The first weekend of 2022 saw one of the most serious humanitarian situations in recent years in Arauca—a department in Northeastern Colombia that borders Venezuela. Armed confrontations among illegal armed actors, believed to be members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), left at least 23 people killed and several others displaced. Details surrounding the situation are still emerging.
On January 3, Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos La Paz Colombia, DLP) published a statement calling on all armed actors to cease their hostilities and to respect the lives and dignity of the communities, organizations, and leaders impacted by the confrontations. DLP further reiterated the importance of advancing a peace process with the ELN, addressing the dynamics brought forth by the FARC’s dissidents, and ratifying a humanitarian accord to bring an end to cycles of violence.
An English-language translation of the statement is below:
Defend the Peace observes with great concern the sensitive situation occurring in Arauca. The ongoing insecurity further reiterates the importance of advancing a peace process with the ELN, handling the dissidents of the FARC who continue their armed actions, and ratifying a global humanitarian accord to move away from these relentless cycles of armed conflict.
Given this situation of ongoing confrontations and the repercussions on communities and their organizations, we are grateful for all the humanitarian action and accompaniment of both national organizations with legal capacities and the international community, as accompaniment to the communities must always be a priority.
Arauca will only find a path of coexistence and true democracy if agreements are reached to leave behind more than four decades of armed conflict.
We call on the ELN and FARC dissident structures to cease their armed confrontations and respect the communities, their organizations, and their leadership.
Between February 2021 and May 2021, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) worked with Colombia-based consultants and partners to gather the perspectives of people at the community level about their experiences with the implementation of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.
While there are good academic, statistical, and investigative reports on different aspects of Colombia’s peace, WOLA gathered perspectives on how various civil society actors were viewing the implementation of the 2016 peace on the ground. For peace to be properly consolidated on the ground, understanding how those most affected by the conflict is key and their viewpoints are vital to guaranteeing that peace is successful. Colombia’s regions are each unique with their own historical, cultural, geographic and ethnic differences and the conflict has played itself out differently throughout the country, which has resulted in distinct dynamics on the ground.
Our research covered four different regions of Colombia—Arauca and Catatumbo in the northeast, Chocó in the northwest, and northern Cauca in the southwest. For people to speak candidly without fear of reprisals, there is no direct attribution of the sources of the information in this report.
When persons interviewed were asked what can the U.S. government and civil society organizations do to support peace efforts in the region, the following proposals were made:
1)Support the creation of a Commission that can dialogue directly with U.S. policymakers
The U.S. government and civil society organizations should support the creation of a binational commission that serves as an interlocutor with U.S. policymakers to advance peace accord implementation in the Chocó. The Commission would include the U.S. government, Chocoan civil society, U.S. civil society and experts chosen due to their expertise). By helping create this commission, the international community can ensure the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter is prioritized, and that peace is implemented in Chocó with a differentiated ethnic, gender, and disability approach. This commission should also incorporate the peace-related demands from various social movements that have formed in the department to petition the government. These include civic strikes (paro civicos) and Indigenous collective peaceful protest actions known as Mingas, all of which urge for the Ethnic Chapter’s comprehensive implementation.
2)Closely monitor the implementation of the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs)
The full and comprehensive implementation of the PDETs, a central commitment of the peace accord’s first chapter, can help transform the structural obstacles to consolidating peace in Colombia. For these plans to function as envisioned by the peace accord, international actors need to closely monitor and advocate for their implementation to help guarantee their advancement and to address complications that may arise. All proposals and projects related to the PDET Chocó must fully integrate an ethnic and gender approach and include the full participation of beneficiary communities. An ethnic approach does not mean superficially placing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous individuals in key positions; rather, only by integrating ethnic communities into all levels of participation and governance at the national level can the PDET truly address on-the-ground realities. As for implementing a gender approach, women and LGBT+ individuals from the territories must be included in the PDET as designers, implementers, and beneficiaries. Finally, the PDET must seek to activate local economies by supporting economic projects proposed by the community councils and the cabildos. Supporting the projects designed by the communities themselves will transform the rural countryside and foment peacebuilding among receptor communities.
3)Send resources directly to civil society organizations
At the moment, resource allocation is at the whim of who holds political office, which often results in alleged embezzlement practices. Civil society organizations have noted suspicious instances where funds are channeled to individuals who actively supported the political campaigns that elected those who hold political office. Therefore, to ensure resources and funds truly meet the needs of implementing the peace accord, international resources to support Colombia’s peace should be administered directly by communities in the Chocó who uphold the well-being of the community. This means empowering civil society organizations to administer resources. These organizations, made up of and elected by the communities themselves, have a wide breadth of experience working to solve the department’s challenges. As such, they hold a deep understanding of the needs of the communities and are beholden to them. Directly allocating much-needed resources to these civil society organizations provides stronger guarantees of transparency and accountability, increasing the likelihood that the resources will be used as intended and preventing their diversion when changes, inevitable in a politicized local context, occur in municipal and departmental governments.
4)Help develop an alliance among victims, ex-combatants, and civil society to demand and monitor the peace accord’s implementation
To advance peace accord implementation at the departmental level, a transformative pedagogy of peacebuilding is required. This strategy must move beyond its current emphasis on university professors and students. It should prioritize the participation of victims of the internal armed conflict, former combatants who are signatories of the peace accord, and diverse sectors of civil society like territorial leaders, social leaders, women, LGBT+ leaders, and youth representatives.
These different sectors already exist in some form. However, they must unify their efforts by forming an alliance that advocates for the peace accord’s full implementation. For such an alliance to form, and for it to be effective, these sectors should join together in solidarity and ensure their communities understand what the peace accord stipulates and how they can demand the implementation of what the state is obligated to fulfill. This alliance should carry out broad-based education campaigns about the stipulations of the peace accord and how state institutions, including the National Police and the judicial and legislative branches, can be used as tools to guarantee short- and long-term compliance to what was agreed to in the 2016 peace accord.
5) Advocate for the Humanitarian Accord Now Chocó!
