Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


March 2018

This Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of March 25-31)

“Dissident” Group Kidnaps Reporters on Ecuador Side of the Border

The Pacific coastal border region between Colombia and Ecuador has heated up amid an offensive launched by a fast-growing dissident group made up mainly of former FARC members and militias who have rearmed. The “Oliver Sinisterra” group, named for a former FARC commander killed in combat with Colombia’s army, is led by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian border-zone citizen whom the FARC recruited in 2007. It has between 70 and 450 members.

Guacho’s group is disputing control of criminality in this zone, the busiest maritime cocaine trafficking corridor in all of Colombia, with the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group, the ELN guerrillas, and another FARC dissident group headed by alias “David.” Spain’s El País newspaper reported in January that Guacho does business with four drug cartels, including the Urabeños and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, said in mid-March that the group “is at the Sinaloa Cartel’s service.”

Guacho’s group has carried out the most spectacular attacks in the region so far this year. In January, it set off a car bomb in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties. On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding eleven.

On March 26, the dissidents kidnapped three reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper from the border zone, and appear to have brought them to the Colombian side. Ecuadorian authorities say they are in contact with the kidnappers and that the captives are in good health.

On the night of March 26, the Pacific port city of Tumaco, near the border, was blacked out after Guacho’s group bombed an electricity pylon. It took several days to restore power. This city of 200,000 people—never a peaceful place—has been hit by a wave of violence, with 67 homicides during the first 85 days of 2018.

FARC dissident groups like Guacho’s are growing quickly around the country. Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía said last week, “Today there are 1,200 of them dedicated to narcotrafficking and criminal economies; depending on the region, they make alliances with other armed groups.” Ariel Ávila of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank estimated that 800 of them are guerrillas who have abandoned the demobilization process, and the rest are new recruits. Of the 242 (out of 1,100 total) Colombian municipalities, or counties, where the FARC once had influence, Ávila told El Colombiano, dissidents are now active in 48. A “high source” in the governor’s office of Nariño department, which includes Tumaco, told the La Silla Vacía investigative site that Guacho has been in conversations for a possible alliance with what may be the country’s largest dissident group, that of alias Gentil Duarte in south-central Colombia. The site could not confirm this rumor.

Government Forces Kill Urabeños’ Third-in-Command

On March 28 Colombia’s National Police announced the killing of Aristides Meza, alias “El Indio,” whom it characterized as the number-three commander of the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Meza, whom the police said was wanted by U.S. authorities, was killed by an aerial assault in Montelíbano, Córdoba. According to the release, “El Indio” commanded 200 men and

directed the criminal activities of the “Gulf Clan” [one of several names used to refer to the Urabeños] on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and in the Magdalena Medio region.… In addition, he coordinated criminal alliances with narcotrafficking structures in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, for the permanent export of loads of cocaine, by sea and land, to the United States and Europe.… According to the [Police intelligence] investigation, the capo paid between 10 and 15 million pesos [US$3,000 to US$5,000] for virgin girls and adolescents, and loved imported products, especially whisky, cariar, cheese, and other canned goods.

InsightCrime reports that Meza’s killing is the latest result of “Operation Agamemnon II,” the Colombian security forces’ effort to take out the Urabeños’ leadership. In the last seven months, this operation killed Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez alias “Gavilán,” the group’s number-two leader, and top boss Luis Orlando Padierna alias “Inglaterra.” This puts the Urabeños, led by top fugitive Dairo Úsaga alias “Otoniel,” badly off balance, according to InsightCrime:

With a number of top lieutenants out of the picture, Otoniel will have to replace his inner circle with people who do not necessarily have the same level of experience and knowledge as their predecessors.… Now that the Urabeños’ operations on the Pacific coast are leaderless, competing groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) could try to scoop up territory that the weakened group no longer has the power to control.

EPL-ELN Combat Worsens in Catatumbo

Tensions continue in Catatumbo, a region of highly organized campesinos and extensive coca cultivation in Norte de Santander department, following a March 14 shootout that signaled the breakdown of a years-long truce between two leftist guerrilla groups. The FARC, the ELN, and a small local group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), had long coexisted. But with the FARC out of the picture and the EPL undergoing leadership changes, intensifying ELN-EPL competition has worsened the security situation.

A March 26 update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that since March 14, insecurity has affected more than 20,300 people in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Carmen, Hacarí, Sardinata, El Tarra, and Convención. 12,500 have been unable to access basic goods and services. About 3,000 are confined to their communities. More than 2,400 have been displaced. Over 2,360 children have been unable to attend school.

An extensive report by Verdad Abierta explains what is going on. Analysts cited place much of the blame on the EPL which, after losing its top leader to a Colombian Army raid in late 2016, embarked on a “disorderly” process of expansion that “violated tacitly established norms” between the guerrilla groups. “For the past two years,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based Fundación Progresar told the website, “the EPL arrived in ex-FARC territories to carry out punitive practices on the population, bringing the community together and saying: ‘These are the new rules and those who don’t comply, die.’ This happens in a very complex context, because in Catatumbo there are strong civil-society processes, the Community Action Boards have already developed codes of conduct… there are organized and politicized communities on which the EPL came to impose itself through violence, even killing social leaders, which is why their problems with the ELN began.”

Citizen groups in Teorama and El Tarra have organized marches to demand that the armed groups respect international humanitarian law and keep them out of the conflict. “The armed groups’ response [to the protests] didn’t take long in coming,” reports El Espectador. “In the town of Filo Gringo, El Tarra, where combat affected the school and other civilian assets, EPL members threatened the promoters of a protest.”

Three Social Leaders Killed in a Week in Bajo Cauca Region

The Bajo Cauca—several municipalities in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín—may be the most violent part of Colombia right now. The cause in this longtime cocaine-producing region is fighting between the Urabeños and a local organized-crime group called “Los Caparrapos.” Along with neighboring southern Córdoba department, Bajo Cauca leads the country in forced displacement so far this year. And it has seen an alarming wave of killings of social leaders.

Víctor Alfonso Zabaleta, the president of a Community Action Board in Cáceres municipality and a participant in a government coca-substitution program, was murdered on March 25 along with another campesino. That same day, Jorge Miguel Polanco, a former Community Action Board leader, was killed along with his son. As reported last week, Community Action Board leader José Herrera was killed on March 20 in Caucasia.

The problem is worsening nationwide. On March 27 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) put out a statement reiterating “its concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders registered this year in Colombia.”

According to the Ombudperson’s Office, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia over the first months of 2018.… According to an Ombudperson’s report, between January 2017 to February 2018, there have been 121 murders of human rights defenders.… The Commission observes with concern that plenty of those murdered human rights defenders carried out actions aimed at implementing the peace agreements related to land distribution. In addition, the Commission has received consistent reports indicating that indigenous and Afro-Colombians human rights defenders are exposed to aggravated violence.

Neo-paramilitary groups may be responsible in many cases, the IAHRC said: “In regards to the perpetrators of those murders, the Nation’s Chief Prosecutor has indicated, in December 2017, that he has identified the presence of ‘self-defence’ strongholds which could be acting systematically to some degree in several regions of the country.”

El Espectador noted that

Of 156 murders of leaders currently under investigation by the National Police Elite Corps and the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps, 68 have made investigative advances, and 117 people have been arrested for their presumed material responsibility for these acts. However, although in some cases it is known who ordered the killings of these human rights defenders, it’s clear that the faces of the ‘intellectual authors’ of a great majority of these homicides remain an enigma.”

Of those 156 cases under investigation, El Espectador concludes, 98 are in the initial inquiry stage, 18 are under formal investigation, 31 are in the trial stage, and 9 have achieved guilty verdicts and sentences. “These statistics make clear the long work that lies ahead.”

Senate Hold on U.S. Ambassador Nomination

The Washington Free Beacon, a pro-Trump U.S. website, reports that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is blocking the confirmation of the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Joseph MacManus. Under Senate rules, a single senator can prevent any presidential nominee from getting a vote by putting a “hold” on the process. “The hold can last for the rest of the congressional year,” the Free Beacon explains, “and force President Trump to either nominate a new person for the role or wait until January when a new Congress begins to nominate Macmanus again.”

MacManus is a career Foreign Service officer, whose Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing on March 8 was mostly uneventful. He is opposed on the far right, however, because he was on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal staff during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which became a cause celebre for Clinton’s political opponents. During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, asked MacManus about his role in Benghazi, but did not pursue the line of questioning very far.

Opponents of MacManus’s nomination may also want president Trump to nominate a political appointee—a non-diplomat who shares the president’s “America First” outlook—instead of a career diplomat. The Free Beacon article speculates that the arrivals of hardliners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to the posts of secretary of state and national security advisor might spell an end to MacManus’s nomination and the naming of a more ideological appointee. It’s not clear, though, how a more extreme nominee could win approval in the Senate, where Republicans hold a fragile 51-49 majority and where the Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), is a Trump critic who will retire at the end of this session.

New Reintegration Agency Chief

Joshua Mitrotti, the longtime director of the Colombian Reincorporation Agency (ACR), has left his post, La Silla Vacía reports. The Agency attends to ex-combatants who seek to reintegrate individually into civilian life, and some aspects of the reintegration of those reintegrating collectively, as most of the FARC has sought to do. Mitrotti said he had told President Juan Manuel Santos two months ago of his desire to leave his post for personal reasons. He will be replaced by Andrés Stapper, a lawyer with 11 years’ experience at the ACR.

La Silla Vacía notes that the reincorporation process is in rough shape, as the government and guerrillas never agreed on a collective reincorporation policy.

The good news is that of 12,535 ex-FARC combatants accredited by the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, more than 12,000 have a bank account where they are receiving 24 monthly payments of about 90 percent of minimum wage ($220). More than 11,000 are signed up with the national health system and 8,000 with the national pension system. 3,976 have received at least a few days’ vocational training.

But there have been “few advances” on “productive projects,” usually agricultural investments, “which are thought to be how they would make a long-term living.” The FARC want the government to disburse 8 million pesos (nearly US$3,000) to each ex-member, as agreed in the accord, so that they may launch their projects. The government does not want to turn over the money until all ex-guerrillas have received training and all projects have been approved by a body that includes the ACR director, the National Reincorporation Council. Of the 26 zones where FARC members congregated to demobilize in early 2017, only four have active, approved productive projects currently underway.

In-Depth Reading

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 18-24.)

Duque Pulls Ahead in Presidential Polls

After handily winning a primary of right-wing candidates that accompanied March 11 legislative elections, Bogotá Senator Iván Duque has rapidly emerged as the frontrunner for the May 27 presidential elections. Duque, the candidate of far-right former president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, now holds a comfortable double-digit lead and is in striking distance of the 50 percent threshold he would have to hit to avoid a second-round runoff in June.

An Invamer poll commissioned by three large Colombian media outlets found Duque with 45.9 percent of voters’ preference. He is followed by:

  • 26.7% for leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, who won his own “primary” ballot on March 11;
  • 10.7% for center-left former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo;
  • 6.3% for center-right former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras;
  • 5.0% for former vice-president and former government peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle;
  • 2.5% for socially conservative former chief prosecutor Viviane Morales; and
  • 0.6% for leftist former senator Piedad Córdoba.

The same polling company found Duque with only 8.4 percent support in December and 9.2 percent in January.

Though he is President Uribe’s standard-bearer (and has to keep denying that he is Uribe’s “puppet”), Duque presents himself as a more moderate candidate than his party’s firebrand leader. He did so on a brief visit to Washington this week, when he called his governing platform “center-centrist” and said that “left and right” is a thing of the past. Duque met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and spoke at an Inter-American Dialogue event.

Political moderation aside, Duque called for adjustments to the FARC peace accord that could be fatal to the process, such as demanding that no ex-guerrillas hold office without first being judged by a transitional justice tribunal. He also proposed a constitutional change to make narcotrafficking a “non-amnistiable” offense. If applied retroactively to ex-guerrillas who did not enrich themselves through the drug trade, this reform would send many to jail for a long time, a prospect that would probably cause them to take up arms again.

Duque also called for a reactivation of the U.S.-backed program of aerially fumigating coca fields with herbicides, which Colombia suspended in 2015. This time, Duque proposed using a chemical other than glyphosate, which a 2015 WHO study found to be potentially carcinogenic.

U.S. Congress Extends the “Peace Colombia” Aid Package Into 2018

Back in May, the Trump White House proposed a 36 percent across-the-board cut, from 2016 levels, in U.S. assistance to Colombia. The cut would have more than undone the 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package, proposed by then-president Barack Obama a year earlier, that intended to help Colombia implement aspects of the FARC peace accord. Colombia was not being singled out: Trump’s “America First” priorities called for similar cuts to Latin America and most of the world.

The Republican-majority U.S. congress un-did those proposed cuts completely, repeating the “Peace Colombia” numbers exactly for 2018. Colombia will receive $391 million in mostly non-military assistance this year from the State Department and Foreign Operations appropriation. In addition, it would get an as-yet undetermined amount of military and police aid (in 2016 it was $78.8 million) through the Department of Defense’s counter-drug budget.

Undaunted, the Trump administration has requested a similar cut to Colombia aid for 2019.

This week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would transfer $2.5 million from other accounts to Colombia to “provide emergency food and health assistance for vulnerable Venezuelans and the Colombian communities who are hosting them.”

Also this week, the State Department published its latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, an annual document looking at the state of worldwide illicit drug production and trafficking, and U.S. efforts to stop them. This year’s report noted that “Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production exceeded all-time record levels during 2016,” but that “Colombia continues to take steps to combat the drug trade.”

An editorial in the Colombian daily El Espectador was critical. “Since Donald Trump arrived in the Presidency, the United States has been a diffuse ally with regard to narcotrafficking. We went from understanding that the peace accord would bring an increase in violence and illicit crops while new measures began to be implemented, to being constantly reminded that they’re watching us and that not enough is being done.” It concludes, “the situation is not good, but the seeds for solving the problem are in the accord. We must persist.”

ELN Talks Develop “Roadmap”

The round of negotiations with the ELN guerrillas that began March 15 is slowly progressing. Negotiators agreed on a timeline for discussions to be held in Quito, Ecuador between now and May 18.

For now, they are considering proposals for how to incorporate civil-society participation in future dialogues. On April 2, they will begin discussing a future cessation of hostilities, based on the experience of a 100-day bilateral ceasefire that the government and guerrillas failed to renew on January 9. Meanwhile, on April 5 they will develop a response to a civil-society proposal that they agree to, and observe, a humanitarian accord in the northwestern department of Chocó, where fighting between the ELN and the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group has displaced thousands.

“We have reasonable expectations of advancing quickly in the building of a new ceasefire with the ELN, based on experiences collected by the oversight and verification mechanism of the prior ceasefire,” said chief government negotiator Gustavo Bell. That mechanism was made up of staff from the UN mission verifying security for the FARC peace process, and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference.

ELN-EPL Fighting Continues in Catatumbo

Aggression continues between the ELN and the EPL, a small but locally powerful guerrilla group, in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing areas. The two groups got along for years, but are now confronting each other as they compete to fill spaces vacated by the FARC, and as the EPL undergoes leadership changes. The population of Catatumbo is caught in between.

A week after a meeting between local leaders ended with six dead and three wounded, several Catatumbo municipalities have seen businesses and schools shuttered for fear of further violence. The EPL has blockaded roads, leaving parts of the region cut off. The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) says that at least 1,350 people have been displaced.

The ELN put out a statement saying “the EPL have publicly declared war on us.” An EPL statement insists, “We have never declared war on the ELN,” and demands dialogue between the two groups.

Slain Afro-Colombian Leader’s Children Are Murdered

Last June, many Colombians were horrified by the murder of Afro-Colombian leader Bernardo Cuero. A leader of the National Association of Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in the Pacific port city of Tumaco, Cuero was killed by an assassin in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla.

This week in Tumaco, two motorcycle-mounted hitmen shot and killed two of Cuero’s children, Silvio Duban Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero. Denouncing the crime, AFRODES pointed out that the double murder took place twelve days after the first hearing in Bernardo Cuero’s case.

Crop-Substitution Leader Killed in Bajo Cauca

Colombian army personnel found the body of José Herrera in Valdivia, Antioquia, not far from the town of El Aro, Ituango (the site of a notorious 1997 paramilitary massacre). A local Community Action Board leader, Herrera was a founder of the Bajo Cauca Campesino Association and a member of the Marcha Patriótica, a left-leaning nationwide campesino network. He was also one of his community’s leading participants in a coca-substitution program that the government is carrying out within the framework of the FARC peace accord.

Herrera’s home region of Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, a few hours’ drive northwest of Medellín, has been one of Colombia’s most violent in 2018. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 2,192 people displaced there between January 18 and March 9.

Nationwide, participants in peace-accord crop substitution programs are being increasingly targeted. At least twelve were killed in 2017, and nine so far in 2018. El Colombiano cites a recent report from INDEPAZ blaming most of these killings on the Urabeños and the EPL. Eduardo Álvarez of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank (FIP) also cites “tensions between small-scale coca cultivators and large-scale farmers who don’t view substitution as any kind of incentive.” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas adds that four members of the security forces were killed during forced eradication operations in 2017, and another thirty-one, plus nine civilians, were wounded.

Dissident Groups Attack at the Colombia-Ecuador Border

A group of un-demobilized ex-FARC fighters active in the coca-growing countryside of Tumaco in far southwestern Colombia, set off a roadside bomb across the border in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers.

The group believed responsible is headed by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” a native of Esmeraldas, Ecuador who spent time in the FARC. His group, El Colombiano reports, “wants to recover for Mexican ‘narcos,’ according to military intelligence sources, a strategic corridor allowing him to take coca paste into the country.” FIP’s Eduardo Alvarez says, “‘Guacho’s’ people are sponsored by Colombian narcos, and intermediaries of Mexican cartels, who help with logistics, resources, and arms.” Alvarez told El Colombiano that Guacho’s group has perhaps 400 to 450 members (a very high estimate), many of whom belonged to FARC structures.

Tumaco and adjoining northwest Ecuador appear to be the busiest coastal jumping-off point for cocaine shipments headed to Mexico and Central America.

New Military Estimate of FARC Dissidents

The government’s estimate of the nationwide membership of these FARC “dissident” groups leapt to 1,200, amid rapid desertion of the accord implementation process and recruitment. Armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía’s February 2017 estimate of dissidents was 300 members. “Initially there was a jump from 500 to 750, to 1,000… and now the figure is approximately 1,200,” Mejia told reporters. This coincides with a February review of the situation by the FIP, which estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 members of at least a dozen groups operating most often in 6 departments.

Gen. Mejía added that the government has captured, killed, or accepted the desertions of 248 FARC dissidents since the middle of 2017.

Bill Would Change Law for Small-Scale Illicit Crop Cultivators

Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero introduced legislation in Colombia’s Congress to change how the government deals with some criminal aspects of drug policy. If passed into law, the bill would fulfill a commitment the government made in the Havana peace accord.

It would offer lighter penalties to small-scale coca cultivators. The government reduced that definition of small-scale cultivator from an initial proposal of 3.8 hectares (9.5 acres) or less of coca, to 1.7 hectares (4.25 acres) or less. The FARC political party complained about this reduction, arguing that it leaves out many cultivators who should be considered small-scale.

The bill also hold the possibility of a 50 percent reduction in sentences for members of criminal groups who turn themselves in and give evidence about their group’s activities. While its language appears to be ambiguous about whether FARC dissidents count as members of such “criminal groups,” President Santos insisted that dissidents, who violated the terms of their demobilization, would not qualify.

Coca Eradication and CEO Expansion

Since 2017, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said, the Colombian government has forcibly eradicated 60,000 hectares of coca: 53,000 in 2017 and 6,500 so far this year.

These operations are supported by the U.S. government, most notably through the establishment of Strategic Operational Commands (CEOs) combining police and military activities in specific regions. Vice-President Oscar Naranjo said that a fourth CEO will be established next week in Norte de Santander department. The other three are based in Tumaco, Nariño; San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; and Caucasia, in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region.

The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2016. The White House released that estimate on March 14, 2017. It has been more than a year, but no estimate for 2017 has yet appeared.

New UN Human Rights Representative

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá is bidding farewell to Todd Howland, a U.S. citizen who held the post since 2012. Howland gained high marks for outspoken but well-researched advocacy for judicial accountability for past human rights abuses, protection of human rights defenders and ethnic groups, assistance in bringing a peaceful end to campesino protests, and technical support to the peace process.

Howland’s replacement, accredited by the Colombian government, is Alberto Brunori, an Italian citizen who had been heading UNHCHR’s Central America regional office. Before that, he headed the High Commissioner’s offices in Guatemala and Mexico, and helped to launch the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

In-Depth Reading

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 11-17.)

Congressional Elections

Colombians went to the polls on March 11, and elected a Congress that looks a lot like the one they elected in 2014. Right-of-center parties made hair-thin gains, mainly in the House of Representatives.

Parties that remain mostly supportive of the Havana peace accord with the FARC lost a bit of ground in the House and stayed about the same in the Senate. The pro-accord contingent gets a boost in each chamber from five automatic seats granted to the FARC, as stipulated in the peace accord. Accord proponents may lack, or barely have enough, votes to pass legislation necessary to implement what was agreed. Opponents may similarly find themselves lacking enough votes to roll back accord commitments.

Senate 2014 2018
Centro Democratico Right 20 19
Cambio Radical Center-right 9 16
Conservative Center-right 18 15
La U Center 21 14
Liberal Center 17 14
Green Center-left 5 10
Polo Democratico Left 5 5
List for Decency Left 0 4
MIRA Center (evangelical) 0 3
MAIS Center-left (indigenous) 1 1
AICO Center-left (indigenous) 0 1
Opción Ciudadana Center-right 5 0
ASI Center-left (indigenous) 1 0
FARC automatic seats Left 0 5
Total 102 107
Parties that mostly support the Havana accord 50 57

House 2014 2018
Liberal Center-left 39 35
Centro Democratico Right 19 35
Cambio Radical Center-right 16 30
La U Center 37 25
Conservative Center-right 27 21
Green Center-left 6 9
Others 7 2
Opción Ciudadana Center-right 6 2
Polo Democratico Left 3 2
MIRA Center (evangelical) 3 2
List for Decency Left 0 2
MAIS Center-left (indigenous) 0 1
AICO Center-left (indigenous) 2 0
ASI Center-left (indigenous) 1 0
FARC automatic seats Left 0 5
Total 166 171
Parties that mostly support the Havana accord 91 81

2014 source2018 source

The “Democratic Center” party of former president Álvaro Uribe, a rightist, had a good day. With about 16 percent of the vote in both houses, it became the party with the most representation.

It especially benefited from a primary vote held alongside the congressional balloting. Any voter who asked for a ballot could choose a unified right-wing candidate for the May 27 presidential elections from a list of three contenders. Of about 17.8 million voters who participated in the elections, more than 6.1 million voters requested the right-wing ballot. The winner, Iván Duque of the Democratic Center, got more than 4 million votes. The resulting momentum propelled Duque to the front-runner position for the May elections.

A left-wing primary between former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and a little-known candidate, former Santa Marta mayor Carlos Caicedo, gave a similar but smaller boost to Petro’s candidacy. 3.5 million voters asked for a ballot in this contest, 85 percent of whom chose Petro. The exercise of voting for either Duque or Petro, plus the publicity that the primaries received, helped both pull away from the pack of five major candidates.

The political tendency that opposed the 2016 accord with the FARC is now unified behind Duque, or behind former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras, who is polling in the single digits. Supporters of the peace accord remain divided between Petro and two more moderate candidates: former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo and the government’s former lead negotiator in Havana, Humberto de la Calle.

The electoral outcome was grim for the new FARC political party. The ex-guerrillas’ 74 candidates got a combined 0.34 percent of votes in the Senate, and 0.21 percent in the House. This historically rural group got more than half of its votes from capital cities, points out an excellent analysis from La Silla Vacía. The FARC party won more than 10 percent of the vote in only 6 of 170 historically FARC-influenced municipalities (counties) that the government has prioritized for post-conflict investments.

The FARC gets an automatic 10 seats in the new legislature, but the March 11 result was a hard landing, as it revealed the group to have no silent base of rural support. Analysts say that voters were repelled by the ex-guerrillas’ lack of expressed contrition for past crimes, their insistence on keeping their acronym and running feared former leaders as candidates, and these leaders’ desire to hold office without first passing through war crimes tribunals, which will happen later. “The key is that they had not passed through the special justice unit for peace and more importantly, they had never apologized publicly and rejected the impact of their violence – this is what cost them so dearly,” Jorge Restrepo of Bogotá’s CERAC think-tank told Al Jazeera.

Traditional political parties appear to have won seats through traditional, corrupt means like vote-buying. Alejandra Barrios, director of Colombia’s non-governmental Electoral Observer Mission (MOE) told El Tiempo, “We’ve received about 1,200 citizen reports, just this Sunday, about electoral anomalies and irregularities. An important number of them are related to the buying and selling of votes.” The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank contends that 42 of the 278 new legislators come from political groups that are notorious for corruption or links to organized crime.

ELN Talks Restart

The ELN guerrillas observed a five-day ceasefire around the elections. In response to this gesture, President Juan Manuel Santos sent his negotiating team back to Quito, Ecuador, to re-start peace talks with the ELN. These had been effectively suspended since January, when the guerrillas chose not to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire and carried out a series of attacks.

In this fifth round of talks, scheduled to go from March 15 until May 18, negotiators are to discuss how to include citizen participation in talks—an ELN priority—and how to move toward a new cessation of hostilities, a government priority. The last “truce brought concrete relief to communities, and we’ll never know how many lives were saved,” said the government’s chief negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell. “The task now is to build a more stable ceasefire that will allow us to advance in the development of other agenda points.”

Chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán said the guerrillas hope to leave the process in as advanced a state as possible so that the next president cannot simply discard it.

“They should bring the process to an irreversible point,” observed León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, who demobilized from the ELN in 1994. “So that the next president has to continue it. The vote that Duque obtained was not a good sign, since he has said he’d review the accords and has different demands for any conversations with the guerrillas.” The government view is that the best way to lock in the dialogues is to have a ceasefire in place, which the next president would be less likely to end unilaterally.

Transitional Justice System Starts Work

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the system of tribunals to judge war crimes set up by the Havana peace accord, opened its doors on March 15. As of that date, JEP President Patricia Linares explained, victims may collectively share their cases with the JEP. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) will also hand over 25 reports of cases.

The system is expected to take on the cases of 7,916 people accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. (Linares, the JEP president, cites a figure of 7,392 people.) Those who fully confess their actions will receive lighter sentences of up to eight years in “restricted liberty” that is not prison. Though the numbers don’t exactly add up to 7,916, El Espectador cites 6,094 former guerrillas, 1,792 current or former members of the security forces, and 24 (El Tiempo says 27) private citizens who have petitioned to be included in this justice system. The private citizens include a former interior minister, a former governor of Sucre department, and a former mayor of Cúcuta accused of collaborating with paramilitary groups.

The JEP will only be able to rule on a tiny fraction of the serious crimes committed during the conflict. “Transitional justice, by definition, is modest, because we already know we can’t do everything,” JEP Executive Secretary Nestor Raul Correa told Reuters. “If I were to give a random figure—of 200,000 crimes that have happened in these fifty years, we’ll investigate 1,000.”

The military has shown support for the JEP. On March 15, armed-forces commander Gen. Alberto Mejía met with tribunal judges, as Verdad Abierta put it, “to show support for the jurisdiction and to impart ‘a complete vision of military doctrine and especially operational law.’”

The Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) sent JEP President Linares a letter voicing concerns about the distribution of prosecutors assigned to the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit. Of 11 prosecutors, 7 are to investigate FARC crimes, 3 to investigate the security forces, and 1 to investigate civilians and other state agencies. The victims’ group asked that the JEP not consider “false positive” killings committed by security-force personnel, as they “were perpetrated with the objective of obtaining rewards, economic benefits, leave time, and other aspects, which by no means are related, directly or indirectly, to the armed conflict.”

In a process that began in January, 35 of 38 JEP judges have been sworn in. They will not start hearing cases until later this year. First, Colombia’s Constitutional Court must rule on the law, passed last November, governing the JEP’s operations. In its current form, that law would actually disqualify many of the current judges, as it prohibits the participation of anyone who has done human rights work within the past five years. The Court is expected to strike down this provision.

When they do start taking place, all of the JEP’s war-crimes hearings will be open to the public. The system will operate for 10 years, with an option for a 5-year extension.

Since January, the judges have been working on the regulations that will govern their work, and the text of a procedural law, which Congress must pass to guide how processes will function. “These procedural norms are almost ready,” Linares told Semana. The JEP is about to send its proposals to the Presidency, which must then send the bill to Congress.

Another Visit From the ICC

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s office sent three investigators to Colombia this week to look at prosecutors’ efforts to bring to justice commanders of military units that committed large numbers of extrajudicial executions. Last September, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda visited Colombia to ask for information about the cases of 29 Army officers, some of them high-ranking.

“Diplomatic sources” told El Espectador that the purpose of this week’s ICC visit was “to open formal investigations against some of these questioned officers.” The ICC can call for the arrest of individuals in signatory countries whom it believes responsible for serious human rights violations, if it views that these individuals are not being seriously investigated or tried in that country’s justice system.

The ICC has requested access to Fiscalía archives on the cases of these military officers. It appears that the Court has not received the response it expected.

ELN and EPL are Fighting in Catatumbo

A meeting between local leaders of the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a tiny but locally powerful guerrilla group, ended in the deaths of six people, with three wounded, in the conflictive Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department. In a rural area of Teorama municipality, “they carried out a meeting to figure out how to get over their disagreements,” said armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía. “They didn’t come to any accord between the capos, and they decided to kill each other, firing on each other. This has generated great concern in the population.”

Catatumbo, Colombia’s second-densest coca-growing region, had a presence of FARC, ELN, and EPL guerrillas who mostly avoided confronting each other. With the FARC demobilized, the ELN and EPL have both been expanding. Once-friendly relations between the two groups have deteriorated, and this month have erupted in violence. Eduardo Álvarez of Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation told El Colombiano that the disagreements owe to “interests in the cocaine market, new routes and foreign sales, as well as the ‘EPL’s internal degradation due to rapid change of leaders, some more criminalized and less ideological.’”

Violence Worsening in Northern Antioquia and Southern Córdoba

In Antioquia department’s Bajo Cauca region, a few hours’ drive northeast from Medellín, and just over the departmental border in southern Córdoba, violence has flared up between two organized-crime groups with paramilitary heritage, the Urabeños (aka the Gaitanistas, or Clan del Golfo) and a local group called Los Caparrapos. The fighting displaced 1,500 people from Cáceres municipality in March, and 80 Zenú indigenous people from Caucasia this week.

The region has seen four killings of social leaders in 2017, and eleven attacks, including two homicides, so far in 2018.

In Tarazá, Valdivia, Anorí, and Ituango municipalities, El Espectador reports, the Urabeños “have even called on social and community leaders to demand copies of their meeting minutes, carried out censuses of the population, and required them to attend meetings to know ‘the new rules’ that they, and all residents, must follow.”

Trump Announces Colombia Visit

The White House announced that president Trump will pass through Colombia on his way back from attending the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. While in Colombia, he will meet with President Santos. Topics, according to spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, will include immigration, border security, and “fair and reciprocal trade.” Though Sanders didn’t mention cocaine production, that will likely be on the president’s mind as well.

In-Depth Reading

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 30, 2018

Central America Regional

The fact that El Salvador and Nicaragua are both run by former leftist guerrillas, illustrates how conservative social views transcend political leanings

Central America Regional, Mexico

When the agent, who’d covered her uniform with an orange and white shawl, learned that the Central American migrants heading her way numbered more than 1,000, she took off for the restaurant across the street


Without productive projects, or education and work training, the former rebels struggle to fill their days

Lo que hubo fue una decisión política de propinar un golpe a la implementación de los acuerdos

With a number of top lieutenants out of the picture, Otoniel will have to replace his inner circle with people who do not necessarily have the same level of experience and knowledge as their predecessors

Colombia, Ecuador

“Estamos en este momento en un proceso propio de las negociaciones, demandas y demás”, expresó el funcionario


The country’s lawmakers have introduced legislation that gives the government sweeping powers to censor social media, and muzzle dissenting digital news sites


The trial centers around a key question: Was Swartz justified in using deadly force in response to Elena Rodriguez and two other individuals throwing rocks

“Nosotros no pedimos una Ley de Seguridad Interior, pedimos un marco jurídico, el que quieran, pero que nos lo den”

Leyzaola tiene la oportunidad de aspirar a una diputación federal como candidato de la coalición Juntos Haremos Historia, integrada por Morena PT y Encuentro Social

Surprisingly, despite tensions between Mexico and the U.S. and worries about their future relations, the words wall and Donald Trump never came up during the interview

The Americans and Mexicans will exchange intelligence more freely than in the past

“Tamaulipas is a state that has many problems right now,” he said


If Trump really cares about Venezuela, and isn’t just trying to score political points at home, he should resist the temptation to place himself center stage in the Venezuelan crisis

Relatives of those killed are clamoring for answers from officials who have yet to release a full account of what happened, state how many were injured or release the names of those killed

Venezuela’s prison fire killed 68 people — and put the spotlight on a systemic problem

Western Hemisphere Regional

That money is appropriated to specific programs — and spending it for the border wall instead could be illegal

In addition to two miles of replacement barrier in Calexico, it will pay for 14 miles of replacement wall near San Diego, with 14 miles of secondary fencing; 20 miles of new wall near Santa Teresa, N.M., with construction expected to begin in early April; and four miles of new fencing in El Paso

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 29, 2018


Cuestionó que a las fuerzas de seguridad nacional, la Policía y las Fuerzas Armadas, no se les haya dotado del armamento necesarios para operar en estos sectores


The police officers, identified as Luigui Heriberto N and José Francisco N, were convicted of killing newspaper owner Moisés Sánchez in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, the most lethal jurisdiction

La PGJ imputa homicidio calificado y delincuencia organizada a Cantú García, quien es militante del Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) en Tamaulipas


Witnesses said that grieving relatives who had come were sprayed with tear gas by security forces who tried to disperse them

Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened at the state police headquarters in Valencia

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 28, 2018


She spent her days fighting inequality and injustice — not against an abstract notion of “violence.” So there’s no point in bringing more terror and repression to favelas, killing more of the same people

The Secretariat of Public Security of Parana said in a statement that it was investigating the incident and that Lula was not on the bus at the time of the attack

Central America Regional, Mexico

On Facebook, the group claimed the caravan is so large that Mexican immigration officials on Sunday abandoned a check point


El lunes en la noche, miembros de la disidencia que comanda alias Guacho tumbaron una torre de transmisión

En las últimas horas fueron secuestrados tres comunicadores y Tumaco se encuentra sin luz por un atentado contra dos torres


Strategies of U.S. engagement that recognize Cuban sovereignty and resist calling for regime change will reduce the risks to Díaz-Canel of undertaking more significant changes


Gun victims in Mexico need action, as badly as the Parkland students and other gun victims do across the US

Pese al riesgo, y la recomendación de no circular por Tamaulipas para cruzar a EU, algunos coahuilenses que utilizaron ayer la carretera a Reynosa describieron que ésta se encontraba vacía


Campesinos han denunciado los últimos diez años la persecución y represión de miembros del Ejército de Nicaragua, que vendrían como una orden

The day ahead: March 28, 2018

I’m reachable much of the day, though working at home in the morning. (How to contact me)

It’s Wednesday of Holy Week. Latin America is mostly on vacation. Congress is out, and so are most universities. My calendar is pretty clear. We’ll be recording a WOLA podcast this afternoon, and I’ve got a phone meeting late in the day. Otherwise, I’ll be working—at home this morning, in the office in the afternoon—on a long list of smaller tasks.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 27, 2018


The country’s army said that it will now begin patrolling the streets of Rio alongside military police officers in an effort to check the violence

Soldiers walked the streets and armored vehicles rolled through the neighborhood

Police in the jungle city of Anapu accuse Lopes of extortion and sexual harassment, but in denying the charges, his followers say they have been trumped up to silence an influential opponent of plans to clear forests


En el departamento continúan sumándose los líderes sociales asesinados. La ONG Nodo Antioquia había advertido a las autoridades que esto podía a suceder

According to the Ombudperson’s Office, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia over the first months of 2018. The majority of those murders were focalized against human rights defenders

El Cuerpo Élite de la Policía, encargado de investigar estos crímenes, ha establecido que así los están matando,

Colombia, Ecuador

La frontera entre ambos países está, por decirlo de algún modo, “caliente”

Embajadas, instituciones del Estado, periodistas, políticos y ciudadanos se expresaron consternados tras el secuestro de dos comunicadores y un conductor de este Diario


Many Cubans, whose expectations were raised by Castro’s reforms, have felt frustrated by the slowdown that they believe means Havana is not truly committed to updating the economy


Major human rights challenges remain. Several of the reasons that prompted the internal armed conflict persist


While Haiti has budgeted $8.5 million for the army this year, the Haiti National Police remains a priority for the United States, which has warned Haitian officials that the military cannot take resources away from the police or endanger its existence


El relator especial de Naciones Unidas sobre la situación de defensores de derechos humanos, Michael Forst, encendió las luces de alarma sobre la persistencia de “un nivel continuo y elevado de impunidad” en México que “legitima” las agresiones

A través de un video la mujer denunció que los elementos de la Marina les dispararon a sus familiares confundiéndolos con delincuentes

Sin referirse en ningún momento a la familia acribillada, entre ellas dos niñas de 4 y 6 años de edad, la Marina dijo que según “los resultados preliminares” de la investigación los impactos de bala que recibió “el personal civil” provinieron del fuego cruzado

11 Members of Congress expressed concern for the lack of progress in the Mexican government’s investigation into the illegal use of government-exclusive Pegasus spyware against prominent activists and journalists

Western Hemisphere Regional

Ryan offered little ­reaction to the idea, these people said, but senior Capitol Hill officials later said it was an unlikely prospect

The result, in the most troubling cases, is that these companies become private militias accountable first and foremost to their benefactor rather than the rule of law

The day ahead: March 27, 2018

I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I have jury duty today, so I’ll be in the courthouse and possibly hard to contact. It’s Tuesday of Holy Week in Latin America, a week when the region largely shuts down, so hopefully I won’t miss much.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 26, 2018


The response here illustrates a national reality: Brazilians want security — and are backing heavy-handed tactics to get it

Allegations that some of the victims were innocent residents executed in a revenge mission after a police officer was killed there


A cuatro meses de que se acabe el gobierno Santos y con el candidato uribista Iván Duque punteando en las encuestas, la implementación del Acuerdo está empantanada y estas son las alarmas que lo muestran

Desde el pasado 14 de marzo desacuerdos entre el Eln y el Epl desembocaron en un enfrentamiento armado sin precedentes en la historia de ambas organizaciones

Combined operations between U.S., Colombian, and Mexican forces are conducted in and around Tumaco and in the waters of the Pacific

Hay doce modalidades de asesinato de líderes sociales establecidas por el Cuerpo Élite. Investigan posibles hechos sistemáticos en Urabá relacionados con la reclamación y restitución de tierras

Trump’s Thursday decision to oust national security adviser H.R. McMaster and bring in John Bolton increases the probability that Trump will dump Macmanus


The government of former President Rafael Correa abused the criminal justice system to target indigenous leaders and environmentalists who protested mining and oil exploration in the Amazon

Durante el gobierno de Rafael Correa, la cooperación con Estados Unidos se vio seriamente disminuida


Traversing the border area, the photographer John Moore covered the story of immigration from all sides. Here are 17 striking photographs

The Trump administration has remained quiet on the Internal Security Law and has continued with plans to support Mexico’s security forces

The highest rates of disappearances are concentrated in the border states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Sonora, according to the study

Mexico’s navy said in a statement that the gunmen had fake marine uniforms and markings on their vehicles

Desde la primera hora de hoy, en tres diferentes acciones, personal naval fue agredido con armas de fuego en distintos puntos de Nuevo Laredo

