“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

WOLA’s Adam Isacson had a conversation this week about peace and security in Colombia with Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador. That newspaper posted an edited transcript of the interview to its site on the evening of November 26. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

Tags: Compliance with Commitments, Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Stabilization, U.S. Policy, WOLA Statements

November 27, 2020

Colombia peace update: Week of November 15, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Four ex-FARC members killed in a week

Four demobilized FARC combatants were assassinated this week, bringing the total of murdered ex-guerrillas to 242 since the peace accord’s December 2016 ratification. Of those, 50 happened during the first nine months of 2020, according to the UN Verification Mission.

The latest victims are:

  • Heiner Cuesta Mena alias Yilson Menas, shot November 14 in Neguá, Quibdó, Chocó.
  • Jorge Riaño, shot November 15 in Florencia, Caquetá. Riaño had left the FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in Montañita, Cauca, to raise fish and chickens with his wife and young daughter.
  • Enod López, shot on November 15 along with his wife Nerie Penna, a Conservative party municipal council representative and community leader in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. The department’s police commander blamed the “Carolina Ramírez” FARC dissident group, part of the 1st Front structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.”
  • Bryan Steven Montes alias Jairo López, shot November 19 in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo.

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino responded to Montes’s killing by calling on the government “to stop simulating the peace accord’s implementation and to implement it comprehensively.” In an article published on November 16, InsightCrime described a very precarious security situation in eight of the twenty-four former ETCRs.

At the end of October, over 200 former FARC combatants carried out a “Pilgrimage for Life and Peace” march to Bogotá to call for better protections. Twelve of the march’s leaders met on November 6 with President Iván Duque at the presidential palace.

Security Forces kill top “paramilitary” and capture a FARC dissident; a second dissident is killed in Venezuela

A November 16 army-police operation killed Emiliano Alcides Osorio Macea, alias “Caín” or “Pilatos,” the head of the “Caparros” neo-paramilitary group. “Caín” reportedly died in combat as forces raided a ranch in Tarazá, in northeastern Antioquia’s violent Bajo Cauca region.

Osorio, a longtime paramilitary who demobilized from the AUC’s Antioquia-based Mineros Bloc in 2006, was what the authorities consider a “high value target.” With over 400 estimated members, the Caparros, also known as the Caparrapos or the Virgilio Peralta Arena Bloc, is one of the larger single-region armed groups active in Colombia. It split off in early 2017 from the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization and, possibly in tandem with the ELN and FARC dissidents, has been violently disputing control of the Bajo Cauca region and neighboring southern Córdoba. It is believed responsible for several killings of local social leaders. It is doubtful that the death of Caín will reduce violence in this territory, which sees much coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.

Another mid-level commander, in this case of the dissident group headed by former chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, was killed in Venezuela this week. Venezuelan forces killed Olivio Iván Merchán, alias “Loco Iván,” under unclear circumstances in Venezuela’s Bolívar state. Merchán was a FARC member for more than 30 years, part of the military command (estado mayor) of the powerful Eastern Bloc. He demobilized in 2017. He joined Iván Márquez’s “Nuevo Marquetalia” dissident group when it formed in 2019.

Researcher Miguel Ángel Morffe told El Espectador that Venezuelan forces either killed “Loco Iván” by mistake, or that they did it at the bidding of his fellow dissidents who wanted him dead for some reason. Morffe saw little possibility that Venezuelan forces did so out of a desire to keep order.

Meanwhile in rural La Macarena, Meta, an Army-Fiscalía team wounded and captured Rolan Arnulfo Torres Huertas, alias Álvaro Boyaco, whom the government identified as the “finance chief” for Gentil Duarte, who heads what is probably the largest national FARC dissident group.

Military questioned for misogynistic chants

Adriana Villegas, a columnist for the La Patria newspaper in Manizales, Caldas, lives across the street from the base of the Colombian Army’s Ayacucho Battalion. Soldiers on training drills routinely run past her house, chanting cadence rhymes.

On October 18, Villegas wrote a column about the content of some of those rhymes, which alarmed her and her daughter. We won’t reproduce them here; they included some vivid imagery about committing violence against girlfriends, mothers, mothers-in-law, and women related to their enemies.

Villegas’s cause got taken up by a local feminist group and the president of the Caldas legislature, who called on the Army to apologize. It did not: it issued a statement maintaining that the misogynistic cadences were not part of training or doctrine. The Battalion’s commander called Villegas for more information, a conversation during which, she noted, he kept calling her “doctorcita” and insisted that the misogynistic rhymes were “an isolated case.”

Colombia’s Free Press Federation (FLIP) got involved after Villegas received citations from the Battalion calling on her to their base to give a statement. While this may be part of the Battalion’s internal investigation, Villegas said she found the formal requests intimidating.

“I regret that the Army is wasting this opportunity to recognize a problem and, instead, is assuming an attitude of denial,” Villegas wrote in her November 15 column.

Other links

  • Hurricane Iota passed over the Colombian Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés y Providencia as a Category 5 storm. On Providencia, El Tiempo reports, “There is no house that hasn’t suffered damage. And the majority are destroyed.”
  • A Guardian longread by Mariana Palau, about the “False Positives” scandal and former Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, is a nuanced portrait of 21st century Colombia.
  • In an El Espectador blog post, an unnamed scholar who spent months accompanying military personnel at Colombia’s Superior War College is struck by officers’ frustration with forced coca eradication, which “turns the campesinos into enemies.”
  • Colombia’s Senate passed a bill extending for another 10 years the “sunset date” for Colombia’s 2011 Victims’ Law, which was to expire in 2021. It goes to President Duque’s desk for signature.
  • Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación visited an encampment of FARC dissidents in Cauca, and published an overview in El Espectador of these violent groups, dividing them into three coalitions or categories.

Tags: Weekly update

November 21, 2020

Colombia peace update: Week of November 8, 2020

WOLA had a good experience this fall producing weekly updates, on a pilot basis, about U.S. border security and migration. Between now and the end of the year, we’re carrying out a similar pilot for Colombia, producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Revelations about Santrich case point to entrapment

The Bogotá daily El Espectador reported on November 8 that 24,000 audios from the Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) pointed to “an entrapment operation against guerrilla negotiators,” with a possible political motive against the FARC peace accord.