To sustain the 2016 peace accord and for it to be fully implemented, the other illegal groups operating in the region need to be addressed. The optimal solution would be for them to be addressed via a politically negotiated solution and/or disarmament. Since such solutions have not advanced in the past decade, Chocoan civil society is proposing that all armed groups support the humanitarian minimums found in the Humanitarian Accord Now Chocó!. This Accord seeks to place limits on the internal armed conflict and violence linked to illegal armed groups. It guarantees better protection for civilians stuck in the middle of all these groups and respect for international humanitarian law. It is an effort by coalitions of local civil society organizations and religious entities to step in where the government has failed to ensure guarantees for the lives and physical integrity of civilians living in the area. Its intent is to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians and to help pave the way for future and continuing dialogues. However, for such an accord to be realized it requires support from the international community, in particular the United States.
Women accounted for a significant percentage of victims of the violence from Colombia’s armed conflict—an unequal distribution of pain and overall suffering. Even 40% of the FARC guerrillas ranks were women, yet they remained excluded from the initial negotiations that led to Colombia’s 2016 peace accord. This intentional silencing reflects a larger pattern of structural violence that existed prior to the armed conflict, which is taught in the home, reinforced in society, and ultimately legitimized by the state. Yet, despite this oppressive status quo, women in Colombia have been active participants in advocating for themselves, their communities, and the peace process by institutionalizing their respective emotions.
Women’s groups across Colombia are leading peacebuilding efforts to bring to light the disproportionate, gendered impact of the internal armed conflict’s violence. For instance, Colombian feminist organization Casa de la Mujer, in collaboration with a series of other organizations, published their recent report entitled TruthIs: Politicizing Women’s Pain and Emotions. The report, filled with sobering testimonies and concerted recommendations by victims of gender-based violence, was submittedtothe Truth Commission—an entity that forms part of Colombia’s tripartite transitional justice system and is responsible for clarifying the truth of what occurred during Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict. Three of Colombia’s departments—Meta, Córdoba, and Cauca—have dedicated chapters in the report, as they are home to many Indigenous and Afro-descendants who were disproportionately affected by the conflict. With the report’s submission to the Truth Commission, these women’s groups are contributing to implementing the 2016 peace accord’s trailblazing gender provisions, urging they be used as mechanisms for justice.
Women and the Peace Process
Reports like TruthIs are possible because of the efforts placed forth to include a gender approach in the peace process. The inclusion of the peace accord’s innovative gender provisions was no easy feat. When peace negotiations began between the Colombian state and FARC guerrillas, women were not granted a seat at the table to participate and it took the intentional efforts of about 450 women’s organizations to push then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to allow for two seats. In September 2014, a gender subcommittee was launched that included five members in total from the FARC and the government. But nonetheless, the gender provisions that resulted from the subcommittees’ contributions received significant pushback, mainly due to an opposition movement that labeled the recognition of LGBTQ+ and women rights as a “gender ideology”. This push came mainly from evangelical factions who sought to hinder advances in protecting different gender identities and sexual orientations. Unfortunately, this opposition movement succeeded in helping deter support to the peace accord and help the plebiscite fail, resulting in the “no” vote succeeding by a margin of less than 1 percent.
Despite these setbacks, women’s eventual integration allowed them to play an essential role in the delegations of victims, where women represented 60% of the members. This integration has led the Colombian government and the FARC to release statements that reflected positively on women’s rights, inclusivity, and diversity. The largest impact can be seen in legislation around sexual violence in which many agreements have a gender focus and sexual violence is listed as a crime that can not be amnestied under the accord. Essentially, the peace process without women is not adept to face the dynamic problems that face civil society and the Colombian government.
Women’s lives before the armed-conflict
The report brings attention to the continuum of violence that existed prior to the known inception of the armed conflict. The pre-established systems of oppression against women were deeply ingrained from interpersonal relations and into the larger structure of financial, economic, and physical oppression in Colombian society. The harmful ideology of machismo upholds and perpetuates a traditional expression of masculinity and femininity, which is simultaneously tied to a rigid gender binary in which women are inferior to men.
“Habia una buena relación, las mujeres eran sumisas porque el que mandaba era el marido”145
“There was a good relationship, the women were submissive because the husband was in charge “145
Beyond this, machismo minimizes and normalizes violence against women often becoming internalized in men and women. Throughout the interview process, women shared that they found their relationships to their spouses, families, and communities to be generally positive in terms of their quality of life. However, In the same recounting of events they would include anecdotes of violence within families, partners, and insecurity for women in general:
“En alugnas familias había conflictos ecónomicos y pasionales cuando un hombre cela a una mujer, también en las familias había maltrato y violencia…no dejaban salir a la mujer por celos y golpes” (145, TruthIs)
“In some families, there were economic conflicts and conflicts of passion when a man was jealous of a woman, in families, there was mistreatment and violence…they did not let the woman go out because of jealousy and beatings” (145, TruthIs).
Additionally, there was an extreme division of labor and enforced subordination in which women had no rights to education or entrepreneurship. This, in turn, would not only confirm the biases against women but limit women to vulnerable socio-economic situations. The intentional retraction of resources was a manifestation of how little value women held in Colombian society thus making it easier for perpetrators to dehumanize and enact intimate and familial violence on them. The TruthIs report provides insight that before the conflict these girls and women had already been reduced to public commodities instead of dignified humans. Sexual violence was already systematically being practiced by perpetrators who exploited the physical and bodily autonomy of women:
[…] “antes de llegar los paramilitares, los ricos compraban a las niñas, la gente que tenía plata compraba a las niñas a sus padres: dos, tres vacas; tres, cuatro, diez mil pesos por una niña, y entonces se la llevaban a vivir uno, dos meses, y ahí la dejaban y salían y compraban otra.” (Narrativa de líder de Córdoba-68).
[…] “before the paramilitaries arrived, the rich people bought girls, those who had money bought the girls from their parents: two, three cows or three, four, ten thousand pesos for a girl. They took her to live with them for one or two months. They would leave her there and go out and buy another one.” (Narrative of a leader from Córdoba-68)
Ultimately, the qualitative research provided in the report demonstrated the extent of the normalization of violence in communities that would later be appropriated by various armed actors to use women as pawns for dominance.
Women’s experiences in the armed conflict
The TruthIs report highlights that the larger struggle during the armed conflict is impossible to understand without understanding how women experienced gender-based violence, a reality supported by the Constitutional Court’s report that sexual violence was a ‘systematic, habitual and generalized practice’ appropriated by all armed groups in the Colombian conflict. Estimates include that armed groups were responsible for the rape of 12,809 women, the forced prostitution of 1,575, the forced pregnancies of 4,415 women, and the forced abortions of 1,810 women. Both the falsehood of security and the unstable security vanished leaving only extreme direct violence, a reality that became unavoidable from the youngest child to elderly mothers. This new milieu instilled fear that did not allow them to live their lives as they had before, new biopolitics was being forcibly instilled in communities across Colombia.
