As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

On July 1, a team of coca eradicators and security forces arrived in the village of Caucasia, in Puerto Asís municipality, in Colombia’s department of Putumayo. In Colombia’s far south along the Ecuador border, Putumayo is where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began. Its first phase in 2000, what the Clinton Administration called the “push into southern Colombia,” expanded military and coca-eradication operations there. Twenty years later, the region’s farmers remain so isolated and abandoned that Putumayo still concentrates tens of thousands of hectares of coca plants.

Dozens or hundreds of Caucasia farmers gathered to protest the eradicators’ arrival. They had been in the midst of negotiations with Colombia’s Interior Ministry on a pilot project to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for assistance. Those dialogues got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia. But forced eradication did not get put on hold: eradicators and police escorts arrived and prepared to pull up the bushes.

Though details of what happened remain elusive, it is clear that the situation grew tense on July 3. Members of the Colombian Police anti-disturbances squadron (ESMAD) opened fire at some distance, killing one of the community members: 56-year-old Educardo Alemeza Papamija. Three others were wounded.

Episodes like this have become very common in 2020, especially since Colombia went into pandemic lockdown. Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank counted 15 confrontations between security forces and farmers between January and April, with 4 civilians killed. Overlapping this count somewhat, during the first three months of COVID-19 response—between late March and late June—Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counted five civilians killed:

  • Alejandro Carvajal, in Sardinata, Norte de Santander, on March 26;
  • Ángel Artemino Nastacuas Villarreal, in Tumaco, Nariño, on April 22;
  • Emérito Digno Buendía Martínez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on May 18;
  • Ariolfo Sánchez Ruíz, in Anori, Antioquia, on May 20; and
  • Salvador Jaime Durán, in Teorama, Norte de Santander, on June 27.

Adding the July 3 incident in Putumayo makes six civilians killed in coca eradication operations since late March. This is the deadliest period since 2017: in October of that year, police accompanying coca eradication operations massacred seven farmers in the village of El Tandil, in Tumaco, Nariño.

The eradication operations have become more aggressive as the U.S. government has prodded Colombia to expand them, while paying much of the bill. “Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150,” Reuters reported last September. Colombia has pledged to forcibly eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020, which would smash its 2019 record of 94,606 hectares.

That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.

While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.

These expanded operations are dangerous for the soldiers and police too: armed groups protect the coca with landmines, booby traps, snipers, and ambushes. The Ideas for Peace Foundation counts 126 members of the security forces or coca eradicators killed during manual eradication operations between 2009 and 2018, and 664 more wounded. Protesting farmers, meanwhile, aren’t always non-violent, and security force members are sometimes injured during protests against eradication.

This, though, is yet another reason for Colombia and its U.S. government supporters to pursue a different strategy: a less violent and confrontational one that might actually reduce the dependence on coca that has led the crop to persist in rural zones for 40 years now. A better strategy would seek specifically to lower the number of Colombian families that plant coca, in most cases for lack of other viable options. Estimates of that number currently range from over 119,500 to over 230,000 families.

An alternative strategy exists, and it was the product of years of intense negotiations. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord had a plan for reducing this number of coca-growing families dramatically. Under the accord’s fourth chapter, over 99,000 families signed voluntary coca eradication agreements, in exchange for promised assistance. That number could have been higher, but the government of President Iván Duque froze the program after taking office in August 2018. The accord’s crop substitution plan, along with its larger efforts to bring a government presence into historically abandoned rural areas, is underfunded, increasingly behind schedule, and not receiving anywhere near the emphasis that forced eradication is getting—especially during the pandemic.

Even in a pandemic, Colombia’s U.S.-backed expanded forced eradication campaign is happening without even food security assistance for the families affected, leaving many hungry after the eradicators depart. In June the Colombian daily El Espectador asked the Defense Minister why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of any help for farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and that eradicating is “our constitutional duty.” We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work: it may yield a short-term decrease in the number of hectares planted with coca, but replanting happens quickly.

This aggressive, cruel, and ineffective model must stop now. Coca eradication should be the product of dialogue with communities, with the goal of bringing a lasting government presence into vast areas of Colombia where people live without one. In the rare instances when that is not possible, eradicators should de-escalate confrontations with communities, seeking to avoid the use of force and the repetition of the sorts of tragedies that Colombia has witnessed six times now since the pandemic began.

And of course, Colombia should resist any effort to re-start eradication by spraying the highly questioned herbicide glyphosate from aircraft. Fumigation not only raises health and environmental concerns that the government has not yet addressed—it is the very opposite of a long-term solution based on having people on the ground to govern territory.

As the main foreign backer of Colombia’s coca eradication strategy, the U.S. government should play a determining role in helping Colombia pursue a more humane, long-term-focused, and ultimately successful strategy. If the United States does not help to change course, it will continue to share the blame for disastrous human rights outcomes like what we are seeing now. And within a few years—when coca-growing families inevitably replant after remaining without formal title to their lands, isolated from markets, and lacking even basic governance—the United States will also share the blame for the current strategy’s foreseeable failure.

Tags: Coca, Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Putumayo, U.S. Policy

July 7, 2020

McGovern and Pocan Lead 94 Members of Congress Urging Trump Administration to Push for Peace in Colombia

(Press release cross-posted from mcgovern.house.gov. Lea la declaración de WOLA en español.)

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 6, 2020 — Today, Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA), Chairman of the House Rules Committee and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Mark Pocan (D-WI), Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led a group of 94 Members of Congress urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press the Colombian government to commit to peace and stop the escalation of violence against Colombian human rights defenders.

Since a 2016 peace accord brought an end to decades of conflict in Colombia, over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered, including 153 in only the first six months of 2020. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked.

“This is not the first time Congress has demanded the U.S. and Colombian governments protect human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia. Yet the assassinations continue to mount, and the pandemic has made them even more vulnerable. Enough is enough. Whatever the Colombian government thinks it’s doing, it’s simply not getting the job done. It should spend less time downplaying the statistics, and more time providing protection and, more importantly, hunting down, arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning those who order, carry out, and benefit from these murders. That’s what the peace accord calls for, and nothing less will do,” said Congressman McGovern. “The brutal murders of those working for peace and basic human dignity in Colombia is not only a tragedy for Colombians, it hurts all people around the world who care about human rights. The United States has an obligation speak out and demand an end to this unrelenting violence.”