The revelations surround the case of Seuxis Pausías Hernández alias “Jesús Santrich,” a top FARC ideologist. The nearly blind Santrich was close to Luciano Marín alias “Iván Márquez,” the politically radical top leader who led the guerrilla group’s negotiating team during the 2012-16 peace talks. Santrich was a vocal member of that team.

  • In April 2018, just before he was to be sworn in as one of the FARC’s five members of Colombia’s House of Representatives, Santrich was arrested for conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. Video showed him in a meeting with purported Mexican narcotraffickers.
  • The meeting was arranged by Márquez’s nephew, Marlon Marín, who was not a FARC member and was under investigation for improprieties in peace accord implementation contracts.
  • At the Mexicans’ insistence, Marín drew Santrich into a scheme to ship cocaine to the United States, bringing him into the meeting recorded on video.
  • The narcotraffickers were, in fact, DEA personnel. The U.S. government requested Santrich’s extradition, and brought Marlon Marín to the United States, where he is now a protected witness.
  • A year later, in May 2019, after failing to get compelling evidence out of the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) or the U.S. Department of Justice, the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) ordered Santrich’s release. The decision led an infuriated chief prosecutor Néstor Humberto Martínez to resign.
  • Santrich was then sworn into Congress, but disappeared shortly afterward. He and Iván Márquez turned up again in late August 2019, in a video announcing that they and other former FARC leaders had rearmed.

The episode dealt the FARC peace process its severest blow. Now, the El Espectador revelations cast doubt on the extent to which Santrich was involved in the fake drug deal. This appears to be a case of entrapment, involving the DEA and former prosecutor-general Martínez, who had bitterly opposed the peace accord’s transitional justice provisions.

The Fiscalía’s 24,000 audio clips are mainly Marlon Marín’s intercepted communications. In the weeks leading up to Santrich’s arrest, the newspaper notes, “the calls between the ‘Mexicans’ and Marín were many and extensive, and in almost all of them the fundamental characteristic was the former’s insistence on putting Marín on the phone with the former chief peace negotiator of the Farc, Iván Márquez.” They failed to do that, but Marín did get them a brief meeting with Santrich.

The revelations have the Fiscalía under a cloud. “There remains the feeling that the Fiscalía did everything possible to sabotage the reputation and actions of the JEP,” contends an El Espectador editorial. “It is regrettable to find that there was ‘friendly fire’ with something as delicate as the treatment of former Farc combatants.” At a November 11 press conference, the JEP’s new director, Eduardo Cifuentes, said that the Fiscalía had shared very little evidence from the Santrich case with his tribunal, turning over only 12 audios and keeping the remaining 24,000 secret.

As for the former chief prosecutor, Néstor Humberto Martínez: President Iván Duque’s government has just named him to be its next ambassador to Spain.

US Senate reveals its draft 2021 aid bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill on November 10. The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. The House of Representatives passed its version of the aid bill in July.

As our latest table of aid to Colombia shows, the two chambers’ foreseen amounts don’t differ widely. The House would appropriate $458 million, and the Senate $456 million. (Another $55-60 million or so would come through the Defense budget.)

Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate a bit less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total. It also contrasts with the Trump administration’s aid request, which would have slashed economic aid in a $413 million aid package.

Like the House bill, the Senate attaches human rights conditions to a portion of Foreign Military Financing aid, and specifies that some support go to the Truth Commission and the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (but not the JEP).

The Senate appropriators’ bill also requires the State Department to produce a report about Colombian government actions to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for illegal military intelligence spying on civilians.

Here are links to the Senate bill and explanatory report, and to the House bill (see Division A) and explanatory report.

Links

  • Rodrigo Pardo (who has since joined the parade of journalists abandoning Semana magazine, where this appears) writes that Colombia can expect more U.S. engagement on the peace accord once Joe Biden is inaugurated.
  • La Silla Vacía believes Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, former vice-president Fransicso Santos, is staying in his post. This despite allegations by his cousin, ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, that the ambassador actively sought to help the Trump campaign.
  • “The proliferation of coca cultivations in southwestern Colombia undermines black and indigenous struggles for autonomy,” writes Lehman College’s Anthony Dest (formerly of WOLA’s Colombia program) in an article based on fieldwork in Cauca.
  • The FARC admitted on November 3 that it had twice tried to kill former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras. The right-of-center politician responded in a column that he wants to know the full truth about what happened, and that the JEP should be allowed to work to do that.

Tags: Weekly update

November 14, 2020

Latest table of aid to Colombia

Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill this morning. And two weeks ago, a Congressional Research Service report revealed new data about Defense Department assistance.

The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. This table depicts the White House’s February request and the House and Senate versions of the bill. The two chambers’ amounts don’t differ widely.

Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total.

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. Congress, U.S. Policy

November 10, 2020

International Civil Society Organizations Reject Stigmatizing Claims against the Humanitarian Caravan to Cañón del Micay in the Cauca department

On November 5, the Cooperation Space for Peace, which WOLA forms part of, published a statement to reject the stigmatizing claims against the Humanitarian Caravan to Cañón del Micay in the Cauca department.

Between October 29 and November 2, Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities from Cañón del Micay, a region located between the municipalities of Argelia and El Tambo in the Cauca department, organized a Humanitarian Caravan that sought to raise awareness of and reject the violence experienced by these communities.

However, according to the statement, the work of these social movements and the lives of these individuals are at risk due to the stigmatizing declarations made by Emilio Archila, Presidential Counsellor for Stabilization and Consolidation. He referred to the Caravan’s actions as “pure politicking” from sectors that “use violent acts to continue dividing Colombians.”

The Cooperation Space for Peace notes that the stigmatization of human rights defenders, based on their advocacy work, increases the risk of attacks and violations targeted against them. The statement calls on the State to assume measures to investigate these cases and bring the intellectual and material authors of the incidents, denounced by the Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations and populations in the region, to justice.

