How USAID Can Help Support Peace and Human Rights in Colombia

On April 9, WOLA sent a letter to the Colombia mission of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with ample suggestions to support peace and human rights in Colombia. Before the annual consultation between USAID and U.S. civil society, WOLA informally surveys organizations, experts, academics, activists, and others partners in Colombia about U.S. cooperation in the region. We did the same for the 2021 consultation and solicited input from more than 50 entities, including groups receiving USAID assistance and many who do not receive funding. This input is not a scientific survey. Rather, it is a summary of the impressions we received combined with WOLA’s suggestions due to our long history of monitoring U.S. funding to economic, social, peace, and human rights matters in Colombia.

The document outlines optimism for continued peacebuilding with cooperation from the Biden administration and also highlights current obstacles. Topics include transitional justice, maintaining the independence of the justice system, protection of social leaders and communities, illicit crop substitution and alternative development plans, economic renewal after the pandemic, and migrant and refugee rights.

The original Spanish letter is here.
The translated English letter is here.

Tags: Illicit Crop Eradication, Justice System, Migration, Social Leaders, Transitional Justice, U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

April 22, 2021

Recent Statements by the Cooperation Space for Peace

In recent weeks, the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz, ECP)—a coalition of civil society organizations of which WOLA forms part of—condemned the assassination of an Indigenous woman leader in Putumayo department and supported a humanitarian caravan calling attention to the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Cauca department.

Below are synopses of these recent statements and access to full versions in both English and Spanish.

International civil society organizations reject the assassination of Indigenous leader María Bernarda Juajibioy and request the Colombian state take concrete actions to protect the lives of the Indigenous peoples of Putumayo at risk of extermination

On March 23, with great sorrow, the ECP denounced the assassination of María Bernarda Juajibioy, the mayor and leader of the Cabildo Camentzá Biyá, and her one-year-old granddaughter. They were killed by hired hit men on March 17, as they transited on a motorcycle.

As members of the international community, ECP continues to be attentive to the situation in Putumayo and will continue to insist that the Colombian government fully implement the peace accord, particularly the ethnic chapter, as a measure to protect and strengthen the rights of Indigenous peoples and their leaders.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English statement here.

International civil society organizations support the Humanitarian River Caravan for Life and Peace

On April 16, ECP expressed support for a humanitarian caravan by the “Pact for Life and Peace from the Pacific and Southwest for all of Colombia,” which convenes the Black communities of the Guapi, López de Micay and Timbiquí municipalities, together with the Apostolic Vicariate of Guapi, the Ethnic Territorial Peace Working Group, and Cococauca. The caravan is planned from April 19-23.

It seeks to make visible the serious humanitarian crisis and escalation of the armed conflict in Cauca department. It also seeks to support the communities of these municipalities, who are victims of historical and constant repression, confinement, disappearances, kidnappings, threats, intimidation, recruitment and use of children and youth, and fighting and killings.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English statement here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Cauca, Indigenous Communities, Putumayo, Social Leaders

April 22, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: April 17, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Decree, issued the day of high-level U.S. visit, signals imminent restart of aerial herbicide fumigation

On April 11 and 12 Colombia received its highest-level in-person visit to date from Biden administration officials. Special Assistant to the President and Senior National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung were in Bogotá, where they met for two hours with President Iván Duque and other high government officials. It was the first stop on a South America trip that took González and Chung later to Argentina and Uruguay.

According to a pre-trip White House statement, the officials were to “discuss economic recovery, security and rural development, the Venezuelan migrant crisis, and Colombia’s regional climate leadership.” Colombian media reported that issues covered included security, “the fight against drug trafficking and transnational crime,” progress in peace accord implementation, economic recovery, and Venezuelan migration.

While perhaps unrelated, hours after the U.S. officials’ visit the Duque government issued a long-expected decree laying out how it will carry out a revived aerial fumigation program. The term refers to spraying herbicides from aircraft over populated areas where farmers grow coca, the crop used to make cocaine. The U.S. government heavily supported a fumigation program between 1994 and 2015, which sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory.

Herbicide fumigation was a key component of the strategy known as “Plan Colombia,” and it was controversial because it rarely came with assistance to smallholding farmers, and because communities denounced environmental and health harms. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the program in 2015, after a World Health Organization study determined that the active chemical, glyphosate, could be carcinogenic.

In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of conditions that a future government would have to fulfill before ever restarting a fumigation program, and in 2018, newly elected President Duque made clear his intention to do that. Sources in the Presidency tell La Silla Vacía that they may meet these conditions, and the spray planes could start working, as early as June.

The required steps—summarized here in a way that omits some nuance—are:

✔️ By decree, set up a system for evaluating health and environmental impacts that is independent of the Counternarcotics Police, which carries out fumigation. The April 12 decree establishes this system, requiring the Counternarcotics Police to report monthly to environmental and other agencies.

✔️ By decree, set up an independent process for receiving and processing claims from individuals who say they were wrongly sprayed. The April 12 decree establishes this process.

✔️ Gain the environmental licensing authority’s (ANLA’s) approval for the spray program’s environmental management plan. The ANLA issued its approval two days after the Presidency’s decree, on April 14. The plan prohibits the planes from spraying from an altitude greater than 30 meters (98 feet), or in conditions when wind might cause more than 10 meters of spray drift.

The 507-page document also notes that spraying may occur in 104 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities, in the departments of Antioquía, Bolívar, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Chocó, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Vichada. Planes may use bases in San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; Cumaribo, Vichada; Villagarzón, Putumayo; Larandia, Caquetá; Tumaco, Nariño; Guapi, Cauca; Barrancabermeja, Santander; Caucasia, Antioquia; Cúcuta and Tibú, Norte de Santander; Condoto, Chocó; and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz said that Norte de Santander and its conflictive Catatumbo region will come first. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s crop monitoring report covering 2019, Catatumbo has the country’s largest concentration of coca crops.

✔️ Have the National Health Institute (INS, sort of like the United States’ Centers for Disease Control) perform a study finding that the planned spraying poses a low health risk. While this study, commissioned to the University of Córdoba, won’t be made public until the entire process is complete, it is all but finished.

🔲 Gain the approval of the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government. The CNE has the authority to undo the spray program’s 2015 suspension. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen quickly.

Among the CNE’s members, though, is Health Minister Fernando Ruiz who, when serving as a vice-minister during Juan Manuel Santos’s government in 2015, defended the fumigation program’s suspension on public health grounds. “The main cancer attributed to glyphosate is Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer in the lymphatic organ that can develop 15 to 20 years after exposure,” Ruiz told an interviewer. This puts the Minister in an awkward position. He is seeking to have an alternate take his place in the CNE proceedings as an “ad hoc” minister who might approve the fumigation.

With this week’s decree and environmental approval, and with a decree last week (reported in our last update) seeking to divert challenges to fumigation away from the courts, the fight over fumigation “seems to have tipped in favor of the government,” El Espectador reported.

Critics like María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED) contend that the April 12 decree is flawed. It “is focused on reaction and not on prevention, as it explains how complaints of possible damages will be handled, but not how to prevent them,” she told El Espectador. Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia worries that the ANLA and other agencies charged with oversight have almost no presence in remote areas where spraying will occur. Ana María Rueda of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz recalls that the program’s design appears to violate the peace accord: “The spirit of the Accord… was that first, crop substitution should be tried with communities and, if it did not work, then spraying would operate. That was what the [Constitutional] Court asked for, but we do not see it anywhere in the decree.”

A major objection has to do with the Constitutional Court’s requirement that the environmental approval process include informed consultation with communities, especially Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. The Court has agreed to take up several communities’ complaint that, from remote areas with poor internet service, they haven’t been able to participate meaningfully in “virtual” consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court’s action on the consultation question could be a “roadblock” that prevents fumigation from restarting in June, according to an El Espectador analysis.

If fumigation does restart in coming weeks or months, we can expect a wave of protest across rural Colombia, as happened in 1996 (with heavy FARC encouragement) when the program first got started. The protests might not be massive, though, notes a La Silla Vacía analysis based on interviews with coca growers’ organization leaders in six zones. The investigation finds these organizations weakened by the worsening security situation as new armed groups proliferate, the difficulty of doing organizing work in a climate of constant threats and killings of social leaders, and a social base demotivated by the government’s poor compliance with the peace accord’s crop substitution commitments. “The communities saw fumigation as something off in the distance,” said Pedro Arenas of Viso Mutop.

After the decree’s release, Colombia’s pugnaciously hardline defense minister, Diego Molano, said, “the only ones worried here about precise aerial spraying against coca, which we are about to start, must be the criminals who profit from this criminal business and want to subject our peasant population to a new slavery.”

Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, a much-cited scholar of rural Colombia, offered a sharply different view in an El Espectador column:

Prioritizing fumigation over substitution is a brutal violation of everything the peace accord stood for. It has two notorious consequences. On the one hand, it affects the core of the agreement (which sought to build a new form of relationship between the central state and the territories). On the other, it carries high legitimacy costs…

What will this country reap if its government persists in sowing poison? These air strikes are perceived—correctly, in my opinion—as an aggression from distant forces that have no regard for the population’s interests. The Duque government responds to territories that have demanded for decades a greater state presence with the “magic formula” of presence through spraying.

Fighting appears reduced, but situation is very tense, in Venezuela border zone

“From Arauquita, Arauca, no explosions have been heard for a week on the other side of the river, on the Venezuelan side,” La Silla Vacía reported on April 12. There has been a notable lull in the combat that began on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and the “10th Front” FARC dissident group—one of three guerrilla or rearmed guerrilla groups active in Venezuela’s border state of Apure. The official toll of dead and injured has not increased since last week’s update. Security analyst Andrei Serbín (interviewed in this week’s WOLA Venezuela podcast) told Tal Cual there has been a “considerable reduction” in fighting in recent days, but that “doesn’t mean that the threat has been eliminated. The FARC has this ability to lower its profile, avoid confrontation and attack elsewhere.”

The halt in fighting may owe, too, to the steady arrival of more Venezuelan forces into the zone. In addition to regular military units and the feared FAES police shock force, the Maduro regime announced that it would be sending 1,000 members of the citizen militia. This part-time force, which reports directly to the president, is hardly combat-ready—many of its members are middle-aged or older, or more oriented toward political work than fighting—but it may provide logistical and other backup to the Venezuelan forces arrayed near the Colombian border.

Most of the civilian population, meanwhile, appears to have vacated the zone. Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum said that her government had counted 5,737 Venezuelan citizens displaced into Arauca. Though fighting may have slowed, La Silla Vacía reports, “fear of the excesses that their own country’s authorities may commit is the main reason why the displaced still cannot conceive of returning to their homes.” These include “in addition to fleeing the crossfire… detentions, assaults, looting, and even the murder of a family.” Though they have taken a toll on the civilian population, Serbín points out that the Venezuelan military “hasn’t shown a great capacity. It hasn’t demonstrated results.”

On April 10 the 10th Front FARC dissident group’s putative leader, Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez alias “Arturo,” put out an audio message insisting that his group “doesn’t seek problems” with the Venezuelan armed forces, which have singled out the 10th Front for attack even as the ELN and a second dissident group, the “Segunda Marquetalia,” operate in the same region.

The 10th Front is part of the largest network of former FARC guerrillas to rearm, the so-called “1st Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. The other main network of dissidents, the Segunda Marquetalia, is headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator in Havana but rearmed in 2019. Most of both groups’ rank-and-file membership is new recruits with no past membership in the old FARC.

In his message Arturo, a former FARC front leader who deserted in 2004 and spent time in prison, acknowledged that the 10th Front has differences with the Segunda Marquetalia, and called on the Venezuelan Army to stop collaborating with the rival group. He said he is willing to dialogue.

For his part Iván Márquez, whose group is less visible in the zone but purportedly has closer ties to the Maduro regime, released a video on April 13 insisting that the Segunda Marquetalia does not consider neighboring countries’ forces to be “military targets” or “collect taxes” from—that is, extort—their citizens.

On his television program, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and legislator who is perhaps the second most powerful figure in Nicolás Maduro’s regime, appeared to issue a warning to all Colombian armed groups inside Venezuela, including the Segunda Marquetalia. “Venezuelan territory is impregnable. This applies to any group, no matter who the leader is, no matter what his name is. If they want to wage war against the Colombian government, they should do it in their territory, don’t do it in ours.”

The border-zone situation continues to highlight the very poor state of relations between Colombia and Venezuela. Blum, Colombia’s foreign minister, said on April 14 that she had communicated to the United Nations about the “serious situation” resulting from “the support given by the illegitimate Venezuelan regime to armed narco-terrorist groups.” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza issued a tweet calling Blum “Doña”—a misogynistic putdown—and demanding that Colombia guard its borders and keep Colombian armed groups out of Venezuelan territory.

Decrees make changes to military justice system

A series of three presidential decrees, made public on April 14, aim to increase the autonomy and performance of Colombia’s military justice system, which is charged with trying and punishing military and police personnel who violate their services’ codes of conduct.

While years of Colombian jurisprudence appear to make clear that violations of civilians’ human rights should be tried in the civilian criminal justice system, many cases still do end up in the military system. Once there, guilty verdicts and punishments are exceedingly rare.

“It’s no secret that citizens have a problem of trust” with the military system, an El Espectador questioner pointed out in an interview this week with the system’s current director, adding that “for most Colombians it is equivalent to impunity.” Shockingly, the system is so untransparent and sluggish—tracking cases with Excel spreadsheets and a written method dating back to the 1960s—that its director cannot say how many cases of “false positive” killings its judges have yet to decide (or to transfer to the civilian system).

The new decrees set regulations to implement reform laws passed in 2010 and 2015. They will move the military justice system out of the Defense Ministry’s purview, creating a new Specialized Administrative Unit within the executive branch. The current head of the military justice system, Fabio Espitia, who served for a time as Colombia’s acting chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), will head this new unit. The unit will have its own prosecutor’s office, investigators, tribunals, and judges. It is to use an oral, accusatory trial system instead of the military system’s current slow, opaque system. This should make it easier to see where cases stand, and what has happened. The president of the civilian Supreme Court will have a seat on its board of directors.

While this is a big step toward autonomy for a justice system that had been within the military chain of command, it is not quite autonomous. While out of the Defense Ministry, the system will still be in the government’s executive branch, under the President, and not the judicial branch. All, or nearly all, of its judges will continue to be active-duty or retired military officers. Espitia defended this to El Espectador, insisting that “in military and police operations there is something called operational law, and this is known to those who are part of the forces. It is only natural that it cannot be known by a civilian.”

The separate justice system, too, still applies to police—which remain part of Colombia’s Defense Ministry—even though police are charged with protecting and serving the population, not confronting enemies in battle. Espitia defended this, too, arguing that Colombia is not a typical country: “the police must be in joint operations with the military to disrupt organized crime groups.”

The unfortunate consequence, though, is that police who abuse human rights may see their cases go to the historically more lenient military justice system even when “organized crime groups” have nothing to do with what happened. An egregious recent case placed before the military system is that of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed in downtown Bogotá in November 2019 by a policeman who clearly appeared to be misusing a nonlethal crowd control weapon.

Another major case of police human rights abuse is the rampage of indiscriminate force against protesters that followed the September 9, 2020 police killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez. Over two nights, police killed 13 people in the streets of Bogotá. So far, three policemen have been charged, and their lawyers failed to transfer their cases to the military justice system. There was further good news this week, as the civilian Fiscalía decided to transfer the entire September 2020 Bogotá police riot investigation to its human rights unit. That greatly increases the likelihood of a prosecution that takes the entire context into account, rather than treating the cases like individual, unrelated murders.

Links

  • Fr. Fernán González offers a summary of a new book about the ELN published by the Jesuit think tank CINEP. It argues that while the guerrilla group maintains its decentralized, “federated” structure, its center of gravity is shifting toward the front dominated in the eastern department of Arauca, which is the most “successful.” Meanwhile, local organizations that form the ELN’s “social base” are becoming increasingly independent.
  • La Silla Vacía sounds alarms about rapidly increasing violence in rural zones of Valle del Cauca department, whose principal cities, Cali and Buenaventura, get most attention. Actors “include armed groups seeking routes from Cauca and Chocó, criminal micro-trafficking groups, silent narcos, returned extradited persons, and a homegrown [ex-FARC] dissidence in Colombia’s third richest department.”
  • Just to the south, in the department of Cauca, the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación offers an overview of which armed groups are active in which sub-regions.
  • Colombia’s Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) called off a longstanding investigation against former chief of police Rodolfo Palomino. Since 2016, Palomino was being investigated for scandals that occurred during his 2013-2016 tenure: revelations of a male prostitution ring using police cadets, wiretaps of journalists, and an irregular land purchase.
  • On April 14 in La Macarena, Meta, Fayber Camilo Cufiño Mondragón became the 264th former FARC combatant killed since the 2016 peace accord.
  • Irregular road-building is feeding a sharp rise in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin, Reuters reports. “According to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, more than 280 km [174 miles] of unplanned roads were opened in key areas during the first 100 days of last year. It expects more roads were built in 2020 than in any other year, driven by rising land speculation.”
  • The post-accord transitional justice tribunal (JEP) is calling two senior active-duty generals to testify in May. Gen. Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez and Gen. Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings. Today, Rodríguez commands the Army’s Education and Doctrine Command, while Pinto commands the Army’s Second Division in northeastern Colombia.
  • FARC dissidents in the Orinoco and Amazon basin departments of Guainía and Vaupés are enriching themselves from illicit mining of the mineral coltan, a source of the elements niobium and tantalum used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronics, El Espectador reports.
  • The elements of Colombia’s transitional justice system—the JEP, the Truth Commission, and the Commission to Search for the Disappeared—pledged to assist civil society groups in the search for more than 841 residents of the port city of Buenaventura who disappeared during the conflict. At PRI’s The World, Steven Grattan reports on Buenaventura’s ongoing public security crisis and its impact on social leaders.
  • At Anthropology News, Gwen Burnyeat, a junior research fellow at Oxford, looks at how the Santos government’s rational, unemotional, technocratic “peace pedagogy” efforts got steamrolled by accord opponents’ disinformation campaigns in the runup to the failed October 2016 plebiscite.

Tags: Weekly update

April 17, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: April 10, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Updates on the situation at the Venezuela border

Fighting continued this week on the Venezuelan side of the common border in Apure, across from Colombia’s department of Arauca, between Venezuelan forces and a Colombian guerrilla dissident group. While confirmed information remains scarce, the intensity of combat and number of casualties appeared to be less than in the prior two weeks, since Venezuela’s initial March 21 attack on dissident targets. The combativeness of Colombian and Venezuelan officials’ statements, however, has intensified.

“We’re witnessing the escalation of tensions between the two countries, which is extremely dangerous,” observed defense analyst Rocío San Miguel of the Venezuelan think tank Control Ciudadano, adding, “I don’t remember, in terms of duration, a similar situation in the last 30 years.”

Indeed, Venezuelan forces likely did not anticipate that the 10th Front dissident group—whose leaders, and some of whose members, spent years as FARC guerrillas—would fight back with such ferocity. On April 5 Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino reported that eight Army personnel had been killed since March 21, including four officers. A mortar misfire on April 3 killed three members of an artillery unit, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel, and wounded nine others. Gen. Padrino added that a total of 34 troops had been injured, and that Venezuelan forces had killed 9 rearmed guerrillas and captured 33.

Despite the continued fighting, Venezuelan officials insisted that they are consolidating control of the Apure border zone. Measures include deployment of a temporary military command, an Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) for the region. (Reuters reports that “Venezuela’s military maintains standing ZODI units for each of its 23 states and the capital Caracas.”) In the zone, military personnel are restricting the population’s movements. Units from elsewhere are being reassigned to Apure and equipped with Russian-made Orlan-10 surveillance drones.

Venezuela continues to face charges that it is focusing its efforts on only one of three Colombian guerrilla, or post-guerrilla, groups active in Apure. Rocío San Miguel, according to Tal Cual, “pointed out that the Armed Forces’ actions do not seem to be similar with respect to all the armed groups present in the area, and that there seems to be a pattern of neutrality with respect to the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN).”

Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, alleged that Venezuela is deliberately favoring a third group, the “Nueva Marquetalia” FARC dissidents headed by Iván Márquez, who was the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in the 2012-2016 peace talks but rearmed in 2019. “The objective of the operations there is not protection of the border, it’s protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.

Security expert Jorge Mantilla told the BBC that something must have happened to cause a breakdown in “arrangements, sometimes tacit, for the distribution of rents and territorial control” between Venezuelan forces and the three Colombian groups, causing Caracas to target the 10th Front.

Venezuelan officials haven’t addressed charges of armed-group favoritism, instead claiming that they are dealing with the effects of Colombia’s failure to govern its side of the border. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Colombia a “failed state” and a “narco-state” lacking control of its territory. “I’d say it’s Colombia’s ineptitude, but sometimes I think this is in their interest,” added Gen. Padrino.

The humanitarian toll of the fighting continues to be grave. At least 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Arauca, Colombian officials say. Venezuelan officials claim the number is lower, insisting the border municipality of La Victoria had a total population of about 3,500. They also deny displaced people’s claims that Venezuelan forces extrajudicially executed civilians during the operation.

Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes said that some residents of the region have remained there amid continuing combat, mainly out of fear of losing their livestock or other property, or having their houses burned or sacked. Tarazona also alleged that elements from the 28th Front FARC dissidents—part of the same “First Front” dissident network as the 10th—were arriving in the region to reinforce the 10th Front in Apure.

Tarazona and FundaRedes don’t have a 100 percent accuracy record, though. The Venezuelan NGO director also alleged that Rodrigo Londoño, the maximum leader of the demobilized FARC’s legal political party, Comunes, had been holding quarterly coordination meetings with leaders of both main dissident networks. This made little sense to observers within Colombia, where Londoño has been a strong advocate of the peace accord and outspoken critic of the dissidents. It’s also hard to imagine the party leader, who is 62 and has had health problems, shaking his police guard for days to meet with dissident leaders in the jungle. “There is absolutely nothing that identifies me with them, and I am not an a**hole,” Londoño said in a video.

Amid concerns about the remote—but not zero—possibility of the border situation escalating into conflict with Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza said that his regime would submit a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres asking the UN to mediate or provide good offices, “establishing a direct and permanent communication channel” between the two neighboring countries, whose de facto governments maintain no diplomatic relations, “to resolve all issues related to the border.” This runs along somewhat similar lines to a civil society proposal, issued a week earlier, calling on the UN to name a special envoy to the border crisis.

At the same time, other Venezuelan officials issued more bellicose rhetoric. “The incursions into Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque,” said Gen. Padrino, the defense minister. Diosdado Cabello, a politician often considered the second most-powerful individual in the Maduro regime, was characteristically even more blunt. “Colombia has declared, internally, that it is going to try to set the table for U.S. imperialism to attack Venezuela. They will be making a mistake because if we have a war…with Colombia, we are going to do it in their territory.”

A decree makes it harder to challenge the president, and fumigation, through legal means

With a new decree changing how citizens can seek redress before the presidency, “the government of Iván Duque made an unprecedented display of power,” in the words of the news website La Silla Vacía. While it raises strong concerns about democratic checks and balances and will certainly face constitutional challenges, the decree could open the door to a much faster restart of a controversial U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where farmers grow coca.

The change affects the “tutela,” a figure in Colombian law that gives citizens the right to seek a quick response from courts when government is infringing their rights. Supporters view the tutela as a major victory won in the drafting of Colombia’s progressively worded 1991 Constitution. It has been unpopular on Colombia’s political right, which views it as an obstacle, since it gives minority interests and activists the ability to block policies’ implementation.