Western Hemisphere Regional

Executing a few individual smugglers will do little to stop others because there is no high command of the international drug trade to target

The image of U.S. leadership took a hit worldwide during Donald Trump’s first year in office, but nowhere more so than in Latin America, where the median approval rating dropped from 49% in 2016 to 24% in 2017

The day ahead: March 23, 2018

I’ll be most reachable mid-day. (How to contact me)

I’m going on camera twice today, talking about Colombia both times: Voice of America in the morning and CNN Español at the end of the day. In between I’ll be working in the office, then working at home after mid-afternoon. I’d like to produce 2 weeks’ worth of updates about Colombia’s peace process.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 21, 2018


The day that he died I felt proud, because I was able to say to my 7-year-old son that his grandparents’ murderer died a convicted man, that the struggle is worth it


El recurso que conoció la Sala de lo Constitucional indica que la MACCIH estaría suplantando acciones de persecución pública que le corresponden al Ministerio Público

La Sala de lo Constitucional admitió este martes el recurso de inconstitucionalidad contra el convenio entre la Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MACCIH) y el gobierno de Honduras


La violencia no ha cesado y el ingenio para generar nuevas formas de violentar la libertad de expresión e información ha provocado una contracción continua del espacio cívico


Kuczynski tomó la decisión de dimitir esta mañana a la Presidencia del Perú. Ahora el primer vicepresidente, Martín Vizcarra, deberá asumir el cargo

Los pedidos de renuncia se producen un día antes de que el Congreso unicameral someta a votación una solicitud para destituir a Kuczynski por “incapacidad moral permanente”

Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Venezuela, Western Hemisphere Regional

Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean and a staunch Maduro supporter, said that “several countries are writing letters … urging the president of Peru to not disinvite Maduro”


China is likely to extend an agreement providing crisis-stricken Venezuela with favorable loans repayment terms but will not lend fresh funds to President Nicolas Maduro’s government

Venezuela will be unstable and unpredictable in the coming months and those who are on top today could quickly become scapegoats for the country’s failures

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 20, 2018


Latin America’s largest nation has watched in awe as a figure once little known outside Rio has been transformed into a global symbol of racial oppression

Desperate Brazilians are wondering whether they’d be better off armed, given that around 60,000 of their compatriots are killed each year. Polls show support for gun ownership gaining ground


Around 1,200 former members of Colombia’s FARC rebel group did not demobilize under a peace deal and instead joined dissident factions still fighting the government, the head of the military said

Colombia, Ecuador

Los involucrados se acogieron al procedimiento abreviado y la Fiscalía pidió para ellos 20 meses de cárcel

Al parecer se trata de un mortero lanzado desde territorio colombiano


La normativa criminaliza tanto a manifestantes y opositores políticos como a pandilleros que dañen patrimonio económico


Según el acuerdo entre las secretarías de Defensa de ambos países, para las tres fuerzas de la institución castrense hondureña se firmó un contrato de 165,155,000 dólares


An autopsy showed the unarmed teen was shot 10 times, mostly from behind


“The Joint Combined Exchange Training improved the readiness of assigned quick reaction forces with Special Operations Command South by developing capabilities needed when responding to a crisis alongside partner nation security forces”


Tuberculosis, a disease that until recently seemed to be under control in Venezuela, is making an aggressive comeback

“Aprovecho para denunciar que el día sábado fue detectada una aeronave Boeing C17 de la Fuerza Aérea de los Estados Unidos que despegó de la base Hato, allá en Curazao”, dijo el ministro

The day ahead: March 20, 2018

I’ll be most free, though writing, in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m doing an interview in the morning and going to a mid-day discussion of the Colombian military’s post-conflict roles at the Colombian embassy. Other than that, I’ll be in the office writing and databasing, mostly about Colombia.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

March 19, 2018


El balance fue compartido por el ministro de Defensa al detallar que los fallecidos pertenecían al GAO (Grupo Armado Organizado) residual de los frentes primero y séptimo de las Farc

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

As these selection processes take place, the commitment of all three governments to anti-corruption drives, led by the attorneys general, is being severely questioned


Morales recently announced that at the end of March the army will stop performing public security functions once and for all


The chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation said in a letter to Zinke on Saturday that the tribe opposes a “fortified” wall

Swartz’s murder trial starts Tuesday in Tucson


A clutch of opinion polls show Falcon ahead, bolstering his campaign mantra that he is a natural transition candidate with appeal to a moderate majority

The day ahead: March 19, 2018

I’ll be mostly available in the afternoon, but go easy as I’ll be writing. (How to contact me)

I’ll be in the office all day, which has been very unusual so far this year. I shouldn’t complain, though: the past several weeks’ travel has been amazing, and Friday’s trip to New York, meeting with journalists and comedy writers, went better than I could’ve hoped.

I’ve got a long weekly staff meeting in the morning, and an internal  meeting to discuss fundraising strategy in the afternoon. When not in those meetings, I’d like to write several pages about Colombia and the U.S.-Mexico border before this day ends. So I may leave to work at home in mid-afternoon.

The Week Ahead

This will be the first time in seven weeks that I’ll be in Washington all 5 days. Looking forward to getting a lot of research and writing done, plus some work with Capitol Hill: March 23 is the latest 2018 budget deadline, and we still don’t know what’s going to happen with Trump’s initial border wall request.

The USAID evaluation that sent me to Colombia for all of February is now largely behind me. We’ve got a big draft done, and hopefully there will be just small additions and changes to do from now on. One of the main lessons I’ll take from that experience is how to do fieldwork in a way that lets you turn around a big trip report within two weeks. (It routinely takes us four months or more.)

The day ahead: March 15, 2018

I’m in meetings all day, and for some of it I may not even have my phone with me. (How to contact me)

I had only a few things on the schedule Tuesday and Wednesday, but spent them doing writing and catching up correspondence. I was in a bit of a sleepless haze, having devoted evenings and nights to finishing a solid draft of a big report about the USAID program that I’d spent the month of February in Colombia evaluating. That’s done now, and unless something goes terribly wrong, that project will no longer demand large blocks of my time.

Today I’ve got meetings with State Department in the morning and an “NGO working group” meeting with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the afternoon. Lunch with a Colombian colleague in between. And in the late afternoon I board a train to New York, where a few of us from WOLA will be spending all of tomorrow meeting with journalists and, believe it or not, comedy writers.



Some articles I found interesting this morning

Reuters photo at The Guardian. Caption: “Pablo Catatumbo of the political party Farc deposits his vote during the legislative elections Monday in Bogota, Colombia.”

(Even more here)

March 12, 2018


Former leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro and youthful rightwing senator Iván Duque confirmed the strength of their bids to be Colombia’s next president on Sunday in a historic day of voting

Once more, FARC will loom large in foreign-media accounts of the vote and small in Colombian ones

Los partidos Conservador, Centro Democrático y Cambio Radical, hoy en abierta oposición a lo pactado con las Farc, ostentan 133 de las 278 curules que lo integran

De los 70 candidatos cuestionados que la Fundación Paz y Reconciliación-Pares publicó, sólo 28 se quemaron

Según Santos, la agenda de Quito se retomará con dos puntos que se estaban discutiendo en simultánea: la participación ciudadana, y el de las acciones y gestos humanitarios que se deben dar

Colombia, Peru, Western Hemisphere Regional

Trump will attend the Summit of the Americas to be held in Lima, Peru, on April 14-15


As Trump inspects the prototypes and poses for photos along the border east of San Diego, he’ll be just yards away from a Tijuana slum where people have formulated their own ideas about them


The worse the economy gets, the more dependent some poor Venezuelans become on the state

The Maduro government is not the only government to preside over an economic disaster. What makes it different is that it has violated the people’s rights to choose their leadership

Last week in Colombia’s Peace Process

Congressional Elections Are This Sunday

Colombians go to the polls on March 11 to elect new members of a 108-person Senate and a 172-person House of Representatives. All will serve four-year terms. Regardless of the result, at least five from each house will be members of the political party formed by the former FARC guerrillas. The peace accord gives the FARC ten automatic congressional seats for the next two four-year terms, until 2026.

