Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Colombia peace update: February 20, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

JEP finds a large number of “false positive” killings

Colombia’s post-conflict justice system (JEP) issued a dramatic order on February 18, explaining how it plans to investigate and prosecute its “Macro-Case 03: Deaths illegitimately presented by state agents as combat casualties.” These war crimes, called “false positives,” involved security-force (usually Army) personnel killing civilians, then presenting the dead as armed-group members killed in combat, in order to earn rewards.

The JEP’s most surprising finding was its topline number. Security forces murdered at least 6,402 civilians, the tribunal contends, in the seven years between 2002, the first year of Álvaro Uribe’s presidential administration, and 2008, when a scandal involving 19 murdered young men from a poor neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts broke the scandal open.

6,402 is equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed between 2002 and 2008. It is nearly triple the 2,248 cases, dating from between 1988 and 2014, that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) had shared with the JEP. Colombian human rights organizations called the Fiscalía’s undercounting “infuriating.”

The actual number is probably higher than 6,402; the JEP “is still receiving reports to contrast” with its database, La Silla Vacía reports, adding, “For each, the JEP has already identified the name, surname and identity card number,” and each appears in at least three of four governmental and non-governmental databases the tribunal consulted. In addition, some FARC members who demobilized during that period may have been killed later and counted as combatants. And many more cases may still be in the files of the military justice system, not the civilian Fiscalía.

On January 28, the JEP had indicted seven top FARC leaders for their role in kidnappings, with the intention of moving down the chain of command to on-the-ground perpetrators. The false positives investigation, though, is to go “bottom up,” starting with soldiers and officers, then moving up the ladder to top commanders who, today, deny any responsibility for the killings. (The FARC leaders, by contrast, appear poised to accept responsibility for kidnappings.)

That means proving that the practice of killing civilians to receive rewards, a phenomenon that the UN and other human rights monitors began denouncing around 2004, was systematic—a claim given new credibility by the startlingly high number of 6,402 cases. With this order complete, the JEP is to focus its investigations on Antioquia, the Caribbean coast, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, and Meta.

Ex-president Uribe, calling the JEP order “another outrage,” denied responsibility for the killings, saying that while of course he placed strong demands on the military, “effectiveness is not an excuse to violate the law.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and some NGOs and victims’ groups, hailed the JEP’s action. A statement from several groups worried, though, that the JEP’s “bottom up” approach might go too slow, failing to touch the military’s top ex-commanders before the tribunal’s 10-year mandate ends in 2028.

Opposition legislators’ report finds peace accord implementation slipping behind

Fourteen Colombian legislators from the political opposition, spanning six parties, issued the latest in a series of data-rich reports monitoring the government’s compliance with commitments made in the 2016 peace accords. The driving force behind these reports is Green Party Representative Juanita Goebertus, who was a member of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.

The official most responsible for accord implementation in President Iván Duque’s government, High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, challenged some of the legislators’ claims with a point-by-point Twitter thread, to which Rep. Goebertus then responded with a point-by-point rebuttal thread.

The report finds the Colombian government falling further behind in implementing the accord, especially its provisions related to rural governance and crop substitution. Among its numerous findings:

  • Colombia’s Congress has yet to pass 38 percent of laws required to implement the accord, including 21 of 36 laws required to carry out its first chapter on rural reform and territorial governance, a vital element given the heavily rural nature of the conflict. This chapter is estimated to comprise 85 percent of the total cost of implementing the accord.
  • The Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs), a core strategy meant to bring governance and development to 16 conflict-battered regions over 15 years, are running badly behind schedule. The government is spending less than 2 percent of what it should be to maintain a 15-year pace on the largest item, infrastructure projects. While Archila insisted that these projects are being completed at a healthy pace, Goebertus said that pace slowed by 46 percent in 2020.
  • In only 3 of 16 PDET zones has the government completed a promised “roadmap” document needed to speed up investments, and no PDET projects have begun in the highly conflictive central Pacific coast region.
  • The government is formalizing smallholders’ land properties at 29.5% of the pace that fulfillment of the peace accord’s promised 7 million hectares would require, and only 4 of 170 PDET municipalities have yet had landholdings mapped out in a promised cadaster.
  • The accords’ crop substitution program promised assistance with productive projects, starting 12 months in, for families who eradicated all their coca. In year four, only 5.3% of families have received productive project support.
  • 54.5 percent of guerrilla ex-combatants have not received government support for productive projects. Archila says that 6,172 people—about half of ex-combatants—have benefited from productive projects, and “1,214 people, who still haven’t formulated a project, have jobs.”

