Over 1,000 Organizations and Activists Back the UN Human Rights Office in Colombia

On February 26, the Colombian Government publicly condemned the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) 2019 Report. The condemnation characterized the report as imprecise and untruthful—and President Iván Duque went as far as saying that one of the report’s recommendations was an “infringement of sovereignty.” Many civil society actors—over 1,000 organizations and activists—came together in solidarity with the UN Human Rights office to support its significant work. They quickly organized to publish a public declaration. Here is an English translation:

WE SUPPORT THE OFFICE OF THE HIGH COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED NATIONS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN COLOMBIA’S WORK AND ITS REPRESENTATIVE ALBERTO BRUNORI

Bogotá, March 2, 2020

Since the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) arrival in Colombia in 1997, the social and human rights movements have supported its work and its reports that annually summarize major events related to socio-political violence in the context of armed conflict, to humanitarian issues, and to the situation of human rights and international humanitarian law in general. Its recommendations have been a valuable and permanent tool for national and international advocacy, as well as a useful document for a better understanding of our reality.

This week, OHCHR’s representative in Colombia, Mr. Alberto Brunori, published the 2019 Report, which we support and consider appropriate, serious, rigorous, and in accordance with Colombia’s human rights reality. This report coincides with the reality that, on a daily basis, is seen through social media and complaints brought by social organizations throughout different territories in the country. The quantitative and qualitative description it contains gives an account of the country’s recent exponential deterioration in human rights.

We consider Iván Duque and the National Government’s reaction to both the report and to the work conducted by the OHCHR under Representative Brunori undue and unjustified. This disproportionate reaction demonstrates the Government’s lack of commitment to human rights at the international level with bodies that – like the Office – constructively contribute to the validity of the human rights situation in our country.

Social and human rights platforms and organizations support the judicious and documented work of Mr. Alberto Brunori and his national and regional work teams, and welcome his stay in the country until 2022. We urge the National Government to address the recommendations contained in the Report, as this will help address the growing violence in the country, and will take truly effective measures to ensure the human rights of the population. This will also ensure the success of the Peace Agreement, considered by the international community to be unprecedented and of global interest.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia will continue to count on our support to continue contributing significantly to the prevalence of coexistence and the pursuit of peace in Colombia through its observation mandate, technical assistance, and verification of the Peace Agreement’s implementation.

(Letter in Spanish with list of signers)

Tags: Human Rights, UN

“Pressure Mr. Duque’s Administration to Protect Social Leaders”

Here is the text of a letter to the editor, published in the March 3 Washington Post, that WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli wrote in response to an earlier op-ed from Colombian President Iván Duque.

Helping Venezuela’s Refugees

Colombian President Iván Duque’s op-ed, and his subsequent meeting with President Trump, focused on calling on the international community to support efforts to alleviate the Venezuelan migration crisis. But the international community must also take note of a pressing issue conveniently not mentioned by Mr. Duque: the systematic killing of social activists and human rights defenders in Colombia.

More than 40 social activist leaders have been killed in Colombia this year, adding to the hundreds killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accords. These individuals are often the only people working to implement peace in the regions of the country where the conflict was most violent.

Mr. Duque’s administration has failed to address threats against social leaders, identify the intellectual authors of these killings and implement key points of the Colombia peace accords. The impact of these failures has been felt acutely in Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, which have experienced rising insecurity and forced internal displacement.AD

The Venezuelan migration crisis deserves attention and resources. But in providing that assistance, the international community must recognize that it simultaneously needs to pressure Mr. Duque’s administration to protect social leaders. After all, if Mr. Duque’s government can’t commit to protecting the very people it needs to sustain Colombia’s long-sought-after peace, how will it fare in providing for the security of Venezuelans in vulnerable situations?

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Washington
The writer is an advocate for human rights in Colombia.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Venezuela Crisis

New Section: “Infographics”

We’ve just added a page with nine visualizations of data regarding peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. We’ll update these, and add more, as we make them.

At the bottom of each are shortened links to the documents from which we drew the information. The current collection of infographics covers the demobilized FARC population, U.S. aid, registered victims, U.S. cocaine prices, coca cultivation and eradication, cocaine seizures, homicides, kidnappings, and forced displacement.

We hope you find these useful. Like everything produced by WOLA on this site, you’re free to use them with proper attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tags: Admin

Notes on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Annual Report

On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.

The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”

This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.

Here are some highlights from the report:

On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders

In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.

The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.

Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.

Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.

OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.

On the government’s response to these attacks

OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.

The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.

The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.

The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.

OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.

On the military and human rights

OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.

OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.

On blurring the lines between military and police

OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.

On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.

In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.

On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories

Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.

The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.

In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).

[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.

On illicit crop eradication and substitution

Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.

OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Illicit Crop Eradication, Military and Human Rights, Stabilization, UN

New section: “Important Numbers”

When trying to understand the complexities of peace accord implementation, security threats, and human rights in Colombia, we rely heavily on numbers to explain what’s happening. Whether you’re explaining reintegration of ex-combatants, pointing to coca cultivation trends, or advocating for more prosecutions of those masterminding social leaders’ murders, you often need numerical data. And the most current numbers can be hard to find.

In response to that need, a new section of this site just went live: a compendium of current numbers and statistics about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Each number has a link to the source document where we found it; the links are color-coded to indicate whether the source is an official document.

