I’m a regular listener of Richard McColl’s “Colombia Calling” English-language podcast, so I was delighted to accept his invitation to appear in an episode (number 297, very impressive). Even better, I happened to be in Bogotá when we recorded (back on October 20), so I stopped by his lovely home where gave me very strong coffee.
I think the conversation turned out well, we covered a lot of ground in about 35 minutes. It’s always great to be in the hands of an experienced interviewer. Here’s Richard’s summary from the show notes:
Adam Isacson of WOLA (The Washington Office on Latin America) needs no introduction to the latin americanists amongst us, but, suffice it to say that it was an honour to invite him on the Colombia Calling podcast and hear his thoughts about recent events here in Colombia. As the Director of Defence Oversight for WOLA, Isacson’s remit takes in all of latin america and now includes border issues such as those occurring right now on the Mexico/ US frontier and so, we manage to catch him for a few short minutes in Bogota to discuss: President Duque’s speech to the UN, the future for former president Alvaro Uribe, the reality on the ground in Colombia’s far-off regions such as Choco and Arauca and so much more. Frankly, 35 minutes is nowhere near long enough with one of the most knowledgeable voices for human rights in the region. Tune in and enjoy and be sure to check out his website at: adamisacson.com/ expatoverseascolombiasouth america
Colombians voted for governors, mayors, town councils, and local legislatures on October 27, and—unlike so many places in the world lately—left and right radicals and populists had a lousy day. Voters especially rejected the ruling rightist party of President Iván Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, who has lost his luster.
In most cities, voters also rejected powerful political machines. Independent candidates with anti-corruption messages—many with ties to social movements—enjoyed unprecedented success. Elsewhere, however, especially in the countryside, it was business as usual: supported by rivers of questionable campaign money, local bosses and candidates of long-reigning, corrupt political clans won easily.
Bogotá’s new mayor will be Claudia López, the first woman, and the first LGBT person, to lead this city of more than 8 million people. This is a remarkable victory because Claudia comes from our sector: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her since the mid-2000s, when she was an investigator at a Colombian think-tank, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. There, she helped blow the lid off of a major political scandal, known as “para-politics,” that saw about a third of the Congress elected in 2006, plus mayors, governors, and other officials, investigated, tried, or jailed for supporting murderous, drug-funded paramilitary groups. A bold and clear public speaker, López became a frequent commentator and columnist in Colombian media, emphatically denouncing examples of corruption. She won a Senate seat in 2014, and led a 2018 effort to pass a series of anti-corruption reforms through a referendum, which failed after voter participation narrowly fell short. She is often described as “center-left,” as a member of Colombia’s Green Party; while socially liberal and a supporter of the 2016 peace accord, López may be tough on common crime, and is unlikely to spend lavishly on social programs, other than for education.
The surprise victor in Medellín was 39-year-old Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate from the center-left. Polls had been showing a likely victory for Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of President Iván Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático party. This is a devastating defeat for the Centro Democrático, as Medellín is the home city of the party’s founder, populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. (Uribe was briefly mayor of Medellín in 1982.) Even in his home region, the ex-president’s coattails were not enough to elect Ramos, who lost by a margin of 303,000 to 235,000 votes.
Many Colombians fondly remember Uribe’s 2002-2010 presidency for his personalistic style and tough policies that reduced several measures of insecurity and weakened leftist guerrilla groups. His star has fallen, though. The ex-president has since become quite extreme, even Trumpian, in his political messaging, leading efforts to sink Colombia’s peace accord and using his Twitter account to attack and intimidate opponents. Uribe is also in legal trouble; Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating credible allegations that he sought to bribe or coerce jailed former paramilitary fighters into testifying falsely against a political opponent.
During his presidency, the bimonthly Gallup poll of Colombian public opinion routinely had Uribe’s favorability rating above 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent; by August 2019, this rating had fallen to 34 percent, with 61 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him. (President Duque’s approval rating was only 29 percent, with 64 percent disapproving.) The Centro Democrático had a bad day nationwide, failing to win major population centers nearly everywhere. Its candidate in Bogotá, Miguel Uribe (no relation), finished fourth, the last of the major candidates.
Cali also elected a progressive candidate as its mayor: Green Party candidate Jorge Iván Ospina, a former mayor and son of a founder of the old M-19 guerrilla group, will return to the job.
In Cartagena, William Dau, a candidate who ran without a party, was the victor over a long-running political machine. The city’s corruption-riven government has gone through 12 mayors in the past 6 years.