Draft decree outlines resumption of aerial herbicide fumigation

Since taking power in August 2018, President Iván Duque and his government have vowed to re-start spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft to eradicate coca. A U.S.-backed “fumigation” program, a significant part of the “Plan Colombia” strategy, operated from 1994 to 2015.

Public health concerns forced the program’s suspension that year. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court then laid out a series of six health, environmental, consultation, and safety requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the program. One of those steps is the emission of a decree laying out how fumigation would operate. The government produced an 11-page draft decree in December 2019, but never issued a final document. On February 15, the Justice Ministry produced a new, 20-page, draft decree.

This document prohibits spraying in “the National and Regional Natural Park Systems, strategic ecosystems such as páramos, Ramsar category wetlands and mangroves, bodies of water, and population centers.” It does not mention indigenous reserves or Afro-Descendant community council lands. As the Constitutional Court requires, it calls on Colombia’s National Health Institute (INS, roughly similar to the CDC) and environmental authority (ANLA) to sign off on the spray program’s safety after performing studies, which have been underway since at least early 2020. The Counternarcotics Police would have to provide monthly spray reports to the ANLA, the Ministry of Health, and other oversight agencies.

Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano, recently insisted that all conditions for re-starting spraying might be met by late March, but experts interviewed in Colombian media see approval being delayed for months more. “This decree won’t accelerate the process,” María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drug Studies (CESED) told El Espectador.

The draft decree is just one of several unmet criteria, including the INS and ANLA sign-offs and a green light from the multi-agency National Drugs Commission (CNE). Via the Colombian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request, Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia learned that, as of September, the INS health study had only completed work in 7 of 14 departments where fumigation was expected to occur. The ANLA approval, meanwhile, is being delayed by two court challenges seeking to uphold vulnerable communities’ ability to participate in the process.

Should the Duque government meet all of the Constitutional Court’s requirements to restart fumigation, there will be legal challenges—and it’s not certain whether the Court will approve of the program’s design. Its rulings have noted that glyphosate spraying, as the 2016 peace accord explains, is meant to be a last resort after other options have received higher priority, like voluntary crop substitution and manual eradication. The draft decree does not mention this prioritization. Nor does it mention prior consultation with indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, an omission that the Constitutional Court may object to, Vélez contends.

Links

  • In public statements, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro criticized Colombia’s decision to grant a legal status to Venezuelan migrants inside Colombia, calling it a “clown show” and accusing President Iván Duque of using it to “clean up his image.” Maduro also said he’d told his country’s armed forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer at any level we need,” in response to Duque’s announcement of a new elite army unit to go after armed group leaders who spend a lot of their time in Venezuela.
  • The Colombian government submitted a report to the JEP finding that the former FARC is lagging badly behind its commitments, under the peace accord, to turn in illegally obtained assets. The Comunes party replied that the government’s imposed deadline of December 31, 2020 was “impossible to meet due to legal and physical constraints,” like security conditions in areas where the ex-FARC assets are located.
  • Two Colombian think tanks, CINEP and CERAC, which play a formal role in verifying implementation of the peace accord, issued their eighth in a series of data-heavy reports.
  • The ambassador to Colombia of Norway, which along with Cuba was a guarantor nation for peace talks with the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, voiced perplexity that Colombia’s government did not respond positively to Cuba warning of intelligence pointing to a possible ELN attack in Colombia. Meanwhile, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry put out a communiqué noting a tense meeting with Cuba’s ambassador and reiterating a demand that Cuba provide more information about the purported imminent attack.
  • Writing for Razón Pública, four analysts from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz disputed claims that the ELN might be in danger of collapsing under its own internal divisions.
  • Colombia’s left-of-center political parties have been reluctant to enter into coalitions with the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, for the March 2022 presidential and congressional elections, La Silla Vacía reports.
  • Fighting between FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan Neo-paramilitary group displaced more than 250 people from the rural zone of the chronically violent municipality of Ituango, in north-central Antioquia.
  • Colombia’s GDP contracted 6.8 percent during 2020 due to the pandemic—the worst year since records began in 1905—though it expanded 6 percent during the final quarter of the year.

