Protection of Ex-Combatants

Explainer last updated May 14, 2020; see also Timeline entries tagged “Protection of Ex-Combatants”

Guaranteeing the safety of ex-combatants is a major challenge in nearly every post-conflict environment. Chapter 3 of the FARC-government peace accord (“End of the Conflict”) set up several mechanisms to protect 13,185 demobilized guerrillas after August 15, 2017, when all became free to circulate around the country.

In February 2020, the FARC called for a protest against increasing murders of its members.

Section set up a “Security and Protection Corps,” a force of bodyguards to protect FARC leaders and vulnerable ex-guerrillas, employed by the Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (NPU). The UN Verification Mission reported 233 National Protection Unit protection schemes for ex-combatants, covering 250 men and 74 women, as of November 24, 2019. As of March 2020, a somewhat larger number of protection schemes employs 1,193 bodyguards, the UN Verification Mission reported. Of these bodyguards, 767 are former combatants, 146 of them women.

Section set up a Technical Committee on Security and Protection “to develop, coordinate, monitor and make suggestions for the implementation of a Strategic Plan on Security and Protection.” Section established a training program in self-protection measures.

The Technical Committee on Security and Protection holds its first formal meeting on December 7, 2020.

Section 3.4.9 committed the government to strengthening the Early Warning System managed by the office of the Ombudsman (Defensoría) to guarantee “the deployment of a rapid response on the ground” in case of threats against ex-combatants. This system is to coordinate with human rights organizations, is to be autonomous from other government institutions, and is to “have a territorial-based, equity-based and gender-based approach.” 

In addition to immediate protection and response to threats, the accord also committed the government to doing more to curb the actors generating these attacks and threats in the first place. A key part of that effort was a new Special Investigative Unit within the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), as foreseen in Section 3.4.4 of the peace accord and Decree 898 of 2017. This Unit is charged with dismantling—through investigation, prosecution and indictment—the criminal and paramilitary groups that attack social leaders, human rights defenders, and demobilized guerrillas, and with dismantling these groups’ support networks within Colombian society.

Despite these measures, former FARC members are being killed at an increasing rate. The UN Verification Mission found 2019 to be the “most violent” year for ex-combatants, with 77 murders of former FARC members. 65 were killed in 2018, and 31 in 2017. As of March 26, 2020, the UN Verification Mission reported, the total number of killings of ex-FARC members had reached 192, in addition to 13 disappearances and 39 attempted homicides. In addition, as of December 31, 2019, 41 relatives of ex-combatants had also been killed.

The Prosecutor General’s Office’s Special Investigative Unit, created by the peace accord, registered 169 killings of ex-FARC members between 2017 and 2019, of which 78 have seen “any advancement” in their investigations and 91 remained unresolved. For these 78 cases, the Unit had issued 51 arrest warrants, and reached sentences in 23 cases involving 20 people. Another 16 cases were in the trial phase as of December 2019. According to the UN Verification Mission, “only 9 of the 67 arrested suspects are the intellectual authors” or masterminds of these killings.

Colombian prosecutorial authorities claim to have “clarified” responsibility for a majority of ex-guerrillas’ murders.

The Unit attributed responsibility in 93 cases: 36 to FARC dissident groups, 12 to the ELN, 9 to the Gulf Clan, 10 to small criminal groups, 6 to the EPL, and 13 to “individuals.” Other actors, among them security forces, have 1 alleged case. The Unit

As of March 26, 2020, according to the UN Verification Mission, Cauca was the deadliest department for FARC ex-combatants with 36 homicides, followed by Nariño (25), Antioquia (22), Caquetá (20), Norte de Santander (16), Meta (13), Putumayo (13), and Valle del Cauca (12).

On March 5, 2020, Astrid Conde Gutiérrez became the second demobilized FARC guerrilla to be assassinated in the city of Bogotá. She was reportedly a former partner of top ex-FARC dissident leader Gentil Duarte, and mother of his child. In the municipality of Ituango, Antioquia, which lies along a key trafficking route and is disputed between FARC dissidents and Gulf Clan paramilitaries, 12 former FARC members have been killed. In early February 2020, the entire remaining population of the former Santa Lucía FARC demobilization site (Territorial Training and Reincorporation Space, or ETCR) in Ituango—62 former fighters and 45 relatives—announced their attention to abandon the site within 60 days due to threats.