“Three years after a historic peace accord was signed, human rights defenders, union leaders, land rights activists and indigenous leaders continue to face violence as the Colombian government looks the other way,” said Congressman Pocan. “Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of these peace accords. Secretary Pompeo must condemn this violence and urge the Colombian government to safeguard the lives of these defenders, prosecute the intellectual authors of these attacks and dismantle the structures that benefit from this violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these leaders more vulnerable to attack, and we must ensure U.S. assistance to Colombia is used to ensure these peace accords are implemented—not continue to allow these acts of violence to occur with impunity.”

Violence appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders who are being murdered in their homes and workplaces, out of the public eye and with impunity. Before the pandemic, large-scale demonstrations had taken place throughout the country demanding protection for human rights defenders and community leaders as Colombia confronts the greatest number of assaults and killings in a decade.

For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira.  He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos.

This letter follows on recent revelations of illegal surveillance by military intelligence of journalists, human rights defenders and judges; the rape of an indigenous girl by several Colombian soldiers, reflecting a pattern of abuses by the military; and an in-depth memorial by El Espectador daily newspaper citing the names of 442 human rights and social leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accord.

The Members’ letter was also backed by several prominent human rights organizations which advocate for peace and social justice in Colombia.

“The peace accords offer Colombia a roadmap out of a violent past into a more just future. But there are no shortcuts.  The Colombian government and international community must recommit to full implementation. Not one more human rights defender should lose their life while peace founders,” said Lisa Haugaard, Co-Director of the Latin America Working Group.

“Social leaders are the most important people in bringing peace and democracy to Colombia. The United States, which is Colombia’s top donor, must do everything it can to stop the systematic killing of social leaders and ensure justice on cases of murdered activists. A consolidated peace in Colombia is in the best interest of the United States, and social leaders are how we achieve that peace,” said Gimena Sanchez, director for the Andes, at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Until the government of Colombia adopts a security policy that prioritizes the protection of the lives and rights of indigenous and community activists, particularly in the former conflict areas, the promise of the peace accords for peace and justice will remain illusory,” said Mark Schneider, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The full text of the letter can be downloaded here. A copy of the letter translated into Spanish is here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

July 7, 2020

LGBT+ Rights and Peace in Colombia: The Paradox Between Law and Practice

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

by Matthew Bocanumenth
BackgroundMatthew Bocanumenth is the Colombia and Border & Migration Program Assistant at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), where he conducts research and provides support to Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the Director of the Andes and Adam Isacson, the Director of Defense Oversight.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex Colombians have been granted momentous protections over the past two decades. Included in these feats is the historic recognition of LGBT+ people in the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the first in the world to specifically include LGBT+ people. But nonetheless, ongoing violence against the LGBT+ community, especially against trans people, reflects a longstanding paradox in Colombia: on paper, the country has one of the strongest legal frameworks in Latin America defending the rights of LGBT+ people; however, in practice these protections are rarely enforced.

After Brazil, Colombia is perhaps the most dangerous country in the Americas for LGBT+ people. Last year, a study found that, out of nine countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia registered the highest number of killings of LGBT+ people over a five-year period. In 2020, attacks against LGBT+ leaders and trans people continue even amid the COVID-19 lockdown. So far this year, in the Caribbean region alone, at least 15 LGBT+ people were killed. As Pride Month comes to an end, civil society groups and Colombia’s LGBT+ community persist in an ongoing struggle to combat stigmatization, secure justice for past crimes, and ensure that authorities implement protections as guaranteed under the law.

Colombia at the forefront of the LGBT+ movement in Latin America

Colombia has experienced significant milestones in terms of political and other forms of representation for LGBT+ people, paving the way towards a more inclusive society. In October 2019, Bogotá elected Claudia López as their first woman and lesbian mayor. Various elected representatives across national, departmental, and local levels like Andrés Cancimance in Putumayo and Oriana Zambrano in La Guajira identify as LGBT+. Television shows continue to feature more LGBT+ characters and media coverage of LGBT-related issues has grown more consistent. These increased levels of visibility are a result of tireless campaigns by civil society groups and activists that work to educate and transform society.

Legal victories led by local civil society organizations and grassroot movements have lent significant momentum to the fight for LGBT+ equality in Colombia. In 2015, trans people over the age of 18 were given the right to change their legal gender on all identification documents. The following year, same-sex marriage was legalized. Other progressive legislation upholds the right for LGBT+ individuals and couples to adopt, protections on employment discrimination and hate crimes, and explicit penalties set in the National Police Code for any acts of gender-based discrimination. These landmark decisions by the Constitutional Court and legislation enacted by the Colombian Congress are legal breakthroughs that place Colombia at the forefront of the LGBT+ movement in Latin America.

Even the historic 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Colombia contains a differential focus on gender. Through a Gender Subcommittee that included an LGBT+ representative, the negotiating actors recognized that women and LGBT+ people were disproportionately affected by the armed conflict, and correspondingly, 41 gender-specific provisions were included throughout the agreement. Including this focus on women and LGBT+ groups helped make Colombia’s 2016 peace deal one of the most inclusive peace agreements in history.  According to LGBT+ rights group Colombia Diversa, though many of these provisions remain stalled, about 70 percent have at least begun implementation.

One key mechanism in the peace agreement includes the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), one of three separate components that make up the current transitional justice system. As a result of the work conducted by Colombia Diversa and Caribe Afirmativo, the most prominent LGBT+ organizations in the country, the JEP opened two cases on the persecution of LGBT+ people during the armed conflict. Two reports submitted by the organizations to the JEP outline the systematic violence perpetrated by the FARC and paramilitary groups against LGBT+ people in Nariño and Antioquia. The JEP is therefore the first transitional justice tribunal in the world to recognize that, in the scope of the armed conflict, LGBT+ people were targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The backlash against a so-called “gender ideology”

Discrimination towards the LGBT+ community still persists in Colombia, the result of longstanding stereotypes and misinformation spread about gender identity and sexual orientation. This harmful rhetoric is expressed in part through an opposition movement seeking to curtail greater recognition of LGBT+ rights, rallying against a so-called “gender ideology.” This questionable argument is not unique to Colombia and the Americas; it is a global strategy led by evangelical factions that seek to undermine the rights of women and LGBT+ persons. Proponents of this argument target LGBT+ organizations because their existence and work defy the patriarchy, heteronormative norms, and religious beliefs.