Right now, the page includes 85 individual bits of data, covering the following topics:

  • Attacks on Social Leaders
  • Child Combatants
  • Coca and Eradication
  • Crop Substitution
  • Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
  • Displacement
  • Dissident Groups
  • ELN
  • FARC Political Future
  • Protection of Ex-Combatants
  • Public Security
  • Stabilization and Rural Governance
  • Transitional Justice

This page will never be “done.” It will need constant updating. It will also receive additions: there are some basic bits of public information still missing, and some topics will get added to this list. But at this point, the “numbers” page is good enough to share.

Here, for instance, is what the page’s “Attacks on Social Leaders” section looks like right now. Visit the page to view all topics.

  • As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified 303 murders of human rights defenders and social leaders between the signing of the FARC peace accord and the end of 2019.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counts a higher number: 555 social leaders killed between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019. That is 133 cases in 2016, 126 cases in 2017, 178 cases in 2018, and 118 cases in 2019.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted up to 120 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2019: as of January 14, 2020, 107 cases were verified and 13 more were undergoing verification.
  • Of these 107, 98% happened “in municipalities with illicit economies where criminal groups or armed groups operate.” 86% occurred “in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.”
  • In 2018, the UN High Commissioner’s office counted 115 killings.
  • More than half of 2019 social-leader killings occurred in 4 departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Caquetá, though UN High Commissioner counted murders in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
  • “The single most targeted group,” the UN High Commissioner reports, “was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.”
  • The UN High Commissioner’s office counted at least 10 killings during the first 13 days of January.
  • The NGO INDEPAZ counts 51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
  • INDEPAZ counted 23 murders of social leaders in the month of December 2019.
  • On December 17, 2019, the Colombian Presidency’s human rights advisor, Francisco Barbosa (who is now Colombia’s Prosecutor-General) said that 84 social leaders were murdered in 2019, which he said was a 25% reduction from 2018.
  • As of January 2020, 59 participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).

Tags: Admin, Attacks on social leaders

Latest Table of Aid to Colombia

Click to enlarge.

The Trump administration issued its 2021 State Department and foreign aid budget request to Congress on February 10. It calls for a big increase in counter-drug aid to Colombia’s police and military, along with cuts in economic aid and non-drug military aid.

Congress is certain to reverse this, as it has, on a bipartisan basis, with the Trump White House proposals to cut aid for 2018, 2019, and 2020. But in the meantime, here are the numbers from the past few years, starting before the Obama administration’s “Peace Colombia” aid package went into effect in 2017.

Sources for most of these numbers:

Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.

Tags: U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

Bringing colombiapeace.org into the 2020s

During the government-FARC peace negotiations, WOLA used this site heavily to explain what was happening to an English-speaking audience. During the past few years, though, we’ve mainly used this space to share occasional blog posts.

We’re changing that. This website is undergoing a thorough overhaul, as you can see if you click the options in the menu at the top of the page. 

The following resources, together with the blog you’re reading right now, are in place already:

✔️ A timeline, in reverse chronological order, of events relevant to peace, security, and human rights in Colombia, with many graphics and links to sources. Entries to this timeline are tagged: clicking on a topic will result in a “sub-timeline” just for that topic. We don’t intend for make this a source for today’s news: we will update it about once per month, adding all of the previous month’s timeline entries at once by the middle of each month.

✔️ Links to reports about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. That includes WOLA’s reports, reports from governments and International organizations, reports from non-governmental organizations, and in-depth journalism. These listings are also tagged: clicking on a topic will reveal only reports for that topic.

✔️ Public-domain photos relevant to peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Again, tagged by topic.

✔️ Embeddable videos, minimum three minutes in length, relevant to peace, security, and human rights in Colombia, tagged by topic.

✔️ In the sidebar on this site’s main page, links to current news relevant to peace, security, and human rights in Colombia.

The following resources are under construction, but coming in March:

???? A constantly updated page of frequently sought numbers, with links to sources. In one place, visitors will find numerical data like approximate memberships of armed groups, peace implementation expenditures, hectares of coca, amounts of U.S. assistance, and much more.

???? A constantly updated collection of about a dozen brief “explainer” documents about important issues and entities. There will be pages about coca cultivation, dissident groups, transitional justice, U.S. policy, PDETs, and more—and their content will change often when we obtain new information.

???? Overall, the site still requires a lot of styling to improve readability, navigability, and aesthetics. That banner image at the top, for instance, looks very “2013.”

We’ve moved this site’s old pages (other than blog entries) to an archive section. Our new resources will go back only to January 2020, and build from there.

We look forward to spending the rest of the decade making this space a crucially important resource about Colombia’s uneven, often frustrating, but indispensable—and even sometimes courageous—effort to put its long conflict behind it.

Tags: Admin

Notes on the Colombian Government’s Draft Decree to Restart Coca Fumigation

A National Police OV-10 plane sprays herbicides over a coca field in Colombia. [AP/WWP file photo]
Image from the State Department’s website.

On December 30 Colombia’s Ministry of Justice issued a draft decree that would allow it to re-start a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones. This program used aircraft to spray more than 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015.

In 2015, a UN World Health Organization literature review found that glyphosate, the herbicide used in the program, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In 2018 and 2019, two California juries gave large awards to three U.S. plaintiffs who claimed a link between heavy use of glyphosate and cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the coca spraying program in late 2015, but took years before replacing it with any other effort, like alternative livelihoods or manual eradication. As a result of this and other factors, coca cultivation increased dramatically in Colombia. By 2017, more than 119,500 families were making a living off of the crop.

Now, the government of Iván Duque is bringing fumigation back. The U.S. Department of State quickly put out a brief statement celebrating Colombia’s decision.

The decree is 20 pages long, and lays out some of the review, consultation, and complaint processes that should apply to a renewed fumigation program. We’d been expecting this document since July 18, 2019, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling, modifying a 2017 decision, softening the requirements that the government would have to fulfill in order to start fumigating again.