With a few exceptions like Ituango, ex-combatants who remain at the 24 former ETCRs have tended to be safer. The presidential advisor for stabilization and consolidation, Emilio Archila, said in January 2020 that each zone continues to be guarded by a 100-person Army battalion. In total, Archila said in February 2020, the former ETCRs are protected by “the action of 2,500 members of the Army and 1,240 police.” The UN Verification Mission reported on March 26, 2020 that only 2 killings of ex-combatants had occurred within the former demobilization sites (ETCRs).

While specially assigned military personnel have protected former combatants, the case of former FARC militiaman Dimar Torres raised strong concerns. Army soldiers killed Torres on April 22, 2019 in the municipality of Convención, part of northeast Colombia’s conflictive Catatumbo region, and were caught by townspeople while attempting to bury his body. Prosecutors have since found that the soldiers not only planned the killing, but may have been acting on the orders of a colonel, who is facing trial in Colombia’s criminal justice system.

Much of what the public knows about the Army’s killing of Dimar Torres comes from reporting by Colombia’s Semana magazine.

As the number of killings have mounted, former FARC leaders have grown increasingly critical of the government’s protection efforts. On February 2, 2020, Maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko” published an open letter alleging that demobilized guerrillas “now find no other solution other than to abandon the ETCRs and seek another place to settle and continue their reincorporation process. They are forcibly displaced.… In the Havana peace accords the Colombian state committed itself to provide the reincorporated guerrillas with [security] guarantees. And to social leaders and opposition leaders, all who participate in politics. It’s absolutely clear that none of that has been complied with.” Archila, the presidential counselor, dismissed Londoño’s communication as “a political letter.” He pointed out that on January 27, he had announced a package of ten protection measures for ex-combatants. These included an attention plan for the majority of ex-fighters who no longer live in the ETCRs; increased training in self-protection; more resources for the Special Investigative Unit; and monthly meetings of agencies with early warning responsibilities.

The UN Verification Mission noted in March 2020 that “over 400 requests for protection schemes are currently pending, owing to staffing shortages” in the National Protection Unit’s subdirectorate for ex-combatants. 3 ex-combatants were killed while awaiting the implementation of their protection measures, and 7 more were killed while awaiting the National Protection Unit’s evaluation of their requests.

In February 2020, FARC leaders objected to the naming of the vice-minister of Interior for political relations, Daniel Palacios, to head the National Protection Unit on an interim basis. In 2017, Palacios had written on social media, “It’s inadmissible that FARC terrorists should stroll down the streets of Bogotá with the excuse of carrying out pedagogy for peace, without even having confessed their crimes or given reparations to their victims.”

On February 25, 2020, FARC leader Londoño said, “The President is indolent, his inaction makes him complicit with the genocide that is presenting itself with the ex-guerrillas.” The ex-guerrillas convenes a cacerolazo (pot-banging protest) in Bogotá to draw attention to their protection needs. “It’s absurd and irresponsible for the leader of an opposition party to link the President to the attacks on ex-combatants,” Archila responded to Londoño’s comment. “The FARC party is playing politics with peace. The enemies are in the dissidences and in narcotrafficking: not in the government.”

On March 13, 2020, the FARC urged its members not to participate in a high-level meeting convened by Archila to discuss ex-combatants’ security, because the event was taking place outside the structure of the Technical Committee on Security and Protection that the peace accord had established for this purpose. The UN Mission noted in March 2020, “FARC has complained that the party’s representatives to the Technical Committee on Security and Protection, which was established by the peace agreement, were not invited” to regional meetings. “Despite its important role,” the Mission’s report continued, “the joint working group on the investigation of attacks against former FARC-EP members, which is composed of the Office of the Attorney General, FARC and the Mission, was not convened during the reporting period.”

Killings of ex-combatants are not new to Colombian demobilization and reintegration processes. 30,688 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group demobilized between 2003 and 2006; of these, 2,202—7 percent—were victims of homicide, the Colombian government Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization reported in July 2019.