Polling indicates that rightist parties, and traditional political families, will do well. The “Democratic Center” party of former President Álvaro Uribe led in a Guarumo/EcoAnalitica poll with 20.1 percent of intended Senate votes. (Despite its name, this party is the farthest to the right politically.) Of the next five parties, four are big political machines with blurred, but mostly conservative-leaning, political views (the Liberals, Cambio Radical, the Conservatives, and the “U” or Unity party). The fifth, the Green Party, trends center-left.

Much coverage of the campaign’s last stage focuses on the continued power of local family dynasties, whose members keep getting re-elected despite allegations of corruption or collusion with organized crime and paramilitarism.

In the Wall Street Journal, John Otis profiles Sucre Department candidate Juliana Escalante García.

“[I]t hasn’t hurt Ms. Escalante that her uncle, former senator Álvaro García, is now serving a 40-year prison term for murder or that other politically active relatives have been convicted or investigated for graft and allying with death squads. What ensures loyalty from voters in this impoverished state of Sucre are the personal favors the candidates dispense.”

Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation tells Otis that “about a third of Colombia’s incoming 280-member Congress will be made up of politicians from 11 political clans.”

El Espectador mapped out the dominant political clans in Valle del Cauca (Toro), Santander (Aguilar), and the Atlantic (Char) and Pacific (Martínez Sinisterra) coastal regions. El Tiempo profiled 17 political families throughout the country. La Silla Vacía looked at how jailed politicians continue to manage their electoral machinery from their comfortable prison cells.

“Timochenko” Drops Out of Presidential Race

The former FARC are performing poorly in polls: the Guarumo/EcoAnalitica survey showed its 74 Senate and House candidates sharing the support of 0.6 percent of respondents. And the former guerrillas’ presidential campaign suffered a knockout blow this week as its candidate, former paramount FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko,” suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery.

The 59-year-old Timochenko has been plagued by health problems. Following this medical event, he pulled out of the campaign completely. The FARC will not run a presidential candidate in the May 27 elections.

Timochenko’s campaign had not been going well. Most polls had him in the 1 percent range. And some of his campaign appearances had been met with angry mobs throwing objects at him. “Nothing has gone well for the party,” León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation told the New York Times. “The implementation of the peace accords going ahead will depend on their presence and political influence in the country and this is in question.”

Former FARC members continue to face attacks and threats around the country. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo told Verdad Abierta that since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord, 56 people tied to the FARC have been murdered, among them 42 ex-combatants, some relatives, and “a very small number, two or three people, tied to the new FARC political party who weren’t ex-combatants or relatives.”

Presidential Candidate Petro Claims He Was Shot At

Leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who narrowly leads polls for May’s first-round presidential vote, visited Washington to consult with the OAS about an attack that took place in Cúcuta on March 2. As his motorcade drove through the city, it was hit with a projectile so hard that it cracked the thick glass of Petro’s armored car. Petro claims it was a bullet. The investigative arm of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (the CTI) said the damage did not result from a bullet, but did not suggest an alternative.

Petro blamed the attack on the machine that dominates local politics in Cúcuta. The city’s current mayor is a close associate of former mayor Ramiro Suárez, who is currently imprisoned in Bogotá for working with paramilitary groups.

U.S. Senate Holds Nomination Hearing for Next U.S. Ambassador

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met March 7 to hear testimony from four ambassadorial nominees, including Joseph MacManus, the State Department’s pick for Colombia.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) raised concerns with MacManus about whether human rights would be upheld in the FARC peace agreement, or would be sacrificed. MacManus replied that “the key word is accountability,” and human rights are a part of that. He added that while Colombia has made advances in protecting labor leaders and human rights defenders, there is a long way to go, and institutions need strengthening.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) called Colombia a “success story,” and endorsed the country’s bid to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). MacManus said that the OECD bid was helping Colombia to make progress on standards, but cited child labor as one of a few areas where Colombia still needs to do more.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) brought up what he characterized as “record supplies of cocaine,” along with a drop in prices and an increase in U.S. consumption. The timing of increased coca, Rubio said, “coincided with the peace deal,” which he says included a program “paying growers to stop growing coca,” which encouraged people to grow coca to qualify. Rubio said that MacManus would be ambassador at a time when cocaine may compete with opiates as the worst illegal drug plague in the United States. “I see it becoming a major irritant in the relationship.” MacManus replied, “That irritation is already there. It’s beyond an irritation,” citing President Trump’s September near-decertification of Colombia as a partner in the drug war. MacManus assured that the Colombian government is also concerned about coca: it interdicted about 500 tons in 2017, a record, and registered its highest numbers for manual and voluntary eradication in years. MacManus noted that the peace accords call for both rural reform and addressing illicit drugs. He recalled that, at an early March High Level Dialogue, Colombia committed to eradicating to 50 percent of the current area planted with coca within five years.

Sen. Rubio noted that the territorial space, and the role in the cocaine trade, that the FARC once occupied have been taken up by “cartels and the ELN.” He added that “It is indisputable that distribution of cocaine is assisted actively by elements in the Venezuelan government.” Rubio said that Venezuela is supportive of the ELN, and that aerial trafficking routes almost all begin in Venezuelan territory. MacManus did not dispute Rubio’s assessment.

Rubio concluded that between the unstable border and a flood of migrants, “Venezuela poses a national security threat to our strongest ally, Colombia.” McManus concurred that Venezuela is “a principal threat, a threat to Colombia” and “the principal problem of today, of right now,” in Latin America. He noted that Colombia is prepared to seek international assistance to attend to Venezuelan migrants, and that there have been discussions within U.S. agencies about how to provide that.

The Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on MacManus’s nomination. Conservative media outlets had attacked MacManus last year: though he is a career Foreign Service officer, they, and some far-right senators, perceive him as being too close to Hillary Clinton, on whose staff MacManus served when she was secretary of state. Sen. Rubio’s first line of questioning dealt with MacManus’s role in dealing with the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which U.S. conservatives contend that Clinton mishandled.

Crop Substitution Plan is Lagging

The National Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana (COCCAM) held a press conference to warn that the government’s crop substitution program, part of Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord, is not going well.

COCCAM members throughout the country have signed agreements with the Colombian government to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for a package of aid—mainly a stipend and help with productive projects and technical support—valued at about US$12,000 over two years. This National Integral Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), the growers warn, is on the brink of failure. Payments are arriving very late. Productive projects and technical support have not begun anywhere.

“The National government included 1 trillion pesos (about US$360 million) for the PNIS,” said COCCAM spokeswoman Luz Perly Córdoba. “If we count up how much it costs to attend to the 54,000 families signed up just for this year, the budget rises to 1.5 trillion pesos.”

Cristian Delgado, who manages human rights for COCCAM, counted 27 of its members killed since January 2017. Participants in crop-substitution efforts have been among a growing wave of social leaders killed in post-conflict Colombia.

10 ELN Killed in Bombing Raid

Colombia’s air force and army bombed a column of ELN fighters in Cáceres, in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, on March 6. The raid killed 10 ELN members, and troops captured 3 more. It was the deadliest military attack on the ELN since January 9, when the government and guerrillas failed to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.

Among the dead was alias “Cachaco,” whom Medellín’s El Colombiano called “the ELN’s second most important man in Antioquia and southern Bolívar.” The military was able to locate him because “Cachaco” was attending a meeting at the site of the bombing raid to discuss logistics for transporting him to Quito, Ecuador, where he was to join the ELN’s negotiating team for peace talks with the government.

These peace talks remain suspended. After the ceasefire ended and the ELN carried out a wave of attacks, including a bombing at a Barranquilla police station, President Santos pulled back the government’s negotiating team and demanded a signal of goodwill from the guerrillas. The ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire from March 9-13 to coincide with congressional elections.

In-Depth Reading

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Brian van der Brug photo in the Los Angeles Times. Caption: “A drone view of the rusty ribbon of border fence that separates the Mexico town of Jacume and Jacumba Hot Springs, seen in background.”