In Buenaventura, the impoverished Pacific city that is Colombia’s busiest port, voters electedVíctor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the Paro Cívico (Civic Strike), a social movement that led weeks of protests against corruption and poor government services in 2017. This was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the elite in a city where local government corruption is epic in proportion.
In the Venezuela border city of Cúcuta, normally one of the most conservative corners of Colombia, voters choseJairo Yáñez, a businessman running on the Green Party ticket with an anti-corruption message, claiming his campaign spent only about US$25,000. His victory is an unexpected blow to Ramiro Suarez, a former mayor, imprisoned for para-politics, who remains a major power broker in the city.
In Magdalena, Will Freeman writes at NACLA, a political movement called Fuerza Ciudadana swept the governorship and the mayor’s race in the capital, Santa Marta. This is remarkable since this coastal zone, the home department of author Gabriel García Márquez, has been notorious as a stronghold of paramilitary groups and corrupt “para-politicians.”
In the Caribbean department of Sucre, one of Colombia’s poorest, the gubernatorial candidate of para-politician Álvaro “El Gordo” Garcia’s longstanding political clan, Yahir Acuña, suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of the Liberal Party candidate.
In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, the powerful and para-political Sánchez Montes de Oca clan failed to elect its candidates for governor and mayor of Quibdó, the capital. The winning candidates, however, may not be paragons of integrity.
In Cauca Elías Larrahondo, running in a coalition of centrist parties, has become the department’s first-ever Afro-Colombian governor.
While I haven’t looked at all town council elections, the FARC political party, descended from the guerrilla group that negotiated peace in 2016, did not win mayorships, and only ran candidates for just over a dozen. The FARC ran 308 candidates, mostly for councils and departmental legislatures, and got well under 1 percent of the total vote. One former FARC member, Guillermo Torres alias Julián Conrado—known previously as a guerrilla folksinger—was elected mayor of the Cartagena suburb of Turbaco, Bolívar. Torres, however, did not run as a candidate of the FARC party; he showed up on the ballot under the logos of two other left parties.
On the other end of the populist political spectrum, candidates aligned with leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and number-two presidential candidate in 2018, failed to meet expectations. Petro’s “Colombia Humana” candidates suffered defeat in Bogotá, Medellín, Atlántico, Cesar, Nariño, Santander, and Valle del Cauca, though a few candidates (like Torres, the ex-FARC singer in Turbaco) were elected elsewhere in coalition with other parties.
In much of the rest of Colombia, allegations of vote-buying, dirty campaign money, and candidates with organized crime ties were rife. These areas remain what Bogotá’s Fundación Paz y Reconciliación think tank, referencing the work of Northwestern University scholar Edward L. Gibson, calls“local authoritarianisms,” where candidates independent of traditional political bosses don’t stand a chance. Cities and departments where voters still went out and backed the “machines” include Barranquilla, Bolívar (except Cartagena, the capital), Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, and Valle del Cauca (except Cali, the capital).
Last week, with a 53-36 vote (59.6 percent), the U.S. Senate failed to get the two-thirds necessary to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution reversing his February 15 “national emergency” declaration. That declaration, coming after Trump failed to force Congress to pay billions for his “border wall” demands, would take more than $6 billion from the Defense Department budget and Treasury seized-asset funds, and plow it into border wall construction.
A quick rundown:
2019 started with much of the U.S. government “shut down” because Congress would not pass a budget giving Trump the $5.7 billion he wanted for his border wall.
Finally, after a 35-day shutdown, Trump caved and signed a budget with far less wall funding.
On February 15, using power he claimed that the 1976 National Emergencies Act gives him, Trump declared an “emergency” at the border requiring him to move money out of defense accounts and into wall-building.
Court challenges to this emergency declaration are ongoing. In July, the Supreme Court allowed wall-building to proceed while judicial deliberations continue. In mid-October, though, a federal judge in El Paso froze much of the Defense Department money.
The National Emergencies Act gives Congress the ability to challenge the emergency declaration every six months, by passing a joint resolution. A 1983 Supreme Court decision allows the President to veto this resolution; the emergency declaration would then remain in place unless two thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the presidential veto.
Twice now—in February-March and September-October—Congress has passed joint resolutions to take down Trump’s emergency declaration. Both times, Trump has vetoed the resolutions. Both times, a strong majority, but not the necessary two-thirds, has voted to override the veto.
There have now been six votes on passage and override of these joint resolutions: three in the House and three in the Senate. Not a single Democrat has voted “no” against these resolutions. Any two-thirds override vote, though, also requires a significant number of Republican votes.
Even in this polarized time, some Republicans have defied the president and voted to undo the emergency declaration. To be exact, 14 in the House and 12 in the Senate. That’s 7 percent of House Republicans, and 23 percent of Senate Republicans.