“Mi mamá no me hizo fiesta de quince porque decía que eso era darles aviso a los hombres armados de que ya se lo podían comer a uno.”36
“My mother didn’t throw me a quinceañera because she said that would be a warning to the armed men that they could have me. “36
The TruthIs report highlighted how Afro-descendant and Indigenous women were disproportionately impacted not only because of the regions in which they live but the many dimensions of discrimination that they face. And so, Colombia’s history with slavery and oppression of bodies continued to burden those who have historically been disregarded. Sexual violence was used to control and dominate physically, culturally, economically, and territory for the larger perceived purpose of the conflict. For example, guerrillas have used sexual violence in the forced recruitment of girls as combatants, girls as sex slaves, and as payment to protect other family members.
“Ya el pensamiento era de oder que la mujer conquistara al que tiene el poder…cuando empezaron a llegar los grupos armados, más que todo los paramilitares y los soldados…ya no se buscaba marido por amor sino alguien que nos protegiera”. 38
“The idea was that the woman should conquer the one in power…when the armed groups began to arrive, especially the paramilitaries and the soldiers…they were no longer looked for a husband for love, but for someone who would protect us. “38
State Security Forces’ have been distinctively damaging as the civilian population has no mechanism for justice. These militias’ essential position is to protect and support civilians’ rights to a life free of violence. However, as described by many victims, these entities often took advantage of the chaos to extend harm on vulnerable populations exercising violence against women on a mass scale. Unlike FARC or ELN groups targeted by the government, the State Security Forces were never held accountable for their actions since they operated as the rule of law in these sometimes remote areas. The impunity surrounding State Security Forces has protected many individuals and battalions from being held accountable for the crimes committed against their civilians.
The significance of a report like TruthIS being presented to the Truth Commission
It’s innovative, it highlights not only the perseverance of women’s resistance but how women in these communities utilized their pain and emotions to contribute to the peace process. This report refutes the machismo mindset, that normalizes victim-blaming, and minimizes the suffering of women instead highlighting how women can strengthen peacebuilding efforts.
It’s intentional, the report is taking advantage of the gender provisions in order to create a historical record nationally and internationally affirming the violence committed against women in the context of the armed conflict. It demonstrates how important it is for women to be integrated into the peacebuilding process since their participation also promotes gendered provisions. The regional focus on the Pacific Coast is to emphasize that Afro-descendant and Indigenous women were impacted in specific and targeted ways.
It’s an example, using testimony as an integral component in communicating the differentiated impact the internal conflict had on women. These individuals’ experiences centered on sexual and physical violence but also brought to light how women experienced forced disappearances, forced displacement, forced recruitment, and psychological trauma. The report also includes the experiences of trans individuals and those with different sexualities which as previously discussed are realities that are often overshadowed.
The struggle to end sexual violence continues
While this report is an exceptional demonstration of how far women’s engagement has come in terms of their healing, liberation, and role in the peace process, it can’t begin to entirely eclipse the intricacies of trauma that remains in the wake of the armed conflict. The recent webinar hosted by Oxfam, WOLA, and the Latin America Working Group provided space for women to share in their own words how they experienced violence and the intergenerational trauma felt in their families and communities. The sheer courage displayed moving and the overall message that the fear and continued instability are incredibly prevalent. The women shared a general desire for their daughters and sons to live in reality free of violence, a dream that seems almost unattainable in the current reality.
Presently, the Pacific Coast home to the Cauca and Cordóba departments continue to be disproportionately impacted by violence against women as the demobilization of guerrillas and the increase of militarization in areas previously abandoned by the state has maintained the armed conflict’s violence continuum as young women are still forced into armed prostitution and sexual abuse. Nationally, UN Women reported that 37% of women in Colombia will experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime, and over 50% of Colombian men surveyed for a 2010 UN study admitted to abusing their female partners. This violence has continued to be exacerbated following COVID-19 the FISCALIA reported 60.581 cases of domestic violence across the country.
The silencing of women’s voices and experiences has been constant before, during, and after Colombia’s armed conflict. However, new forms of advocacy and resistance have forced attention onto wounds that many responsible and complacent actors would rather ignore. Of these actors, the Colombian state should grant a public apology to victims of sexual violence experienced by girls, women, and those with different sexual orientations and gender identities. In addition, the international community should hold the Colombian state accountable for implementing the gender provisions of the 2016 Peace Accord that focus on women’s rights, gender, and their social and political participation. Ultimately, the resistance of female victims and community non-profits such as Casa de la Mujer is integral in pushing forward narratives deserving of public attention and justice. Therefore, defending and amplifying the voices and experiences of women that have endured Colombia’s armed conflict is not only a peace mechanism but an active step towards protecting women’s dignity and autonomy.
“Bueno yo pienso que al principio pues no éramos visibles, éramos invisibles para todo el mundo porque la mujer no se tenía en cuenta para nada, pero a raíz de todo lo que nos pasó yo creo que reaccionamos y dijimos que Dios nos dejó por algo, y yo pienso que tenemos que dejar una huella de bien en la comunidad, en la sociedad, en nuestra familia, que nos empoderemos en muchos espacios y en muchas cosas. Ver tantas mujeres asesinadas, desaparecidas y uno que ha logrado superar esas cosas es una razón para que otras mujeres vivan a través de nuestra experiencia, que se den cuenta [de] que sí vale la pena luchar y cambiar este país. Los grupos, fundaciones y todo eso nos ayudan a superarnos emocional y económicamente, y si lo hacemos unidas, mejor.” (Narrativa de mujer del Meta-143).
“Well, I think that at the beginning, we were not visible. We were invisible to everyone women were not taken into account at all. But as a result of everything that happened to us, I think we reacted, and we said that God left us for something, and I think that we have to leave a mark of good in the community, in society, in our families, and our world. We empower ourselves in many spaces and in many things. Seeing so many women murdered, disappeared, and even one woman who has managed to overcome these despite it all is a reason for all of us to overcome. It is a reason for other women to live despite our experiences, to realize so that they realize [that] it is worth fighting and changing this country. The groups, foundations, and all that help us overcome ourselves emotionally and economically and help us better ourselves emotionally and financially, and if we do it united, all the better.” (Narrative of a woman from Meta-143)
November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.