(Even more here)

March 9, 2018


La arremetida de las Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, la presunta llegada de los ‘Caparrapos’, la consolidación de una disidencia del Frente 36 y el aumento del microtráfico, actividad controlada por mafias provenientes de Medellín, tienen hoy sumidos en la zozobra y el pesimismo a los habitantes

En los últimos años, se han registrado movimientos del ELN y las disidencias de las Farc hacia zonas de alto valor estratégico para su financiamiento, en la Orinoquía colombiana y la Guyana venezolana

“Here people are so poor that if you give them a bowl of soup they will vote for you”

Todas esas comodidades, sumadas a una generosa política de visitas, han convertido este pabellón en una suerte de centro de operaciones políticas que ha servido de punto de convergencia para que los caciques electorales más controvertidos del país sellen alianzas

Colombia, Venezuela

Migración Colombia reported in February that more than 600,000 Venezuelans have entered the country through official crossings. Estimates of the number of irregular entries differ but may be as many of the legal entrants

El Salvador

La dirección general de la PNC creó a mediados de 2016 un protocolo específico para que las mujeres denuncien a sus compañeros; se procesa una denuncia cada seis días. Pero es aún la punta del iceberg


I worry recent actions signal a move in the wrong direction, including the recent removal of Interior Minister, Francisco Rivas and the Chief of Guatemala’s Internal Revenue Service, Juan Solorzano Foppa – both were key partners of the Public Ministry and the CICIG

El discurso incoherente de Lucas no logró desvanecer las certezas sobre su responsabilidad ante los hechos


This town in extreme southeastern San Diego County offers a glimpse into the ever-changing nature of the U.S.-Mexico border as President Trump visits California

En el crimen están vinculados el ex alcalde panista de Chínipas, Hugo Schultz Alcaraz y el vocero hasta hoy del Comité Directivo Estatal del Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), Alfredo Piñera Guevara

Western Hemisphere Regional

My goal is to create the conditions for respectful and nonconfrontational dialogue between supporters of the president’s immigration policy and the full panoply of migrants

The day ahead: March 9, 2018

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

It’s my third full day back, and I’m starting to feel caught up on work. I plan to post a new update here, and to work on, if not finish, a legislative update on the border and one on defense assistance programs. I’m in a meeting in the mid-afternoon.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Ricardo Moraes / Reuters photo at The Huffington Post. Caption: “Weapons smuggled in hollowed-out pool water heaters are seized at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport on June 1, 2017.”

(Even more here)

March 8, 2018


Brazil’s Federal Police have seized more than 1,500 American-made guns, most of them from people the police say are drug traffickers and members of drug gangs


Brazil’s decision to send approximately 750 soldiers to Central Africa is one of the Temer administration’s more far-sighted foreign policy decisions


Decenas de mujeres vulnerables de ese departamento han estado o están detenidas en prisiones colombianas y ecuatorianas por tráfico o porte de estupefacientes

The campaigning did not go well. Mr. Londoño was attacked by protesters who pelted his motorcade with rocks, on one occasion doing severe damage to his vehicle

Implementation of the Peace Agreement has not progressed as quickly and as expected. Necesitamos un mayor nivel de compromiso y voluntad política para que se cumpla lo acordado. Greater commitment and political will is required if the Agreement is to be fulfilled

Macmanus dejó claro que a lo largo de estos últimos 12 meses tanto la administración como el Congreso han dejado claro la gran preocupación por el aumento de los cultivos de coca en el país

With candidates on both left and right facing voter ire, the electoral season is proving particularly poisonous, even for a nation with a notorious history of political violence

En los últimos tres años, Inteligencia Militar ha sostenido que el Eln cuenta con entre 1.500 y 2.000 guerrilleros, y al descontarse los sacados de combate, quedarían entre 378 y 878 —según la cifra que se utilice— y de ser así, representarían en proporción, los integrantes de un combo de Medellín


A critical number of those affected were members of the CIA station in Cuba

El Salvador

ARENA won 52 percent of the national vote to the FMLN’s 34 percent. The FMLN also lost most of the country’s department capitals, including the capital of San Salvador


Romero’s path to sainthood had stalled under two previous popes, reflecting concerns by some that he was overly political


Solo de diciembre de 2017 a enero de 2018 se registró un incremento en la deuda de la TSP de 660 millones de lempiras, recursos que se distribuyeron a varias instituciones


Opposition to Trump’s border wall has become a frequent talking point for California politicians eager to show their progressive state that they’re standing up to the Republican leader

The real issue, perhaps, is that Mexico’s greatest problems—massive inequality along with devastating crime and violence—cannot be fully resolved by its political system. In that, too, Mexico is hardly alone

“Tenemos los mejores protocolos, pero están empolvados y no se aplican”

Mexico, Western Hemisphere Regional

Mr. Kushner, who also met with Mexico’s foreign minister, did not invite the American ambassador — Roberta S. Jacobson, a diplomat with more than 30 years of experience in the region — to join him


Falcón acknowledges that he’s been under pressure to drop out of the race. But he denied recent accounts that the White House was also threatening him with sanctions for participating

The White House is meeting with foreign leaders in the hemisphere to discuss how the U.S. government and energy industry can provide them with fuel and infrastructure needs in the event the Maduro regime collapses

The day ahead: March 8, 2018

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

It’s a morning of emptying communications inboxes that built up while I was away. In the afternoon I plan to spend at least an hour each on several writing and coding projects that need to move ahead. I’ll be in the office all day.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

From Animal Político (Mexico). Caption: La Ley de Seguridad Interior “autoriza el uso de las fuerzas armadas en actividades de seguridad sin las adecuadas garantías ni supervisión”, señala ONU-DH.

(Even more here)

March 7, 2018


Nos Estados Unidos, por exemplo, o atual ministro da Defesa é um fuzileiro naval de carreira”

El dispositivo involucra a 900 hombres, apoyo de blindados, aeronaves y equipos pesados de ingeniería, para la “estabilización” y la “desobstrucción de calles” en la Comunidad Vila Kennedy, al oeste de Río


Aunque el exalcalde de Cúcuta está recluido hace seis años en la cárcel La Picota de Bogotá –a más de 700 kilómetros de la capital de Norte de Santander– se dice que su influencia es cotidiana y que César Rojas, el actual mandatario, acata fielmente sus instrucciones

Un operativo de las Fuerzas Armadas en zona rural de Cáceres, Antioquia, dejó 10 guerrilleros del Eln muertos, entre quienes se encuentra uno de sus principales cabecillas


The mystery of an alleged sonic attack still weighs heavily on U.S.-Cuba relations. Breaking the impasse will require concessions from both sides


Benedicto Lucas, el militar retirado, demostró que su memoria está intacta. Relató escenas, nombres y hechos del pasado para presentar su defensa. Emma Theissen Álvarez de Molina, recapituló el 6 de octubre de 1981, el día que perdió a su hijo


“The arrests of Castillo Mejía and Rosa Bonilla de Lobo do not touch the deeper corruption and criminality” taking place in Honduras


Al Hussein señaló que la LSI “autoriza el uso de las fuerzas armadas en actividades de seguridad sin las adecuadas garantías ni supervisión

Lopez Obrador has 35 percent support ahead of the July 1 vote according to the survey by polling firm Parametria

Mr Kushner “will make a working visit … as an envoy of President Trump” and will be accompanied by State Department and US National Security Council officials

Mexico, Western Hemisphere Regional

Four powerful Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the Office of the Inspector General calling for the watchdog to investigate the SIU. But it appears that as recently as last summer, the DEA was still working to fix major issues the Inspector General flagged in 2007


Caleb McCarry, a Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled to Caracas in February and met with Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores to discuss Holt’s imprisonment

Western Hemisphere Regional

U.S. efforts to undermine Latin American leaders make it hard for the United States to cry foul as Russia moves to ensure that countries have governments favorable to its interests

The day ahead: March 7, 2018

I should be reachable much of the day, but go easy as this is my first day back after a month away. (How to contact me)

It’s my first full day at WOLA’s offices since February 2. Other than an afternoon Skype conversation with a colleague in Colombia, I’ll be in all day. Catching up on this week’s news, emptying my email and other communications inboxes, sitting down with staff.

Also, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a nomination hearing for the next ambassador to Colombia this afternoon.

I’m back

I returned from Colombia over the weekend, then just spent a day and a half in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I gave a talk and guest-taught a class at Vassar College. I’ve been back in Washington for a few hours.

Normal work, and normal posting to this site, will resume tomorrow (Wednesday).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.