The rest of the Republican Party’s congressional delegation seems to be unconcerned about the constitutional ramifications of a president unilaterally acting in direct opposition to the clearly expressed will of a Congress that, supposedly, has “the power of the purse.”
Here are the GOP legislators who have voted to undo this authoritarian and wasteful measure. In the Senate, half are members of the Appropriations Committee, whose power to assign funds is directly challenged by the emergency declaration. Many are among the party’s few remaining moderates. Most of their votes are more about preserving Congress’s constitutional power to appropriate funds than about the wisdom of building a border wall. That’s still a principled position, and I wish more GOP legislators would take it.
Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “I cannot support this national emergency declaration and be faithful to my oath to support the Constitution at the same time”
Roy Blunt (R-Missouri, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “Those decisions should not be made without congressional action.”
Susan Collins (R-Maine, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “while there is some discretion that he has to move money around, I think that his executive order exceeds his discretion”
Mike Lee (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): concerned about ceding congressional power
Jerry Moran (R-Kansas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “The declaration of an emergency under these circumstances is a violation of the U.S. Constitution”
Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations, said “This is about the administration overstepping Constitutional authority, forcing Congress to relinquish power that is fundamentally ours”
Rand Paul (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): a libertarian; said “I can’t vote to give extra-Constitutional powers to the president”
Rob Portman (R-Ohio, voted “yes” three times): a relative moderate, said “the emergency declaration circumvented Congress and set a ‘dangerous new precedent’”
Mitt Romney (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): a frequent Trump critic, concerned about ceding congressional power
Marco Rubio (R-Florida, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations, said “We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution”
Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “the emergency declaration undermines the constitutional responsibility of Congress to approve how money is spent”
Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “I have serious reservations as to what the Emergency Declaration might do to the Constitutional principle of checks and balances.” (Fun fact: as a member of the House in 2000, Wicker was one of few Republicans to oppose the mostly military aid package known as “Plan Colombia.”)
Justin Amash (I-Michigan, voted “yes” twice, then left the Republican Party): said “I think the President is violating our constitutional system”
Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said “I think this decision should be made by Congress”
Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “we can’t continue to expand executive authority just because our party now controls the White House”
Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “He [Trump] literally contradicted the Constitution to use this money for something other than which it was intended”
Will Hurd (R-Texas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; represents a border district and has been a consistent border wall critic
Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota, voted “yes” three times): said “I spent eight years under President Obama fighting ever-expanding executive authority. I remain committed to that principle”
John Katko (R-New York, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): said “Presidents, from either party, should not legislate from the executive branch”
Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): said “The appropriations process belongs within Congress according to the Constitution”
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): said “Article I of the Constitution gives the legislative branch the exclusive power to make laws and set funding priorities”
Francis Rooney (R-Florida, voted “yes” three times): said “My vote to override a veto of the resolution to rescind the national emergency declaration was based on the U.S. Constitution and had nothing to do with President Trump.” Recently made headlines by saying he is “open” to impeaching Trump
Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “It is imperative that no administration, Republican or Democratic, circumvent the will of Congress”
Elise Stefanik (R-New York, voted “yes” three times): said “No matter what Party is represented in the White House, I will stand up against executive action that circumvents Congress”
Fred Upton (R-Michigan, voted “yes” three times): said “declaring a national emergency and reprogramming already appropriated funds without the approval of Congress is a violation of the Constitution”
Greg Walden (R-Oregon, voted “yes” three times): said the “Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse, not the President”
Going over my photos from our early October visit to Colombia, I found this one, taken on October 3 from our car window, while driving through the hamlet of La Esmeralda, between Arauquita and Saravena, Arauca. This area is heavily under the influence of the ELN guerrilla group.
An unremarkable photo of a tidy small-town street. Until you zoom in:
You’ve got a mom and 2 cute kids, some street-sweeping equipment—and, below the window on the right, some stenciled ELN graffiti.
A tranquil scene, marred by a message from a group responsible for, by all accounts we heard, the largest share of Arauca’s 130-plus homicides so far this year.
After our early October visit to Arauca, Colombia, WOLA colleagues and I spent several days in the middle section of Chocó. This department (province) borders both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as Panama, in Colombia’s far northwest. It’s been a week and a half since we completed this last leg of our trip. It took a while for me to type up these notes, in part because the situation I’m describing is so grim.
Chocó is big and sparsely populated, with about a half-million people in an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is beautiful and biodiverse. Most of its forests remain in pristine condition—for now—which helps make it one of the two or three rainiest places on the planet. It has thousands of miles of rivers.