What happens next?

The draft decree is now undergoing a 30-day citizen comment period. Then, it will go to Colombia’s National Drug Policy Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes), a grouping of ministers, the police chief, the chief prosecutor, and the inspector-general, which must then vote to re-start the program. That vote probably won’t happen until at least March or April. The Colombian journalism website La Silla Vacía sees the process going on for months more:

Several more steps await: that the final decree be issued; that the Defense Ministry formally present a spray program, adjusting to this decree’s requirements, before the National Drug Policy Council; that this Council approves it; and that the Ministry obtains an environmental license for that program. All of that will take several months, and probably most of the year.

The Court’s requirements

Though it loosened restrictions on a new spray program, the Constitutional Court still requires that:

  • The regulations governing spraying come from a different agency than the one charged with spraying.
  • The regulation must be based on an evaluation of health, environmental, and other risks. That evaluation must be “participatory and technically sound,” and must happen continuously.
  • Newly emerged risks or complaints must receive automatic review.
  • Scientific evaluations of risk must be rigorous, impartial, and of high quality.
  • Complaints about health, environmental, or legal crop damage must be processed in a “comprehensive, independent, and impartial” way that is “tied to the risk evaluation.”
  • “Objective and conclusive” evidence must demonstrate “absence of damage to health and the environment,” though the Court says that absence doesn’t need to be total.

Limits on spraying

The draft decree excludes from aerial spraying “natural parks of Colombia, whether national or regional; strategic ecosystems like páramos, wetlands as defined by the Ramsar convention and mangroves; populated centers; settlements of populations; and bodies of water.” According to Colombia’s Semana magazine, “researchers consulted…calculate that 70 percent of illicit crops are located in territories where aerial fumigations aren’t viable” under the decree’s definitions because “they are protected zones, because prior consultation is required, or because they are out of the planes’ reach for logistical reasons.”

Oversight, evaluation, and complaints

As in the past, Colombia’s National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate, a heavy recipient of U.S. assistance, would manage the new spray program. The draft decree gives crucial oversight and approval responsibilities to three small agencies elsewhere within the Colombian government.

  • The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), within the Agriculture Ministry, will be charged with processing and adjudicating complaints about the inadvertent spraying of legal crops. It must do so within 15 days, though the decree allows very wide latitude for postponements. (During the past spray program, people whose legal crops suffered damage from fumigation had to go to the Anti-Narcotics Police, which approved only a small single-digit percentage of compensations. Police usually responded that “we didn’t spray there that day,” “there was coca mixed in with the legal crops”—which many farmers denied, or “the zone is too insecure to evaluate the alleged damage.”)
  • The National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA), an Environment Ministry entity established in 2011, will approve aerial eradication projects, perform initial studies, and monitor their environmental impact, while processing complaints about environmental damage.
  • The the National Health Institute (INS), an entity within the Health Ministry, will monitor the human health impact of aerial eradication, carrying out continual evaluation of health risks, while processing health complaints.

These agencies seem quite small, with sporadically updated websites. In some cases they will have to depend on the National Police for logistical support necessary to perform their oversight work. Their capacity to handle a large docket of complaints and monitoring requests is far from assured.

Participation and consultation

The decree states that the Anti-Narcotics Police must “announce to local and regional authorities, as well as to the citizenry in general, the initiation of spray activities.” This announcement must explain complaint and evaluation mechanisms, and use local media. After spraying in an area, the Narcotics Police must “guarantee participation spaces with local authorities and with the citizenry in general, in which comments, complaints, and suggestions may be expressed.” Conclusions of these “participation spaces” will be included in the Anti-Narcotics Police’s monthly report to the ANLA.

What the peace accord says

Semana notes that the Constitutional Court had “immovably” required the Colombian government to build a spraying policy “that complies with what was established by the FARC peace accord,” adding that “the expression ‘peace accord’ isn’t mentioned even once in the decree’s text.” The peace accord (section 4.1.3.2) limits aerial spraying only to cases in which communities have not agreed to crop substitution, and where manual eradication is “not possible.”

In cases where there is no agreement with the communities, the Government will proceed to remove the crops used for illicit purposes, prioritising manual removal where possible, bearing in mind respect for human rights, the environment, health and well-being. If substitution is not possible, the Government does not waive the instruments that it believes to be most effective, including aerial spraying to ensure the eradication of crops used for illicit purposes. The FARC-EP consider that in any case of removal this must be effected manually.

Tags: Coca, Illicit Crop Eradication

Lecture: “Saving Colombia’s Fragile Peace”

WOLA’s Adam Isacson was at Florida State University on October 30, 2019 delivering a Broad International Lecture on Colombia’s conflict and peace accord implementation.

It’s a recent iteration of Adam’s “Colombia 101” talk, covering the conflict, U.S. policy, Plan Colombia, the peace process, and today’s security challenges. It’s 55 minutes plus questions and answers.

The staff at FSU did a great job of integrating dozens of slides into the video, and the sound and lighting are very good. We’re grateful to them for sharing this.

Tags: Armed Groups, Compliance with Commitments, Stabilization, U.S. Policy

WOLA Podcast: Protest and Politics in Post-Conflict Colombia

WOLA’s Defense Oversight Director Adam Isacson talks about Colombia with WOLA Andes Program Director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. Isacson and Sánchez-Garzoli talk about what they saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.

(mp3 download)

Tags: Arauca, Attacks on social leaders, Audio, Chocó, Human Rights, Podcast, Politics of Peace

Can a Group Chat Unite a Polarized Colombia Around Peace?

In Colombia, a wide range of political and civil society actors have united under the Defend the Peace (Defendamos la Paz, DLP) movement, using social media—specifically, the WhatsApp messaging app—to connect, organize, and advocate for policies that involve the full, prompt implementation of the country’s historic 2016 peace deal. 

The DLP movement arose as a response to the government’s hostility towards the accords. It has played a key role in organizing massive protests, as well as issuing pluralistic jointly drafted letters to major decision makers that are difficult for President Iván Duque’s administration to ignore. At a time when Colombia—similarly to many countries in the Western Hemisphere— is facing stark political polarization, this WhatsApp group has emerged as a way to connect actors on both the left and right, with the common aim of protecting, building, and consolidating a peace that has eluded Colombia for the past six decades.

The rise and impact of the “Defend the Peace” movement

The first DLP meeting in February 2019 came about as a response to President Duque’s decision to reject the law that would give legal standing to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), the transitional justice mechanism envisioned in the 2016 peace accords. Although Colombia’s Congress and the country’s Constitutional Court had already passed the law, Duque proposed reforms aimed at undermining the very foundations of the peace deal. 

In light of the executive branch challenging a fundamental pillar of the peace agreement, members of Colombia’s Congress and concerned civil society leaders formally launched a movement with the stated aim of guaranteeing that the 2016 accords are fully implemented. To facilitate communication and advance discussions on possible actions, they created a WhatsApp group chat. 

“Today, the DLP group chat has more than 250 members, ranging from liberal, progressive, and conservative members of Colombia’s Congress, as well as academics, civil society, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous leaders, journalists, demobilized leaders of the FARC, former army commanders, and local and international NGOs such as WOLA.”

Following Duque’s rejection of the JEP in February 2019, the DLP addressed their first letter— written before they had formally given the movement a name—to UN Secretary General António Guterres asking that they help ensure the JEP’s’ institutional integrity and the safety of its judges. Mr. Guterres responded in kind and urged President Duque to allow the JEP to function as established by the peace accords. 

Today, the DLP group chat has more than 250 members, ranging from liberal, progressive, and conservative members of Colombia’s Congress, as well as academics, civil society, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous leaders, journalists, demobilized leaders of the Revolutionary Armed of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, former army commanders, and local and international NGOs such as the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The group chat has sparked multiple sub-groups: several cover specific regions of the country, another is a networking space just for youth leaders.

Using WhatsApp and Twitter as an organizing tool, the DLP helped mobilize a protest in which citizens marched in favor of peace and against Duque’s rejection of the JEP law. By May, Colombia’s Congress voted against the president’s proposed reforms, and the Constitutional Court ordered Duque to put pen to paper and ratify the law. 

The DLP’s methods are as pluralistic as they are effective. Through 2019, the movement has produced several public letters, drafted jointly and democratically, addressed to major decision makers, advocating in defense of the peace accords. The chat is ruled by cordial and supportive discourse, where specific political platforms are only mentioned within the wider context of advocating effectively for peace. Members of the chat rapidly defuse arguments that stray away from the topic at hand and could cause friction by reminding each other of the greater goal of peace implementation. The DLP movement covers such a wide and pluralistic range of Colombia’s political spectrum and thought leaders that it makes the messaging tough for the government to ignore.

Other jointly drafted letters produced by the DLP include petitions to the UN, to the ELN asking for cease-fires, and to the OAS asking for consistent support for implementing peace. 

The DLP further demonstrated its power and reach in helping organize the July 26 march calling for greater protection for social leaders, spanning across 80 cities in Colombia and over 40 cities worldwide with hundreds of thousands of attendees. In Washington, 54 civil society organizations hosted their own DC march, receiving support from multiple members of the U.S. Congress.

Indeed, the July 26 march resulted in so much mobilization that even President Duque—whose government has convoluted the numbers concerning the killing of social leaders— participated in the march while in Cartagena. He was nevertheless heckled by the crowds of protestors. 

The DLP’s success in mobilizing a popular movement—both online and offline—points to their ability to bring together a wide range of political factions around the common goal of defending the peace accords. Political differences exist among DLP members, but common ground is found and concessions are made in the interest of pursuing an outcome which by necessity, the DLP argues, must be treated as above politics as usual: protect, build, and consolidate peace that has eluded Colombia for the past six decades. 

Polarization around the peace accords

How did the FARC peace agreement become one of the most polarized political issues in the country? In 2016, as the four-year negotiations process came to an end, President Juan Manuel Santos put the peace agreement to a vote in a referendum, keeping to a promise he had made to the Colombia people.

However, Santos had failed to adequately socialize the contents of the accord. This, and a rampant misinformation campaign on the part of those who opposed the accords on the basis that it was too lenient on the FARC, led to 50.2 percent votes against the agreement and 49.8 percent in favor. The vote would split the country down the middle on one of its most historic decisions.

The 2018 presidential elections further exacerbated polarization. Candidates who favored the full implementation of the 2016 agreement failed to unite around a single candidate; those who saw the agreement as overly lenient managed to consolidate around Iván Duque from the right-wing Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party.

Duque has insisted on unity since his inaugural speech and has even stated that, contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he will not “shred the accords.” Yet a year into his presidency, it’s hard to see any real efforts to advance the accords, let alone unify Colombia. His attacks on the JEP, the lack of funding for peace initiatives in his four-year development plan, and, as stated by a DLP letter, his administration’s “progressive dismantling of verification and international accompaniment to the peace process,” all point to his intentions to subject the peace accords to a slow death

“With three years left in office, Duque should examine ways he can work alongside DLP, which offers him a space to ground his conciliatory speech, getting robust implementation back on the agenda while making concessions with a wide array of political actors.”