Decree 333 of 2021, which Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz issued on April 6, states that from now on (and possibly retroactively—it’s not clear), all tutelas filed against the President, or considered important for national security—like those having to do with coca eradication—will no longer go to courts of law. They are to be considered by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), a Bogotá-based high court that makes administrative rulings.

Going to the Council of State will make it harder for communities to challenge a re-start of the aerial fumigation program. This program, active since 1994, was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns about spraying the chemical glyphosate over residential coca-growing zones. In response to a tutela, in 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of health, environmental, and consultative requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the spraying, as Iván Duque has pledged to do. In 2020, as the pandemic made it difficult for communities to participate in consultations about renewed spraying, another tutela resulted in regional court rulings that paused the controversial program’s restart.

The decree may put fumigation on a fast track to re-starting. First, it appears to offer a way around regional courts that have ruled on the side of affected communities. Second, filing complaints with the Bogotá-based State Council is more challenging for people in the very remote areas where coca is cultivated and spraying may happen. “There is a direct violation of the right to equality,” explained Diana Bernal of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which has represented communities subject to fumigation. “The decisions will fall to judges who lack regional context, and who will not have the same ability to go deeper because the plaintiffs will be in remote areas.”

Either way, if the decree stands, fumigation could restart in as little as a couple of months, once the government determines that it has met the Constitutional Court’s requirements. “The Government believes that the current actions will favor it, and that is why announcements have been made that spraying will begin in a short time,” an unnamed Justice Ministry source told La Silla Vacía.

Beyond coca fumigation, the new decree raises concerns about democratic checks and balances. It presumes that the Presidency can “choose its own judge” on a constitutional issue, cutting out courts that have proved more likely to issue rulings unfavorable to it. “The proposed reform is subtle and may go unnoticed by the general public,” wrote EAFIT University constitutional law professor Estaban Hoyos. “The Duque government is issuing decrees for its own interest, intending to evade judges’ oversight of its actions or omissions that disregard fundamental rights. This is profoundly undemocratic.” Hoyos recalled to El Espectador that President Duque is further weakening checks and balances at a time when he has already named political allies to the leadership of oversight bodies like the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

It’s not at all clear that such a change can happen by decree, bypassing the legislature. Law professors and opposition legislators, probably together with legal NGOs, are preparing a legal challenge to the decree. It is not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.

The peace accord’s special congressional seats for victims suffer a new setback

The 2016 peace accord had sought to “place victims at its center,” according to its negotiators. As part of that commitment, it promised to create special congressional districts that would represent 16 regions of Colombia hardest-hit by the conflict. For two congressional terms (eight years), residents of those zones would elect to Colombia’s House of Representatives candidates chosen by victims’ organizations, not political parties.

This never happened, and while Colombia’s Constitutional Court considers whether to make it happen, the special congressional districts plan suffered another setback this week with an unfavorable recommendation from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

The long story begins in 2017, as Colombia’s Congress was passing a series of laws to make peace accord commitments official. Among those was a bill creating the special districts for victims. The measure passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November 2017.

That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption. Still, that argument has not prospered in lower court challenges.

In December 2019 Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case of the special electoral zones and the 2017 Senate vote. This week the Procuraduría issued its recommendation to the Constitutional Court, which dealt another blow to the plan to create the special districts for victims. The agency—now headed by a political ally of President Duque, whose party opposes the seats—called for the Court to strike down the measure because it lacks sufficient “immediacy and subsidiarity.”

The Constitutional Court could still decide that the special congressional zones are valid, ignoring the Procuraduría opinion and making this peace accord commitment to victims a reality. It is not clear how the Court might rule, or whether it would issue a decision with enough lead time before Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections.

Links

  • The UN Verification Mission issued its latest quarterly report, which counted 14 murders of former FARC combatants and 24 killings of social leaders during the previous 3 months. 262 former FARC members of about 13,000 who demobilized, or 2 percent, have been killed since the group demobilized in 2017. The report also noted that “several actors… continue to question the Government’s view of the development programs with a territorial focus [PDETs], claiming that its approach is not in line with the Comprehensive Rural Reform as envisioned in the Final Agreement.”
  • WOLA published its latest monthly alert on Colombia’s nationwide human rights and humanitarian situation.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed a phone call to Colombian President Iván Duque on April 5. They discussed “ways to renew our focus on issues including climate change, the protection of human rights, and the regional economic recovery from the pandemic,” as well as “the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela and Colombia’s efforts to promote democracy throughout the region.”
  • The Colombian government’s State Legal Agency (ANDJE) asked the Constitutional Court to review a Supreme Court order calling on the National Police to curb rights abuses during social protests. It argued that the right to protest should be regulated because “the public will take advantage of it, ‘discrediting the police’s authority,’” El Espectador reported.
  • The ELN carried out 58 percent fewer offensive actions (27), was involved in 30 percent fewer combat incidents (14), and was responsible for 9 percent fewer deaths (19) during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think tank.
  • A Bogotá court met on Tuesday and Friday to consider the Prosecutor-General’s (Fiscalía’s) controversial request to drop witness-tampering charges against former president Álvaro Uribe.
  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed an 898 million peso (US$245,000) no-bid contract with a public relations firm that Minister Diego Molano “knows very well,” El Espectador reported. The contract seeks “to improve ‘public perception’ and ‘protect the collective imagination’” about the Defense Ministry.
  • As the former FARC leadership decides whether to accept the JEP’s charges of ordering and overseeing tens of thousands of kidnappings of civilians, its members are worried about their historical legacy, reports La Silla Vacía. “They fear they will go down in history as a criminal gang that committed crimes against humanity if they accept the charges against their leaders.”

Tags: Weekly update

April 13, 2021

The Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group Urgently Calls for the Safety of Social Leader Juan Carlos Quintero

On April 12, the Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group published a statement in response to the illegal detention by armed actors of social leader Juan Carlos Quintero in the rural area of Teorama, North Santander department.

The full, English translation is here and below.
The original Spanish is here.


We demand respect for the life and integrity of social leaders in the region

The Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group urgently calls for the respect of the life and integrity of social leader Juan Carlos Quintero, a member of the Catatumbo Campesino Association (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT).

We denounce the illegal April 12 detention by armed actors of Juan Carlos Quintero, two members of his security detail, and two members of the International Action for Peace (IAP) in the rural area of Teorama, North Santander department. The incident occurred in El Aserrío towards the road that leads to El Tara municipality.

We call on all armed actors to respect the guarantees of social leadership and to materialize the will to advance and consolidate the Humanitarian Agreement for Catatumbo, as expressed in public statements, and to commit to IHL norms as an urgent way to safeguard the lives, integrity, and freedom of the civilian population.

We reiterate, today more than ever, that it is still necessary to accept and apply the Humanitarian Accord’s content and achieve humanitarian minimums amid the armed conflict.

As the Humanitarian Working Group, we reaffirm our good practices as an entity for humanitarian advocacy to achieve a complete, stable, and lasting peace in the Catatumbo region.

Tags: Armed Groups, Catatumbo, Social Leaders

April 12, 2021

Colombia peace update: April 4, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Fighting continues between Venezuelan military and 10th Front dissident group

Nearly two weeks since Venezuelan security forces attacked a FARC dissident group in Apure, along the border with Colombia, unusually intense combat continues, displacing large numbers of civilians.

On March 21, Venezuelan armed forces carried out bombings and land raids on six sites used by the 10th Front, an ex-FARC group. The New York Times called it “several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades.” Venezuelan forces also carried out house-to-house raids in border towns like La Victoria and El Ripial, terrorizing the population.

The 10th Front, made up of a few former FARC guerrillas and many new recruits, is affiliated with the 1st Front headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” Colombia’s largest network of ex-FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilize. It is one of three Colombian armed groups active inside Venezuela in this part of the border zone. Venezuela’s military operations have not affected the other two: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and a second dissident group, the “Nueva Marquetalia,” which is led by Iván Márquez, who had headed the FARC’s negotiating team during 2012-16 peace talks.

The 10th Front has retaliated repeatedly. It has attacked a local office of Venezuela’s taxation agency, knocked out electrical power, attacked Army road checkpoints, and destroyed a Russian-made armored personnel carrier with either a rocket-propelled grenade or an improvised explosive device. “That civilian and military facilities are being damaged is something we had not seen to date,” Fr. Eduardo Soto, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela, told Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

Estimates of the combat’s toll are high. Venezuelan officials cite nine dead, including four soldiers, along with 32 arrests and nine guerrilla dissident camps destroyed. The 10th Front denies that any of its fighters have been captured or killed.

Venezuelan human rights group statements, and press interviews with refugees who have crossed the river into Colombia’s also-conflictive department of Arauca, reveal many testimonies of Venezuelan soldiers and members of the notorious Police Special Actions Forces (FAES) unit raiding homes, looting possessions, dragging people into the street and beating them, forcing people to hold weapons while photographing them, detaining people and holding them incommunicado, and massacring a family in El Ripial, presenting the dead as combatants. The guerrilla dissidents, meanwhile, are accused of widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines and explosives.

On March 31 Venezuelan forces detained two reporters with the NTN24 news network, along with two members of the FundaRedes human rights group. They were released after 24 hours, without their cameras, mobile phones, or other equipment. A statement from Venezuela’s Defense Ministry mentioned “media scoundrels that deploy their dirty manipulations to fuel violence” in the region. “The role that NGOs are playing in this operation is striking,” it added.

As of March 31, Colombia’s migration agency had counted 4,741 people displaced by the fighting, who had taken refuge in 19 shelters in Arauquita, Colombia. That represents more than 10 percent of Arauquita municipality’s estimated population of 44,000. About 40 percent are children. At least several hundred of the displaced have Colombian citizenship but had settled on the Venezuelan side of the border. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is in Arauquita helping with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks. An unknown number of people have also displaced to other parts of Venezuela.

It is not clear why Venezuela has chosen to confront the 10th Front to the exclusion of other Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory, or why it has done so now. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, claims that Nicolás Maduro’s regime “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business” and that it “orders that one narco-criminal group be combated selectively.” Most educated guesses do point to a corrupt relationship between Venezuelan security forces and organized crime.

Caracas may have decided to favor the “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group, or perhaps, the Washington Post posits, “the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.”

An unnamed expert cited in El Espectador had a lengthy hypothesis:

An expert consulted by this newspaper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that drug trafficking in the area involves “paying extortion, or a bribe, to public entities, particularly to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). According to the expert, since 2019, both the dissidents of the Segunda Marquetalia, as well as those of Gentil Duarte, began to default on payments. “That undoubtedly generated a series of tensions with the FANB that escalated.”

…The expert added that the 10th Front began to increase the volume of drug trafficking passing through the route. “Then more members of the FANB began to charge and raise the rates. That’s when ‘Ferley’ appeared, he is the finance chief of the 10th Front and he began to have disputes with people in the FANB,” this person added.

The same article cited Sebastiana Barráez, a Venezuelan journalist, contending that “the sympathies that have been expressed, even by Nicolás Maduro himself, have been towards Iván Márquez, not towards Gentil Duarte.” Still, the Segunda Marquetalia presence in the region is less notable. “They have a strange presence because it is not so clear to identify who their combatants are, at least in Arauca and Apure,” researcher Naryi Vargas told El Espectador.

At the moment it is impossible to predict whether the violence will die down or escalate. The dissidents are showing a much greater willingness to keep attacking the Venezuelan forces than they do in Colombia, where attacks on military targets are usually followed by lengthy retreats.

The dissidents are reportedly calling for negotiations that might lead to a truce with the Venezuelan regime. Over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan organizations sent a March 31 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres asking him to name a special envoy to mediate, since the Colombian government and the regime in Venezuela have almost no remaining contacts with each other.

The two governments continue to ramp up bellicose rhetoric. While Colombia’s defense minister alleges Caracas is colluding with the Nueva Marquetalia, Venezuela’s defense minister insists that the Colombian armed groups “cross the river, make their skirmishes and return to Colombia with the protection of their authorities.” A Venezuelan Defense Ministry communiqué even sought to bring the United States into the picture:

They [the armed groups] are sponsored by the Colombian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is why their incursions into the Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque, since he provides them with logistical and financial support, creating a criminal corridor on the border with the advice of the U.S. Southern Command.”