It is also Colombia’s poorest department, with a very slight presence of the government. Over 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Chocó is mostly roadless, and the only way to get around is via rivers, especially the Atrato, which runs from about 40 miles east of the Pacific into the Caribbean. Fuel is expensive, and so is riverboat travel.
Because Chocó is hard to get around, our visit was limited to the middle and upper Atrato River regions, a few hours north and south of Quibdó, the capital. The Atrato, which flows from south to north, is a major vector for trafficking cocaine and other contraband, and has long been violently contested by drug traffickers and armed groups.
The middle and upper Atrato is living a tense calm, sandwiched between more violent regions of Chocó to the north and south. The lower Atrato river, flowing into the Caribbean in northern Chocó, is a site of intense fighting between the ELN guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which have gained control of principal towns. To the south of where we went, in Chocó’s San Juan and Baudó river valleys, fighting between the ELN and paramilitaries (and more recently, FARC dissident groups) has displaced thousands of people, mostly indigenous communities.
In the communities we visited in the middle and upper Atrato regions—just as in Arauca—security conditions aren’t as dire, but the armed groups are on the move. People told us they had lived a period of peace from about 2016 to 2018. This coincided with the latter phases of the FARC-government peace negotiations and the FARC guerrillas’ subsequent withdrawal and demobilization in Chocó. “With the Santos government and the peace process, we breathed a new breath of tranquility,” a social leader told us. Populations’ mobility increased, and forced recruitment and laying of landmines abated.
As in Arauca, we heard that this began to get worse in late 2018 and early 2019. As in Arauca, we heard that the ELN and a growing number of FARC dissidents are observing a loose and fragile non-aggression pact (at least in the middle region; in southern Chocó, they are fighting). As in Arauca, we heard of large-scale recent recruitment by all armed groups, mostly of minors. A few times, social and religious leaders in the upper and middle Atrato used the term “time bomb” to describe conditions: a fear that violence may soon explode to levels not seen since the armed conflict’s worst years. We heard similar concerns in Arauca.
In Chocó, the ELN guerrillas quickly filled the vacuums left by the demobilizing FARC’s 34th and 57th fronts. Their territorial control was quickly contested by paramilitaries, nominally affiliated with the “Gulf Clan” organized crime network. More recently, some demobilized FARC have rearmed, though it appears that most of the dissidents’ membership are new recruits. Many communities now live in contested territory, which is far worse than living under the monopoly control of a single armed group.
The guerrillas, dissidents, and paramilitaries fight for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitaries are also violently appropriating land deeded to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Quibdó, a frequent destination for displaced people, is hardly an oasis of calm. Urban violence, much of it gang or armed-group related, has left Quibdó with one of the highest homicide rates among Colombia’s mid-sized cities. Nearly all businesses in the capital must make extortion payments to someone.
Colombia’s security forces, to the extent they’re present, stand widely accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries, allowing them to pass through riverine checkpoints, sometimes in large numbers, and to bring their illicit products downriver or overland into Panama. We heard this denounced several times. “The paramilitaries pass by in boats easily,” a social leader told us. “There’s no trust with the security forces,” said another. “If you talk to them about something, the paramilitaries will get the information.… I see, and I stay quiet—that’s how the people have to be.”
For the military, collaboration with paramilitaries is not a counterinsurgency strategy, as it was in the 1980s-2000s. It’s mainly corruption: local personnel are getting something in return. And to some extent, it’s fear: what would actually happen to an army, police, or marine commander who challenged the paramilitaries or seized large amounts of their cocaine? Would forces based in faraway Bogotá, Medellín, or even Quibdó be able to protect that officer from retribution? It’s doubtful.
The resurgent ELN is treating the population brutally, controlling their movements, recruiting youth, and laying landmines. Residents of riverside communities say they are crueler than the FARC. Rapes of women, in particular, are happening “every day.” ELN leaders are ignoring communities’ attempts at dialogue. “With the FARC we knew who to talk to, now, we don’t. You get a phone number, nobody answers,” a leader told us.
Paramilitaries are similarly terrorizing the population. Combat and tight controls on people’s movement have confined indigenous communities up the Atrato River’s tributaries. Guerrilla landmines are doing the same. Confined communities are suffering malnutrition and lack of medical care. Selective killings are increasing. Paramilitaries are arriving in communities demanding that they turn over social leaders.