Nothing underscores the political cost of an unsatisfactory first year in office like the results of the 2019 regional elections, in which centrist candidates supportive of the 2016 agreement won mayorships in Colombia’s three largest cities. Both extremes of the political spectrum— including Duque’s partylost significant political ground in what was once strongholds. This was a clear sign that the electorate was not happy with the stagnant, polarized debate that has characterized Colombian politics for the past few years, and was more interested in advancing alternatives.

Neither Duque’s base nor the opposition appear to be happy with this recalcitrant implementation, leaving the president with a 29 percent approval rating. With candidates backed by former president Álvaro Uribe—leader of the Democratic Center and Duque’s mentor— suffering electoral defeat, and with Uribe’s approval ratings falling to the lowest in his career, it is clear that Colombians feel more represented under the wide umbrella of DLP than by the current anti-accord government. This has also been apparent in Colombia’s Congress, where Duque has an atrocious record of passing legislation he has supported. The president has generally been unable to work with a majority that, although more ideologically akin to his party, has sided with the pro-accord opposition organized under DLP.

But it is not too late to turn things around in Colombia. With three years left in office, Duque should examine ways he can work alongside the DLP, which offers him a space to ground his conciliatory speech, getting robust implementation back on the agenda while making concessions with a wide array of political actors. This struggling administration can turn things around by changing course and advancing the peace accord. For Colombia, this would mean implementing the prescribed systemic changes aimed to bridge its most polarizing chasms of historical inequality, sectarianism, and violence. 

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Ethnic Communities are the Pathway to Peace in Colombia’s Abandoned Areas

In 2016, after various failed efforts with devastating human consequences, Colombia signed peace with guerrilla group the FARC, ending a protracted conflict that violently raged on for over half a century. In the end, the conflict resulted in more than 23,000 selective assassinations, 27,000 kidnappings, 260,000 deaths and 8 million registered victims.

The bulk of the fighting, displacement and abuses were related to armed groups vying for control of land in areas with weak or no state presence. For example, atrocities like the May 2002 Bojaya massacre—in which over 80 Afro-Colombian civilians were incinerated after FARC guerrillas threw a pipe bomb at the church where they were taking refuge from the fighting—were concentrated in rural Colombia.

Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations have long inhabited the most remote, geographically hard to access and biodiverse areas of the country. Yet it wasn’t until 1991—when Colombia’s constitution finally recognized the plural ethnicity of the country—that these populations were able to legally claim their collective land titles. Despite this formal protection, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have been disproportionately victimized by special interests propping illegal armed groups’ thirst for land in order to carry out illegal economies and development projects without the consent of local communities.

Within this context, Colombia’s peace accord attempts to balance international standards of justice with a necessary demobilization of combatants in order to end the fighting. In pursuit of that balance, it is innovative in many respects: it transversally safeguards the rights of ethnic minorities, integrates women and gender rights, and includes commitments geared towards resolving the issue of illicit drugs.

The importance of the peace deal’s Ethnic Chapter

At its core, this innovative approach to peace is largely due to the fact that multiple delegations of victims, women’s groups, and ethnic minority representatives met multiple times with the negotiating parties. After listening to the voices of numerous victims and civil society, the negotiating parties integrated their priorities into the agreement.After the government changed from Santos to Duque, the relationship reverted back to one of mistrust and deprioritization of ethnic minority issues.

The result of these efforts was Chapter 6.2, or the Ethnic Chapter, which safeguards the rights of ethnic minorities transversally throughout the accord by guaranteeing their right to prior, free and informed consent on norms, laws, and plans that affect their communities.

Another victory was the creation of the Special High Instance for Ethnic Peoples (Instancia Especial de Alto Nivel con Pueblos Étnicos), the body ensuring that ethnic minorities have representation and a voice before the commission responsible for verifying the peace agreement is fully implemented.

However, post accords, ethnic communities had to once again fight for inclusion into the implementation planning process. During the special legislative procedure—known as the “fast track” process—which saw the development of an Implementation Framework Plan, ethnic communities were able to get 98 ethnic indicators into the framework for the peace agreement.

A former FARC rebel waves a white peace flag during an act to commemorate the completion of their disarmament process in Buenavista, Colombia, in June 2017 (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara).

While, in theory, all 43 measures that gave constitutional and legal standing to the peace accords in Congress should have gone through a consultation process with both Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, the reality was different. The government did not use this legislative procedure for all of the projects that would result in national norms. Rather, while the government said it would submit 18 legislative measures in consultation with coalition the Indigenous Permanent Concertation Table (Mesa Permanente de Concertación Nacional, MPC), it only presented six measures and normative projects. Afro-Colombian communities, meanwhile, did not get a chance to go through a formal consultation process.

Despite these early victories, the change in government from Santos to Duque has presented new challenges for ethnic and indigenous communities.

The failure to fully implement the Ethnic Chapter

After the Ethnic Chapter was agreed upon, the Santos administration’s relationship with ethnic minorities deepened. It was the Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples who most campaigned in favor of the peace referendum. These interactions opened up a better working relationship between different Colombian authorities—including the Inspector General’s Office and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. These two offices are now two of the biggest advocates for the rights of ethnic groups. After the government changed from Santos to Duque, the relationship reverted back to one of mistrust and deprioritization of ethnic minority issues.All the peace-related projects… require buy-in and leadership from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities to work.

Problems also arose regarding the Ethnic Chapter, which is critical to the success of the peace accords for a number of reasons.