The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.
For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.
Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.
It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.
That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.
10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost. 2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate. 3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021. 4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011. 5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits. 6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.” 7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020. 8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups. 9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women. 10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.
In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”
The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.
The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.
Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.
Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.
The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.
Colombia’s government and largest guerrilla group signed a historic peace accord on November 24, 2016. The government took on many commitments which, if implemented, could guide Colombia away from cycles of violence that its people have suffered, especially in the countryside, for over a century.
Five years later, is the peace accord being implemented? The picture is complicated: the FARC remain demobilized and a transitional justice system is making real progress. But the countryside remains violent and ungoverned, and crucial peace accord commitments are going unmet. WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez joins host Adam Isacson for a walk through which aspects of accord implementation are going well, and which are urgently not.
On October 21 and 22, 2021, representatives from five macro regions in Colombia held the Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal People’s Summit in Santiago de Cali, Valle del Cauca department. They engaged in collaborative work and analysis to advance their common objectives at a time when their communities and territories face serious challenges. These challenges stem from a historical and systematic marginalization; the resurgence of armed conflict and widespread violence, forced internal displacement, and dispossession of their territories and natural resources; the COVID-19 pandemic; and Colombia’s national strike, which brought to light the severity of these ongoing situations.
The summit resulted in a concerted set of recommendations that urge for the comprehensive implementation of the 2016 peace accord and its Ethnic Chapter, the active enforcement of the Afro-Colombian collective land ownership Law 70 of 1993, the declaration of humanitarian emergencies in Afro-descendant territories, the need to promote economic reactivation targeted towards Black communities, a protection strategy that focuses on social investment, among other key issues.
In view of the absence of high-level government officials at the summit, members plan to go to Bogotá to deliver these demands and recommendations personally to President Iván Duque.
You can read unofficial, English-language translations of the recommendations here and here.
On October 18, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), alongside 16 other U.S. civil society organizations, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to use his travel to Colombia as an opportunity to press the Colombian government for progress on peace accord implementation, among other critical human rights matters. Secretary Blinken is set to travel to Bogotá on October 20, where he will meet with President Iván Duque and Vice President-Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, co-lead a migration ministerial, open the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Dialogue, engage in a conversation on democracy and human rights with youth leaders and civic activists, and participate in an event about tackling the climate crisis.
The letter expresses disappointment with the Biden administration’s position on Colombia-related matters thus far. They encourage Secretary Blinken to “avoid public statements that praise the U.S.-Colombia partnership while skirting over the deeply disturbing patterns of human rights violations that should be a major focus of U.S. concern and diplomacy.” These matters of concern include the serious problems of police brutality and racial injustice, addressing the needs of low-income and landless farmers, improving the dire situation of social leaders, advancing ethnic rights, and fully and comprehensively implementing the historic 2016 peace accord. The organizations provide detailed recommendations that should guide the State Department’s foreign policy on and engagement with Colombia.
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the country’s most vocal opponent of the 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group, met at one of his ranches on August 15 with the president of the Truth Commission created by that accord, Fr. Francisco de Roux, along with two other commissioners. Uribe, who faces questions about human rights abuses committed during his time as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997) and president (2002-2008), spoke at great length during the meeting, with little pushback from the commissioners.
The ex-president surprised many by calling for an amnesty for human rights and other crimes committed during the armed conflict. “Perhaps this country will need a general amnesty, almost a clean slate,” he told Fr. de Roux. This would appear to contradict one of Uribe’s many criticisms of the peace accord: that, in his view, it confers “impunity” on ex-guerrillas who (along with military personnel) will receive light sentences if they make full confessions and reparations.
On August 26 Uribe presented a draft amnesty law to legislators of his Centro Democrático party, a bill “to overcome judicial asymmetries and asymmetries in access to government employment.” Under the proposal, those accused of conflict-related crimes would receive a full amnesty if they ask forgiveness, recognize what they did “or, failing that, contribute to the truth, without this implying self-incrimination.”
Members of the military would be released from prison and allowed to hold office. A new chamber of the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) would be set up to judge military personnel separately. Anyone who in the past has investigated, denounced, or made public statements about these military human rights crimes would be disqualified from serving as a judge in that chamber.
Uribe’s proposal makes no distinction between commanders and subordinates involved in past crimes. He would not amnesty people accused of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, or public corruption.” The current list of non-amnistiable crimes that must go before the JEP, however, is longer and more specific: “War crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, child recruitment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, genocide, hostage taking or other serious deprivation of liberty, torture, enforced disappearance, child abduction, and forced displacement.”
“Let’s not talk about general amnesty, let’s talk about amnesty as a strong word to generate a national debate and look for a solution,” Uribe said last week. A national debate is very much underway, as the ex-president’s proposal has generated strong reactions.
“People can’t be ‘washing their faces’ with total amnesties, this will not happen as long as I am prosecutor, I will not allow this to go forward,” said the prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, who is close to President Iván Duque, who in turn is a member of Uribe’s party.
The lead government negotiators in the 2012-16 talks that led to the FARC peace accord issued a 12-point document rejecting Uribe’s proposal. Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo argue that it “would undermine the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for serious violations, and victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.” They recalled having to explain to the FARC negotiators in Havana, “in January 2015, one of the most difficult moments in almost five years of negotiations,” that Colombia’s international commitments (the 2002 Rome Statute, the Inter-American human rights system) prohibited amnesties.
Were Uribe’s proposal to go into effect, the former negotiators add, “the first victims, in addition to the conflict victims of course, would be the members of the armed forces and other agents of the state who are currently participating in the transitional process and who will see their legal security disappear.” Notes Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, “His [Uribe’s] argument is that they [the military] must not be equated with guerrillas. But it is the crimes they have committed that make them equal. In addition, in his effort to favor them, he would do them harm: the [peace] agreement and the JEP are more lenient than the ordinary justice system, in theory.”
Álvaro Uribe faces human rights questions ranging from many political associates’ sponsorship of paramilitary groups, to those groups’ rapid growth during his tenure as governor, to the military’s killings of several thousand civilians during his presidency (discussed in the next section). Jaramillo, the former negotiator—who served as vice-minister of defense under Uribe—told Colombia’s Blu Radio that Uribe “has long been seeking a general amnesty and a clean slate. This is something that has been on his mind for a long time and he will continue to insist on it.”