In 2014, student Sergio Urrego died by suicide after facing discrimination from school officials because of his sexual orientation. Following this tragedy, the Constitutional Court ruled in 2015 that school handbooks across the country had to be revised to address bullying of LGBT+ students. Then, in 2016, Former Minister of Education Gina Parody, who also happens to be a lesbian woman, obeyed the ruling and published an extensive manual with recommendations to schools on how to prevent discrimination and how to have conducive conversations with students about gender identity and sexual orientation. It ignited national controversy, however, as evangelical and conservative sectors claimed that the Ministry of Education was promoting homosexuality and indoctrinating a “gender ideology” among schoolchildren.

These same sectors were mobilized to sustain fierce opposition to the peace process with the FARC. Propaganda around the so-called  “gender ideology,” supposedly embedded in the peace agreement, ultimately contributed to the failed 2016 plebiscite. The final peace agreement with the FARC in November 2016 removed several references to “gender’”and “LGBTI”, and even downright eliminated any mention of the term “sexual orientation.” 

While the 2016 peace agreement still affords recognition to LGBT+ people, the removal of these specific references to appease to conservative sectors is indicative of the powerful role that LGBT+ prejudice continues to play in Colombian society. It also reveals the continued need to ensure protection and guarantees to LGBT+ Colombians, even outside the framework of the peace agreement.

Violence against LGBT+ Colombians

Anti-LGBT+ rhetoric contributes to alarming increases in hostility and violence against queer Colombians. Between 2014 and 2018, over 545 LGBT+ Colombians were assassinated. Members of the public security forces are most responsible for acts of violence and harassment against LGBT+ Colombians, according to a 2020 report by Colombia-based NGO Temblores. This violence highlights the concerning gap between Colombia’s progressive legal protections and the actual enforcement of said protections. 

Unfortunately, gathering current data on such abuses and violence against LGBT+ Colombians is limited for various reasons. Wilson Casteñada, director of human rights group Caribe Afirmativo, notes that local organizations are largely responsible for documenting cases of LGBT+ violence. State entities do not maintain databases that register these abuses, and when they do exist, they lack the political will and funding to be maintained properly.  Additionally, there is a strong probability that violence against LGBT+ people by public security forces is underreported, as those who experience this violence may be reluctant to go to the authorities to report these crimes. All this contributes to a lack of detailed data on violence and crimes not just against Colombia’s LGBT+ community, but across the region.   

Transphobia

Transphobia is rampant in Colombia. Trans people who are sex workers face particularly extreme levels of violence and harassment because stigmatization around sex work increases the risk that such reports of violence are not taken seriously. This was seen in a recent case on May 29 when Alejandra Monocuco died after she was wrongly denied medical treatment and transportation to the hospital in an ambulance. On June 20, five transgender sex workers were brutally attacked by members of the Colombian National Police in Bogotá. These incidents are commonplace because cultural stigmas allow for physical and structural violence against the trans community.

The exclusion faced by trans Colombians was also made evident in the state’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under pico y género, a sex-based quarantine measure temporarily implemented in Bogotá and Cartegena, women and men were allowed out for essential tasks on alternating days of the week; trans women and men could go out according to their gender identity. According to trans rights organization Red Comunitaria Trans, in Bogotá the policy resulted in some 20 cases of targeted discrimination against trans people. The measure is an example of how state policies often overlook the realities of discrimination and institutional violence against gender nonconforming and trans people.

The struggle for LGBT+ rights must continue 

LGBT+ Colombians have many reasons to celebrate. But their battle for ensuring the enforcement of gender identity and sexual orientation protections continues. Implementing and enforcing the mechanisms designed in the peace agreement are also challenges that not only affect LGBT+ people, but also affect Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities who are silenced in similar ways.

It is precisely the work of civil society groups and activists that made the current feats possible and this work must be amplified. The international community should continue to hold authorities accountable for enforcing the laws set forth to protect the rights of LGBT+ people. And ultimately, that support must account for the intersections among class, race, ethnicity, and disability that deepen the discrimination faced by the LGBT+ community in Colombia and beyond.

Tags: Human Rights, LGBT+

July 6, 2020

Colombia Update: Attacks on Social Leaders, Forced Eradication Operations, and Ongoing Abuses Amid the Pandemic

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

We are grateful to all the members of the U.S. Congress who signed the Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concerning social leaders that Representatives James McGovern (D-MA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) are circulating. For those who haven’t signed, we strongly encourage you to do so by Friday, June 26. This letter will help advance protections for social leaders and help to prevent further abuses like those listed below from continuing to take place.  Since our last urgent action on May 19 we received the following information:

Human Rights Abuses

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Public Health, Security Deterioration

July 2, 2020

Podcast: Demining sacred space in Colombia’s Amazon basin

This is the June 24, 2020 edition of WOLA’s podcast.

Tom Laffay is an American filmmaker based in Bogotá, and is a recipient of the inaugural 2020 Andrew Berends Fellowship. In 2018, his short film, Nos están matando (They’re killing us), which exposed the plight of Colombian social leaders, reached the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in Geneva.

This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.

In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat. The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Audio, Demining, Indigenous Communities, Podcast, Putumayo, Video

June 25, 2020

WOLA Urges U.S. Congress Representatives to Sign a Letter to the Secretary of State

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) urges members of Congress to sign a Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being circulated by Representatives James McGovern (D-MA-2) and Mark Pocan (D-WI-2).

The letter brings to light the difficult circumstances faced by social leaders in Colombia. The U.S. Congress representatives include specific demands in their letter: protective measures for social leaders; thorough and transparent investigations of their murders; cracking down on paramilitaries and their drug trafficking networks; holding Colombian Army intelligence members accountable for illegal spying on journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians; and vigorously implementing the peace accords. The U.S. Congress representatives also urge the United States to work alongside rural communities to sustainably replace coca crops, rather than returning to ineffective policies of aerial spraying and forced eradication.