A new state institution, the Agency for Territorial Renewal (Agencia de Renovacion del Territorio, ART), was created in 2015 in order to bring infrastructure and other state services to rural Colombia. This agency selected 170 municipalities that the government is supposed to prioritize when implementing its rural development initiatives, known as the Development Programs with a Territorial Approach (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs).

Within these 170 municipalities are 452 indigenous reserves and 500 cabildos. Furthermore, in those areas, Afrodescendant, raizal and palenquero communities have 307 collective titles and 500 community councils. (It should be noted that the chapter of the peace accords that deals with rural land issues affects areas whereby 51 percent of indigenous and 81 percent of Afro Colombians are concentrated).The illicit crop substitution program was not designed with any input from ethnic leadership, making communities skeptical of the initiative.

While imperfect, the 300-page peace deal serves as a blueprint for extending civilian authority to areas that, for decades, were controlled by illegal armed groups. But in order to facilitate and guarantee that the state is effective and gains credibility in these areas, it must work hand in hand with the representatives of the ethnic communities. All the peace-related projects—from the PDETs to the illicit drug crop substitution program (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS) meant to counter coca growing—require buy-in and leadership from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities to work.

Sadly, the government has not complied with the safeguards in the Ethnic Chapter for advancing the legislative measures needed to more fully implement the accord. Neither has it advanced the work of the Special High Instance for Ethnic Peoples.

Residents of Puerto Conto, Chocó, who escaped their village due to fighting between leftist rebels and paramilitaries, disembark at the port of Quibdo in 2002 (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan).

In areas like Chocó, ethnic minorities have participated in the design of PDETs because they value its importance and see these as a mechanism of improving the situation for their people. But the illicit crop substitution program was not designed with any input from ethnic leadership, making communities skeptical of the initiative.

Statements by President Duque and his cabinet have also heightened concerns among ethnic leaders, particularly as it relates to restarting environmentally damaging aerial fumigation of glyphosate while at the same time attempting to implement crop substitution programs. A Constitutional Court decision has stalled fumigations, but leaves room for resumption down the road.

Budget fights

These challenges can be, in part, attributed to a lack of serious political will to advance peace. The government appears to be only interested in meeting UN and OAS measurements widely used to measure success of peace process by academics and the international community.

Essentially, the Colombian government is reducing the agreement to disarmament and integration of fighters, foregoing the structural changes needed to establish a durable stable peace. It appears as though the Colombian government is not looking to address the long term structural problems leading to conflict, nor the ethnic and gender issues.Reducing the budgets of these rural reform agencies is a direct way of cutting off support to ethnic communities.

Another major issue is that the Colombian government has attempted to fight every effort to allocate funds for the transitional justice system, known as the JEP. The JEP was notified in July that it should expect a budget cut of 30 percent by the Finance Ministry. However, push back from the international community—in particular the UN Security Council—made it politically untenable for the Ivan Duque administration to carry this out.

The final budget for 2020 ended up with a 13 percent increase for transitional justice, with the JEP only increasing its budget by 1 percent, the Truth Commission 18 percent (which, given that the Truth Commission’s budget was initially cut, only meets 56 percent of what they require) and the investigative unit responsible for searching for the disappeared 47 percent. There remains a general deficit of 8 billion pesos for these truth and justice initiatives.

A cursory look at budget allocations for 2019 is instructive in proving the point. The funding for the Agency for Territorial Renewal was also reduced by 63 percent, and the Rural Development Agency’s by 47 percent. These two agencies are essential to meeting the obligations of the rural reform chapter of the peace accord. Reducing the budgets of these rural reform agencies is a direct way of cutting off support to ethnic communities.

In particular, the JEP serves as a voice for the Afro-Colombian and indigenous victims of war crimes committed by the FARC, paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces. It is the first court in the country’s history to include gender, ethnic, and regional diversity in its makeup, representing a new opportunity for these Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities to access a measure of justice.

Crucially, both the JEP and the Truth Commission underwent a previous consultation process with ethnic minorities in order to incorporate their recommendations so as to guarantee that truth, justice, and reparations integrates the perspectives of their communities. As a result of this, both the JEP and the Truth Commission integrated commissions dedicated to guaranteeing a differentiated response to ethnic minorities within the institutions’ mandates.

Since indigenous communities have their own autonomous juridical systems, coordination between the bodies is required. Beyond this, the aim is to guarantee that the patterns in the violations related to ethnic minority victims and damages caused to these cultures are addressed with mechanisms put in place that guarantee non-repetition of such events. Yet reducing the budget of both the JEP and the Truth Commission limits the impact they could achieve.

Other challenges

Even in situations of relative success, new challenges have arisen in the implementation of Colombia’s peace agreement.

The historic demobilization of around 7,000 FARC combatants successfully decreased violence in the country. It also opened the door for other illegal armed groups to fight for control over the areas they abandoned.

Paradoxically, this scenario has led to a multitude of legal and illegal actors feeling that they are at risk of losing their economic projects and power in those very territories. Since 2016, according to reports by Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, the lack of effective protection by the State and high levels of impunity has led to 479 social leaders killed—mainly in places like Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Choco.Once in office, Duque was confronted with the reality that completely undoing the accord was not possible.

In fact, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), in 2018, 56 percent of the social leaders killed in homicides belonged to ethnic groups. A different source, the think tank INDEPAZ, reports that from November, 2016 to July, 2019, 627 social leaders were killed, of whom 142 were indigenous, 55 afro descendant and 245 rural farmers defending the environment or attempting to implement the peace accord’s crop substitution program. Regardless of how you count it, the problem is alarming and poses a significant risk to sustained peace in Colombia.