On August 26, four months after the April 28 launch of protests that went on for several weeks, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Bogotá, Cali, and a few other cities. The day was mostly peaceful, according to the National Police.
Fallout continues, however, from the Paro Nacional protests of April through June, when some protesters caused property damage and an often vicious police response killed 43 people, according to the NGO Temblores, while dozens more remain disappeared. While victims continue to seek justice, the authorities have been quietly cracking down on people whom they believe to have played leading roles in protest-related disorder, often charging them with “terrorism.”
An El Espectadoranalysis detailed several cases of very likely killings of civilians at the hands of police in Cali, none of which has been investigated.
Police have now captured 165 people they allege to have been leaders of the “Primera Línea”—young people who occupied the “front line” of protests—in several cities. Many face terrorism charges.
Among them is Juan Fernando Torres, a 25-year-old Medellín primary school teacher who became known as “El Narrador” because he documented protests, and confrontations with police, on video, posting them to his social media accounts. While the videos record him shouting rude epithets at the police, they do not appear to show Torres taking part in violence. Nonetheless, at 5:00 in the morning of July 29, police broke down his door and took him away while his family looked on.
A well-known student protest leader in Popayán, Estéban Mosquera, who had lost an eye to a tear-gas canister shot by a riot policeman during a 2018 protest, was shot to death on August 23 by two men on a motorcycle.
Thirty social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants in Tolima department say they have received death threats during the past seven weeks. Some say the threats began to escalate after the Paro Nacional began.
Relatives of people killed by police during earlier protests—after a September 9, 2020 episode of police brutality in Bogotá—say that they are receiving death threats and experiencing aggressive behavior from police in their neighborhoods. “In an intimidating message, in which several relatives of September 9 victims were mentioned, a person implied that he has already identified the people involved in the commemorative acts and, in addition, left a sentence via text message: ‘let’s see if you want the game to start, we will gladly start.’ The message dates to August 3.”
In a bit of encouraging news, the Constitutional Court ruled that the military justice system does not have jurisdiction over the May 1, 2021 police killing of protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Court found no evidence that the accused policeman, Maj. Jorge Mario Molano, fired his weapon in self-defense or to protect anyone else. His case will be tried in the regular civilian criminal justice system.
As Colombia’s national debate over police reform continues, the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Colombia released a report, based on inputs from 11 experts, about what obstacles stand in the way of meaningful reform to Colombia’s National Police force. The report highlights the need for civilian leadership of reform and of citizen security policymaking, which in turn requires a larger number of civilians educated and trained in the field.
Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking to indict retired Gen. Mario Montoya, commander of the Army between 2006 and 2008, for his role in the military’s so-called “false positive” killings during the armed conflict. A hearing took place on August 25 before a Bogotá judge who will decide on August 30 whether Montoya may be indicted.
If Judge Fabio Bernal gives a green light, Montoya will be the highest-ranking military figure to face justice for these killings in the civilian criminal justice system. He could also become the first person with a case before both the post-conflict transitional justice system (JEP) and the regular criminal justice system. What that means is not entirely clear.
The term “false positives” refers to soldiers, apparently under heavy pressure to produce results measured in body counts, killing several thousand civilians and falsely presenting the murders as combat deaths. The JEP has estimated that as many as 6,402 false positive killings took place just between 2002 and 2008, Álvaro Uribe’s first seven years in office. If accurate, that number would be equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed during those years.
Gen. Mario Montoya was a key figure during this period. A U.S.-trained officer, he commanded the “Joint Task Force South” that carried out U.S.-backed counter-drug operations during the first years of “Plan Colombia” in the early 2000s. He went on to command the Army during the height of the Uribe government’s anti-guerrilla offensive, including the triumphant July 2008 rescue of 15 FARC hostages known as “Operation Jaque.” (“As their bonds were cut free, the former hostages were quietly told that the Colombian Army had just freed them,” reads an account of the rescue. “Then, the recovery team began to chant, ‘Uribe! Uribe! Uribe!’ followed quickly by ‘Montoya! Montoya! Montoya!’”)
Just a few months later, in November 2008, Gen. Montoya was forced to resign. The triggering event was the revelation that 22 men who disappeared from the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha had turned up dead hundreds of miles away, in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. The men had been lured with offers of employment, taken away and killed, only to be presented as armed-group members killed in combat. The Soacha case capped years of human rights groups’ denunciations—long denied by the Uribe government—that the military had been falsifying combat kill totals by murdering civilians.
Gen. Montoya has been under a cloud ever since, and in 2018 he agreed to have his case heard in the JEP. The transitional justice court is approaching “false positives” in a bottom-up fashion, starting with some of the most serious cases and working toward top commanders. That means it could be some time before the transitional justice court indicts Montoya, if it finds enough evidence to do so.
While Montoya has appeared before the tribunal, so far he has denied any responsibility for the killings. In an early 2020 appearance, the general sparked outrage by blaming soldiers from poor backgrounds: “those kids didn’t even know how to use forks and knives or how to go to the bathroom.”
The JEP is looking into whether commanders like Montoya created a climate, and set of incentives, that encouraged officers to rack up large body counts even if it meant killing non-combatants—and whether the commanders knew that so many combat kills were falsified. The Fiscalía is more specifically seeking to charge Montoya with responsibility for 104 killings, including 5 children, that took place in 2007 and 2008. That is the period after the issuance of a military directive to prioritize guerrilla demobilizations and captures over killings, which the Fiscalía contends that Montoya ignored.
He “allegedly pressured all division, brigade and battalion chiefs to follow a different strategy that reportedly rewarded and awarded decorations to commanders and groups that reported deaths,” according to the prosecutor’s office. “Commanders of his subordinate units knew that Montoya did not ask for (but) demanded combat kills.” A soldier who says he was kicked out of the force for disobeying these orders claimed that Montoya demanded “rivers of blood,” a phrase the General denies using.
Colombia’s civilian criminal justice system could have acted on the allegations against him at any time since 2008. In fact, as El Espectadorexplains, “a process against Montoya for false positives committed under his command was announced in 2016. The proceedings were suspended and then, with the arrival of Néstor Humberto Martínez at the Fiscalía [a chief prosecutor with little interest in military prosecutions] and the signing of the Peace Accord, it was left in limbo.”