Please contact your U.S. Congress representative to sign on. You have an opportunity to help hold Colombian institutions accountable for a near quarter-century track record of direct assaults against a vibrant civil society. The letter will only make a significant impact if it is backed by as many representatives in Congress as possible. So send a message now!

Write!

  • Find out who your representative is here
  • Visit their website.
  • Go to their “Contact” page. 
  • Click on the “Email” option. 
  • Fill out the contact information. 
  • Paste this sample email into the appropriate box. See sample message here.

It will only take two minutes of your time. Do it so that the people organizing for an entire country’s better future don’t have to worry about laying down their lives for the cause. 

Below please find the text of the letter.


Dear Secretary Pompeo, 

As the coronavirus pandemic exposes and magnifies existing problems in each of the countries it ravages, we are particularly concerned that it is affecting the safety of Colombia’s brave human rights defenders and social leaders who are putting their lives on the line to build lasting peace. 

We write to ask you to urge the Duque Administration to recommit to implementing the historic 2016 peace accords and protecting Colombia’s endangered human rights defenders whose vulnerability has only increased during the COVID-19 quarantine. 

Colombia is now the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of the peace accords – a loss of committed and valiant civic leaders that Colombia cannot afford. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked. This appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders. 

For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira.  He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and poor farming communities like the San José de Apartadó peace community continue to suffer and are even more vulnerable from the unchecked presence of illegal armed actors in their territories.

Marco Rivadeneira was one of 23 social leaders killed between March 15 and April 24, during the first weeks of Colombia’s pandemic lockdown.  According to the Colombian NGO, Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ, in the first three months of 2020, 71 social leaders and defenders were killed in Colombia. 

To stop this tragedy, we ask you to urge the Duque Administration to:

– Improve protection of human rights defenders and social leaders, starting with effective investigations of attacks and threats against them, identifying those who ordered these crimes and publicly presenting the outcomes of these investigation. 

– Develop a road map for protection in consultation with defenders in the guarantees working group, including for pandemic-related challenges such as the need for personal protective equipment.

– Fund and implement collective protection measures with differentiated ethnic and gender approaches in consultation with communities through the National Protection Unit. Collective measures agreed to with Afro-descendant and indigenous communities’ authorities must be guaranteed. The self-protection mechanisms of the San José de Apartadó peace community and similar humanitarian zones should be respected, including the support provided by international accompaniers, even during the pandemic. 

– Dismantle the paramilitary successor networks involved in drug trafficking, which fuel much of the violence against human rights defenders and social leaders. The government must honor its commitment to regularly convene the National Commission of Security Guarantees, which was established by the accords to develop and implement plans to dismantle illegal groups and protect communities, social leaders, and ex-combatants. 

– Effectively investigate, prosecute, and present results about these paramilitary and criminal networks through the Attorney General’s special investigative unit.  We welcome the new agreement between the Colombian Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia to train prosecutors and investigators in aggressively addressing these human rights crimes.  It is critical the State end impunity in the murders, disappearances, assaults and threats against human rights defenders, social leaders, land rights and environmental activists, journalists, trade unionists and other defenders.

– Swiftly hold accountable Colombian Army intelligence members, including at the highest ranks, who ordered and carried out mass surveillance on 130 journalists (including U.S. reporters), human rights defenders, political leaders, and military whistleblowers. The U.S. should also ensure that U.S. security and intelligence assistance does not assist, aid or abet such illegal surveillance, now or in the future.

– Vigorously implement the peace accords, including by adequately funding the transitional justice system, fully implementing the Ethnic Chapter, delivering on commitments for protection for ex-combatants and productive projects to reintegrate them into civilian life, and honoring commitments for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition for victims of the conflict. 

We urge you, Mr. Secretary, to ensure that all agencies of the United States speak with one clear voice to condemn these ever-escalating murders and to press the Duque Administration to take the necessary steps to identify and prosecute the intellectual authors of these crimes and dismantle the criminal structures that protect them.  

Finally, we urge you to continue to provide valuable U.S. assistance to Colombia to implement the peace accords, provide humanitarian assistance for Venezuelan refugees and refugee receiving communities, and address the health and food security crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The U.S. should also take advantage of opportunities provided by the peace accords to carry out sustainable and lasting eradication of illegal crops by working with communities to replace coca with legal livelihoods and by dismantling trafficking networks.

Thank you for your attention to these important concerns in this difficult time.

Tags: Human Rights, U.S. Congress

June 16, 2020

16 International and Colombian Civil Society Organizations Denounce the Military’s Murder of Indigenous U’wa Leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar

On June 2, 2020, EarthRights and 15 other international and Colombian civil society organizations, including WOLA, published a statement condemning the murder of Indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of the ancestal U’wa territory.

Joel Aguablanca Villamizar was murdered on May 31, 2020 in the Department of North Santander during a Colombian military operation against fronts of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN). The Indigenous community has adamantly stated that their leader had no link to the armed group.

The militarization of the territory has had a detrimental impact on the indigenous U’wa population. The organizations demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future.

Below is the text of the statement:

Human rights organizations condemn the murder of indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of ancestral U’wa territory

Washington D.C, June 2, 2020: Last Sunday, indigenous leader Joel Aguablana Villamizer was murdered by the Colombian army in the Chitagá municipality of Norte Santander, Colombia. Joel was an indigenous leader and education coordinator for the U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Cabildos (ASOU’WA). The army murdered Joel as part of a mission to capture Darío Quiñonez, alias Marcial, third leader of the Efraín Pabón Pabón Front and commander of the Martha Cecilia Pabón Commission of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earthrights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa issued the following statement in response:

“In carrying out this operation, the Colombian National Army and the ELN did not respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law, threatening the life and security of the U’wa civilian population, including five minors.

“The military operation that resulted in Joel’s murder was carried out in close proximity to the U’wa United Reservation, which is part of the U’wa Nation ancestral territory. This highlights the impacts that the Colombian government’s fight against armed forces still has on the indigenous U’wa population. The U’Wa have been declared an endangered group by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.

