Since 1997, John Otis has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).
Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.
Following the killing of two demobilized guerrillas in the previous week, in Huila and Chocó, the FARC raises the volume of its calls for stronger protections of ex-combatants. In a video shared on social media, top leader Rodrigo Londoño says, “The President is indolent, his inaction makes him complicit with the genocide that is presenting itself with the ex-guerrillas.”
“It’s absurd and irresponsible for the leader of an opposition party to link the President to the attacks on ex-combatants,” responded High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation Emilio Archila. “The FARC party is playing politics with peace. The enemies are in the dissidences and in narcotrafficking: not in the government.”
After the latest killings, Truth Commission chief Francisco De Roux asks, “Why do they kill those who want peace? Why don’t the state security forces care especially for those who trusted institutions and took the risk of working for reconciliation? Are we going to repeat the shocking truth of the Patriotic Union genocide?
The FARC convenes a cacerolazo (pot-banging protest) in Bogotá to draw attention to their protection needs.
Hopes for a prompt resolution of the status of 16 special temporary congressional seats for conflict victims are dashed, as opponents’ delaying tactics prevent the State Council (one of Colombia’s high courts) from meeting to decide the issue.
The peace accord had resolved to create the 16 temporary legislative seats, in which victims’ associations—not political parties—would be able to run for office to represent historically conflictive zones. The measure to create the seats won a majority in Colombia’ Senate in 2017, but disagreement over whether a numerical quorum existed for that vote remains unresolved.
Maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko” publishes an open letter alleging that the government is failing to honor its peace accord commitments and that the process is approaching a “precipice.” Demobilized guerrillas, the FARC leader writes, “now find no other solution other than to abandon the ETCR [former demobilization zones] and seek another place to settle and continue their reincorporation process. They are forcibly displaced.… In the Havana peace accords the Colombian state committed itself to provide the reincorporated guerrillas with [security] guarantees. And to social leaders and opposition leaders, all who participate in politics. It’s absolutely clear that none of that has been complied with.”
On February 3 the government’s high counselor for stabilization and consolidation, Emilio Archila, dismisses the FARC leader’s communication as “a political letter.” Archila says that Londoño “is mistaken surely in good faith, ignorant, but in good faith,” about the Prosecutor’s Office’s alleged failure to prosecute killings of FARC members. He tells reporters, “The FARC director is wrong to believe that he can impose the way in which the accords should be implemented. The Constitutional Court has been clear that the accords should be implemented during three presidential terms… according to each President’s vision.”
On January 27, Archila had announced a package of ten protection measures for ex-combatants. These include an attention plan for the majority of ex-fighters who no longer live in the ETCR; increased training in self-protection; more resources for the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía); and monthly meetings of agencies responsible for protection to review new threats and response measures.
Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez criticizes the peace process, which she opposed, in a forum hosted by Semana magazine. “There’s pressure for implementation of the accord with the FARC,” she says. “An accord, that I would personally say, is semi-failed, even though the government has respected the accord’s institutionally. But the FARC as such, they didn’t keep their commitments to those who believed in them.”
President Duque contradicts Minister Gutierrez, assuring that implementation advances “a little more” every day, and that “peace with legality is going well, it is being executed.”
Stabilization Advisor Emilio Archila says that the government does have concerns about “the pace with which some of the FARC’s obligations are being fulfilled, like information about child combatants and landmines.”
FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño tells El Tiempo that Gutiérrez’s comments are “unfortunate, very unfortunate. I could practically tell you that she is putting a tombstone over us when she says that we haven’t complied.”
Senate President Lidio García raises the possibility that the body might re-visit legislation, foreseen in the peace accord, that would create 16 temporary congressional districts for conflict victims, not political parties. Though legislation to create these districts won a majority of Senate votes in late 2017, the absence of senators from the chamber raised questions about whether a quorum existed. A quorum did exist if one excluded the seats of senators who had been suspended, for corruption or similar reasons, but the legislation was ruled as failing to pass, and the special districts were not created for the 2018 legislative elections. In light of a 2019 Constitutional Court decision on the quorum question, Senator García signals an intention to send the 2017 bill to President Duque as approved legislation. If Duque signs it, the temporary seats for victims, representing 16 conflict zones, would be created.
High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos casts doubt on the temporary congressional districts, contending that the Constitutional Court’s 2019 decision cannot be applied retroactively to a vote that took place in 2017.
The FARC political party suffers some high-profile defections. Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch citizen who joined the guerrillas in 2002 and was part of the negotiating team in Cuba, left the party “because I’ve had years without feeling in sync with what is decided, discussed, or planned.” Also leaving for political reasons was Martín Batalla, who ran one of the most successful ex-combatant reintegration processes. Neither defector appeared to be taking up arms—just leaving the ex-guerrilla political party.
President Duque meets with UN Verification Mission Head Carlos Ruiz Massieu to go over the Mission’s findings, as documented in the Secretary-General’s latest report to the Security Council. Duque calls on the Mission to extend its mandate to 2022. It is currently set to expire at the end of 2020.
Ruiz Massieu says that although “very important advances” had been made in the accord’s implementation, it faced “great challenges.”
A FARC communiqué rejects President Duque’s claims, following his meeting with Ruiz Massieu, that the government has made significant advances in implementing the peace accord. The process “is going through a critical moment,” according to the ex-guerrillas, who called on the UN verification to exercise “greater neutrality.” The FARC called out the government for referring at all moments to its own “peace with legality” policy instead of to the peace accord.
WOLA’s Defense Oversight Director Adam Isacson talks about Colombia with WOLA Andes Program Director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. Isacson and Sánchez-Garzoli talk about what they saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.