Though the probability of escalation into inter-state conflict remains low, it can’t be discarded. “This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” an unnamed human rights worker told the Guardian. The paper went on: “The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. ‘I would say it is making it worse.’”

Car bombing raises concern about Cauca’s deteriorating security situation

The department of Cauca, in southwest Colombia, remains one of the most conflictive parts of the country. On March 26, a car bomb detonated in the center of Corinto, in the northern part of the department not far from Cali. Last week also saw the murder of a judicial police investigator near Corinto, and the forced displacement of 2,000 people in Argelia, in the department’s south.

The car bomb went off next to the mayor’s office in Corinto, wounding 43 people including 11 municipal employees. President Iván Duque said that a FARC dissident group powerful in the area, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, was responsible. The Dagoberto Ramos, like the 10th Front in Arauca and Venezuela, is believed to be part of the dissident network headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the 1st Front. Led by a former mid-level FARC leader named Johany Noscué alias “Mayimbú,” the unit has carried out some bloody high-profile attacks, including the 2019 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality. The dissidents and the armed forces had been fighting in a nearby village in the days leading up to the bombing.

The Dagoberto Ramos unit is also believed responsible for the March 27 kidnapping and murder of Mario Fernando Herrera, an investigator with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Herrera was taken on March 26 at a roadblock that the dissidents had set up on the road between Corinto and the northern Cauca municipality of Santander de Quilichao. HIs body was found the next day.

Further south in Argelia, fighting remains intense between the ELN and another dissident group purportedly aligned with “Gentil Duarte,” the Carlos Patiño front. (To make things more complicated, this region also has a dissident group aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia, and the two have poor relations: Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses observed last year that Argelia may be the only zone where units of the two dissident networks are fighting each other.) ELN-dissident firefights have left residences riddled with bullets and shrapnel in the middle of the town of El Plateado, Argelia. Starting on March 27, 2,000 residents fled “at great speed.” Most headed for the county seat of Argelia, where many are gathered in the main church and the soccer arena.

Cauca has only about 1.35 million people, but has always been over-represented in measures of violence. It is strategically located for narcotrafficking, with coca fields, laboratories, and routes leading to Pacific transshipment points. Northern Cauca is also a center of Colombia’s illicit marijuana trade, with grow lights dotting the region’s hillsides at night. Illicit mining is common, especially near the Pacific. It is one of Colombia’s most ethnically diverse departments, but indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have historically been poor and excluded from political power, which has concentrated in the hands of a European-descended elite. Its topography is complex: Colombia’s three Andean mountain chains all converge there in what’s called the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif).

Cauca leads the country in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since 2016. So far in 2021, the department has suffered four massacres. The homicide rate in 2020 was 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than all but four or five U.S. cities. The ELN, three dissident units, a fragment of the EPL, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group all operate in Cauca, as do smaller regional organized crime groups.

Argelia social leader Walter Aldana described the situation to El Espectador:

What we have today in the department of Cauca is the presence of eight or ten illegal armed groups that exercise power and dominion in the territories. They fight among themselves for territorial control. But whoever is there at the time is the authority in the territory. For more than a year, since before the pandemic, we have had a curfew from 7 o’clock at night—depending on the armed group and how they want to handle things.

In response to all this, “the government has recurred to old formulas,” wrote Santiago Torrado at Spain’s El País, “such as holding a security council meeting, announcing the deployment of 2,000 uniformed personnel in addition to the 8,000 already in the department, and offering rewards for the ringleaders.”

“The improvisation, the lack of planning, the lack of systematic persecution of crime is very evident,” wrote Alfonso Luna Geller, of the group Proclama del Cauca, at El Espectador. “The military and police are always surprised. It seems that there is no military or police intelligence, no strategic or tactical operations, because they have been replaced by useless security councils. … The National Government only appears to make bombastic and opportunistic declarations on the smoking streets of our towns.”

“The only way to transform these conditions is with transformations driven by the State as a whole,” former human rights ombudsman Carlos Negret told Torrado. “With long-term policies and not with circumstantial projects; with sustainable and durable decisions, and not with fire extinguishers that sooner rather than later use up their loads. I believe that implementation of the peace agreement has many of these elements”.

Links

  • 25 U.S. and Colombian organizations sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to cease funding for aerial herbicide fumigation in territories where farmers grow coca, before Colombia’s government re-starts the suspended program.
  • From Vorágine and Connectas, a new accusation that the government’s coca eradication statistics are artificially inflated: eradicators “arrived at the coca fields to negotiate with the landowner. This was a ‘pact’ in which the eradicators only completed half of their task or did it badly on purpose: they did not uproot the bush from its roots, but only stripped it halfway down its stem.”
  • Mutante, Baudó AP, and La Liga Contra el Silencio published an investigation alleging that nine farmers were killed in the context of coca eradication operations in 2020. The total death toll for coca eradication in 2020, then, was 25, since the Defense Ministry reported 16 eradicators or security-force escorts killed last year.
  • The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy published a “Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One,” which places emphasis on access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and “a collective and comprehensive response” to supply reduction in Latin America. It does not specifically mention forced eradication of illicit crops.
  • The State Department’s annual human rights report draws attention to some of the more notable abuses that took place in 2020, while noting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo that the JEP’s estimate of 6,402 victims of military “false positive” killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 “is a figure that seeks to create a negative image of our Armed Forces and extort the real debate, the one we need so that this country can have forces with greater legitimacy.”
  • An InsightCrime investigation into armed groups’ recruitment of children finds “the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca [Antioquia] and the Amazon state of Vaupés.”
  • It has been a year since Salvatore Mancuso, once a top leader of Colombia’s national AUC paramilitary network, completed a criminal sentence for narcotrafficking in the United States. He remains in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, seeking to prevent his deportation to Colombia, either by staying in the United States under the Convention Against Torture, or being removed to Italy, as he is a dual citizen. By video, Mancuso has been sharing information with the JEP and the Truth Commission. He is revealing names of military officers and civilian third parties who aided and abetted the right-wing groups that, at the conflict’s peak in the late 90s and early 00s, committed the majority of killings and forced displacements.
  • Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, a longtime personal friend of President Iván Duque, drew criticism this week for indicting one of the opposition-party candidates with highest poll numbers ahead of March 2022 presidential elections, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. The Fiscalía is accusing Fajardo of a 2013 case of contracting irregularities: approving a loan to the Antioquia government that was denominated in dollars, without first performing a risk study.
  • Fiscal General Barbosa paid a visit to the United States this week, where he met with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Marshals representatives, among others. Barbosa’s delegation included Gabriel Jaimes, the prosecutor in the super-high-profile witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe. Jaimes has asked to drop the charges in Uribe’s case, and will present arguments before a judge on April 6. Investigative journalist Daniel Coronell points out that the majority of witnesses on Uribe’s behalf in this case have some relationship with the Oficina de Envigado, an organized crime structure descended from the old Medellín cartel.
  • Without Catholic Church-led organizing and a 1993 law recognizing Afro-descendant communities’ collective landholdings, the jungles of Chocó “could have been destroyed by the logging interests of the time,” says Quibdó Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto in an interesting interview with La Silla Vacía. “If it weren’t for that work, we would have this forest full of monocultures and agribusiness.”
  • The Colombian government appears determined to move ahead with a US$4.5 billion purchase of 24 F-16 fighter jets. This is controversial because the contract, equivalent to more than 1 percent of GDP, comes at a time when resources are lacking for other priorities, like peace accord implementation.

Tags: Weekly update

April 4, 2021

25 Organizations Call for an End to U.S. Support for Aerial Herbicide Fumigation in Colombia

(Leer en español)

Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.

March 26, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Biden,

We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated.  It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.

Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.

Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.

Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.

Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.

They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste. 

These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:

  • Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
  • Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
  • After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
  • Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
  • Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
  • Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
  • Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.

In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.

This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.

Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do. 

Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.

This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.

It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.

Sincerely,

  • Amazon Watch
  • Center for International Environmental Law
  • Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
  • Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
  • Colombia Human Rights Committee
  • Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
  • Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
  • Drug Policy Alliance
  • Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
  • Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
  • Healing Bridges
  • ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
  • Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
  • Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
  • Latin America Working Group
  • Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
  • Missionary Oblates
  • Oxfam America
  • Oxfam Colombia
  • Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
  • Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
  • United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
  • Washington Office on Latin America
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

Tags: Coca, Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy

March 29, 2021

Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents

On March 21, residents of Arauquita, across the Arauca river from Venezuela, “woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation” on the other side of the border, the northeast Colombian municipality’s mayor told the Associated Press. In La Victoria, in Venezuela’s state of Apure, armed forces were carrying out an intense ground and air offensive against Colombian guerrilla dissidents, firing from helicopters and dropping bombs from aircraft.

Combat began on the 20th, according to a statement from the Venezuelan armed forces. That day, two Venezuelan officers taking part in border-wide military maneuvers called “Bolivarian Shield”—a major and a first lieutenant—were killed, apparently by landmines, a rarity in Venezuela. The statement claimed that government forces captured 32 people and destroyed 6 encampments while seizing drugs and war materiel, and killing a FARC dissident leader known as “Nando.” An opposition legislator, Karim Vera, said that about 20 Venezuelan troops were wounded.

Details are sketchy, in part due to power outages in La Victoria, but fighting continues. FARC dissidents attacked a Venezuelan military post on the night of March 23.

La Victoria, Venezuela is north and west of the river; Araquita, Colombia is south and east. (From Google Maps)

Civilians are being hit hard. As of March 25, 3,961 residents of La Victoria had fled across the border into Arauquita. “People we have spoken with are terrified and fear for their lives,” Dominika Arseniuk, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Colombia, told the Associated Press.

Those who fled the Venezuelan side say that government forces—including the feared police Special Actions Force (FAES), rarely active outside cities—have been raiding homes, looting possessions, and beating people. FAES may have massacred a family in El Ripial, just east of La Victoria, and may have dressed the bodies in uniforms. Anderson Rodríguez, president of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca, told the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación that other families are presumed disappeared and some bombings were indiscriminate.

Three different Colombian armed groups, all of them nominally guerrillas or guerrilla-descended—are active on both sides of this part of the Colombia-Venezuela border. To varying degrees, they profit from extortion, taxing cross-border contraband, skimming from local treasuries, illicit mining of precious metals including the mineral coltan, and trafficking cocaine—though the ELN has prohibited most coca or cocaine production in Arauca, Colombia. Armed groups have also stepped up recruitment of Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the border, especially of minors.

The presence of armed groups in this lightly governed zone goes back to well before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election; as has happened in all countries bordering Colombia, Venezuelan forces tended to leave Colombian armed groups alone as long as they avoided violence (what Caracas Chronicles calls “a sort of laissez-passer secret policy”). The armed group presence has increased in recent years, though.

The three groups active now are:

  • The National Liberation Army (ELN), whose powerful Frente de Guerra Oriental (FGO) is the region’s largest and longest established. It has been operating in Arauca since the 1980s and expanded in Apure, Venezuela for more than 10 years “with the permission of the Chavista regime,” according to Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime. The FGO’s leader, alias “Pablito,” is a member of the ELN’s five-member Central Command and spends much of his time inside Venezuela. The ELN does not appear to be a party to the past week’s violence.
  • The Venezuelan forces’ target this week, the 10th Front, a structure led by members of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. There are two main networks of FARC dissident bands active in Colombia right now, and the 10th Front appears to be affiliated with the largest: the “1st Front” group led by Miguel Botache alias “Gentil Duarte,” a former mid-level FARC commander most active in south-central Colombia. (InsightCrime’s McDermott says he has doubts about this affiliation.) The 10th may have as many as 800 fighters active in Arauca and Apure. Alias “Nando,” the leader whom Venezuelan forces claim to have killed on March 22, may have been the brother of the 10th Front’s finance chief. The 10th Front and Venezuelan forces have confronted each other in the past, but never on anything near the scale of last week.
  • Members of the Segunda Marquetalia, the other main FARC dissident network. This band was founded by FARC leaders who demobilized in 2017 then rearmed in 2019, led by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the 2012-16 peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The group, named for the site where the FARC began following a 1964 military attack, is smaller than Gentil Duarte’s organization, but may enjoy closer political relations with the government in Caracas. (Iván Márquez appeared with Hugo Chávez on the presidential palace steps in 2007, during a brief moment when Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, authorized Chávez to help broker a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.) McDermott says Márquez “has had ties to the highest levels in Venezuela, including the presidency, and many of those ties are still in place.”