“The organizations below stand in solidarity with the U’wa voices who denounced this heinous act and who stated that ‘[they] are not going to allow this unfortunate situation to be considered a false positive for the Colombian State, since the murdered U’wa brother was never linked to the ELN insurgent group (A​ SOU’WA Communiqué​).’

“We are concerned and outraged at the frequency of events such as this one. According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (Ascamcat), with the death of Joel Aguablanca there have already been three cases of extrajudicial executions in the department of Norte Santander in 2020 (​El Tiempo, 2020​).

“We demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future. Likewise, we will bring the situation to the awareness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. EarthRights is currently supporting the U’Wa in a long-standing land rights case at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights”

Signatures:

  1. Almáciga (Spain)
  2. Alma y Corazon (USA)
  3. Amazon Watch (USA)
  4. Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) (Regional-Americas)
  5. Colombia Human Rights Committee (USA)
  6. Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia)
  7. EarthRights International (Amazon)
  8. Indigenous Environmental Network (USA)
  9. Mujer U’wa (USA)
  10. Perifèries del món (Spanish State)
  11. Rainforest Action Network (USA)
  12. Rete Numeri Pari (Italy)
  13. University of California Irvine Community Resilience Projects (USA)
  14. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) (USA)
  15. Wayunkerra Indigenous Women’s Initiative (Switzerland)
  16. Yaku (Italy)

Tags: ELN, False Positives, Indigenous Communities

June 11, 2020

Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia

Lea en español

On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.

What is an “SFAB?”

On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country. 

Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”

Is this a big deployment? Is it new?

A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.

While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations. 

Is this about Venezuela?

U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.” 

The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.

If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.

The U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?

The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.

The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:

  • Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
  • The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
  • The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
  • The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
  • The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.

Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.

Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers. 

That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.

The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.

We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.

Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?

The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.

The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up. 

If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.

The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.

Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”

Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.

It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.

This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.

Tags: Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, Stabilization, U.S. Policy, Venezuela Crisis, Zonas Futuro

June 1, 2020

Open letter to the Department of State on Colombian military intelligence abuse

May 22, 2020

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg
U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota

Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,

We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers.  As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.

This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services.  In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rights report, targeted killings and forced disappearances.  In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters.  In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda.  In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists.  In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.

The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy.  The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings.  For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone.  This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy.  It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders.  The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.

We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”

As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves:   What can ensure that this never happens again?

At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:

  • Support the creation of an independent group of experts under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and recommend steps to achieve justice and non-repetition.
  • Press for a thorough review of military doctrine and training to ensure that it promotes a proper understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society, including the role of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, and an independent judiciary. While the written doctrine was revised during the Santos Administration, clearly improvements to doctrine are not being followed.  The review should seek an accounting for the too-frequent episodes of senior military behavior that contradicts this revised doctrine.  Such a review must have input from Colombian human rights defenders and judicial experts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
  • Urge the Colombian government to provide all necessary protection measures, agreed upon with the targeted individuals and organizations, to ensure their physical and psychological integrity, as well as that of those around them.
  • Urge the Colombian government to purge all intelligence files, whether of state security forces or other organizations, collected on human rights organizations, finally addressing the long-standing demand by human rights organizations, unfulfilled for nearly a quarter century. 
  • Urge the Colombian government to reveal publicly the full extent of illegal intelligence operations targeting civil society activists, politicians, judges, and journalists, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives. 
  • The administration should direct DNI, CIA, NSA and DIA to inform congressional intelligence, armed services and foreign relations and foreign affairs committees of their conclusions on the full extent of illegal Colombian intelligence operations, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives.  The administration should direct the same agencies to inform these congressional committees whether and when the U.S. government learned of these actions by the Colombian military and intelligence services and whether U.S. intelligence agencies cooperated with their counterparts even after learning of those actions.
  • Investigate whether recipients of U.S. training and/or equipment participated in ordering or implementing these illegal activities and immediately suspend individuals and units involved from receiving U.S. training and equipment, per the Leahy Law.
  • Suspend all U.S. support for Colombia’s military and intelligence services if the Colombian government does not immediately suspend and promptly investigate and prosecute officials who ordered and executed these illegal activities and conduct the thorough review and rewriting of military doctrine and training mentioned above.

If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end.  Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.

Sincerely,

Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey
Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC
Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York
Colombian Studies Group, The New School
International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)
Oxfam America
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
School of the Americas Watch
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Military and Human Rights, Press Freedom, U.S. Policy

May 26, 2020

Video of WOLA’s May 19 event: Colombian Military Espionage—An Attack on Post-Conflict Reformers and the Free Press

On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.

The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.

In English and Spanish:

Full English translation:

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Press Freedom, U.S. Policy

May 23, 2020

Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

Listen to the podcast above, or download the .mp3 file.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Audio, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Podcast, U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

May 20, 2020

The State of Human Rights in Colombia: Military Espionage, COVID-19, and Ongoing Abuses

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

Since our last urgent action Colombia’s weekly magazine Semana revealed that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. We at WOLA find this to be completely unacceptable . On Tuesday, May 19 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, WOLA is hosting, alongside other human rights organizations, a webinar with several of the persons targeted by this illegal espionage. We encourage you to join us to hear their perspectives and recommendations on what should be done to redress this. In this document, you will find summarized statements made by several civil society groups about this scandal. You can join the webinar by registering here.

Additionally, WOLA produced a short video about the violence faced by social leaders in Colombia. The video asks U.S. authorities to call on the Iván Duque administration to protect social leaders, prioritize investigations of the assassinations, and prioritize full implementation of the peace accords.

We also take this opportunity to update you on developments on the April 25 request to President Duque by Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal persons asking for the creation of an Afro-Colombian Emergency Fund. The Ministry of Health announced that it will designate a person to manage the COVID-19 emergency in the Colombian Pacific. However, details of who this will be or how this person/office will function are not clear. CONPA and others are asking for that to be determined as soon as possible. It should be done in full consultation with Afro-Colombian authorities. Secondly, a special education plan is required for Afrodescendants living in areas with limited internet capacity. Virtual learning is not reaching most children in shantytowns and rural areas because they do not have computers and/or the technical capacity to access school in this manner. Lastly, CONPA insists that the government advance humanitarian accords with the ELN that provide protection to civilians and communities caught up in conflict. We were disappointed by last week’s developments that run counter to peace in Colombia. Please see our May 14 statement Inaccurate Trump Administration Charges Against Cuba Damage Prospects for Peace Talks in Colombia and Elsewhere.