Martínez’s successor, Francisco Barbosa, announced his intent to revive Gen. Montoya’s indictment on August 12. In the regular criminal justice system, the General could face up to 50 to 60 years in prison if found guilty. Montoya’s case is principally before the JEP, though, where he would face 5 to 8 years of “restricted liberty” if he admits to crimes and provides reparations, or up to 20 years in regular prison if he refuses to admit responsibility but is found guilty.
Colombia is still working out what it means to have two parallel justice systems considering war crimes. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that prosecutors in the regular justice system could continue investigating crimes in parallel. In 2019, the prosecutor in Montoya’s case decided that this meant the general could be investigated, but not indicted, while his case remained before the JEP. Barbosa, the current chief prosecutor, later altered that interpretation, claiming that he had the power to indict Montoya—though the case could not go to trial in the regular justice system.
Gen. Montoya’s lawyers dispute that. So does the government’s internal affairs branch, the Procuraduría, which argues that the JEP has primacy because Montoya has agreed to have his case heard there and has attended all his hearings.
In any case, an indictment without a trial is largely symbolic. Still, the Fiscalía cites declarations from JEP officials who have supported its ability to continue investigating. Lawyers representing victims of false positives have also been supportive: Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective told El Espectador, “it has been the JEP itself that has insistently asked the Fiscalía not to abandon the investigations, but to continue them until they are completed.” Germán Romero, an attorney who represents 12 false positive victims, added, “This is a real and concrete investigation… it is impossible and it could be understood as a substantial affectation to the rights of the victims if this indictment doesn’t happen.”
Some Colombian legal experts, though, are concerned and wonder why the Fiscalía is acting now. While the regular justice system’s prosecutors may continue investigating military and police officials’ alleged crimes, they “cannot rule on their responsibility since that decision corresponds to the JEP,” writes Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the DeJusticia think tank. “The Fiscalía cannot charge them, which is an attribution of responsibility, but must refer those investigations to the JEP.”
Uprimny, writing in El Espectador, wonders what Fiscal Barbosa may actually have in mind with an indictment in the Gen. Montoya case.
Its basis is bizarre and could have very serious implications. According to Barbosa, Montoya is being charged because he continued to demand combat kills after November 2007, disobeying Directive 300-28 of that date, which prioritized demobilizations and captures over casualties. That is why the Fiscalía will charge him with “only” 104 executions that occurred after that directive, when there were thousands of false positives in previous years and Montoya was already commander of the Army and demanded casualties.
Does this mean, then, that for Barbosa the thousands of false positives perpetrated when the previous directive was in force, which favored casualties, do not involve any responsibility of senior officers, even though they demanded casualties at all costs as an operational result? If that is so, who should answer for those false positives perpetrated in previous years? Only the soldiers who perpetrated them, but not those who incited those deaths because they were following a directive? And what responsibility, then, according to Barbosa, is incumbent on those who drafted and promoted the previous directive?
We will know more after the judge rules on May 30. Meanwhile, human rights organizations are calling on the JEP to eject another retired senior military officer, former Col. Publio Hernán Mejía. One of the Colombian Army’s most highly decorated officers, Col. Mejía was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiring with paramilitaries and involvement in false positive killings. He was released when he moved his case to the JEP, but has been uncooperative and has been making very aggressive statements on Twitter and considering a far-right run for the presidency next year.
WOLA’s latest urgent updates, split into two alerts, about the abuses committed within the context of Colombia’s national strike, as well as the situation of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia.
On July 1, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee, by a 32-25 vote, approved its version of the “State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs” appropriation—that is, the foreign aid bill—for fiscal 2022. It would provide $62.2 billion for diplomacy and assistance worldwide, a 12 percent increase over 2021 levels.
The House bill, which tends to reflect the priorities of the chamber’s Democratic Party majority, would provide Colombia with $461.375 million in assistance during 2022, about $7.5 million more than the Biden administration requested and identical to the amount in the 2021 appropriation. This does not count $2.5 million for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Colombia, an unspecified amount to assist the Venezuelan migrant population in Colombia, and an unspecified amount of military and police assistance through Defense budget accounts (which totaled $55.4 million in 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service).
We estimate that 51 percent of U.S. assistance would go through accounts that provide economic and civilian institution-building aid, 18 percent would go through accounts that provide military and police aid, and 31 percent would go through accounts that might pay for both types of aid. So unlike the “Plan Colombia” period, aid to Colombia would be less than half military and police assistance. Economic aid, the Committee’s narrative report accompanying the bill specifies,
should include support for the presence of civilian government institutions in former conflict zones; the reintegration of ex-combatants; the development and basic needs of war-torn areas; civil society organizations that promote truth, justice, and reconciliation; advocacy for victims’ rights; protection of human rights defenders; verification of peace accord implementation; civic education for a culture of peace; and comprehensive rural development that advances the agrarian chapters of the peace accords.
As in past years, the bill includes human rights conditions: language holding up a portion of military aid until the State Department certifies that Colombia is doing more to hold accountable human rights violators, protect social leaders, and protect Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. In recent years, these conditions held up 20 percent of aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a program of mostly military aid that has usually provided about $38 million per year.
The 2022 House bill makes an important change to the conditions: applying them to police assistance as well. The amount held up pending certification would increase from 20 to 30 percent, and the conditions would apply not just to FMF but to International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), a much larger State Department-run program that is the largest source of aid to Colombia’s National Police. If this language appears in the final bill, it would be the first time in many years that human rights conditions would apply to police aid. The change is a result of mounting evidence of human rights abuses committed by police in the context of social protests in November 2019, September 2020, and since April 28, 2021.
Now that it is out of committee, the 2022 foreign aid bill will go to the full House of Representatives, which may approve it before the August congressional recess. The Senate, whose Appropriations Committee is evenly split between 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, will probably consider its version of the bill in September, though it’s possible it could begin work in late July. Once the House and Senate pass their versions, they must reconcile differences in the two bills, approve the final product, and send it to the President. The U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year starts on October 1, 2021.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, the transitional justice tribunal set up by the 2016 peace accord) issued a report on July 1 warning that the Paro Nacional protests, and the government’s response, have affected the work of the post-conflict justice and truth system.
“The situation is worrying, since between April 28 and May 30, 2021, armed conflict events and affectations of civilians increased in 111 municipalities of interest for the Comprehensive System for Peace,” the JEP states. In those municipalities of interest, it has counted 13 conflict events and 89 “affectations,” way up from an average of 18 affectations during the same period in 2017-20. “This is evidenced by an increase in death threats, homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and massive events of forced displacement.” The JEP also notes a sharp increase, in the context of the protests, of “groups of armed civilians” carrying out violence against protesters.