These three groups together may have 2,000 or more members inside Venezuelan territory—only some of them in Apure—but have avoided fighting each other. “They are not together but they are not fighting either, it is like a toxic relationship,” Kyle Johnson of Conflict Responses told a forum last week, “but we must remember that the ELN is very present in that area. The ELN believes it owns Apure and makes people think that those who operate there do so because they allow it. I am not entirely convinced of conflicts between these groups as such.” Conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told La Silla Vacía, “In Apure there is a relationship of coordination, and in some cases collaboration, between the Segunda Marquetalia and the 10th Front. There is no rivalry.” The two dissidences “appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship on the border,” tweeted analyst Bram Ebus, who has written a few much-cited studies of this region.

The Colombian government frequently accuses Venezuela of allowing ELN and FARC dissident fighters to operate safely on its soil. “The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the [peace] agreements by sheltering criminals such as [Nueva Marquetalia leaders] Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, alias El Paisa, and alias Romaña,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, told Reuters on March 23.

Several sources cited by Caracas Chronicles hypothesize that Nicolás Maduro’s regime, in seeking to mediate, regulate, or “triangulate” among the Colombian groups active in the region, has decided that the 10th Front is out of line and must be reined in. “One unconfirmed interpretation of the flare up,” Ebus tweeted, “is a business dispute that escalated quickly when it hit political sensitivities. F10 [10th Front] has irritated Venezuelan military authorities before for failing to pay a cut. Their visible presence in Apure may have been a bridge too far.”

A frequent hypothesis advanced in media coverage contends that Venezuela’s government is favoring the Segunda Marquetalia. “The Venezuelan National Guard has generals in its service who protect the Second Marquetalia,” said former Colombian chief organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla. “There is a sector of the National Armed Forces kneeling at the orders of Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez,” said Venezuelan opposition legislator Gaby Arellano. “Some weeks ago we reported in our PRR [Political Risk Report] that, according to our sources, Iván Márquez was being moved to a more secure location, far from the border, to protect him from eventual operations by Colombian forces,” noted Caracas Chronicles. “The Venezuelan military operations have not touched the operations of the Segunda Marquetalia, which are especially robust in the state of Apure,” McDermott told La Silla Vacía, adding, “The offensive responds to growing reports in Venezuela that the 10th Front had dominance in the area. And it could open a space for Márquez’s dissidents to expand later.”

Cited in Venezuela’s Tal Cual, McDermott also found it notable that Venezuela deployed the brutal police FAES unit to Apure. “Apparently Maduro does not trust the military in the Apure area, the military does not have the capacity to confront the Colombian dissidents, or the military on the border is very corrupt and its capacity has been eroded.”

A statement from a 10th Front leader known as “Arturo” insists that “we weren’t the ones who initiated this confrontation,” vows to keep fighting Venezuelan forces, but also offers to withdraw units if the Venezuelan government sends a “top-level commission to clarify truths.”

Serious incidents like this raise concerns about an outcome that, one hopes, all would wish to avoid: a hot inter-state conflict between Colombia’s and Venezuela’s government forces. The Colombian government announced that it is reinforcing military presence along the Arauca border by about 2,000 troops, and Colombian media report that, though there is no official information, “there is speculation that the Maduro government is enlisting 2,000 men of the Armed Forces to be sent to the border with Arauca.” In Caracas Chronicles’ estimation, “We have no reasons to fear for a war between Colombia and Venezuela, but we can’t forget that Venezuela is protecting public enemies of Colombia (the FARC dissidents), and that this is always a source of risks.”

Ebus sounded concerned, too, on Twitter: “Herein lies the danger: now that the confrontation has escalated, there’s no turning back. The dispute between Chavistas and the guerrillas is out in the open and it will be hard for either side to back down. In a moment like this, the grave risks of the lack of communication between Caracas and Bogotá are painfully evident. Political leaders have limited recourse to calm tensions, leaving the cauldron of border tensions to play out for itself.”

Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility

The lead story in last week’s update covered the case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court of Jineth Bedoya, a journalist abducted, raped, and tortured by paramilitares while doing her job in 2000. Bedoya, whose long quest for justice is the first Colombian case of sexual violence ever heard by the Inter-American Court, saw her virtual hearing interrupted and postponed on March 15, when government lawyers accused the Court’s judges of bias and abruptly exited the proceedings.

The hearing resumed on March 22 and 23, after the Court rejected the government’s objections. A few hours in, the government’s lead attorney, Camilo Gómez, read a statement partially recognizing the Colombian state’s responsibility:

On behalf of the Colombian State, I recognize international responsibility for the failures of the judicial system, which did not carry out a criminal investigation worthy of the victim, by collecting twelve statements, and ask Jineth Bedoya for forgiveness for these facts and for the damage they caused her. The State recognizes that these actions violated her rights to personal integrity and judicial guarantees, in relation to the obligation to guarantee the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

This apology covers the Colombian judicial and prosecutorial system’s failures since the 2000 crime, in a case that has only seen the convictions of three low-level paramilitaries, and then not until 2016 and 2019. “Of the nearly 20 people involved in the process, only three have been prosecuted,” Bedoya told the Court. “Three convictions against material perpetrators, partial justice. Masterminds, none.”

The apology does not cover the Colombian executive branch’s failure to protect Bedoya even after she reported earlier threats and attacks, and in the face of evidence that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction. Gómez, the government’s lawyer, said that his team will respond to those charges in writing.

The government told the Court’s judges that in 1999, after Bedoya and her mother were attacked, the Presidency’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) studied her risk and offered her a bodyguard. Bedoya, they said, “did not make the necessary arrangements to obtain the accompaniment.”

Bedoya explained she could not do her job as an investigative journalist under such conditions, noting that agents of the DAS—which has since been disbanded after a series of scandals—were working with paramilitaries at the time. “Over time, it was demonstrated that this entity carried out illegal espionage, stigmatization, intimidation, leaking of sensitive information to paramilitary groups, and acts of intimidation,” Jonathan Bock of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation said at a subsequent press conference. “Therefore, the lack of protection for the journalist generates state responsibility for failure to comply with the duty of prevention.”

The Colombian government attorneys’ theory that it is not responsible for Bedoya’s lack of protection and prevention “is especially chilling,” said her lawyer, Viviana Krsticevic of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “because it advances a theory according to which Jineth is to blame for what happened to her. The State uses part of the factual information in a rigged way and omits saying important things.”

Jineth Bedoya called the government’s partial recognition of responsibility “one more slap in the face. To only recognize that on 12 occasions they made me testify about my rape, that there was no investigation into the threats, and that they do not admit the reparations that I have sought—it is like the cases that I denounce every day, where a husband beats a wife and the next day says ‘forgive me, I love you but I was in a bad mood’. That is what the State has done with me before the Court.”

The journalist, who is now the deputy editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, said that she continues to receive frequent death threats. She requested protection for her mother, who also receives constant threats and has no bodyguard. If it treats a person like her, a well-known journalist who has access to the media, in such an undignified manner, she concluded, “imagine how the state treats an anonymous victim, who does not have that possibility.”

Links

  • A car bomb detonated outside the mayor’s office in Corinto, in conflictive northern Cauca department, on March 26. Seventeen people were wounded, including eleven municipal employees.
  • Polarizing politics, approaching elections, a slow vaccine rollout, a regressive tax reform, street protests, worsening insecurity, Álvaro Uribe’s judicial case, and the Truth Commission’s upcoming report combine to make Colombia a “powderkeg,” writes Javier Lafuente at Spain’s El País.
  • A New York Times cover story dives deeply into the March 2 bombing of a FARC dissident site in Calamar, Guaviare that killed two minors whom the group had recruited. A new detail: one of the victims, 16-year-old Danna Liseth Montilla, had worked last year with Voces del Guayabero, a local media collective that published much-circulated reports and videos documenting violent government tactics during mid-2020 coca eradication operations. Last week soldiers found another 16-year-old girl who had fled the bombing and spent the next three weeks alone, lost in the jungle. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued new charges of child recruitment, and arrest warrants, against FARC dissident leader “Gentil Duarte”—whose group had recruited the children killed on March 2—and key subordinates.
  • 75 people who led coca substitution programs in the framework of the peace accords have been killed, according to a report from Somos Defensores, Minga, and Viso Mutop.
  • “In Colombia we continue to speak of the existence of at least five non-international armed conflicts, whose actors continue to affect the dignity and lives of the civilian population,” reads the annual Colombia report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, released last week.
  • An analysis in La Silla Vacía finds that the commission that the peace accord set up to manage protection of FARC ex-combatants is moribund, with the government ignoring suggestions and treating it as a forum to present already-crafted policies. Meanwhile, the number of FARC ex-combatants who have been killed since the accords went into effect stands at 261. Protection was among the principal concerns voiced in a letter that the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño, sent to the U.S. Congress on March 23.
  • So far this year, as of March 7, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) reported that 3,119 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. “1,311 families have fled their lands to safeguard their lives and physical integrity.”
  • The case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed by a policeman’s “nonlethal” weapon in downtown Bogotá in November 2019, remains before the military justice system. An amicus brief that Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court argues that the military system “fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case.”
  • A new U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Colombia, as well as to Honduras and Panama, later this year. This unit’s first deployment in mid-2020, which involved dozens of trainers providing instruction to Colombian military personnel in a few conflictive parts of the country, generated controversy in media and among opposition legislators.
  • Retired Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was imprisoned for working with paramilitary groups that carried out massacres in northwestern Colombia during the 1990s, appeared before the JEP and, to the disappointment of victims, denied any links with paramilitary groups. Del Río is free from prison for the moment pending his case before the JEP.
  • The Washington Post published a poignant profile of Gonzalo Cardona, an environmental defender who dedicated his life to saving the endangered yellow-eared parrot in often-conflictive southern Tolima department. Cardona, 55, was shot to death in January.

Tags: Weekly update

March 28, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: March 20, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Jineth Bedoya’s Inter-American Court case delayed as government “walks out” of hearing

One of Colombia’s most emblematic human rights cases suffered a momentary but confounding setback, as government representatives abruptly withdrew from a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This Court is an OAS-affiliated body, based in Costa Rica, that hears cases when signatory nations’ judiciaries have proved unable to win redress for victims. It was holding a virtual hearing on March 15 for oral arguments in the case of Jineth Bedoya, a prominent journalist who was abducted, raped, and tortured, with security forces’ involvement, in 2000.

That year Bedoya, then a reporter at El Espectador, was investigating networks of arms trafficking, human trafficking, and other criminal activity linking paramilitaries, guerrillas, organized crime, and members of the security forces. These networks centered on Bogotá’s La Modelo prison, which both then and now has been a violent place. (A year ago, on March 21, 2020, guards killed 24 prisoners there, apparently shooting to kill, while putting down a riot.) “La Modelo was the ‘office’ from which all crime in the country was connected,” reads an account from Bedoya reproduced this week by journalist Cecilia Orozco.

In May 2000, Bedoya was receiving threats from paramilitaries as she investigated a massacre of 32 prisoners at La Modelo. On the morning of May 25, 2000, she showed up at the prison gate—which is not far from the Chief Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) and the U.S. embassy—for an arranged meeting with paramilitaries who had been threatening her. “It was a trap,” Bedoya recalls. She was abducted from the front door of the prison and driven out of the city, tortured, and repeatedly raped. “Then I don’t know what happened. I was left abandoned on a road, almost dead.”