Badge of honor

Not sure when that happened, but I had to use other means this morning to read his miserable statement on the JEP’s “false positives” findings.

Colombia Peace Update: February 13, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Colombia offers documented status to Venezuelan migrants

In November 2020, the Interagency Platform for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM) estimated that 1.71 million migrants from Venezuela were living in Colombia: 770,246 documented, and 947,106 with “irregular migration status.” They are part of a flow of 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the collapsing country since 2015.

In a surprise February 8 move, Colombian President Iván Duque decreed that all Venezuelans who arrived in the country before January 31 may receive a “Temporary Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV) allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years, to work legally, and to access health and education services, including COVID-19 vaccines. Implementation of the new status could take up to a year, Ligia Bolivar of Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andrés Bello told The New Humanitarian, starting with the creation of a register of all undocumented Venezuelans.

Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Bogotá for the announcement and called it “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the Americas since the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” (Angélika Rettberg of the Universidad de los Andes told the BBC she also saw “a kind of gesture towards the new U.S. government, because it shows that their [Colombia’s] policy towards Venezuela is not just ‘stick,’ but also humanitarian ‘carrot,’ something that may be more in line with Joe Biden’s administration.”)

President Duque highlighted that Colombia will need more international aid to assimilate a community equivalent to nearly 4 percent of Colombia’s population, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Duque, the announcement was a sharp reversal from his earlier position of refusing vaccinations to undocumented Venezuelans. While Colombia has not suffered major outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan violence, analysts worry about worsening xenophobia, especially among informal and low-wage workers who perceive themselves as competing for scarce jobs with the new arrivals. Such tensions, MercyCorps’ Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told the New Humanitarian, “have been on the rise.”

“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America, we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said. Colombia’s move comes at a time when Peru and Ecuador have sent armored military vehicles to their common border to interdict migrants, and Chile has returned Venezuelans to their country on air force planes.

Cuba notifies Colombia of an imminent ELN attack

El Tiempo revealed a February 6 communication that the Cuban embassy in Colombia shared with the Colombian government, the chief of the UN Verification Mission, and two Catholic Church representatives. It reads: “Our embassy received information, whose veracity we cannot assess, about an alleged military attack by the Eastern War Front of the ELN in the coming days. We have shared this information with the ELN peace delegation in Havana, which expressed total ignorance and reiterated the guarantee that it has no involvement in the organization’s military decisions or operations.”

The “Eastern War Front” (FGO) is the ELN guerrilla group’s largest unit, based in the northeastern department of Arauca and over the border in Venezuela. Its commander, Carlos Emilio Marín alias “Pablito,” a 40-year member of the group, may be its most powerful member. The FGO carried out the January 2019 truck-bomb attack on Colombia’s police cadets’ school that killed 22 people and ended slow-moving peace negotiations in Havana. Several ELN negotiators have remained in Cuba since the talks’ breakdown; “experts assert that the alert to Colombia could be interpreted as Cuba distancing from its uncomfortable guests,” El Tiempo speculates.

High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz used the occasion to reiterate a demand that Cuba extradite the ELN leaders stranded in Cuba. The Havana peace talks’ protocols, signed by the Colombian government and international guarantors in 2017, made clear that if negotiations broke down, the ELN leaders would return to clandestinity in Colombia. The Duque government ignored these protocols, calling them a non-binding commitment made by the prior administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.

