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.
On May 10, Diakonia and eight other international organizations—including WOLA—published a statement denouncing the armed violence against the Indigenous communities of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC) who are participating in national protests. From pick-up trucks, armed men fired at Indigenous persons, and state security agencies did not act to stop these episodes or arrest the culprits. The statement also alerts of possible violent acts that may occur against members of these civil society organizations and their offices.
Indigenous and other protestors deciding to participate in the National Strike and exercise the right to protest does not turn them into enemies of the state, nor do they lose their right to be protected from criminal actions. The Colombian state has a commitment to protect the rights of all citizens, in accordance with international human rights treaties, the Colombian Constitution, and the law.
The State has an Obligation to Prevent Further Aggressions against Indigenous Communities of the CRIC and Other Protesters
May 10, 2021
The international NGOs signed to this statement express concern over the armed violence, which took place in Cali yesterday, against the Indigenous communities of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC) who are participating in national protests. On repeated occasions, armed men from pick-up trucks fired at Indigenous persons, and state security agencies did not act to stop these episodes or arrest the culprits. Since the demonstrations started, 47 people—who were peacefully protesting—have been killed by either members of the security forces, or by armed men who shoot from vehicles or fire weapons in front of members of state security agencies.
Last night, the CRIC headquarters in Bogotá was vandalized and destroyed. We are alerting of possible violent acts that may occur against the CRIC headquarters and other social organizations in Popayán, as well as the headquarters of other organizations throughout the country. We are also warning of the potential aggressive acts against members of these organizations. As such, we note that state authorities have an obligation to protect the life and physical integrity of the members, property, and facilities of these organizations. Indigenous and other protestors deciding to participate in the National Strike and exercise the right to protest does not turn them into enemies of the state, nor do they lose their right to be protected from criminal actions.
Democracy in Colombia is not sustainable if armed groups, acting with total impunity and in a systematic manner, are able to attack people who express their disagreement with the government. These episodes, which expose before the public the possible complicity of security forces in attacks against protestors, as well as explicit attacks by members of the security forces recorded in countless videos, blur the rule of law and the legitimacy of the government and other authorities. The Colombian state has a commitment to protect the rights of all citizens, in accordance with international human rights treaties, the Colombian Constitution, and the law.
On September 21, WOLA and 43 other international civil society organizations published a statement condemning widespread instances of police brutality during the recent demonstrations in Bogotá. The demonstrations were prompted by the September 9 police killing of Javier Ordóñez, which State forces responded to with disproportionate use of force against civilians exercising their rights.
According to the statement, 13 deaths were recorded, more than 400 people were injured (72 instances from firearms), and three women were sexually assaulted.
The several recommendations for the international community proposed by the organizations include: rejecting violence during peaceful demonstrations, providing sufficient guarantees for political participation, accompanying the peace process and the implementation of the 2016 accord, monitoring cases of police abuse, and supporting processes that contribute to an active and informed civic culture.
Bogotá police are caught on mobile phone video issuing repeated taser shocks to 42-year-old lawyer Javier Ordóñez, who dies of blunt-force blows in police custody. The video sparks citywide protests on September 9 and 10, which in turn engender dozens of mobile phone videos of police aggressively attacking civilians. Police kill twelve citizens around the city over those two evenings.
Bogotá Mayor Claudia López says that the police disobeyed her directives, while President Duque dons a police jacket and has his photo taken at a police station. Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and other officials blame the uprising, which targeted dozens of neighborhood police posts or CAIs, on a conspiracy of ELN and FARC dissident elements, a claim that is widely disputed. The unrest inspires a weeks-long debate about reforming Colombia’s police, one of few Latin American police forces that remain within a defense ministry.
Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo reports that, between January 1 and June 7, homicides declined by 17 percent compared to the same period in 2019. Police data show 15 types of crime dropping by 80 percent or more during this period. The country’s COVID-19 lockdown is the principal cause.
The Bogotá-based think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds no significant increase in offensive armed actions committed by the ELN since the end of the group’s April unilateral ceasefire. “Since March there is no registry of the death of civilians or security force members in violent events attributed to the ELN,” CERAC reports. However, the guerrilla group commits several kidnappings during this period.
Colombia’s National Police announces that it measured 1,321 homicides during the pandemic quarantine period of March 20-May 20, a 34 percent drop from the 2,012 homicide cases measured between those dates in 2019.
An overview of conflict trends during the first four months of 2020. Notes some decrease in overall violence amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with armed groups enforcing restrictions and social leaders facing even more attacks.
Colombia’s air force bombs an ELN encampment in southern Bolívar department. The think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds this to be the security forces’ first offensive operation against the ELN in 63 days. (In May, though, CERAC records “11 non-violent security force operations in which at least 20 guerrillas were captured.”)
The ELN’s one-month unilateral ceasefire comes to an end. ELN negotiators who have been in Havana since talks broke down in January 2019 reiterate a demand that they be allowed to leave Cuba and re-enter Colombia. The Colombian think-tank CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, reports that it could not verifiably document a single offensive action by the ELN during this period, or indeed since March 12, 2020. It does note a few ELN aggressions during this period, but cannot state clearly whether the guerrilla group was the first to act in any of the cases.
Fearing COVID-19 infection, prisoners in Bogotá’s La Modelo penitentiary protested conditions. Government forces, claiming an attempt to escape, killed 23 prisoners and wounded many more. The next day, relatives of prisoners gathered outside its gates.