Even as a respected reporter from mainstream media outlets (she later moved to El Tiempo), and even as a 2012 State Department “International Woman of Courage,” Jineth Bedoya has been unable to win justice for what happened to her. Only three of her attackers—low-level actors—have been sentenced. The Fiscalía mysteriously lost key evidence. “For 11 years the prosecutor who was in charge of the case would call me to suggest that I investigate, and give the results to him.” The Fiscalía forced her to narrate, and relive, what was done to her on 12 different occasions. One of her sources was killed an hour after meeting with her. She learned that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction.

She went to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which issued recommendations to Colombia for her case. These went unmet. The next step was to go to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which took her case in May 2019. It reached its oral arguments phase, with hearings set to begin on March 15, 2021. The Guardian hailed what appeared to be a big step toward justice:

“To bring my case before an international court not only vindicates what happened to me, as a woman and a journalist,” Bedoya said in a video shared on Twitter. “It opens a window of hope for thousands of women and girls who, like me, had to face sexual violence in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict.”

That’s not quite what happened. The hearing, held virtually due to COVID-19, began with justices asking Bedoya questions. After a while, the government’s representative asked to speak.

That representative was Camilo Gómez, head of the National Agency for the Legal Defense of the State (ANDJE) in President Iván Duque’s government. From 2000 to 2002 Gómez was the high commissioner for peace—the government’s chief negotiator—for then-president Andrés Pastrana’s failed effort to negotiate peace with the FARC.

Instead of addressing what happened to Bedoya, Gómez charged that the Court’s six judges were “pre-judging” Colombia during the day’s questioning, and called for all but one of them to be recused. The government’s legal team then abruptly exited the virtual hearing. The judges heard from one more witness, then suspended the Court’s proceedings while they determined what to do next.

Condemnation of the government’s response came quick. “The Colombian government’s decision to effectively stomp out of the Inter-American Court hearing shows the authorities’ shocking disregard for the violence inflicted on Jineth Bedoya, and is a slap in the face to every Colombian journalist—especially women journalists—fighting impunity,” said Natalie Southwick of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I have been litigating before the Inter-American Court for 25 years, said Bedoya’s lawyer Viviana Krsticevic, the director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “and this is unusual, unheard of, we are surprised that the State of Colombia is doing what even really authoritarian governments like Fujimori’s government in Peru, Ortega’s in Nicaragua, Maduro’s in Venezuela, did not do.”

On March 17 Camilo Gómez sent Bedoya a letter, which he made public on Twitter, suggesting an out-of-court settlement. Such offers have happened before, said Jonathan Bock of the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), but they have merely been offers of monetary payments without the government recognizing its responsibility for what happened to Bedoya. Bedoya’s legal team refused, adding that making the letter public was “an act of harassment and malicious litigation.”

On March 18 the Court’s judges, led by the one justice whom Gómez had not called to be recused, rejected the Colombian government’s request for new judges. Jineth Bedoya’s hearing is set to restart on March 22 as though nothing had happened.

Numerous activists and analysts voiced puzzlement at the Colombian government’s behavior, showing insensitivity to a high-profile victim while inviting a legal defeat. Santiago Medina-Villarreal, a former lawyer at the Inter-American Court, fears that the government is playing a long game, sending a message ahead of future cases scheduled to go before the Court. “With this attitude, the State intends to undermine with doubts the judges’ appearance of impartiality.” An effort to de-legitimize the Court, Krsticevic told El Tiempo, “would be very serious for Colombia and the region.”

“They killed me on the morning of May 25 [2000],” Jineth Bedoya writes. “I believed that words are the best way to transform pain. But my life is over: having to see the marks of sexual violence and torture on my body every day is something that does not allow me to close this cycle definitively.”

U.S. officials point to outlines of Biden approach to coca and peace

While eradicating record amounts of coca manually, Colombia continues to move toward restarting a U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where the plant is grown. Citing health concerns, the government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this program in 2015. As past weekly updates have noted, the new Biden administration is not opposing continued U.S. support for “fumigation.” In fact, February and March State Department documents hailed the Duque government’s efforts to relaunch the program.

On March 14, El Tiempo’s longtime Washington correspondent, Sergio Gómez, shed a bit more light on the Biden administration’s thinking, excerpting views on eradication and peace accord implementation from interviews with several officials. In general, these officials and legislative staff told Gómez that they don’t see fumigation or forced eradication as keys to long-term reductions in coca-growing. Instead, they voiced a preference for implementation of the 2016 peace accord and increasing government presence in long-abandoned rural territories.

Here are a few highlights indicating how official thinking may be evolving:

  • ”A senior U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá authorized to speak on this issue: “Essentially, our idea is that the territorial transformation that would come from the full implementation of the accords is the best long-term security strategy and the most promising and sustainable solution to the problem of illicit crops.”
  • Another U.S. Embassy official: “The clearest lesson from the period from 2012 to 2017, when cultivation went from its lowest point to its highest in just 5 years, is that Colombia was successful in reducing crops, but not in sustaining those gains. … The best way to sustain them is to increase the presence of the state and offer economic opportunities in rural areas. You can’t just eradicate and attack criminal groups.”
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who voiced disappointment with a February State Department document praising fumigation: “We want to help Colombia reduce coca production and cocaine trafficking, but as we have seen over the years sustainable progress is not measured in the number of hectares eradicated. Government presence—in the territories most affected by this problem—is not achieved simply by sending in armed forces. Nor do we see evidence that illegal armed groups are being dismantled, especially when so many social leaders are being threatened and killed.”
  • A senior legislative aide, who said that the State Department’s recent written praise for forced eradication “seemed ‘outdated’ or the work of some Trump administration holdover”: “We want to see progress in coca reduction, but we don’t see anything that gives us confidence that the Duque government has a sustainable strategy to achieve it.”
  • Another congressional staffer: “When Plan Colombia kicked off in 2000, the goal was to reduce coca cultivation by half in 5 years. And here we are, 20 years later and there is still the same or more drugs than two decades ago with a ‘new plan’—agreed between Duque and Trump—that again seeks to reduce crops by half in another 5 years.”

Sen. Leahy’s office told El TIempo “that the Senator ‘would oppose the use of U.S. funds to finance aerial spraying’ when it resumes,” which could mean a fight if the Biden administration decides to keep supporting the controversial herbicide spray program.

The ELN and Ecuador’s elections

The candidate who led February 7 first-round voting for Ecuador’s presidential election is vehemently denying allegations that his campaign received support from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Andrés Arauz, the candidate favored by left-populist ex-president Rafael Correa, is threatening legal action.

On October 25, a Colombian Army raid in Chocó killed Andrés Felipe Vanegas, alias “Uriel,” a mid-ranking ELN leader who had a high profile because he gave frequent interviews. At the site of the raid, soldiers reportedly recovered computers and other data devices with over 3 terabytes of information.

On January 30, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana received some of that information from official sources. An e-mail from Uriel to two other ELN members, presumed to be contacts in Ecuador, appeared to refer to a US$80,000 “investment” in “supporting hope.” Andrés Arauz’s political coalition is called the “Union for Hope.”

On February 12, a few days after Arauz led first-round voting with 32.7 percent, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (FIscal), Francisco Barbosa, paid a quick visit to Quito to hand over to his Ecuadorian counterpart all evidence from “Uriel” pointing to links between the ELN and Arauz.

Last week Arauz enlisted the aid of a Colombian jurist, former Fiscal Eduardo Montealegre, an opponent of Colombia’s current ruling party whose term coincided completely with the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. As El Colombiano explains, the Ecuadorian candidate granted Montealegre power of attorney “to investigate and file a complaint for falsehood and procedural fraud against Colombia due to allegations linking him to the ELN.”

Arauz called the allegations a “crude setup.” He argued that “Uriel” operated far from Colombia’s border with Ecuador, and questioned the Colombian armed forces’ honesty, arguing that they have engaged in a cover-up of thousands of extrajudicial executions—the so-called “false positives” human rights scandal. He added that he sees Colombia’s conservative government engaging in “a state policy to delegitimize and undermine governments with progressive tendencies.” The ELN, for its part, also rejects the allegations, calling them “fake news.”

We are unlikely to learn what really happened before April 11, when Ecuadorians vote in the presidential runoff election. Polling is sparse, but the race appears close between Arauz and center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso.

Links

  • WOLA hosted a discussion on March 18 about the Colombian military’s “false positives” killings, which the transitional justice system (JEP) revealed in February to have likely been more extensive than most knew. On March 17, the Mothers of False Positives (MAFAPO) presented a report to the Truth Commission.
  • In May 2019, the New York Times had triggered an outcry by reporting that Colombia’s Army leadership was returning to “body counts” as a measure of success, setting numerical goals for units to meet. The Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) just completed an investigation begun that month, exonerating the Army’s commander at the time, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, of “pressuring or requiring” generals “to meet minimum targets for casualties, captures or demobilizations.”
  • El Tiempo reported that coroners have identified the bodies of eight of the ten people killed in a March 2 bombing raid on a FARC dissident site in Guaviare. One of the eight was a 16-year-old girl. (El Nuevo Siglo reported that coroners determined a second girl, age 15, was also killed in the attack, but the El Tiempo story makes no mention of this.) As noted in last week’s update, charges that child combatants were among the dead led Defense Minister Diego Molano to make some very crude remarks about child combatants.
  • Colombia’s Congress briefly faced a legislative proposal to extend President Duque’s term by two years, along with those of members of Congress, mayors, governors, high court judges, the chief prosecutor, and other top officials. The initiative quickly collapsed after news of it emerged, and 15 legislators withdrew their signatures.
  • “In the coming months, negotiations will be concluded for the acquisition of 24 new, state-of-the-art fighter planes,” Semana reports. The purchase could total US$4 billion.
  • The next step for the witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe will take place on April 6, when a judge will consider the Fiscalía’s request to drop the charges. (See the overview of the case in our March 6 update.)
  • The JEP’s “top-down” investigation of the FARC’s mass kidnappings, which featured the indictment of eight top leaders in February, is moving down the chain of command, with three mid-level leaders providing grim testimony of the inhuman treatment to which they subjected their kidnap victims.

Tags: Weekly update

March 22, 2021

Power Rivalries Put Pressure on Colombia’s Peace Treaty

By: Mariano Aguirre, WOLA Board Member
(Cross-posted from chathamhouse.org)
(Versión en español disponible en esglobal.org)

The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.

Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.

Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.

Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.

Hostages and human rights violations

The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.

Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.

This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party). 

The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.

“The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice.”

But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.

Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.

Rural communities under pressure from criminals

OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.

This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.

Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.

His government has launched military-civil stabilization operations in areas of high conflict and illicit crop production, but peasants and indigenous communities see fumigation as another breach of the peace treaty and they intend to resist it.

They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.

“Peasants and indigenous communities see fumigation as another breach of the peace treaty and they intend to resist it.”

Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.

The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.

Tags: False Positives, FARC, Illicit Crop Eradication, Indigenous Communities, JEP, Military and Human Rights, Politics of Peace, Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Transitional Justice

March 15, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: March 13, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

At least one child killed in March 2 bombing raid on FARC dissidents

An entry in the “Links” section of last week’s update noted that Colombia’s armed forces had reported “neutralizing” 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare, on March 2. (Guaviare, in south-central Colombia, is an agricultural frontier department with a history of armed group presence.) “Duarte,” once a mid-level FARC leader, had exited the peace process before the peace accord’s 2016 signing, and now leads the largest network of armed “dissidents.” Since at least January 2019, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has warned that Duarte’s group recruits many underage combatants.

On March 9 some left-leaning media, citing families and local human rights associations, began alleging that as many as 12 of those killed in the March 2 attack could have been children. As of March 12, one child was confirmed to have been killed at the dissidents’ site. A trusted source tells WOLA that two other children arrived wounded at the hospital in nearby San José del Guaviare municipality.