As a result, the ELN leaders remain in Cuba. Their continued presence was the principal reason the outgoing Trump administration cited for its January 11 re-addition of Cuba to the State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

On February 7 El Tiempo revealed an internal, encrypted ELN communication, leaked from a government source, that appears to reveal internal division within the guerrilla group. Disagreements allegedly center on some units’ involvement in narcotrafficking and presence in Venezuela. The document also expresses frustration with ELN negotiators being “physically trapped” in Cuba.

High Commissioner Ceballos cited the document as proof that the ELN’s internal divisions make them impossible to negotiate with. From Havana, ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, who had headed the negotiating team stranded in Cuba, insisted that the document was fake. Later in the week, the ELN leadership called the Cuban government’s warning about an imminent attack a “false positive,” saying that such an attack “is not part of the ELN’s military plans.”

In other leaked ELN document news, Semana revealed in late January a document retrieved from computers captured during an October military raid that killed Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” a vocal mid-level ELN leader, in Chocó. Using indirect language, the document appears to point to an $80,000 loan to the presidential campaign of Andrés Arauz, who led in February 7 voting in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections. (Arauz is the candidate aligned with Rafael Correa, the populist president who governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017.) On February 12 Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito to furnish this evidence to Ecuadorian counterparts.

Buenaventura’s population protests against violence, government inaction

In Buenaventura, the port that accounts for 70 percent of Colombia’s import-export activity, a paramilitary-derived gang that briefly dominated criminality in the city, “La Local,” underwent a December schism into two factions, the “Chotas” and the “Espartanos.” Daily street fighting has ensued, leaving much of the city’s 400,000 people in the crossfire. Estimates of the toll so far in 2021 range from 20 to 52 killed, and 112 to 1,700 families displaced.

Youth groups led days of protest against the situation during the week of February 1. These continue, using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura. When they manage to block port cargo transport for even a few hours, these protests get national attention.

The national government responded with a February 8 visit from Interior Minister Daniel Palacios. The minister promised increased rewards for information leading to the capture of gang leaders, the arrival of 120 more police, and “two detachments of Army Special Forces and a Navy reconnaissance platoon to assist with urban surveillance, adding up to more than 1,200 men from the security forces in Buenaventura.” The government also promised an increase in security cameras, a measure also being adopted in Buenaventura’s Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, a district whose organized population bans weapons and seeks to exclude members of all armed groups.

These security measures are not what the #SOSBuenaventura movement is demanding. “There’s already a police presence here, for many people they do not represent security,” Leonard Rentería, a youth leader and vocal protest organizer, told El Espectador. “People continue to be afraid because they do not see the police providing guarantees to protect their lives.”

The bishop of Buenaventura, Msgr. Rubén Darío Jaramillo, went further:

The people feel that there’s no authority, that the authority is the bandits who are in the street with their guns dominating the territories. They are the authority here… The security forces are supposed to defend citizens in their honor, their property, and their lives. But many make the mistake of allying themselves with criminals. They buy them with money. The bandits know that by buying the police they win, and there is nothing the people can do about it.

Thousands of Buenaventurans, dressed in white, lined the narrow port city’s main thoroughfare on February 10, forming a 21-kilometer (13-mile) human chain. Prominent participants in the protest included Bishop Jaramillo and Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal, who is starting his second year in office.

Vidal is Buenaventura’s first mayor who is not the product of a big political machine. He was a leader of the “Paro Cívico,” a social movement that shut down much of the city with three weeks of peaceful protests in mid-2017, demanding state investment in a city that, though the main port, is one of Colombia’s poorest. Paro Cívico members were threatened and killed in the ensuing years; given the forces arrayed against it, Vidal’s late-2019 election victory was remarkable.

As La Silla Vacía and Pares noted, though, the Paro Cívico has not been in the vanguard of the current anti-violence protests. While the movement has been supportive, it appears more focused on governing. Much of the new energy has come from youth leaders like Rentería, who described the Paro as “deactivated from the role it had assumed.”