The following are summaries of the human rights situations and cases we received that require action. We have divided them into three parts: military intelligence scandal, COVID-19 related concerns, and human rights abuses.

Military Intelligence Espionage

Illegal Military Surveillance Targeting Social Leaders

On May 10, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJPcondemned the illicit surveillance carried out by the Colombian army’s intelligence units on social leaders Luz Marina Cuchumbe and Jani Rita Silva and CIJP staff Father Alberto Franco and Danilo Rueda. They make clear that strong measures must be taken to protect the whistleblowers in this case.

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Public Health, Security Deterioration

May 19, 2020

Webinar on Tuesday: Colombian Military Espionage—An Attack on Post-Conflict Reformers and the Free Press

Cross-posted from WOLA’s website. RSVP for the online event there.

Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WFP), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, the Colombia Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International USA for an online forum.

On May 1, 2020, the Colombian weekly news magazine Semana revealed that Colombian military intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance on more than 130 individuals between February and December 2019.  Among those targeted were human rights defenders, Colombian and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and members of the military. Several were targeted for reporting, documenting, or representing families of victims of extrajudicial killings, and for bringing to light other grave abuses.

This illegal espionage is not a new phenomenon. In 2011, Colombia’s former intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Directorate (DAS), was dismantled after revelations in 2009 that it was illegally wiretapping and monitoring the activities of civil society leaders, judges, and politicians. The recent revelations by Semana raise the question: why is this a recurring problem in Colombia, and what needs to happen to secure accountability and at last bring about much-needed reforms to Colombian army intelligence and military doctrine?  

Journalists, human rights defenders, and military whistleblowers are carrying out crucial work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices amid a fragile security situation in post-conflict Colombia. When units in the military criminalize this work, it undermines efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic Colombia. What should be done to guarantee the end to illicit surveillance of social leaders? What role can the U.S. government play in achieving accountability, given its status as Colombia’s top military donor and trainer? How can the Organization of American States and the United Nations guarantee protection, justice, and non-repetition of such crimes? What are the implications of these revelations for Colombia’s 2016 peace accord?

To help answer these questions, we invite you to join us for a webinar with individuals targeted by this illegal surveillance and with Colombia human rights experts.

Event Details:

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. GMT-4 (Washington, D.C.)

12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. GMT-5 (Bogotá, Colombia)

*RSVP Required*

Featuring:

Danilo Rueda

Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace

WOLA Human Rights Award Winner 2015

César Jerez

Land rights leader

Jomary Ortegón

José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCA-JAR)

Iván Cepeda

Senator, Senate of the Republic of Colombia

John Otis

Colombia-based journalist for NPR and WSJ

Nicolas Bedoya

Photojournalist, VELA Collective

Commentaries by:

Adam Isacson

Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

Viviana Kristicevic

Executive Director, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)

Lisa Haugaard

Executive Director, Latin America Working Group (LAWG)

Moderated by:

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli

Director for the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

Simultaneous interpretation into English and Spanish will be available.

Instructions for webinar access will be emailed to registered participants.

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Military and Human Rights, Press Freedom

May 17, 2020

Inaccurate Trump Administration Charges Against Cuba Damage Prospects for Peace Talks in Colombia and Elsewhere

Cross-posted from wola.org / Español

On May 12, the Department of State notified Congress that Cuba and other countries were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015. In its statement, the State Department referred to Cuba’s denial of Colombia’s request for the extradition of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) leaders who are stranded in Havana after broken-off peace talks, and the presence of fugitives wanted by U.S. authorities who have lived in Cuba for decades. These politically motivated charges, aimed at pleasing U.S. political constituencies, undermine existing U.S.-Cuba security cooperation as well as the possibility of peace negotiations in Colombia and potentially elsewhere. 

The sanctions attached to the “non-cooperation” designation—a prohibition on the sale or export of defense equipment and services to the designated country—do not have practical consequences for Cuba, since U.S. embargo regulations already prohibit the sale of defense-related equipment and services. However, this designation further poisons the diplomatic atmosphere between Cuba and the United States. 

Designating Cuba as “non-cooperative” might be one step short of returning the country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba was officially removed from the list in 2015).  The rationale cited by the State Department for labeling Cuba as “non-cooperative”   is similar to the justifications previous administrations invoked for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list. 

Since Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, the U.S. government and Cuba have deepened security cooperation on issues of mutual interest for mutual benefits. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in the signature of a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement issues, where both governments committed to expanding operational collaboration on counter-terrorism, illicit drug traffic, cybercrime, and cybersecurity, among other issues. In addition, both governments established specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases including counterterrorism.

The most recent public technical meeting took place in January of 2018 between the Cuban Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, who highlighted the importance of cooperation in these areas and agreed to continue the technical meetings in the future

One of the factors cited by the State Department for Cuba’s 2015 removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list was Cuba’s critical role in the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In May 2018, Colombia’s government, the ELN guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host peace talks between Colombia and the ELN, which had been taking place in Ecuador. Cuba and Norway were serving as “guarantor countries” for those talks, aimed at ending a conflict that began in 1964. 

In April 2016, at the outset of the talks, all involved —including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These stated clearly that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was much more skeptical about peace talks. In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police academy, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government did not honor the protocols governing a breakdown of talks. It demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves continue to demand to be allowed to leave Cuba, as detailed in the protocols that Colombia’s government signed.

The communities where the ELN operates have consistently pleaded with the Colombian government to engage in exploratory peace talks with the guerrilla group, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These recent actions by the U.S. and Colombian governments disregard the security and well-being of afro-colombians, indigenous, and rural farmers who have no alternative but to deal with the negative implications of illegal groups like the ELN that operate in their territories. Rather than create obstacles to consolidating peacemaking efforts, the Colombian government should be taking all possible steps to create the conditions needed to reinstate dialogue and work towards establishing a durable peace. 

The “non-cooperation” designation sets a damaging precedent for future peace processes.