It asks the international community to urge the Colombian government to take comprehensive measures in coordination with the communities to address the structural causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Cauca department, and to urge Colombian government officials to refrain from making defamatory statements that increase the life-threatening risks to social leaders and human rights defenders.

You can find the original, Spanish-language statement here.
An English-language translation of the statement is here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Cauca, Human Rights Defenders

November 5, 2020

Trump, “Castro-chavismo,” and the Centro Democrático

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

Published in Colombia’s Razón Pública, October 19, 2020léalo en español

Petro, Santos and Uribe in the Trump Campaign

As though the Cold War never ended, Donald Trump has accused Joe Biden of being a “communist” during the election campaign.

The accusation is ridiculous: Biden is part of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; in 2000 the human rights community criticized him for vigorously supporting the military component of Plan Colombia. And of course Biden is strongly opposed to Nicolas Maduro.

But we know that Trump doesn’t care about the truth. On October 10 he tweeted, “Joe Biden is a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS (…) Biden is supported by socialist Gustavo Petro, a major LOSER and former M-19 guerrilla leader. Biden is weak on socialism and will betray Colombia.”

That same day, the president-candidate congratulated Alvaro Uribe upon being freed from his house arrest and said that he was “an ally of our Country in the fight against CASTRO-CHAVISMO!”

In an October 12 speech in Florida, Trump said: “My opponent stands with socialists and communists.… The last administration also negotiated the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels. They surrendered to the narco-terrorists. They surrendered, totally gave up to them, and that caused illicit drugs all over this country. Joe Biden even received the endorsement of Colombian socialist Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M19 Guerrilla organization. And he took it, because you know why? he didn’t know who the hell it was. He said, ‘I’ll take it. I’ll take whoever. And they said, no, he’s a bad guy, Joe. He’s actually a bad guy.’”

During his campaign, Trump has released Spanish-language videos targeting the Hispanic community:

  • A Spanish-language video from his campaign entitled “Castrochavismo,” repeating what he said in his speech.
  • In another video from August, Mercedes Schlapp thanks Gustavo Petro for making it clear that he supports Biden. Schalapp is a right-wing activist from a Florida Cuban-American family. Her husband heads the American Conservative Union, one of the country’s leading far-right think tanks.

The Latino vote in Florida, a decisive vote

Why does Trump use the word “Castrochavismo,” invented in Colombia by Uribismo? The answer is: Florida.

In the semi-democratic U.S. system, a candidate can be president even if he doesn’t have a majority of votes, if he wins a majority of states—as Trump did in 2016 and Bush did in 2000. It takes 270 electoral votes to be elected, and Florida represents 11% of that number.

Trump has no chance of being re-elected on November 3 if he does not win the state of Florida and its 29 electoral votes.

For Trump, the polls show a possible humiliating defeat due to his failed response to COVID-19 and a host of political and personal offenses. That’s why Joe Biden has a national lead of more than 10 percentage points. In Florida, a somewhat more Republican-leaning state than average, Biden has a smaller lead of 3 or 4 points.

Florida, in turn, is a state where elections are often very close, so the vote of the Latino community—approximately 2.4 million voters—is a really decisive factor.

Biden has an important, but not huge, advantage in the Latino community: 54% to 43%, according to a survey released by St. Pete Polls on October 12, which gave Biden a 49-47 advantage among all voters in the state.

To win in Florida, Trump has to decrease the number of Latinos voting for Biden. And this is not impossible: Even though Biden has a two-to-one margin in national polls of Latino voters, that population in Florida tends to be more to the right.

The Colombian Right in Florida

In Florida, Cuban Americans are the largest ethnic group of Latino voters, followed by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and, in fourth place, Colombians. The Venezuelan community is also growing rapidly.

Unlike Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans are more likely to have upper-middle class origins. To emigrate, they generally had enough money to pay for a plane ticket and hire an immigration attorney. Many fled from leftist regimes, like Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Others, like the Colombians, fled kidnapping, extortion, and insecurity during the FARC’s zenith.

Many members of that population are frightened off by any odor of communism or socialism. Their right-wing views are strengthening thanks to Miami radio programs, extremist publications inserted into newspapers, and messages or memes shared on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social networks.

The results of the 2018 Colombian elections and the 2016 plebiscite show a trend toward uribismo among Colombians in the United States who are eligible to vote in Colombia. In the United States, Duque won the first round in 2018 with 71% of votes, and the second round with 85%, while “No” won the 2016 plebiscite with 62%.

The Colombian community in the United States sometimes supports Democratic candidates, but has an affinity with the Centro Democrático party. That is why Trump’s campaign uses the label “Castro-Chavismo” and accuses Biden of being a communist.

Uribe behind the scenes

Journalist Tim Padgett has investigated this direct connection between the Centro Democrático and the Trump campaign: how else would Trump know about the existence of Gustavo Petro, an “Obama-Biden-Santos pact,” or the word “Castro-chavista”?

Padgett says that the key moment was a dinner for Alvaro Uribe with Senator Marco Rubio and House member Mario Diaz-Balart, both legislators from the Cuban-American Republican right. According to Juan Pablo Salas, a Colombian analyst, “Before Alvaro Uribe came to Miami in 2016, nobody would have attempted to accuse Joe Biden of being a communist. Now it’s not only possible, it’s having success….. Alvaro Uribe really moved the ball.”

Although it is not clear who has transmitted Uribe’s messages from Colombia to Florida, it seems that Schlapp, Democratic Center Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal, and Juan David Velez, the congressional representative for Colombians abroad, are key figures.

Response and consequences

Biden’s supporters in Florida’s Colombian and Venezuelan communities have tried to counter the Republican attacks. They have endured abuses in social media and in their communities, but insist that Trump’s authoritarianism is tantamount to what made them flee their home countries.

We will see in November if that argument proves effective and convincing. Meanwhile, Biden continues to do well in the polls.

If Biden wins, relations between Colombia and the United States will remain close and cordial. Washington has invested heavily in maintaining this bilateral relationship in a region of strategic importance. But some members of Biden’s team, who have complained of Uribe’s interference in the campaign against him, would likely loosen ties between the two countries.