Women perform during march against the murders of activists, in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, July 26, 2019. Colombians took to the streets to call for an end to a wave of killings of leftist activists in the wake of the nation’s peace deal (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia).

The security crisis is particularly acute in the Pacific region where Afro-Colombian and indigenous are experiencing new displacements and acute humanitarian crises. The state could very well detain much of this violence if it advanced the Commission for National Security Guarantees—an initiative set up in the peace agreement, meant to dismantle illegal armed groups. Furthermore, by advancing the obligations in the FARC accord, the government would send signals to the active guerrilla movement and the National Liberation Army (ELN) that it keeps its word in negotiations.

Looking ahead

Compounding the situation, Colombia’s politically polarized climate led to the peace agreement being rejected in a subsequent referendum. Resistance from the entrenched political and economic elites to accept the terms of the peace deal paved the way for the election of right-wing Ivan Duque as president, who campaigned on the promise of making changes to the accord to appease their concerns.By starving key aspects of the accord of resources and trying to limit the work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Duque is deferring to powerful interest groups who have rarely acted with the interests of vulnerable ethnic communities in mind.

Once in office, Duque was confronted with the reality that completely undoing the accord was not possible. A constitutional infrastructure was already in place and the international community had placed all its bets on peace.

In response, President Duque unsuccessfully attempted to remand crucial legislation required to establish the transitional justice system. He has proposed changes that would alter six of the 159 provisions of the peace deal legislation. A major sticking point for Duque and his supporters concerning the JEP is that the FARC rebels and the Colombian armed forces are not judged in the same manner for war crimes. By attempting to change the established provisions, the president all but assures that perpetrators of grave human rights crimes will lose any incentive to participate in the truth-telling process.

This could impact cases that the JEP has already advanced. According to the JEP’s latest report, 9,706 FARC ex-combatants and 2,156 members of the Colombian armed forces have agreed to testify before the tribunal. The political efforts to change and diminish the transitional justice infrastructure means that these cases could plunge into uncertainty.

The leaked internal documents from the Colombian armed forces revealed by the New York Times point to the military resorting to perverse tactics to gain military advantages and boost their death toll. The risk of peace crumbling and the cycle of war repeating itself in Colombia is high unless the country advances the transitional justice provisions of the accord, and in that way revealing the full truth of the past.

By starving key aspects of the accord of resources and trying to limit the work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Duque is deferring to powerful interest groups who have rarely acted with the interests of vulnerable ethnic communities in mind. That said, the mechanisms to turn all of this around are there—what it requires is the political will of the government to work with ethnic minorities to advance the country forward.

Tags: Indigenous Communities

Colombia Indigenous Massacre Should Push Duque Administration to Immediately Stop Neglecting Implementation of the Peace Deal’s Ethnic Chapter

Washington, D.C.—On October 29, a brazen attack by illegal armed groups in Cauca, Colombia left indigenous authority Ne’h Wesx Cristina Taquinas Bautista and four members of the Nasa Tacueyo indigenous reserve dead, with another six people wounded. The massacre took place while the indigenous guard was doing their scheduled rounds in the town of Luz. According to the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC, by its Spanish acronym), a black car containing armed members of a FARC dissident group ignored signals by the indigenous guard and proceeded to shoot everyone in sight. In defiance of humanitarian international law, the armed actors also shot at the ambulance that later arrived at the scene to transport the injured to a place where their wounds could be treated.

Yesterday’s attack should serve as an alarm for the Duque administration regarding the urgent need to protect the lives and rights of indigenous and ethnic minority groups. The massacre perpetrated in Cauca is a direct consequence of the Duque administration’s failure to fully implement the 2016 Colombian peace agreement in an integral manner. In particular, it reflects his neglect of the Ethnic Chapter in the accords, which transversally safeguards the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, and enshrines autonomous self-protection measures for communities like the indigenous guard.

Colombian authorities must do everything in their power to promptly bring the perpetrators of this vicious attack to justice. Authorities should also heed calls by Colombian human rights and social organizations on the ground, who have long worked in partnership with WOLA, for an urgent investigation into this attack, alongside a high-level, internationally-backed verification mission that includes a visit to Tacueyo by President Duque’s office, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, and the Organization of American States (OAS) Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia. It is essential that President Duque forcefully condemn this attack, gather his ministers, and meet with indigenous authorities in Tacueyo to establish a strategy that protects indigenous communities by strengthening and providing support to the indigenous guard.

Critically, this massacre, along with the high number of killing of indigenous people since the start of the Duque administration, should ring alarm bells in the United States. The U.S. government must send a strong message to Colombia that these massacres are unacceptable, that Colombian authorities must act immediately to deter and prevent further atrocities of this nature from happening, and that the best mechanism to ensure the long-term safety of ethnic communities in vulnerable situations is the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.

Tags: Indigenous Communities

The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year

Here’s an English translation of a column WOLA’s Adam Isacson wrote for the Colombian political analysis website Razón Pública, which it posted today. It voices strong concerns about Colombia’s military, especially its army, which has been showing signs of institutional backsliding all year.

The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year

Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

The ties between the U.S. government and Colombia’s armed forces “are like the heart of this [bilateral]  relationship,” said outgoing U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker, in his last interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo. “They are very dear to us and very professional. There are elements of the Police and the Armed Forces that have a 21st-century character and are among the best in the world.”

Let’s leave aside how troubling it is that an ambassador in any country might say that the military relationship is more central than the diplomatic, commercial, or cultural relationships. Is the latter part of Whitaker’s statement true? Have Colombia’s armed forces—especially its army, which makes up 84 percent of all military personnel—become a professional twenty-first century force, among the world’s elite?