Danna Lizeth Montilla was 16 years old. Her father told El Tiempo that he had not seen his daughter since December 2020, when she left home in Puerto Cachicamo, a village in San José del Guaviare, to live with relatives at a site where a better internet signal might allow her to attend school during the pandemic. They lost contact with Danna in January. Her father feared that she had been recruited by an armed group. “It’s something that has become common,” he told El Tiempo. “But I never thought it would happen to my daughter.”

This is not the first time that child combatants have died in a bombing raid on dissidents. An August 2019 operation in the nearby municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, killed eight minors at an encampment—but the Defense Ministry failed to report that detail. When opposition senators revealed the deaths in November 2019, accusing a cover-up, the defense minister at the time, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign.

The current defense minister is not covering up the March 2 bombing outcome. Diego Molano acknowledged that children may have died, including Danna Lizeth Montilla, though the actual number is unknown since forensic investigations continue. He placed blame for what happened on the dissident groups recruiting children, and insisted that the armed forces, lacking intelligence indicating that children were present, carried out the March 2 operation in accordance with international humanitarian law.

While further investigation is needed to confirm that, legal experts interviewed in Colombian media agree that it’s possible the armed forces’ March 2 operation did not violate international humanitarian law. While IHL prohibits recruitment of children under 18, armed child recruits 15 or over may be considered combatants, or legitimate military targets, under some circumstances.

Minister Molano didn’t stop there, though. In interviews on March 9 and 10 he caused an uproar in Colombia, using language attacking the children themselves. Some examples:

  • “Even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.”
  • “We’re not talking about young people who didn’t know what they were doing.”
  • “It’s not like they were studying for their college entrance exams.”
  • “This operation targeted a narco-terrorist structure that uses young people to turn them into war machines.”

Criticisms of Molano’s statements poured out. “There’s no such thing as minors acting out of free will in an armed conflict,” said Javeriana University law professor Yadira Alarcón. “The war machine is the one that kills kids, minister,” opposition Senator Iván Cepeda wrote on Twitter. “This is a message of war against children, a message of war against the vulnerable populations that today are being victimized,” said prominent human rights defender Francia Márquez, one of 23 signers of a letter condemning Molano’s statements. “For the Minister of Defense, children aged 13, 14, and 16 have been turned into ‘war machines.’ It is very sad that kids are called that,” said Danna Lizeth Montilla’s father.

Indigenous community retains soldiers in Chocó

The commander of the Colombian Army’s 7th Division denounced on March 8 that members of an indigenous community disarmed, bound the hands of, and retained nine soldiers in Carmen de Atrato municipality, in Chocó department. (In Colombia’s northwest corner, Chocó is the country’s poorest department, and one of its most violent.) Government officials are vowing to pursue kidnapping charges against members of the local Indigenous Guard, a disciplined public order force—armed only with ceremonial staffs—that is common in many indigenous territories.

Details about the incident are confusing. Soldiers claim they were investigating shots fired near a main road. Indigenous Guard members in the El Consuelo Parte Baja community claim that the soldiers lacked recognizable insignia. Neither side alleges that force was used. On the next day (March 9), the community turned the nine soldiers over to a committee from the Defensoría.

The Army vowed to file criminal kidnapping charges against the Chocó indigenous leaders. President Iván Duque’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, voiced rage, telling El Tiempo: “Things must be called by their names. They were not detained, they were kidnapped! And those who did it should be condemned for that crime. They should be sentenced for that crime to prison terms between 40 and 45 years, the maximum that the penal code establishes for that case.”

Guarín, a longtime conservative security intellectual and columnist, sees a larger nationwide plot. “It is an unarmed violent mobilization—at least not with firearms, in most cases—that seeks to prevent the capture of criminals, the eradication of illicit crops, the destruction of drug processing laboratories, operations against the illicit extraction of minerals, and even the fight against organized armed groups’ structures.”

Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) rejected Guarín’s words, including allegations that the Chocó community engaged in kidnapping. ONIC’s peace and human rights counselor, Gustavo Vélez, told El Tiempo, “These people [soldiers] were not assaulted, they were not outraged, they were only held… They were taken to a place where they did not even go without water, and they were handed over to… the Defensoría.”

“As a national organization we categorically reject this type of assessment by Dr. Guarín,” Vélez continued, “because this type of assessment stigmatizes the Indigenous Guard, stigmatizes men and women who today are displaced and confined. At no time has the Indigenous Guard been used by armed actors for illegal purposes.”

Letter from UN rapporteurs on fumigation

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made public a December 17 letter from seven of its rapporteurs, urging the Colombian government not to restart a program that would eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

Between 1994 and 2015, with heavy U.S. support, contract pilots and Colombian police sprayed glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares of the country’s territory, achieving modest and quickly reversible reductions in coca cultivation. The program was suspended in 2015 after a World Health Organization study found glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While the Duque government is vowing to re-start fumigation, Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set several health, safety, consultation, and other requirements that the government must meet before doing so.

The December letter is signed by the UN rapporteurs for Toxic Substances, Afro-Descendant Communities, Environment, Food, Physical and Mental Health, Human Rights Defenders, and Indigenous Communities. It contends that resuming glyphosate fumigation would “carry enormous risks for human rights and the environment, while it will not comply with the conditions established by the Constitutional Court or international obligations.” It warns that renewed fumigation might violate the terms of the 2016 peace accord. It advises renouncing fumigation, and asks the government for information about compliance with the Constitutional Court’s requirements and other risk mitigation measures.

“The letter was sent after we in civil society requested that the rapporteurs activate this mechanism, and thus help restrain the Government’s insistent announcements about the possible resumption of the PECIG [glyphosate spray program],” notes a statement from the Colombian legal NGO DeJusticia and several other groups, including WOLA.

The Colombian government’s February 17 response to the UN rapporteurs also became public last week—and it was a flat refusal. Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations Adriana Mejía told the rapporteurs that their “urgent call…does not comply with the requirements set forth in the code of conduct governing the performance of your mandate.” In other words, that the rapporteurs were outside their proper lane, and thus would not get a response to their letter’s claims.

The UN letter was not the only public declaration last week in opposition to renewing fumigation. More than 150 academics from Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere signed a letter urging President Joe Biden “to reconsider your support for aerial spraying.” WOLA’s Adam Isacson published a column in El Espectador voicing hope that, once it becomes more consolidated with the addition of key officials, the Biden administration may be convinced to abandon the spray program.

For now, the fumigation program remains suspended. Defense Minister Molano, though, reiterated on March 2 that, with the Court’s conditions met, the program would restart in April. A judge in Nariño department, in southwest Colombia, continues to hold up a component of the restart with a finding that Afro-Descendant and indigenous communities must be consulted first. A government filing alleges that the judge’s “omissive” action runs counter to “maintaining national security.”

Links

  • President Duque held a rare meeting on March 10 with Comunes (ex-FARC) party leader Rodrigo Londoño to discuss protection of demobilized ex-combatants. On March 18, Londoño is to appear before the Truth Commission jointly with former top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is currently in an ICE facility in Georgia contesting his deportation, after serving a U.S. prison sentence for drug trafficking. Meanwhile, in an eight-page document Londoño frankly discussed the Comunes party’s difficulty joining coalitions for the 2022 presidential and legislative elections, as well as divisions within the party.
  • U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a March 10 phone conversation with Defense Minister Molano and Presidential Chief of Staff Maria Paula Correa. According to the White House readout, topics covered included climate change, “a peaceful and negotiated outcome to” Venezuela’s crisis, peace accord implementation, and “the importance of upholding human rights.”
  • Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, sparked controversy with another in a series of public comments blaming Venezuelan migrants for some crime in the city. As the first woman and first LGBTI mayor of Bogotá, her words drew expressions of consternation from several of her center-left political allies.
  • A regular Universidad de los Andes poll of Colombian public opinion found that support for the FARC peace accord surpassed 50 percent for the first time—51 percent, up from 41 percent during a 2016 version of the poll.
  • The investigative website La Liga del Silencio reported that the Truth Commission had sent the Defense Ministry a letter last October noting that the armed forces had not responded satisfactorily to 38 different information requests submitted over the previous year. The Liga report reveals that a 2015 fire at a military facility destroyed 17 years of Army records in a major conflict region, the Magdalena Medio.
  • The Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), which since 2019 has been directed by a conservative disliked by much of the country’s human rights community, is again embroiled in controversy. It faces allegations that its leadership “drastically” censored the content of a museum exhibit that Center staff had developed with several indigenous groups’ participation and consent. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), citing indications of prior censorship from fifty witnesses, asked the CNMH to turn over e-mail communications between Director Darío Acevedo and the leadership of the historical memory museum effort.
  • Writing for Mongabay, Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses finds that Colombia’s military-led environmental protection campaign has done little to confront those most responsible for profiting from and financing Amazon basin deforestation, nor does it resolve land tenure issues that underlie the problem.

Tags: Weekly update

March 15, 2021

Catatumbo Civil Society Seeks U.S. Support for Humanitarian Accord Amid Ongoing Conflict

In a March 11 statement addressed to members of the U.S. Congress, the Catatumbo Humanitarian and Peacebuilding Working Group explains the context of the ongoing violence being experienced in the Catatumbo region—located in the North Santander department, which borders Venezuela. The Working Group has closely monitored the 2016 peace accord’s implementation, and alongside the Catholic Church and other sectors of civil society, has continuously appealed to the Colombian government to advance a direly needed humanitarian accord in Catatumbo.

The national government’s strategy to deploy more than 10,000 soldiers in the area and to institute Catatumbo as a Zona Futuro, has not provided opportune and effective responses. On the contrary, it has contributed to persistently high rates of violent actions against the civilian population, as evidenced by the increase in numbers of homicide, forced recruitment of minors, and sexual violence; as well as the expansion of paramilitary structures, and according to 2020 figures: 6 massacres, 17 social leader and former combatant homicides, 1,180 internally displaced persons, and 33,627 confined persons. Likewise, there are records of 5 extrajudicial executions by the public force in the framework of forced illicit crop eradication operations and the reinforcement of the presence of paramilitary groups such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas in Tibú and the metropolitan area of ​​Cúcuta.

The Working Group also invites U.S. Congressional offices to an event to be hosted by WOLA, alongside the affected communities and the Catholic Church, on Wednesday, April 7th at 10:00 a.m. EDT. The event seeks to help the international community understand the dynamics of conflict in Catatumbo and the true state of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation.

The Working Group requests U.S. congressional support for the humanitarian agreement to help shield the civilian population from ongoing conflict. Likewise, the Working Group requests U.S. aid and assistance before the Colombian Government to carry out concrete actions to increase the urgent humanitarian development needed.

Read the full, English statement here.
Read the original, Spanish statement here.

Tags: Catatumbo, Civil Society Peace Movement, Zonas Futuro

March 11, 2021

Ethnic Groups Demand Advancements in Peace Process

In recent weeks, ethnic groups throughout Colombia have urged for necessary advancements in the peace process including, but not limited to: the fulfillment of the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter, establishing the Special Peace Electoral Constituencies in Colombia’s Congress, and addressing the critical humanitarian situation in Alto Baudó, Chocó department.

Below are synopses of these recent statements and access to full versions in both English and Spanish.

Fulfill the Ethnic Chapter Now!

On March 1, the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) published a statement that outlined the lagging implementation of the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter. They also point to obstacles for ethnic participation in the transitional justice system and the urgent need to address the humanitarian crises in Chocó department, the city of Buenaventura, and on the Caribbean coast. The statement also urges the national government to resume peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English version here.

The Special Peace Electoral Constituencies are an Opportunity to Strengthen Colombia’s Democracy. “Delivering for the Victims”.

In this March 1 statement, Colombia’s Ethnic Commission for Peace and Territorial Rights gives an overview of the effects of ongoing conflict in ethnic and rural territories in the past year. The Commission urges for proactive action by the state and demands the immediate creation of the Special Peace Electoral Constituencies in Colombia’s Congress—a mechanism devised in the 2016 peace accord. The Special Peace Electoral Constituencies seek to create representation in Colombia’s House of Representatives, promoting democracy and participation among sectors of Colombian society that have been historically excluded from political and economic life.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English version here.