It sends the message that if a state agrees to host peace talks, and doesn’t violate its word, that state could still face severe consequences for its contribution to global peace and security. In Colombia, as reprehensible as the ELN’s actions were, this sends a perverse message to any group that might decide to enter into a future peace process with the government. 

Ultimately, this step by the Trump administration undermines ongoing cooperation on national security and law enforcement cooperation between Cuba and the United States, while undercutting effective international diplomacy.

Tags: Counter-Terrorism, ELN, ELN Peace Talks, U.S. Policy

May 14, 2020

COVID-19: a Window of Opportunity for Negotiations With the ELN?

By Gwen Burnyeat and Andrei Gomez-Suarez at Rodeemos el Diálogo on April 25, 2020. Cross-posted with permission.

There has been recent speculation about whether the COVID-19 pandemic might offer a window of opportunity for reigniting negotiations between the government of Iván Duque and Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), at war with the state since 1964. These speculations stem principally from two unilateral gestures, one by the ELN, one by the Duque government.

First, on 29 March, Duque’s High Commissioner for Peace, Miguel Ceballos, re-designated two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres, as “Peace Promoters”, a role given to members or ex-members of armed groups who commit to contributing with their experience to paving the way for peace negotiations with illegal armed groups, while the government suspends any legal process against them for their actions in that group. Galán and Torres, who both formally dropped out of the ELN and demobilised many years ago, had previously been designated by the administration of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) as “peace promoters”. In January 2019, after the ELN detonated a car bomb in the General Santander National Police Academy, killing 23 people, Duque had cancelled the status of all peace promoters, reactivating arrest warrants against them. In addition to Galán and Torres, this included active ELN members Juan Carlos Cuéllar and Eduardo Martínez, who had also been designated peace promoters. Galán and Cuéllar were captured; Martínez and Torres went into hiding. Galán and Torres were wanted on charges against the whole of the ELN Central Command (COCE) for a 1999 kidnapping, in which they did not participate because they were imprisoned at the time, but until this investigation is formally closed, they need a presidential pardon to walk freely.

Second, on 30 March, the ELN declared a unilateral ceasefire for the whole of April. In their accompanying statement, the ELN emphasised that this decision responded to the request made by UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, for a global ceasefire during the coronavirus pandemic, a petition echoed by millions of people worldwide, including UN officials in Colombia who specifically called on the ELN to cease hostilities and alleviate the humanitarian dimension of the current crisis.

Both these unilateral gestures are encouraging. However, to be realistic about the possibilities of new negotiations between the government and the ELN, and to understand the challenges and opportunities these gestures offer, it is necessary to consider the perspectives of both sides. We draw on public statements by both sides, closed-door meetings with key stakeholders, and a recent public dialogue organised by Rodeemos el Diálogo with various experts on the possibilities of a peace process with the ELN, to try to put ourselves in the shoes of each.

Contextualising the Perspectives of Each Side: “Resistance” versus “Legality”

Neither the ELN nor the Duque government are homogenous entities. Both are complex ecosystems, each with their own internal dynamics, identity narratives, political power balances, and ideas about how Colombian public opinion perceives them. 

The ELN, Colombia’s oldest insurgency, ideologically rooted in Marxism and Liberation Theology, has over 4000 fighters, and has steadily expanded its geographical control to areas previously controlled by the FARC. The ELN’s cohesion is based on shared ideological commitments held by a number of local factions with great territorial diversity and considerable autonomy. The COCE’s decisions fluctuate according to dynamic interaction across its factional and geographical complexity, and between moderates and hardliners. The ELN’s Fifth Congress in 2014 reached a consensus on exploring peace negotiations with the Santos government – an expression of the moderate wing having the upper hand. An exploratory phase followed, which resulted in formal negotiations beginning formally in February 2017 in Quito, with the announcement of a formal six-point agenda

Between October 2017 and January 2018, a virtuous cycle of unilateral and bilateral gestures led to a hundred-day bilateral ceasefire, which included a hybrid monitoring mechanism comprising representatives of the international community and Colombian civil society. While this bilateral ceasefire was welcomed by pro-peace networks as it alleviated humanitarian suffering, the ELN and the government had different interpretations as to what constituted breaches of the ceasefire, and it was ultimately not possible to extend it. Paradoxically, what was meant to be a trust-building step created a major deadlock in the negotiations. This, compounded by the short time that the Santos government had left in power, the ELN’s growing criticism of the government’s implementation of the Havana Peace Agreement signed with the FARC in 2016, and the ELN’s kidnapping of two Ecuadorian journalists, among other things, derailed progress of the negotiations under Santos. The support within the ELN and among their sympathisers shifted towards the hard-line faction, which does not see a negotiated peace as a viable solution, and rather supports the strengthening of the ELN’s military might to continue what they see as their resistance against an unchanging oligarchy.

President Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, won the 2018 elections on a promise of drastically modifying the Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and taking a hard-liner stance with the ELN. Governments themselves are complex dynamic ecosystems within the wider state structure, comprising multiple people and institutions, immersed in relationships within themselves, with various players in the political establishment, with their political opposition, and with Colombian public opinion.

Duque’s political capital draws overwhelmingly on the support of ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010), today Senator, whose popularity rested on his ‘democratic security’ policy, and who had staunchly opposed the negotiations with the FARC, leading to the triumph of the ‘No’ vote in the 2016 Peace Referendum. However, his government also comprises a key alliance with the Conservative Party, via his vice-president Marta Lucía Ramírez, and multiple other alliances with national and local-level politicians of different parties.

When Duque took power in August 2018, the ELN negotiation team was in Havana, where the negotiations were transferred in May 2018. They waited there and stated publicly their willingness to continue the dialogue with the new government. Duque announced that he would evaluate the state of the negotiations before taking a definitive decision. His government consistently pushed for the release of all the ELN’s hostages and the cessation of all criminal activities as conditions for negotiating. The ELN, in turn, argued that such actions would be made in a series of bilateral humanitarian gestures, as negotiations progressed.

Meanwhile, the negotiations remained frozen, no government delegation arrived in Havana, and the conflict intensified in regions such as Catatumbo, Cauca, Chocó and Nariño. With the ELN’s car bomb in January 2019 Duque formally ended the negotiations, saying the ELN did not show a willingness for peace, and requested an Interpol warrant against the ELN negotiation delegates in Cuba. He urged Cuba and Norway, both guarantors to the Santos negotiations with the ELN, to ignore protocols signed with his predecessor which guaranteed the safe return of the ELN negotiation team to the Colombian jungle in the case of breakdown of peace talks, and return the negotiators to Colombia to be arrested. 