While the U.S.-Colombia relationship would remain close, the relationship between Biden and Duque and the Centro Democrático would be distant. Juan Gonzalez, an advisor to Biden, says, “I actually think that relationship between President Obama and President Uribe was sometimes complicated.” The same could happen between Biden and Duque.

An example of this “cordial but distant” tone was seen in June 2009, when President Uribe visited Washington. When Uribe and Obama received journalists in the Oval Office, Colombian journalist Natalia Orozco asked both of them about Uribe’s ambition for a second re-election. Obama said that while it was an internal Colombian issue, “We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us and that after eight years, usually the American people want a change.” Obama hit Uribe’s aspirations hard.

That willingness to stay distant from the Centro Democrático, and even to damage its agenda, may be characteristic of a Biden administration.

Although Biden has a high probability of winning, what might happen with the Colombian-American vote in Florida is uncertain. In that state, the outcome will be a major test of whether uribismo’s cold-war throwback strategy of “Castro-chavismo” can be exported to other contexts. And therefore, whether it might be replicated in Colombia’s own 2022 presidential elections.

Tags: Elections, U.S. Policy

October 20, 2020

LGBT+ Groups Provide Evidence to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace About Prejudice-Based Abuses Committed Against Them During Colombia’s Armed Conflict

(Photo from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace)

On September 15, Caribe Afrimativo presented to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jursidicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) a report detailing how the Colombian armed conflict’s violence targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) people. Submitted by the organizations Casa Diversa Comuna 8 in Medellín and the Crisálida Collective in San Rafael, with the support of Lawyers Without Borders Canada and Global Affairs Canada, this historic report establishes that conflict-related violence by state forces and paramilitary groups targeted LGBT+ groups. 

Titled What We Lost (Lo que perdimos), the report submitted to the tribunal demonstrates how members of LGBT+ groups were targeted on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expressionThe acts of prejudice-based violence identified in the report’s private testimonies establish how systematic attacks against LGBT+ groups were committed to achieve territorial and social control during the conflict. State forces and paramilitary groups threatened, humiliated, arbitrarily detained, forcibly displaced, sexually abused, and assassinated members of the groups in attempts to achieve military advantage in the conflict. Through either direct participation in the grave abuses or tacit complicity in cases committed by paramilitary groups, state forces played a decisive role in this persecution – a crime against humanity.

Private testimonies recount how LGBT+ community members resorted to travelling in groups to protect themselves from constant abuses. In Comuna 8, testimonies uncover how three social leaders from Casa Diversa were forcibly displaced, causing many other members to abandon the group and the area in fear of their lives. Other abuses at the hands of the Cacique Nutibara bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), in collusion with the Army’s Fourth Brigade, occurred between 1997 and 2008. In San Rafael, the Metro Bloc of the AUC assassinated the Crisálida Collective’s leader and acted in collusion with state forces between 1997 and 2001. Collected with the help of Caribe Afirmativo since 2018, the testimonies will help the JEP hold perpetrators accountable.

Caribe Afirmativo continues to work to amplify the voices of victims and their communities in Colombia’s transitional justice system. The organization presented a report to the Truth Commission, along with numerous technical documents that record the experiences of LGBT+ victims in Colombia’s armed conflict. Previous reports submitted by Caribe Afirmativo to the JEP focus on conflict-related violence against LGBT+ people. However, the testimonies in this latest report are unique because they provide evidence on how state forces and paramilitary groups targeted the leaders of locally based LGBT+ groups, who promote fundamental rights, democratic ideals, and peace, to permanently exterminate their presence in civil society. Therefore, this is the first report submitted to the JEP that reveals how LGBT+ groups, not only LGBT+ individuals, were subject to conflict-related violence.

The transitional justice system provides a key pathway for victims to seek truth, justice, and establish memory. It allows victims to get back what was taken from them: visibility, full exercise of their rights, and peace. As indicated by JEP Judge Reinere Jaramillo, the report “activates memory in a country where violence still persists.” Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America for the LGBT+ community, despite progressive legislation and visibility. According to Colombia’s Ombudsman Office, just in 2020 thus far, over 60 LGBT+ persons have been killed. With this alarming statistic in mind, it is crucial to support the efforts of organizations and mechanisms working to understand the legacies of the past to ensure Colombia’s LGBT+ community is able to live in peace in a post-conflict setting.

A Spanish-language executive summary of the Lo que perdimos report is available here.

Tags: LGBT+, Special Jurisdiction for Peace

September 30, 2020

The Cooperation Space for Peace Condemns Widespread Instances of Police Brutality in Bogotá

On September 21, WOLA and 43 other international civil society organizations published a statement condemning widespread instances of police brutality during the recent demonstrations in Bogotá. The demonstrations were prompted by the September 9 police killing of Javier Ordóñez, which State forces responded to with disproportionate use of force against civilians exercising their rights.

According to the statement, 13 deaths were recorded, more than 400 people were injured (72 instances from firearms), and three women were sexually assaulted.

The several recommendations for the international community proposed by the organizations include: rejecting violence during peaceful demonstrations, providing sufficient guarantees for political participation, accompanying the peace process and the implementation of the 2016 accord, monitoring cases of police abuse, and supporting processes that contribute to an active and informed civic culture.

The full statement is available here.

Tags: Human Rights, Politics of Peace, Security

September 29, 2020

Action Required to Stop Massacres and Violence in Colombia

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

We remain extremely concerned about the violence taking place in Colombia namely massacres, killings and attacks against social leaders, and the abuses committed by the police in recent social protests. We encourage you to view the video of our recent Spanish-language event Social Leaders’ Perspectives on Colombia’s Recent Massacres (Perspectivas de líderes sociales sobre las recientes masacres en Colombia) to hear the perspectives and recommendations of social leaders from some of the regions most impacted by the violence. Also, we urge that you publicly condemn these violations and urge the Colombian authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Below are incidents reported to WOLA since July:

Massacres

Three Massacres in a Day (Bolívar and Antioquia)
On September 7, 12 Colombians were victims of three separate massacres that occurred in the span of 24 hours. The assassinations occurred in the municipalities El Carmen de Bolívar and Simití in the Bolívar Department and Zaragoza in the Antioquia Department. The Ombudsman’s Office had alerted authorities to the increased presence of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) in Bolívar and Antioquia and the risks their presence poses for civilians in these areas.