We visited the town of Bojayá, on the Atrato about 3 1/2 hours’ boat ride downriver from Quibdó. In May 2002, Bojayá was the site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Colombia’s conflict. During an episode of combat between the FARC and paramilitaries, much of the town’s population was taking refuge in its church. The FARC indiscriminately launched a gas-cylinder and shrapnel bomb into the church, killing 79 people, most of them children, and wounding many more. Even before the FARC peace talks concluded, local guerrilla leader Pastor Alape visited Bojayá and asked for forgiveness.
Bojayá’s victims have received some reparations from the government, including the building of a new town about a kilometer upriver (a town that lacks electricity much of the time), and money that many used to buy their own riverine passenger boats. Still, Bojayá’s residents feel unsafe as the ELN activates and paramilitaries move in from the north. Bojayá and the town across the river, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, sit on a junction of rivers that is strategic for trafficking and control of tributaries. Opogadó, about an hour downriver in Bojayá municipality, has seen a jump in selective killings this year. “Bojaya is remembered for a massacre. We don’t want there to be another,” said a local leader.
Chocó also has a lot of illegal gold-mining, causing severe environmental damage on rivers. Criminal groups, usually with acquiescence or collaboration from local political leaders, send dredges and backhoes up the Atrato’s tributaries, digging up river banks and dumping mercury into the streams. Some rivers have been “killed” by the churning of their banks, leaving them wide, shallow, and impassable. There is less mining now than before, thanks to a police crackdown, but some tributaries continue to suffer from it. And once gold is mined, it mixes in with “legal” gold and can’t be interdicted easily. The mining thrives with corruption, which allows it to operate in the open in some river tributaries.
Political corruption is epic in Chocó. The two dominant political clans, the Sánchez Montes de Oca and Torres networks, face numerous accusations (and some convictions) of collaboration with paramilitary groups. With a well-oiled political machinery, their preferred candidates are likely to do well in the October 27 local elections.
Chocó also has coca, mainly in the San Juan and Baudó river regions south of where we were. But it is not a major producer: the UNODC measured 2,100 hectares in 2018, putting Chocó in 11th place among Colombia’s 32 departments, a reduction from 2,600 in 2017. Chocó is unlikely to be a major target of U.S.-backed forced eradication (or renewed aerial herbicide fumigation) campaigns.
I wish I could end these notes with something positive about what we saw. Chocó does have a very strong network of civil society groups, especially Afro-Colombian community councils, indigenous reserves, victims’ associations, the Catholic Church’s Quibdó Diocese, and—perhaps most vibrantly—women’s groups.
Many have been promoting a humanitarian accord, committing the ELN to respecting the civilian population, the government to protecting citizens and breaking up paramilitary groups, and both parties to restarting negotiations. But for now, with ELN peace talks over since January, the “Acuerdo Humanitario Ya” movement is having trouble getting traction. Meanwhile, the social leaders promoting peaceful solutions are keeping a lower profile amid worsening threats and attacks.
These civil society groups need all the solidarity and international accompaniment that they can get. Especially now, as the “time bomb” keeps ticking in Chocó.
The conference I participated in is over (see coverage at the #FESSeguridadIncluyente Twitter hashtag). It was great to spend 2 1/2 days with people working on aspects of security policy from at least 10 other countries in the region. Well worth having to spend the weekend working.
Today (Wednesday 16th) is the second day in October during which I’ll spend all 24 hours in Washington. I was in Colombia September 30-October 11, then in New York for family reasons on the 12-14.
And tomorrow I fly back to Bogotá. I’ll be participating in a conference, hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, that will be gathering security experts from all over Latin America to talk about the current moment. It’s going to be great to see so many old colleagues, and hear from new ones. As indicated in the program, I’m on the eighth and final panel, on Saturday afternoon.
Because I’ll be mobile and in meetings, posting to this website will continue to be sporadic. For a while, in fact: between now and November 15 I’ll be in Colombia, Florida, at the U.S-Mexico border, and in Ohio. Then the travels should settle down for the remainder of the year.
En Nariño, Norte de Santander y Putumayo, que a diciembre pasado sumaban el 61 por ciento de las hectáreas (según cifras de la Unodc), todos los candidatos a gobernaciones están en contra de la fumigación
He was forced to balance demands of the Indigenous protesters, whose opposition has contributed to the downfall of three modern presidents, and those imposed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for a $4.2 billion loan
Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.
Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.
The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.
A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.
The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.
That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.
Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.
That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.
Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.
I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.
Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)
The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.
Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.
We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.
Here’s the unremarkable view from my hotel near the Bogotá, Colombia airport. We just arrived last night, and in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to another region of the country. If I post from that region at all, it will be content that doesn’t reveal my location. I’ll be back in Bogotá on Friday.