It adds new and troubling statistics: “Colombia has been the country with the second highest rate of violent deaths per day of protest in the world (one death every 36 hours), and the 2021 national strike has the highest number of violent deaths of people who have participated in social protest scenarios in the last 44 years [in Colombia].”
As of June 28, the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz, which have closely monitored human rights abuses in the context of the protests, counted:
75 killings in the framework of the national strike, of which 44 were allegedly committed by the security forces. Through June 26, Temblores reported that “13 are in the process of clarifying whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the security forces,” and that “4 are attributable to armed civilians in which there are indications of possible involvement of members of the security forces.” A June 30 communiqué to the UN Human Rights Council from over 300 worldwide NGOs cites different numbers: “83 homicides have been reported, including at least 27 civilians killed by ordinary and riot police.”
The communiqué from 300 NGOs cites a large number of missing or disappeared people: “327 people are still unaccounted for, with the authorities denying that about half of these disappearances ever took place.”
83 victims of “ocular violence”—damage to protesters’ eyes, usually by fired projectiles.
28 victims of sexual violence. As of June 26, Temblores also reported 9 victims of gender-based violence.
58 of the 75 killings occurred in the southwestern department of Valle del Cauca; that department’s capital is Cali, where 43 of the killings occurred.
An ongoing series at El Espectador is producing biographical profiles of some of those killed in the protests. “Most of them went out to demonstrate, and in response to their discontent they were met with bullets.”
As of July 2, Colombia’s National Police counted 3 of its members killed and 1,548 injured. It added that investigations of police personnel were underway for 16 cases of possible homicide, 40 cases of physical aggression, and 105 cases of abuse of authority. On 8,783 occasions in the context of protests, police had carried out “transfers for protection,” a controversial form of short-term custody of up to 12 hours, usually without charges, foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 police law. While being “transferred,” human rights groups claim that those in custody suffer abuse or are held in inappropriate locations.
Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests have largely subsided, though concentrations persist in neighborhoods in Bogotá, Cali, and elsewhere. Ahead of the July 20 launch of a new congressional session, President Duque is telegraphing that his administration plans to introduce an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” bill in that legislature.
The law would increase prison sentences for vandalism, blocking roads, or attacking police, all of which are currently offenses under Colombian law. The law “already includes jail sentences of around eight years for obstructing public highways, violence against public servants and property,” Reuters reported.
Duque called for the new law at a June 30 promotion ceremony for the chief of Colombia’s embattled National Police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, who received his fourth star. Such a law is needed, he told the mostly police audience, “so that those who promote these practices do not try to get away with circumventing the rights of Colombians with impunity.” He called for a “clear and responsible” discussion of “what peaceful protest is and should be.” While he noted that most protest has been peaceful, there are many “vandals.”
Duque cited what happened to Camilo Vélez Martínez, a motorcyclist killed on June 25 when protesters stretched a cable across a street in southwest Bogotá. A protest leader in northwest Bogotá admitted to El Espectador’s Mónica Rivera that episodes like this point to a loss of discipline as public concentrations persist. “What we have seen is that they are infiltrating us and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to control the people. We control the compas, those who are with us, but we still have people who come to disturb the scene and then leave and go away.”
The political opposition saw in Duque’s statements an anti-democratic call to criminalize protest. “President Iván Duque announces an ’anti-riot law’ to legally shield the violent repression of young people,” said Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino. “Duque suffers from a serious mental and cognitive problem of connection with reality.”
The proposal comes at a time when opposition analysts like Laura Gil, director of La Línea del Medio, warn of increasing concentration of power in the executive branch. “The unthinkable is becoming a reality: the formal breaking of the rules of the game,” Gil writes. In that context, there is reluctance to give Duque’s governing Centro Democrático party greater power to decide who is a peaceful protester and who is a “vandal.”
Since April 28, thousands of people throughout Colombia have exercised their right to protest—triggered by a controversial, government-proposed tax reform plan—and have been met with unacceptable violence by members of the Colombian National Police (Policía Nacional de Colombia). The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is pleased to learn that President Iván Duque has withdrawn the plan, which would have placed a severe burden on the middle class through regressive sales taxes. The legislation’s withdrawal provides the country with an opportunity to build a consensus on ways to address the country’s fiscal gap, without deepening inequalities that were further exacerbated by the pandemic. It is also a victory for the many Colombians who exerted their right to protest in order to guarantee democratic governance in Colombia. Such widespread, multisectoral, and regional protests were extremely rare before Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.
Despite this victory, WOLA condemns the disproportionate use of force employed by the anti-riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) and other police units against protestors, as well as the hostile words of high-level officials and influential politicians. Many of these public figures reacted to the protests in ways that escalated violence, stigmatized protesters, and served a larger anti-peace accord agenda, for instance by attacking the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP).
In light of these events, which have left dozens of people killed or injured, WOLA calls on the Biden administration and U.S. Congress to condemn police excesses, distance the United States from officials’ inflammatory rhetoric, and insist that the Colombian government reform the ESMAD and hold accountable those who violated human rights since the protests began on April 28.
On that day, Colombian civil society initiated national protests against a presidential tax reform proposal erroneously titled the “sustainable solidarity law,” (ley de solidaridad sostenible). Divisions existed among multiple social movements whether to proceed with protests in the midst of a grim wave of the pandemic. Ultimately, the government’s brazen efforts to squash the right to protest emboldened thousands of people to take to the streets throughout the country. The police responded repressively using a disproportionate, and in several instances lethal, use of force, with the justification that it acted to restore order and stop looting. According to data compiled by the Defend the Life Campaign (Campana para defender la vida), so far, public security forces are responsible for 21 homicides, several whom were youth; 208 wounded individuals, including 18 cases of serious ocular injuries; 42 aggressions and abuses committed against human rights defenders and journalists; 10 cases of sexual assaults against women; and 503 mostly arbitrary detentions.