Three Men Killed (Cauca)
On September 5, El Espectador reported that three corpses were found tied up and abandoned in public view in Seguengue. Officials are in process of identifying the identities of the victims. This massacre occurred less than 24 hours after another massacre in Santa Fe (Nariño).

Another Massacre in Southwestern Colombia (Nariño)According to El Espectador, on September 4, four victims who died from gunshot wounds were found in the Santa Fé hamlet of the Buesaco municipality. El Tiempo identified the victims as 29-year-old Luis Alberto García Caicedo, 24-year-old Carlos Alfredo Rosero, 36-year-old José Omar Castillo Ojeda, and 25-year-old Johan Wayner Ángulo. Over six massacres were recorded in Nariño in the past month. While media reports classify the incident as a massacre, the government deployed an elite unit to search and identify the perpetrators of what it classifies as “collective homicides”. Preliminary investigations have not identified the perpetrators, but investigators believe that the deaths are a result of armed disputes about drug trafficking among illegal armed groups. State officials revealed that García Caicedo was a former ELN combatant who was under house arrest for charges related to arms trafficking. Rosero had charges against him for drugs and arms trafficking. State officials were also investigating Castillo Ojeda for intrafamily violence and Ángulo Martínez for fraud.

Three Adolescents Murdered in Another Massacre (Antioquia)
On August 23, two masked perpetrators on motorcycles shot at five people in Venecia, a town located southwest of Medellín. The attack killed three adolescents: a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and a 15-year-old. Blu Radio reported on August 24 that an investigation is underway, and authorities believe narcotrafficking gangs are responsible for the massacre.

Civil Society Denounces Massacres and Pleads with Government for Multilateral Ceasefire
On August 22, over 91 civil society groups and community action boards from southwestern Colombia published a statement addressed to President Iván Duque denouncing a recent spate of massacres. Since March 16, the signatories have requested on several occasions that the government call for a multilateral ceasefire and implement a humanitarian agreement. The signatories argue that calling for a multilateral ceasefire will help stop the ongoing massacres across the country.

Massacre Leaves Six People Dead (Cauca)
On August 21, a FARC dissident group known as the ‘Second Marquetalia’ allegedly killed six people in the municipality of El Tambo. El Tiempo reported that local officials found the bodies of the six individuals in a remote area known for disputes among armed groups for control of drug trafficking routes. According to community accounts, the six victims planned to attend a municipal meeting.

Rural Massacre (Arauca)
On August 19, unidentified gunmen assassinated five persons, who locals believe were Venezuelan, in a rural part of Arauca. Meridiano 70 reports that the incident could be linked to a robbery that was reported a few days prior.

Three Indigenous Adolescents Massacred (Nariño)
The Awá Major Council of Ricaurte (Organización Cabildo Mayor Awa de Ricaurte, CAMAWARI) mourned the August 17 assassinations of three Awá adolescents that took place in the Pialambí Pueblo Viejo Indigenous reserve. CAMAWARI reported that despite pleas they have made to the government asking for protection since April 2020, systemic murders continue to take place. The Indigenous urge the government to implement the orders of the Constitutional Court and the precautionary measures issued to protect their communities by the OAS. Effective investigations by the regional government and the offices of the Human Rights Ombudsman, Public Prosecutor, and Attorney General are required. CAMAWARI urges the National Protection Unit to provide protective measures to the communities under threat.

Five Afro-Colombian Teens Brutally Massacred (Valle del Cauca)
The National Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians (Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, AFRODES) published a statement decrying the brutal massacre of five Afro-Colombian teens in Llano Verde on August 11. Llano Verde is a neighborhood located in eastern Cali where thousands of families, who were displaced due to the internal armed conflict, reside. The victims of the massacre included Luis Fernando Montaño, Josmar Jean Paul Cruz Perlaza, Álvaro Jose Caicedo Silva, Jair Andrés Cortes Castro, and Leider Cárdenas Hurtado. All of them were between the ages of 14 and 18. Evidence of torture was found on their bodies. They were also shot with firearms and one victim had his throat slit. AFRODES calls on the authorities to not only conduct a thorough investigation leading to the prosecution of those responsible for these crimes but to also investigate the racial dimensions of this massacre.

On August 13, WOLA echoed AFRODES’ requests and urged the Colombian government to make justice, peace, and rights-respecting investment for ethnic communities a national priority. WOLA has reported on the insecurity and abuses taking place in Llano Verde and lack of effective efforts on the part of the authorities to properly protect and assist displaced communities for the past 10 years. WOLA also urges U.S. and Colombian authorities to bring the intellectual perpetrators of this crime to justice and provide effective protection for the family members of the murdered youth and the AFRODES leaders and members living in this community.

On August 26, AFRODES rejected the systematic violence enacted upon Afro-Colombian communities, including the assassination of social leaders in Valle del Cauca. According to AFRODES, Cultural House Association of Chontaduro (Asociación Casa Cultural El Chontaduro), Other Black Women and… Feminists! (otras negras y… ¡feministas!), Diverse Women (Mujeres diversas), Anti Racist Resistance (Resistencia antirracista), and “Cimarroneando” the Verb (Cimarroneando El Verbo) over 200 youths have been murdered in Llano Verde in the past seven years.

Attacks against Social Leaders

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

September 23, 2020

In a nation on edge, officials are in denial

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.

A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begged them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.

These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.

Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.

You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).

Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.

With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.

As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.

They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.

There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.

Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”

These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.

Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.

When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”

Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.

This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.

Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.

A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.

New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.

Tags: Bogotá, Human Rights, Politics of Peace

September 18, 2020

International and Colombian Organizations Advise the United Nations Security Council to Enhance Verification of the 2016 Peace Accord

On August 26, the United Nations Security Council received a statement, signed by WOLA and a wide array of Colombian and international organizations, advising the council’s members to ensure the complete implementation of the final peace accord signed by the Colombian State and the FARC. 

