Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.
To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.
With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.
The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.
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.
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 April 20, Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council about the humanitarian crises endangering Colombia’s opportunity for stable and lasting peace. In her statement, Márquez requests processes of observation, international accompaniment, urgent support, and meaningful alternatives that go beyond the traditional expressions and reports that end up forgotten and ignored by the Colombian government.
Márquez underscores the ongoing assassinations of human rights activists, social leaders, and former combatants throughout the country, and highlights the Colombian government’s lack of political will to fully implement the 2016 peace accord. She has “witnessed the present government’s constant assault on the various social and political sectors who are working for real peace, and the way it intentionally creates financial and institutional obstacles that prevent developing timely programs on the scale needed to implement peace in more remote regions of the country.”
She notes how ethnic communities face a dire situation. “Those of us who support peace feel a helplessness, frustrated that historically racialized, impoverished Colombians, most of whom put their hopes in a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, now do not even know from which direction the bullets are being shot,” Márquez states. She also vehemently denounces the imminent return of spraying illicit crops with glyphosate, noting all the consequences this practice has for public health, food sovereignty and the integrity of the territories.
Finally, she also outlines the lack of transparency in the management of resources, the economic dependence of the National Peace Council, the weight of the bureaucratic responsibilities for the execution of actions, the weak guarantees for the sustainability of the Technical Secretary of the Council, and the unsuccessful attempts at articulation and communication with the national government.
The full, English version of the statement is here.
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: