify the accord’s first version. Voters surprisingly rejected it, by a 0.5 percentage-point margin. Colombian law does not require peace accords to be approved by a plebiscite; President Juan Manuel Santos chose to take this step because a popular vote would have conferred more legitimacy on the accord, which took four years to negotiate. After the plebiscite defeat, the government and FARC made adjustments to the accord, incorporating many of its opponents’ suggestions. These adjustments did not go far enough to satisfy Uribe and other critics, who remain opposed.

The Santos government is reluctant to submit the revised accord to a second plebiscite. First, because—in this year of unpredictable election results—its passage is not assured. And second, because organizing another plebiscite would take about two months, extending the legal limbo in which the FARC’s membership finds itself and straining a fragile ceasefire arrangement.

The Colombian government and FARC disagree about what the accord calls “D-Day”: the first day in which guerrillas must begin a six month process of gathering into twenty-seven zones and turning over their weapons to a UN mission. Five days after D-Day, the accord states, all FARC guerrillas are to begin reporting to the village-sized concentration zones.

The accord appears to indicate that D-Day was the day the final accord was signed (Thursday, November 24th), but neither side is holding to that. The government believes D-Day is now: the day after the accord’s ratification. The FARC insists that its members will not begin to demobilize and disarm without a guarantee that they won’t be subject to summary arrest for having rebelled. It wants a political-crimes amnesty law, absolving all members of the crime of sedition (rebelión), to be approved first, or at least formally presented and moving rapidly through Congress. Only then, in the guerrillas’ view, will D-Day arrive. The text of that law, which the Congress must approve, is embedded in the peace accord.

Congress must approve a series of other laws to implement the accord: establishing a transitional justice system, guaranteeing protections for opposition political movements, carrying out a new rural development policy, among others. But the amnesty law is the one that must come first, since the FARC won’t even start turning in its arms without it.

In the meantime, it is dangerous to keep waiting. At present, arrest warrants against FARC members have been suspended, and a bilateral ceasefire with UN monitoring is in place. But that ceasefire is fragile, as evidenced by a November 13 combat incident in Bolívar department, which left two guerrillas dead.

Meanwhile, it is unrealistic to expect the FARC’s entire membership to remain docile in its clandestine encampments, with no certainty about their future, for a long period. During an extended “limbo,” dissidences might emerge within the group. Even if that does not happen, every day of uncertainty could see a steady trickle of FARC members abandoning their encampments, perhaps to pursue lives of criminality, no longer available when the moment to demobilize finally arrives. And even if that doesn’t happen, each day of delay is another in which other criminal groups can establish a stronger foothold in territories of historic FARC influence, increasing the likelihood of further violence. The process is unlikely to withstand much more uncertainty.

When will “D-Day” truly happen? Here are three potential timetables, depending on an upcoming decision from Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which was already reviewing challenges to the plebiscite law (the “Legislative Act for Peace” [PDF]), which the Congress passed in July. This decision could come as early as Monday, though there is no fixed timetable.

  1. Congressional ratification with “fast-track” legislative authority: just a few days until D-Day. The July 2016 law establishing the plebiscite stated that if the accord is approved by “ratification by the people” (refrendación popular), the laws resulting from it may be approved with fewer rounds of congressional voting, and the possibility of passing laws in a matter of a few weeks. Colombians, borrowing from English, call this accelerated legislative process “fast track.”

    The government, and its majority coalition in Congress, are likely to pursue this path now, beginning debate on the political-crimes amnesty law via fast track. The amnesty could be formally presented in Congress next week, and either approved or nearing approval by the time the current legislative session ends on December 16, which would allow the FARC to begin demobilizing. This process, though, risks being nullified by the coming Constitutional Court decision.

  2. Another plebiscite with fast-track: about 2-3 months until D-Day. The Constitutional Court may decide that the fast track option is only valid after the accord’s approval by plebiscite, adopting a strict definition of “ratification by the people” to mean ratification directly, and not through the people’s elected representatives. If so, then this week’s Congressional ratification would not be enough to allow the amnesty law, and other accord implementation laws, to go via fast track.

    This, in fact, is the recommendation of the ponencia—the “first draft” decision, proposed by one of the justices (in this case, the chamber’s President)—submitted on Monday. The ponencia is not the final word, and Colombian media reports indicate that a majority of justices may be in favor of revising it to maintain fast-track authority. But if the justices agree with the ponencia, then Colombia’s government might need to go through with a second plebiscite in order to preserve fast track.

    The last plebiscite took a bit less than two months to organize. So if we assume a Court decision in early December, a plebiscite in February, a “yes” vote, and an amnesty law a few weeks after that, then the FARC might begin to demobilize in late February or early March. It won’t be easy, but the ceasefire, and the FARC’s command and control, might be able to withstand this delay.

    It’s impossible to predict whether a second plebiscite might pass. However, one of the opposition’s strongest arguments no longer makes sense today. Many “No” voters claimed that while they weren’t opposed to peace, they wanted a better accord. Now, a new accord has been negotiated, and the likelihood of going back and negotiating a third one is zero. A second plebiscite would be a starker choice between peace and renewed war.

  3. Congressional ratification without fast-track: six months to a year until D-Day. If the Court insists on a second plebiscite to enable fast track, Colombia’s government may decide not to risk a second rejection. This would leave the Congress forced to pass the amnesty law, and all other accord implementation laws, through its regular legislative procedures.

    These procedures are lengthy: eight debates over many months. These debates and votes could stretch on into June or July, and the Constitutional Court’s process for reviewing them could drag on for months after that. By the second half of next year, meanwhile, Colombia will be nearing the launch of campaigning for March 2018 legislative and May 2018 presidential elections, creating a climate in which even the smallest steps toward implementation will be politicized. It’s unlikely that the ceasefire, and the FARC’s ability to maintain a large force in clandestinity without losing much of its membership, can last this long.

Tags: Accords, Disarmament, Ratification

December 1, 2016