The statement underscores the Colombian government’s lack of political will to comprehensively fulfill the final peace accord. This weak approach has resulted in significant delays in achieving the accord’s goals of comprehensive rural reform, political participation, substitution of illicit crops, and dismantling of organized crime. 

To enable the full implementation of the final peace accord, the organizations recommend:

  • A security and vigilance plan that guarantees the lives and physical integrity of individuals undergoing reintegration and the victims of the armed conflict.
  • Continued implementation of the differentiated gender focus included in the final peace accord.
  • Verification of Resolution 2532 that calls on those still armed to abide by a multilateral ceasefire that provides humanitarian relief to violently targeted rural, ethnic communities.

You can read the original, Spanish statement here.

The English text is below:

The organizations and platforms signed would like to express our gratitude to the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres, countries belonging to the Security Council, and the Verification Mission on Colombia for supporting the Final Peace Accord for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace, signed November 2016, and for verifying its implementation, especially points 3.2 and 3.4 which concern the End of the Armed Conflict.

We recognize that the disarmament of the FARC’s former guerilla and the more than 13 thousand people currently undergoing the reintegration process are important steps forward. However, three and a half years have passed since the start of the final accord’s implementation, and four months since the official declaration of the social emergency caused by the pandemic. We have observed with profound concern the national government’s lack of political will to implement the peace accord. We can support this claim with the testimonies of communities and national and international verification reports. We have confirmed that most ex-combatants do not have land to work on and significant delays in the relative points of Comprehensive Rural Reform (part 1), political participation (part 2), the dismantling of organized crime (part 3), the substitution of illicit crops (part 4) and the institutional conditions that guarantee the implementation and monitoring of the accord (part 6).

Militarized presence in the territories fails to secure the life and liberties of citizens and peace. In Colombia, since the signing of the final peace accord and up until July 15, 2020, 971 social leaders and 215 individuals undergoing the reintegration process have been assassinated in these militarized zones. In other zones with territorial perimeter controls, criminality and the power of various armed groups has increased. 

We advocate for respecting and fully implementing the final peace accord signed by the Colombian State and the FARC; the adoption of effective measures that guarantee reintegration; the due functioning of the agreed instances in the agreement like the CSIVI, which monitor implementation and the security guarantees of individuals undergoing reintegration; and the National Security Guarantees Commission, for the full completion of the mandate concerning the dismantlement of groups and conduct that threaten the country’s social leaders.

With the purpose of completely fulfilling the final peace accord and recognizing the important monitoring task that the Verification Mission–created by the UN Security Council–has accomplished for Colombia, we solicit the renovation of the mandate and the explicit inclusion of:

1) Verifying the fulfillment of sanctions by the Peace Tribunal of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) for all parties, which is included in part 5.1.2, numeral 53 d) of the final accord. The sites where sanctions will be implemented, in addition to the security and vigilance plan that guarantees the lives and physical integrity of the sanctioned and the victims of these territories, needs to be verified. 

2) Monitoring the implementation of the differentiated gender dimension of the final peace accord, which is a recognized achievement, but also one that requires additional human and financial resources. It needs continuous precision and verification processes in its implementation with regard to commitments to women and ethnic peoples.

3) Supporting and possibly verifying Resolution 2532 of July 1, 2020 of the UN Security Council, and to invite the Colombian government and all who still find themselves armed to welcome the cease fire as an imperative, ethical need that will secure the signed peace process and provide humanitarian relief to rural communities violently targeted by multiple groups. The final peace accord established its centrality in the victims. Therefore, creating an enabling environment for peace is fundamental to providing a suitable response to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and advancing in the achievement of a complete peace.

Colombia has a social movement shaped by people that have contributed to the construction of peace. We have immense gratitude for the international community, because we have unitedly advocated for negotiated ends to armed conflict, the adoption of mechanisms for judicial placement of various armed groups, and an impetus for humanitarian initiatives as forms of resolving our conflicts and reconstructing a democratic society in a socially and environmentally conscious state of law. 

Tags: Gender Perspective, National Security Guarantees Commission, Protection of Excombatants, UN Verification Mission, United Nations, Victims

September 4, 2020

Statement from the Cooperation Space for Peace (ECP): Stop the Massacres

On August 27, the Cooperation Space for Peace  (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz – ECP) published a statement, signed by WOLA and 28 other international and national civil society organizations, urging the Colombian government to effectively advance investigations that identify the material and intellectual authors behind the recent upsurge in massacres, of which many include adolescents.

The State’s civil presence is limited or wholly absent in the areas where the massacres occurred, which has enabled illegal armed groups to seize territorial control, intimidate civilians, and profit from illicit activities. The statement argues that fully and comprehensively implementing the 2016 peace accord and engaging in peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN) would help dismantle the criminal organizations responsible for these massacres.

You can read the original, Spanish version of the statement here.
Below is the English text:

International Civil Society Organizations condemn the massacres of children and adolescents that recently occurred in Colombia and demand an effective and immediate response from the Colombian State that will halt this humanitarian crisis.

As international civil society organizations, we denounce the upsurge in violence against children and adolescents. We also condemn the assassinations of human rights defenders, community leaders and individuals undergoing the reintegrationprocess, to whom the State has a responsibility according to the Declaration of the rights and duties of the individuals, institutions, and groups that promote and protect human rights and universally recognized fundamental liberties. 

We offer our condolences and solidarity to the victims’ families during these difficult and painful moments. 

So far this year, 33 massacres and 97 assassinations of human rights defenders have been documented by the United Nations, of which 45 have been verified. The majority of the massacres have been committed in rural areas of the Antioquia, Cauca, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Chocó, Córdoba, Valle del Cauca, Casanare, Atlántico, Arauca, Huila, Magdalena, Tolima, Caldas, and Meta departments. These are territories where the State’s civil presence is limited or wholly absent. This has enabled illegal armed groups to seize territorial control, intimidate civilians, and profit from illicit activities linked to drug trafficking. 

The adoption of a public policy for the dismantling of criminal organizations, including those deemed successors and support networks for paramilitary groups, within the implementation of the Final Peace Accord with the FARC as well as the seeking of a negotiated agreement with the ELN, is necessary to ensure a definitive end to Colombia’s armed conflict.