For much of this decade, Colombia’s military seemed to be headed in that direction. Accusations of extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations plummeted after 2008. High-ranking officers participated honorably in the peace talks with the FARC, and about 2,000 current and former soldiers agreed to participate in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The armed forces developed a forward-looking new doctrine as they sought to adapt to a future, for the first time in decades, without a large-scale national-level insurgency. NATO agreed to include Colombia as a “global partner.” A new, post-“false positives” generation of mid-level officers, with years of training in much-improved military colleges, appeared to place a much higher value on human rights, international humanitarian law, and measuring results through territorial legitimacy. While some concerns persisted, especially allegations of espionage against participants in the peace process, the overall trajectory had been positive. 

Then came 2019, which has been an annus horribilis for Colombia’s Army. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place came under immediate attack from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” killings a decade earlier. The ultraconservative new defense minister made repeated statements minimizing the severity of killings of social leaders and calling for crackdowns on social protests. And then, scandals started to hit.

On May 18, the New York Times revealed that, at the beginning of the year, the Army’s new high command had taken a leap backward in time, bringing back “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. After years of seeking to measure progress by measures of security and state presence in territories from which government had long been absent, the new commanders decided to seek something simpler. Unit commanders were instead required to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. While this signaled a return to a long-discredited territorial stabilization strategy, it also raised major human rights concerns about creating incentives for “false positives.” Already, Colombian media had been gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel in 2019.

July saw the Army buffeted by corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. The scandals, mostly revealed by Semana magazine, have so far led to the firing of five Army generals, one of them imprisoned, and the jailing of nine more soldiers. One of the generals fired under a cloud of corruption allegations was the Army’s number-two commander, Gen. Adelmo Fajardo. Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán, meanwhile, revealed that Gen. Fajardo allegedly arranged to have his favored staff sergeants approved for officer training, even though they were not the most qualified candidates.

Non-commissioned officers, “the base of the Army, are furious,” Duzán reported. “There is a sense that too many generals are occupied more with benefiting from the perks of power than with serving the country, and that good soldiers and good officers are being left without power in the hierarchy, defeated not by a strategic enemy, but because they don’t want to participate in the feast of corruption.”

Duzán reveals something important here. The scandals that have buffeted Colombia’s Army this year have not originated from the work of human rights defenders or reporters. In all cases, the source of the information has been outraged members of the Army. That is new. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when the Army stood accused of working with paramilitary groups or committing extrajudicial executions, the sources were almost always victims, witnesses, or prosecutorial investigators. Now, the chief source is whistleblowers from within the institution: officers and soldiers who love the Army, believe that it has made important progress, and are deeply worried about the direction it is taking under current leadership.

On the other side is the “old guard,” at times allied with powerful retired officers, who opposed peace negotiations, resisted recent reforms, and who apparently believe that the key to victory is to lift commanders from the apparent burdens of accountability. Emblematic of that attitude is a January quote, revealed by Semana, and attributed to Gen. Diego Villegas, the commander of the military task force responsible for the conflictive Catatumbo region:

The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over. What we have to do here is takedowns. And if we have to ally ourselves with the Pelusos [the EPL guerrillas] we will ally with them—we already talk to them—in order to fight the ELN. If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.

We must hope that this quote is false, or at least that the number of “old guard” officers who really think this way is small. We must also hope that the high command—Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez—is not inclined toward the “old guard.” If they are, and if this faction is large, then Ambassador Whitaker’s sunny portrayal of today’s Colombian military is a sad caricature.

The high command’s handling of these scandals gives us even greater reason for worry. Instead of pledging to clean house, protect whistleblowers, and demand the most honorable behavior of all officers, the Army’s counter-intelligence apparatus has been deployed on an internal campaign of polygraphs, surveillance, and interrogations to identify those who have leaked to the press. Gen. Martínez, the army chief, has denied knowledge of what Semana calls “Operación Silencio,” but the Procuraduría has unearthed evidence that his denials are false: that the General in fact ordered the witch hunt. The Army’s botched damage control effort has done harm to the institution’s credibility at a critical moment.

And this is a critical moment. The number of armed groups, and armed group members, continues to proliferate in regions of former FARC influence. Homicides increased for the first time in six years in 2018, and if they are slightly down in 2019, as a new report from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation points out, it is only because criminal groups have secured dominance in some zones, or made accords with competitors in other zones. If Colombia’s security forces were achieving important security gains, it is likely that public opinion would overlook some of these scandals. But they are not making gains. “We see a paralysis of the military forces with regard to security at the territorial level,” the Foundation’s Ariel Ávila noted, citing ongoing scandals and strategic drift under President Duque and Defense Minister Botero.

Much can be done about this, immediately. While the Duque/Uribe government will always have a conservative high command, it is possible for that high command to be simultaneously conservative, competent, and institutionally forward-looking. Such officers must be identified and promoted.

It is meanwhile imperative that whistleblowers within the armed forces be given maximum protections. They are our best source of “early warning” about the institution’s direction. Colombia’s Congress, courts, and Public Ministry must maintain their protection from retaliation as a high priority.

And finally, the U.S. government, the Colombian Army’s most important international counterpart, must do more than just sing the Army’s praises. It must keep its eyes wide open and voice concerns about backsliding, whether publicly or privately, in strong terms. The U.S. Congress must maintain conditions in foreign aid law that freeze some assistance pending progress on human rights. These are the best ways to ensure that Colombia’s armed forces can once again move toward Ambassador Whitaker’s idealistic description of them.

Tags: Civil-Military Relations