Links

  • Next week, President Duque is likely to have his first phone conversation with President Joe Biden since the U.S. election, La Silla Vacía reports, noting that the three-month delay “has no precedent in the contemporary U.S.-Colombia relationship.”
  • An annual report from Frontline Defenders, released February 9, found that 53 percent of murders of human rights defenders worldwide occurred in Colombia in 2020 (177 of 331). Human Rights Watch released a detailed report on February 10 finding serious fault with the Colombian government’s efforts to protect human rights defenders and social leaders. On February 11 U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We are concerned about ongoing violence against human rights defenders who play a vital role in building a just and lasting peace in Colombia. Reducing this violence and prosecuting these crimes is a top priority.”
  • With the murders of Antonio Ricaurte in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, and Juan Carlos Correa in San Andrés de Cuerquia, Antioquia, 257 former FARC members have been killed since the 2016 peace accord went into effect. Eight so far this year.
  • Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the former FARC political party Comunes, wrote a strikingly worded letter to former president Juan Manuel Santos, voicing alarm at ex-guerrillas’ security situation and asking for help getting a meeting with President Iván Duque. Santos responded that while he would try, Duque has not responded to his past overtures.
  • In Londoño’s at times tearful testimony and exchanges with victims last week before the transitional justice tribunal (JEP), La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez optimistically see “an opportunity… to process the truths of the conflict with a grammar that recognizes the emotions that are surfacing in the spaces of transitional justice, and processes them through a restorative justice that allows the country to clarify facts of the past and build a common future.”
  • “2020 deepened the deterioration of the media and the state of freedom of expression in the country,” reads the annual report of Colombia’s Free Press Foundation (FLIP). “Violence against the press occurs with the same systematicity and permissiveness as it did in past decades, during Colombia’s darkest years.”
  • Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano (profiled by Andrés Dávila at Razón Pública), told Reuters that U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, suspended since 2015, could restart “as early as next month.” The government, he says, will meet a series of safety, environmental, and consultation conditions set by the Constitutional Court “by the end of March.” Molano’s rapid fumigation timetable is not a sure thing, as legal challenges continue. Molano repeated the Duque government’s diagnosis that drug trafficking is “the biggest threat we have.” Cases of military corruption or human rights abuse, he told Semana, are “individual and isolated.”
  • President Duque said that Colombia’s Army will soon inaugurate an elite counter-drug unit or “specialized command” meant to carry out a high-value targeting strategy against the heads of Colombia’s main drug trafficking organizations.
  • WOLA laments the February 13 death, from COVID-19 complications, of our longtime colleague Luis Fernando Arias, head of Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous Peoples (ONIC).

Colombia peace update: February 6, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

2021 began with a wave of massacres, and security analysts are pessimistic

A new WOLA alert details more than 30 attacks on social leaders, journalists, opposition political leaders, and communities since late December. Colombia’s security situation continues to worsen in territories that were conflictive before the 2016 FARC peace accord. The first 35 days of 2021 saw 13 massacres kill 50 people in 7 of Colombia’s departments, according to the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (PARES).

“It’s as though we’ve gone back years in a spiral of violence,” wrote PARES’s deputy director, Ariel Ávila, at El Espectador. Ávila sees three differences from the pre-accord past: more violence along the Pacific coast, a government that seems “paralyzed” with the military “closed up in its barracks,” and a fragmented flux of criminal groups changing names, appearing and disappearing. He cites a boom in coca and gold prices creating criminal incentives, and worries that violence will get much worse as Colombia’s 2022 election campaign approaches. Ávila faults the ruling party—led by Álvaro Uribe, who as president oversaw a period of security gains—for “fighting the last war,” choosing incapable defense ministers, and ideologizing the strategy.

Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) also finds a jump in prices offered for coca (counterintuitive, since cultivation remains historically high), and fragmentation of armed groups. This fragmentation, he notes, calls into question the effectiveness of “high value target” strategies that pour resources into taking out easily replaced criminal-group leaders. Garzón adds that corruption in the security forces is “a serious problem, rarely denounced, but frequently reported in areas where illegal economies are highly prevalent.” His analysis, in La Silla Vacía, also highlights the “consolidated influence” that armed groups, especially the ELN and “Segunda Marquetalia” FARC dissidents, have in Venezuelan territory.

Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses, writing for the Universidad de los Andes’ 070, join Garzón in questioning the Duque government’s insistence that attacking drug supplies—especially eradicating smallholding farmers’ coca crops—is the key to easing the larger security crisis. Colombia’s government manually eradicated and seized record amounts of coca and cocaine in 2020, yet “some of the regions hardest hit by the FARC conflict are at risk of returning to the levels of violence experienced before negotiations began in 2012. That is, they may lose the security gains generated by the peace process.” Johnson and Vélez call for more emphasis on territorial governance, especially implementing the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET) foreseen in the peace accord’s first chapter. They criticize the Duque government’s flagship territorial governance strategy, called “Zonas Futuro,” for only strengthening military presence.

Over the past week, several stories in Colombian media documented security deterioration in specific regions.

  • El Espectador profiled Los Caparros, a paramilitary-descended group whose power is rising in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia, even though its nominal leader was killed in November.
  • Just to the north of Bajo Cauca, PARES reported on the neighboring Nudo de Paramillo region, where FARC dissidents are fighting the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.
  • Further north and east, conditions are worsening in the Montes de María region, which was hard-hit by paramilitaries and guerrillas 20-plus years ago but had since become less violent, La Silla Vacía finds.
  • A massacre of four young men from Policarpa, Nariño, drew attention to bitter fighting between dissident groups, and with the ELN, near the Pan-American Highway in northern Nariño and southern Cauca.
  • In the urban core of the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura, a group that dominated most criminality, La Local, broke into two factions late last year, and now tens of thousands of residents are caught in a bloody crossfire. Other armed groups are fighting in the municipality’s vast rural zone. Numerous civil-society groups have issued an “SOS,” citing “perverse alliances between illegal armed groups and the security forces.”
  • In the far south, in Putumayo, fighting between guerrilla dissidents and paramiltary-descended criminals, compounded by forced eradication in the department’s robust coca fields, has brought a jump in attacks on social leaders.
  • In the northeast, near the Venezuela border, Norte de Santander department is in bad shape. There are two hotspots. In Catatumbo, the country’s largest coca-growing zone, the ELN is the strongest of many armed groups, with the Gulf Clan making new incursions. In the outskirts of Cúcuta—at half a million people, the largest city on the Colombia-Venezuela border—the ELN (perhaps with Venezuelan support) weakened a local paramilitary-descended group, Los Rastrojos, last year. But now the Gulf Clan is moving in, La Silla Vacía reports.

Government may make “official” the lowest existing estimate of social leader murders

On February 3 President Iván Duque announced a new “inter-sectoral table” to “unify information” about persistently frequent murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. Alarmed, critics pointed out that Duque was proposing to adopt the smallest available estimate of these killings, and that the move may be a sign of weakened checks and balances.

As several local leaders fall to assassins every week, different entities maintain varying estimates of how severe the problem is. While all are still verifying their 2020 numbers, estimates through 2019, laid out in a graphic in El Espectador’s good coverage of the “inter-sectoral table” proposal, come from:

  • The NGO Indepaz, which counted 805 murders between November 24, 2016 and the end of 2019.
  • The government’s human rights ombudsman, Defensoría del Pueblo, whose Early Warning System counted 571 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019. By July 2020, El Espectador reports, this had risen to 662.
  • The NGO Somos Defensores, which counted 465 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.
  • The government’s chief prosecutor’s office, Fiscalía, which employs statistics gathered by the Colombia field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which in turn counted 398 murders between January 2016 and the end of 2019.

President Duque’s new “unification” policy adopts as “official” the lowest of those estimates, the one used by the Fiscalía. Yet this figure, El Espectador points out, is artificially the lowest “because, as the UN office itself has acknowledged, they are partial reports, as it does not have sufficient presence in territory to cover all cases.”