As international civil society organizations, we exhort the Colombian government and State to fulfill their constitutional duty as well as their international obligations derived from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Security Council Resolution 1612 of 2005, which granted special protection to children and adolescents. The Colombian government and State are urged to make quick and effective advances in the investigations that will identify each of the material and intellectual authors of these crimes and bring them to justice to be tried and convicted.

Tags: massacres, Youth

September 3, 2020

Colombia’s Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons

As part of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición​​, SIVJRNR), the 2016 peace accord, via Article 5.1.1., created the Special Unit on the Search for Persons Deemed as Missing in the context of the armed conflict. Colombia’s national government signed Decree Law N° 589 of 2017 to establish the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas, UBPD). The UBPD started formally operating in August 2017 after the President signed three decrees to determine the unit’s structure. Its mandate lasts 20 years. The goal of this unit is to direct, coordinate, and contribute to the implementation of humanitarian measures to search for and identify all people missing as a result of the armed conflict. In cases where individuals are no longer alive, the UBPD is responsible – whenever possible – for the recovery, identification, and dignified delivery of the remains. 

In February 2018, Luz Marina Monzón was sworn into office as the UBPD’s General Director. She is advised by a council made up of the President of the Truth Commission, senior national government officials, the Director of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INMLCF), delegates of the National Victims Roundtable, delegates of victims’ organizations, and a representative of civil organizations with technical forensic expertise. In the last quarter of 2018, the unit was approved for a $26.3 million operating budget.

By September 2019, the UBDP met with 870 people in order to ensure the participation of victims and social organizations in the search process. They played an important role in the early stages of designing the unit’s search plan. During October 2019, eight meetings were held with Indigenous and Afro-descendant organizations, members of the LGBT+ community, women’s groups, relatives of forcibly disappeared and kidnapped victims, families of missing state force members, exiled Colombians, human rights organizations, and state entities. Overall, 124 organizations participated in the October meetings. In these meetings, people and organizations who have historically worked on missing persons cases were able to share their experiences and the difficulties of the search process. The UBPD is able to better carry out its search work with an ethnic and gender focus as a result of broader civil society involvement.

2019 PNB Meetings with Civil Society

LocationDateGroup
Bogotá D.C.September 30 and October 1Human Rights Organizations and Families of Forced Disappearance Victims
Bucaramanga, SantanderOctober 3 and 4 Gender Focused Organizations 
Barranquilla, AtlánticoOctober 7 and 8LGBTI Organizations
Cali, Valle del CaucaOctober 10 and 11Afro-Descendant Organizations
La Mesa, CundinamarcaOctober 15, 16, and 17Indigenous Organizations
Nevia, HuilaOctober 17 and 18Relatives of forced disappearance victims and missing Public Force members
Bogotá, Cundinamarca (virtual)October 23Exiled Colombians
Bogotá D.C.October 24State Entities 
Source: Plan Nacional de Búsqueda 2020, UBPD 

UBPD’s National Search Plan 
Article 5.2 of Decree 589 states the UBPD must design and implement a national plan which, along with regional plans, will establish procedures for the search, localization, recovery, identification, and return of missing persons. On May 6, 2020, the UBPD officially launched the National Search Plan (Plan Nacional de Búsqueda, PNB). The PNB is the unit’s framework to find the more than 100,000 people missing due to the armed conflict. As stated in Decree 589, the national plan must be executed in collaboration with victims and human rights organizations. UBPD’s General Director Luz Marina Monzón confirmed at the launch event that the PNB’s main characteristic is its participatory nature. 

The PNB framework allows the UBPD to plan, organize, and implement tools to search for missing persons. Based on the evolving circumstances due to continued armed violence in the territories, the national plan is subject to change. Updates to the Regional Search Plans (Planes Regionales de Búsqueda, PRB) will also result in PNB revisions. The PRB’s places emphasis on the specific characteristics of different regions, sectors of the population, or even certain time periods. Meanwhile, the PNB centralizes search efforts while still being responsive to the unique needs of different regions and communities. The plan’s structure can be broken down into three main points: 

  1. Information
    This first point focuses on information collection, categorization, systematization, and analysis. It also ensures that any information received is not used in judicial processes. Given the unit’s humanitarian mandate, it is essential the UBPD prioritize the wellbeing of victims and their families. These groups generally provide information to the state because it is useful to search efforts. The PNB encourages a more mutual relationship that guarantees the persons giving information receive answers in return. Building trust between the different actors is the first step. UBPD’s efforts also need to go beyond just numbers by understanding the scope and nature of the disappearance. It is important for the unit to actively investigate the information they receive. In addition to improving the national registry for disappeared persons, the UBPD is committed to establishing the National Registry of Ditches, Illegal Cemeteries, and Graves (Registro Nacional de Fosas, Cementerios Ilegales y Sepulturas, RNF). 
  1. Location
    The UBPD seeks to implement various strategies to address the difficulties searching for disappeared persons. The search begins by assuming the victim is alive. The information previously gathered and inter-institutional coordination is essential for investigations. In the case of death, the UBPD will try to locate the body and return the remains to the family. The unit will coordinate with the Institute of Legal Medicine, the Prosecutor’s Office, and universities to identify bodies found in cemeteries and morgues. 
  1. Participation  
    Historically, participation involves families providing information and/or being reunited with the disappeared person. The PNB challenges this simplistic view of participation in favor of a more humanitarian state response. This involves families and organizations being involved in all stages of the search process. For the UBPD, families include non-blood relatives, same-sex couples, and family conceptions of Indigenous and Black communities. 

Current Status of the UBPD
The UBPD received 5,195 search requests by April 2020. Out of those requests, 2,385 of them were made by victims’ organizations, 1,670 by family members, and 271 by armed groups. Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) recognized the contributions of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) in the search for disappeared persons. In addition to these search requests, there are currently 11 PRBs. Various files from institutions such as the INMLCF and Prosecutor’s Office were also added to the UBPD’s database. 