The police’s response was particularly brutal in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, where at least 10 individuals were killed by police on Friday, April 30. The Minister of Defense Diego Molano’s problematic tweets equating the Minga, an Indigenous collective peaceful protest action, with terrorists, and former President Álvaro Uribe’s tweets defending police use of firearms against protestors—later removed by Twitter for violating community guidelines that prohibit glorifying violence—fueled the repression against protestors. On Saturday May 1, President Duque announced he would deploy troops into several cities, a move rejected by the Mayors of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. Given the tax reform’s retraction, we expect militarization will not take place but the announcement itself was concerning as soldiers are trained for combat, not for distinguishing between peaceful protesters and rioters.
The police response to country-wide protests in November 2019, September 2020, and April-May 2021 force us to reexamine the need to apply stronger human rights protections to U.S. assistance that benefit the Colombian National Police. The ESMAD must not receive U.S. assistance, as it has an egregious record of committing gross violations of human rights with impunity. Any assistance to the ESMAD probably is a violation of the Leahy Law—which prohibits U.S. funding to security forces implicated in human rights violations—and should remain so. WOLA strongly recommends that sales of crowd control materials to Colombia be suspended pending evidence of stricter adherence to proper procedures for de-escalation and use of lethal and non-lethal force.
La violencia policial en Colombia es inadmisible, los legisladores estadounidenses deben tomar medidas
Desde el 28 de abril, miles de personas en toda Colombia han ejercido su derecho a la protesta, provocada por una controvertida reforma tributaria propuesta por el gobierno. Pero estos manifestantes han sido recibidos con una violencia inadmisible por parte de los miembros de la Policía Nacional de Colombia. La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) se complace en saber que el presidente Iván Duque ha retirado la propuesta, que habría supuesto una grave carga para la clase media a través de impuestos regresivos sobre las ventas. El retiro de la legislación le da al país la oportunidad de lograr un consenso sobre las formas de abordar la brecha fiscal del país, sin profundizar las desigualdades que fueron exacerbadas por la pandemia. También representa una victoria para los muchos colombianos que ejercieron su derecho a la protesta para garantizar la gobernabilidad democrática en Colombia. Tales protestas a gran escala, multisectoriales y regionales, eran muy poco comunes antes de los históricos Acuerdos de Paz de 2016 en Colombia.
A pesar de esta victoria, WOLA condena el uso desproporcionado de la fuerza utilizado contra los manifestantes por el Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD) y otras unidades policiales, así como las declaraciones hostiles de altos funcionarios y políticos influyentes. Muchas de estas figuras públicas reaccionaron a las protestas agravando la violencia, estigmatizando a los manifestantes y sirviendo a una agenda más amplia contra los Acuerdos de Paz, por ejemplo, atacando a la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP).
Ante estos hechos, que han dejado decenas de muertos y heridos, WOLA pide al gobierno de Biden y al Congreso de Estados Unidos que condenar los excesos policiales, distanciar a Estados Unidos de la retórica incendiaria de los funcionarios, y exigir al gobierno colombiano reformar el ESMAD y que responsabilizar a quienes han violado los derechos humanos desde el inicio de las protestas el 28 de abril.
Ese día, la sociedad civil colombiana inició protestas nacionales contra una propuesta de reforma tributaria presidencial erróneamente titulada “ley de solidaridad sostenible.” Con divisiones entre múltiples movimientos sociales sobre si las protestas se debían realizar en medio de una grave ola de pandemia, al final, los esfuerzos flagrantes del gobierno por aplastar el derecho a la protesta impulsaron a miles de personas a salir a las calles en todo el país. La policía respondió de forma represiva haciendo un uso desproporcionado, y en varios casos letal, de la fuerza, con la justificación de que actuaba para restablecer el orden y detener los saqueos. Según datos recopilados por la Campaña para Defender la Vida, hasta el momento las fuerzas de seguridad pública son responsables de 21 homicidios, varios de los cuales eran jóvenes; 208 personas heridas, incluidos 18 casos de lesiones oculares graves; 42 agresiones y abusos cometidos contra defensores de los derechos humanos y periodistas; 10 casos de agresiones sexuales contra mujeres; y 503 detenciones, en su mayoría arbitrarias.
La respuesta de la policía fue particularmente brutal en Cali, Valle del Cauca, donde el viernes 30 de abril al menos 10 personas fueron asesinadas por la policía. Los problemáticos tuits del ministro de Defensa, Diego Molano, en los que igualaba a la Minga, una acción de protesta colectiva indígena pacífica, con ser terroristas, y los tuits del expresidente Álvaro Uribe, eliminados posteriormente por Twitter por violar las políticas de la comunidad que prohíben glorificar la violencia, en los que defendía el uso de armas de fuego por parte de la policía contra los manifestantes, alimentaron la represión contra estos. El sábado 1 de mayo, el presidente Duque anunció que desplegaría tropas en varias ciudades, una medida que fue rechazada por los alcaldes de Bogotá, Medellín y Cali. Dada la retracción de la reforma tributaria, esperamos que la militarización no tome lugar, pero el anuncio en sí es preocupante, ya que los soldados están entrenados para combatir, y no para distinguir entre manifestantes pacíficos y agitadores.
La respuesta de la policía a las protestas que tomaron lugar en todo el país en noviembre de 2019, septiembre de 2020, y abril a mayo de 2021, nos obligan a reexaminar la necesidad de mayor rigurosidad en condicionar a la protección de derechos humanos, la asistencia estadounidense que beneficia a la Policía Nacional de Colombia. El ESMAD no debe recibir asistencia de Estados Unidos, ya que tiene un historial atroz de cometer graves violaciones de los derechos humanos con impunidad. Cualquier ayuda al ESMAD probablemente sea y deberá seguir siendo considerada una violación de la Ley Leahy, la cual prohíbe la financiación estadounidense a fuerzas de seguridad implicadas en violaciones de derechos humanos. WOLA recomienda firmemente que se suspenda la venta de materiales antidisturbios a Colombia hasta que se demuestre una adhesión más estricta a los procedimientos adecuados para la desescalada y el uso de la fuerza letal y no letal.
Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura.This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
Support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign:
WOLA’s Adam Isacson had a conversation this week about peace and security in Colombia with Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador. That newspaper posted an edited transcript of the interview to its site on the evening of November 26. Here’s a quick English translation.
“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson
For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.
Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.
The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.
Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?
They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.
Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?
If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.
You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.
Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.
WOLA has been following the peace process.
As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.
And with regard to crop substitution…
It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.
Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?
The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.
How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?
We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.
The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.
Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?
Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.
I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.
Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?
I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.
Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.
Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?
For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.
In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?
Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.