Humanitarian Mission in Alto Baudó, Chocó Department

A March 1 statement by an Alto Baudó humanitarian mission delegation—composed of regional and international entities—corroborates the critical security situation of the Baudó people. Several human rights violations and breaches of International Humanitarian Law were documented and the delegation made appeals to the national government, the Chocó Governor, the Alto Baudó municipality, political leaders and the ruling class, the Attorney General and Comptroller’s offices, the Prosecutor’s office, the Constitutional Court, and the international community.

Read the original Spanish statement here.
Read the translated English version here.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Civil Society Peace Movement, Indigenous Communities, Political Participation, Transitional Justice

March 11, 2021

Colombia Peace Update: March 6, 2021

During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Prosecutor asks to acquit Álvaro Uribe

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) recommended on March 5 that former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) not be prosecuted for allegations of witness tampering. The case had Uribe, the founder of President Iván Duque’s political party, the Centro Democrático, under house arrest between August and October. It now goes to a judge, whose decision about whether to drop charges is certain to be appealed.

Here is a quick overview of what has happened:

  • In 2012 ex-president Uribe accused a political opponent, then-representative Iván Cepeda, of visiting imprisoned former paramilitary leaders and bribing them to give false evidence tying Uribe to paramilitary groups. Cepeda, whose senator father was killed in 1994 by paramilitaries working with an official who would take a leading position in Uribe’s presidential intelligence service, was investigating Uribe’s possible links to the rightwing armed groups.
  • Because the accusation was against a sitting member of Congress (Rep. Cepeda later became a senator, along with Uribe, in 2014), Colombia’s Supreme Court took up the case investigation.
  • In 2018, the Supreme Court determined that Iván Cepeda had neither paid nor pressured the former paramilitaries with whom he had met, exonerating him. Instead, in a bombshell finding, the Court turned the tables and announced it would be investigating Álvaro Uribe and his attorney for “procedural fraud and bribery”: essentially, offering bribes to a cast of characters of minor ex-paramilitaries in exchange for false testimony. The charges could carry a prison term of up to 12 years.
  • On August 12, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered Senator Álvaro Uribe placed under house arrest at his ranch in Córdoba. It issued a 1,500-page document laying out evidence against Uribe and his attorney, Diego Cadena, including videos, audios, intercepts, and WhatsApp transcripts. A February 28 column by investigative journalist Daniel Coronell recalls some of the incriminating conversations.
  • On August 18, Uribe resigned his Senate seat, which placed him outside the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. On September 3, the Supreme Court handed the case over to the Fiscalía, which since January 2020 has been headed by Francisco Barbosa, a friend of Iván Duque’s since college. The Fiscalía had six months to decide whether to proceed with the case, a term that expired last week. The prosecutor put in charge of the case, Gabriel Jaimes, had worked in the past as “right-hand man” for one of the most conservative figures in Colombian politics, former inspector-general, current OAS Ambassador, and Uribe supporter Alejandro Ordóñez.
  • Uribe was released from house arrest on October 10.
  • On March 5, Gabriel Jaimes asked the judiciary to terminate (or “preclude”) the investigation against Álvaro Uribe, writing that Uribe’s conduct didn’t “have the characteristic of crime,” and that any crimes that may have been committed didn’t involve Uribe.

“Thank God for this positive step,” Uribe tweeted. Uribe’s attorney Jaime Granados, who has defended several politicians and military officers accused of human rights crimes, told media that Jaimes’s request to drop the case “was the only possible conclusion the investigators could reach.”

Sen. Iván Cepeda retorted that “Prosecutor Jaimes practically became Uribe’s lawyer… the positions of the Prosecutor’s Office are a mirror of Uribe’s arguments and his defense.” Cepeda’s attorney, Reinaldo Villalba of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, called Jaimes’s decision “reckless. The road to impunity continues its course, but it can be stopped, we hope, by the judges of the Republic.”

The prosecutor’s request to drop the case must now go before a judge, which is supposed to happen within five business days but may take longer. If the judge grants the request to end the investigation, Sen. Cepeda—who is classified as a “victim” in this case—can appeal it. If the judge finds that the investigation should continue, the Fiscalía can appeal it.

An appeal will take months. If the appeals judge agrees with the Fiscalía, then the Uribe case is over. If the appeals judge finds ground to continue Uribe’s prosecution, then the Fiscalía must either come up with new arguments (out of a short list of allowed arguments) to drop the case, forcing the courts to do this all over again—or it must prosecute Álvaro Uribe, apparently against its prosecutors’ will.

The Uribe case is likely to drag on, then, for many more months, steadily overlapping the campaign for Colombia’s March 2022 presidential elections.

Illicit crop eradication the subject of several notable new documents

Two State Department reports that became public last week congratulated Colombia’s government for its aggressive approach to illicit crop eradication and its movement toward reinstating a controversial program to eradicate coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft.

On February 23, the State Department delivered to Congress a required report, which became public on March 1, certifying that Colombia is following a strategy to cut coca production by 50 percent by 2023. This document notes a “historic level of manual eradication despite challenges from the COVID-19, a dramatic increase in coca grower protests opposing manual eradication, and a rise in violent attacks against eradicators. Significant progress has also been made to re-establish a safe, limited, and targeted Colombian-led aerial eradication program that meets the administrative and oversight requirements established by the Colombian constitutional court.” (Colombia suspended aerial herbicide eradication in 2015, citing public health concerns.)

On March 2, the Department issued its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a global overview. Its Colombia section laments that “the Colombian government suspended aerial eradication of coca in 2015, removing a critical tool for reducing coca cultivation,” and celebrates that “President Duque has stated publicly his intent to incorporate aerial eradication into an integrated drug control strategy.”

Both documents came as a surprise to some Colombian analysts who expected the Biden administration to adopt the more critical approach to forced eradication laid out in the December report of a bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. That body, whose members included some individuals considered close to the new administration, wrote that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Even if it does intend to adopt such a new tone on eradication, the six-week-old Biden administration, which still lacks officials in many key positions, may not yet have the bandwidth to do so.

Five documents issued since February 26 are sharply critical of the U.S. and Colombian governments’ current approach to coca. All conclude that forced eradication, especially when not paired with alternatives, exacerbates violence and weakens governance in rural areas that badly need it.

  1. A February 26 research report from the International Crisis Group found that “security operations that pay far greater heed to the need to protect civilians and invigorate rural reforms would be more effective.” Principal author Elizabeth Dickinson presented her findings at a joint event with WOLA on March 5, and in a column at NPR that same day.
  2. 22 U.S. and international civil society organizations, including WOLA, sent a March 1 letter to President Biden encouraging him to make implementation of the 2016 peace accord a central tenet of U.S. policy toward Colombia. “We urge the United States not to restart the aerial spraying program, which will be seen as undermining the accords and will drive farmers and communities away from cooperating,” the letter reads.
  3. A multimedia series published on March 1 by El Espectador, “The Battle to Substitute Coca,” tells the story of post-peace accord eradication and crop substitution from the perspective of San José del Fragua, a municipality in Caquetá. It thoroughly explores the complexities surrounding the increasingly frustrating experience of the peace accords’ neglected crop substitution program.
  4. Also in El Espectador, Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación published a March 4 column arguing that aerial fumigation “is condemned to failure and will increase violence and set the country aflame.”
  5. Longtime drug policy scholar Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz published a detailed paper that he had written in 2020 to inform the work of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. (English here.) Garzón found that “the current approach by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the right one; however, in practice it has come up against the inertia of anti-drug policy, in which the reduction in coca crops—measured in number of hectares eradicated—is considered the main indicator of success.” He adds, “The image of a plane spraying hectares of coca is useful to show that the state is acting rigorously and promptly, but it clearly falls short if the goal is to create fundamental change. The benefits of this tool are limited to the very short term, while the costs in terms of state legitimacy and the relationship with local communities last a very long time.”

The JEP rejects two “para-politicians” and keeps one

A small number of civilian leaders serving criminal sentences since the 2000s for supporting paramilitary groups—so-called “para-politicians”—has agreed to cooperate with the post-conflict transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). This week, the case of one advanced, while the post-conflict tribunal is kicking out two others.

Álvaro “El Gordo” García was a senator and powerful political boss from Sucre, a small department on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It is among the poorest third of the country’s 32 departments. García was sentenced to 40 years in prison for helping to organize the AUC paramilitary confederation’s bloc in the Montes de María region, which carried out some of the bloodiest massacres of the entire conflict during this century’s first years. The JEP is trying Sen. García, who directed the 2000 Macayepo massacre, as a paramilitary member—not as a third-party supporter.

The JEP has agreed to take García’s case, which could earn him a shorter sentence under non-prison conditions, as long as he tells the full truth about what happened in the Montes de María and provides reparations to his victims. If he reveals what he knows, La Silla Vacía reports, García could take down with him a large number of people. “Nothing moved in Sucre without ‘Gordo’ knowing about it. If he starts to tell everything he knows, there will be no one left with a head,” a “person who worked in politics with Garcia for several years” told the investigative website. “Those guys (the paramilitaries) took over the department and the municipalities with the complacency of the police, the DAS [disbanded presidential intelligence agency], the Fiscalía and the judges,” added “a politician who was in office during those years.” For now, “El Gordo” García remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison.

Another Sucre politician from that era is on the verge of being ejected from the JEP’s jurisdiction. Salvador Arana was the department’s governor during the early 2000s, then went on to be the Uribe government’s ambassador in Chile before the justice system caught up with him and found him guilty of colluding with paramilitaries, including to kill political rivals. The JEP has refused to release Arana from his Barranquilla prison pending trial, and last week threatened to suspend him from the transitional justice system within 30 days if he failed to show more commitment to tell the truth and recognize his victims. So far, the JEP contends, Arana “has simply accused the victims of being collaborators of the FARC, of administrative corruption, and of manipulating witnesses.”

A third “para-politician” is out: Ramiro Suárez Corzo, the 2003-07 mayor of the busy Venezuelan border city of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, has been ejected from the JEP’s purview after three years, and will not get an opportunity for a lighter sentence. Like Arana, Suárez has been in prison for colluding with paramilitaries, who killed at least one of his political rivals. Like Arana, the JEP accuses him of failing to make significant new contributions to the truth about his case, instead denying his guilt and accusing his accusers.

Links

  • WOLA is pleased to launch a new multimedia resource and toolkit for protecting Colombia’s threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. Visit our Con Líderes Hay Paz campaign.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update summarizes numerous alarming cases brought to our attention in recent weeks.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) plays an important role in the Urabá region of northwestern Colombia, where paramilitaries displaced thousands of farmers during the conflict, and large-scale farmers appropriated their land. El Espectador and Verdad Abierta revealed that the new Defensoría representative in Urabá, José Augusto Rendón, is a lawyer who aggressively defended the region’s new landowners against victims’ efforts at land restitution. On several occasions Rendón predicted that violence would result if victims got their land back. Several national human rights organizations received the nomination “with absolute bewilderment and dismay.”
  • The latest bimonthly Invamer Gallup poll of urban Colombian public opinion shows only 6 percent of respondents believing that the security situation is improving, tied for a record low along a time series going back to 2008. President Iván Duque’s approval rating remains at 36 percent, where it was two months ago. By a two-to-one margin, respondents opposed Duque’s offer of legal status to Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, which was well received internationally.
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano reported that the armed forces killed (or in his term, “neutralized”) 13 members of the FARC dissident group headed by alias “Gentil Duarte” by bombing a site in Calamar, Guaviare.
  • The Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which as noted above saw horrific massacres during the 2000s, was relatively peaceful in the 2010s. Troublingly, El Espectador and the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris published reports from the region documenting an increase in threats against social leaders and indications that paramilitary-descended “Gulf Clan” is making inroads.

Tags: Weekly update

March 7, 2021