Ever since, two members of the ELN COCE (Nicolás Rodríguez and Pablo Beltrán) have remained in Havana (Cuba decided to respect the protocols), giving frequent press interviews expressing their wish to reignite negotiations, urging Duque to send a negotiation team to continue with the existing negotiation agenda, as it was an agenda signed with the Colombian state. The Duque government, meanwhile, contends that the previous agenda was signed with the Santos government, and that new negotiations would require a new agenda. Duque continues to emphasise further unilateral permanent gestures by the ELN as conditions for negotiating, especially hostage release and cessation of criminal activities, in line with his government’s key slogan, “peace with legality”.

Interpreting the Unilateral Gestures

While some observers speculated that the gesture by the ELN to declare a ceasefire and the gesture by the Duque government to re-instate Felipe Torres and Francisco Galán as peace promoters was a sign of secret negotiations being underway, the public statement by the ELN rejecting Torres and Galán as legitimate facilitators of dialogue, and their subsequent declaration on 27 April, announcing the end of the unilateral ceasefire, confirmed that these two unilateral gestures coincided by chance. Nevertheless, both gestures are encouraging in their own right, if we take them in the context of each side’s perspectives.

The ELN tends to reject unilateral gestures, claiming that the government does not see them as a gesture of a strong group willing to make concessions and pave the way to peace collaboratively between two antagonists, but rather as a show of weakness. The ELN’s gesture is thus suggestive of a possible shift towards a consensus at least on seeking a way to alleviate humanitarian suffering. The compliance of all the ELN’s Fronts with the ceasefire so far (between 1-22 April there were zero attacks by the ELN) is also positive, considering the ELN’s geographical fragmentation and non-vertical hierarchy, and is indicative of the COCE’s capacity of command and control. The Colombian army has not instigated any attack since 12 March, which suggests that the government is likewise prioritising the response to the Coronavirus crisis. This convergence of unilateral strategies has materialised in a tacit truce, which could nurture a virtuous cycle of decisions that lead to long-term de-escalation of the conflict. Many sectors of civil society and the international community have welcomed the positive impact of the ceasefire in the lives of war-torn communities. 

However, this cannot be misinterpreted as a step towards the opening of a negotiation table, and a shift within the ELN towards a consensus for a negotiated peace. On the contrary, the geopolitics around Venezuela offer a ripe context for a radicalisation of the ELN. Donald Trump’s constant threats to the Maduro regime and Duque’s confrontational approach to Venezuela reinforce the ELN’s self-perception of being a bastion of resistance against global neoliberalism and fascism. The unilateral ceasefire thus could also be read as a move to regain international legitimacy in the global context of failing neoliberal democracies, and position themselves as standing against Trump. 

The Duque administration’s gesture of reinstating Torres and Galán as peace promoters suggests of a willingness within at least one sector of the government to take tangible steps towards peace, responding to the many calls by pro-peace sectors of Colombian civil society and the international community for the government to seek a “complete peace” – one that encompasses all illegal armed groups in the country. Just as an insurgency has harder and more moderate positions internally, which fluctuate in power and visibility according to the unfolding political present, so does a government. The intensifying violence of the conflict with the ELN, and the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan migrants arriving in Colombia, have now been compounded by the coronavirus crisis. Pro-peace elements within the government now have the opportunity to elevate the protection of life as the central mandate of the Duque administration, beyond the scrabbles of right/left sectarianism which have thus far dominated its political narratives, in which it has been stuck since coming to power on the basis of opposing Santos and his peace process. 

Possibilities and Challenges for Peace: Opening the Window of Opportunity

Peace is not a linear process. Even if these two unilateral gestures do not immediately bring the parties to a negotiation table, they give oxygen to pro-peace elements in the government, in the wider political establishment, among Colombian civil society and in the international community. 

The impacts of these positive gestures must be recognised and protected, to allow the possibility of a window to be opened that could eventually bring back the derailed negotiations. For example, multi-party political platform Defendamos la Paz has increased their lobby for negotiations, calling on the ELN to extend the ceasefire or even make it permanent, and for the government to respond in kind. Importantly, Álvaro Uribe has also made statements in support of peace via Twitter, adding his voice to the international call for ceasefires in the context of coronavirus, and encouraging the re-designation of Felipe Torres and Francisco Galán as peace promoters. Uribe’s support would be crucial for any future dialogue to prosper, as his influence would determine not only the outlook of the Democratic Centre party, but could could also shape public opinion towards negotiations with the ELN.

We see four interdependent and mutually reinforcing conditions as essential for a future Duque-ELN negotiation. First, the Duque government needs to show both sufficient political will and political capital to engage successfully in peace negotiations. Second, the ELN must build sufficient consensus internally to commit to a negotiated solution to the conflict, and accepting that this may have to look different to what they envisaged when they committed to negotiating with the Santos administration. Third, the growth in support in Colombian public opinion for an end to violence in the country. Fourth, a favourable geopolitical environment for fostering a sustainable peace in Colombia, which had been adversely affected by the Trump administration’s disdain for the 2016 Havana Peace Agreement with the FARC and the worsening of the Venezuela crisis. 

The Coronavirus pandemic is radically reshaping our world. As governments worldwide are extending lockdowns, might not the ELN similarly reconsider, and extend their ceasefire? Might increased political and citizen support crystallise around a government mandate for protecting life? And might the government continue to abstain from military engagement with the ELN, and offer an explicit unilateral gesture of de-escalation? Might the outcome of the coming US elections create a more favourable geopolitical context for future negotiations with the ELN? The transformations of political identities around the world under coronavirus will change global trends on everything from neoliberal economic policies, state welfare, populism, and community solidarity. These transformations could redefine how the Duque government and the ELN see themselves and each other, and how Colombian society feels about a negotiated solution to the conflict. The window of opportunity remains to be opened.

Tags: Ceasefire, ELN, ELN Peace Talks, Politics of Peace, Public Health

May 11, 2020