After two years in operation, the UBPD still needs to fill staff vacancies in order to advance their search process. As of February 2020, 341 positions out of 522 were staffed. The government approved a hiring process where 30% of the staff would be hired in 2018, 50% in 2019, and the remaining 20% in 2020. It was not until September 2018 that the Constitutional Court ruled on how UBPD’s staff would be hired.

Written by Araceli Becerra in August 2020.

Tags: Unit for the Search for the Disappeared

August 31, 2020

The relationship between Colombia and the United States could change soon

“If Trump loses the elections in November, Washington will support the peace process, the protection of social leaders, and the defense of human rights in Colombia”

(Commentary cross-posted and translated from Razón Pública)

A Google search for appearances of “Colombia” during the first six months of 2020 at house.gov, the domain of the U.S. House of Representatives, yields no more than 20 meaningful results.  Most of those were brief mentions of the country’s record coca cultivation levels, or the impact of Venezuela’s crisis.

While the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, the Democrats won the majority of the House in the 2018 elections. Since then, the House has spoken little about Colombia. But surprisingly, over the last few weeks, it has made statements about Colombia’s peace process, its social leaders, and its military espionage scandals.

On July 6, 94 Democratic legislators signed a letter expressing their concern about these issues.

Days later, the 2021 foreign aid budget bill passed the full House.  This bill, and its accompanying narrative report, do much to move U.S. assistance to Colombia in a more pro-peace, pro-human rights direction.

  • It appropriates $458 million in new assistance for Colombia in 2021, of which less than $200 million would go to the country’s police and military forces. By contrast, the Trump White House had requested, in February, $413 million, of which more than $250 million would go to the armed forces and police. 
  • It lists specific purposes for which U.S. aid should be used, placing implementation of the peace accord at the center, along with a greater presence of civilian state institutions in ungoverned zones. It calls for greater attention to victims, small farmers, women, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, as well as coca substitution “as agreed to in the peace accord.”
  • It conditions fumigation, freezing 20 percent of the State Department’s $189 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds until the Department certifies that Colombia’s coca reduction strategy “is not in violation of the 2016 peace accord.”
  • As in past years, it adds human rights conditions holding up 20 percent of $38.525 million in one of the main military aid programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), until the Department certifies that Colombia’s justice system is holding gross human rights violators accountable; that the Colombian government is taking effective steps to protect social leaders and ethnic communities; and—in a new measure—that the Colombian government “has investigated and is taking steps to hold accountable” officials involved in illegal surveillance of civilians, “including the use of assets provided by the United States for combating counterterrorism and counternarcotics for such purposes.”

Two Amendments About Colombia

In addition, on July 21, the House passed its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including budget guidelines. This is perhaps the only major bill likely to pass through both chambers and become law before the November election. The NDAA includes two amendments on Colombia.

The first, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report assessing allegations, revealed by Revista Semana in January and May, that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition.” That report must detail:

  • Any use of U.S.-provided assistance for such activities;
  • Colombian security forces’ involvement in illegal intelligence gathering between 2002 and 2018;
  • An assessment of the full extent of such activities, including identification of units involved, relevant chains of command, and the nature and objectives of such surveillance or intelligence gathering”;
  • Steps that U.S. diplomatic, defense, or intelligence agencies took to respond to misuse of assistance;
  • Steps that the Colombian government took in response to misuse of U.S. assistance; and
  • The adequacy of Colombian military and security doctrine and training for ensuring that intelligence operations are in accordance with human rights standards.

The second amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas. Though it will probably not block any U.S. aid for aerial glyphosate spraying, it is noteworthy that a high-profile Congresswoman expresses concern about the issue. A spokesperson told Business Insider that aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians.

The amendments prospered in significant part because of Rep. McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful committee that meets each evening to approve (rule “in order”) amendments to be debated during the next day’s proceedings. Rep. McGovern is the member of the House who has most closely followed Colombia from a pro-peace and pro-human rights perspective. He told Business Insider on July 27, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable … Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”

In the days following the amendments’ passage, McGovern appeared in numerous Colombian media outlets, including El Tiempo, El Espectador, and Semana. His message was quite critical of the current direction of U.S. policy, and voiced strong dismay at the Colombian military’s human rights abuses and the excesses of forced coca eradication undertaken by the Duque administration.

Two Incompatible Stances

It is clear that the Trump administration and the House have completely different priorities in Colombia today. The White House brings up record numbers of hectares of coca, and upholds Colombia as a partner and an ally in diplomatic efforts against Venezuela. In contrast, the House condemns slow implementation of the peace accord and the human rights abuses covered up by the Colombian government. 

While Democrats are increasingly reluctant to accept these realities, very few Republicans today openly defend a militarized approach in Colombia. In the 1990s, a group of Republicans in Congress pressured the Clinton administration to increase military aid and fumigation in Colombia. In contrast, no Republican in Congress today advocates something similar with such force.

As a human rights advocate, I’ll give some credit to my own community: we are a solid group of experts and activists who have been working together since the 1990s to give higher priority to peace and human rights in U.S. policy toward Colombia. We have deep detailed knowledge, and a lot of institutional memory. Strategically minded donors have helped maintain this installed capacity, and when opportunity strikes, we can seize it.

What will happen in the next elections?

The next steps are in the Senate, where the 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has yet to be drafted. There, the Appropriations Committee will probably reveal its bill after the August legislative recess. It will not become law before the November election. The NDAA, meanwhile, may pass after conciliation between the House version and the Senate version, which does not include the McGovern or Ocasio-Cortez amendments.

The Colombian government appears to have been blindsided by the House Democrats’ July barrage. We’ve seen an angry note from Ambassador Francisco Santos to some of the signers of the 94-person letter, repeating the Duque administration’s talking points—which leave out key information—defending its protection of social leaders and rejecting concerns about peace accord implementation.

That letter’s brusque tone indicates that the Duque government has decided to continue refraining from engaging the increasingly progressive Democrats. With public opinion running strongly in the Democrats’ favor 13 weeks before major elections, adhering mainly to the Republican Party seems like a strategic error.

Tags: Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Military and Human Rights, Social Leaders, U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

August 5, 2020