By subsuming the human rights ombudsman’s larger number to the Fiscalía’s, President Duque’s plan would throw out about 200 cases and seek to “silence” the Defensoría, worried Leonel González, the main data-keeper at Indepaz. The move also raises concerns about separation of powers. In Colombia’s system, the Fiscalía, Defensoría, and the internal-affairs office or Procuraduría are separate branches of government, beyond the executive’s control. But President Duque has managed to place close colleagues at the head of these agencies, especially the Fiscalía and Procuraduría, calling their independence into question. Lourdes Castro of Somos Defensores voiced concern in El Espectador about “the implications for democracy of this co-optation of the control bodies by the administration.”

Two big networks of Colombian human rights organizations, the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos and the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, quickly put out a statement rejecting Duque’s move as “a serious step backward.” They criticized Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa’s claims to have “clarified” a growing percentage of this smaller universe of murders, citing “misinterpretation…of the term ‘clarification,’ understanding it as any procedural advance.” The groups called out the Fiscalía for prosecuting trigger-pullers “without reaching the intellectual authors [masterminds] of the aggressions, much less dismantling the armed structures behind them.”

Meanwhile, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Bogotá, Juliette de Rivero, rightly recalled that a focus on statistics about murders is misplaced. “It would be a mistake to believe, given what is happening in the country, that the main objective should be to agree on figures. The important thing is to prevent killings, attacks, and threats against human rights defenders and social leaders, whether it be 10, 20, or 100 cases.”

Links

  • The likely nomination of Brian Nichols, a former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Colombia, to be the Biden administration’s first assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs “will be good news for issues such as the protection of social leaders and the implementation of the Peace Accord,” predicts La Silla Vacía. “Not necessarily for Duque and his circle of power.”
  • Diego Molano is Colombia’s new minister of defense, replacing Carlos Holmes Trujillo, who died of COVID-19 complications on January 26. Molano headed the big-budget “Acción Social” cash-transfer program during the Álvaro Uribe government, and had been serving as Iván Duque’s chief of staff.
  • “The Elders,” a group of former presidents, UN secretaries-general, and other retired luminaries, issued a statement—put forward by Colombian ex-president Juan Manuel Santos—calling on Joe Biden to revoke the Trump administration’s last-minute addition of Cuba to its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries. The principal reason for Cuba’s addition was its refusal to extradite ELN leaders who were present in the country for peace talks, when a vicious January 2019 ELN bombing led to those talks’ end. For Cuba to turn the negotiators over to Colombia would violate the talks’ agreed protocols. U.S. pressure “may make countries more hesitant to act as facilitators in the future.”
  • The human rights NGO Temblores published a compelling report documenting recent National Police human rights abuses and the need for meaningful police reform.
  • A new paper by four noted U.S. and Colombian analysts dives deeply into “gang rule” dynamics in Medellín, with the counterintuitive finding that “state efforts to expand services, crowd out gangs, and establish a monopoly on protection could have the opposite effect, driving gangs to increase rule.”
  • Sometimes, a report at Caracol Noticias alleges, coca eradication teams “go to the fields where, according to the reports [from ‘diverse sources consulted’], they make agreements with the coca-growing communities. The owner of a plot may be told, for example, to allow them to uproot 50 bushes, and then they report having cut down three or four hectares of coca. It’s a win-win situation.” Last July, a Semana investigation made similar allegations about eradicators inflating their results.
  • With the impending exit of Roberto Pombo, the director of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper El Tiempo, columnist Cecilia Orozco at El Espectador worries that “the El Tiempo-Semana-RCN media axis, in the hands of Uribismo, might guarantee the electoral triumph of a more violent and annihilating ultra-right wing than we have suffered so far.”
  • UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi will visit Colombia next week. Obtaining international support for vaccinating Venezuelan migrants will be a main topic of discussion. President Iván Duque has said in the past that Colombia won’t offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans, but appears to be walking that back a bit.

Colombia peace update: January 30, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Transitional justice tribunal issues first indictment of FARC leadership, for kidnapping

Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.

The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.

The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.

The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)

The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.

If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.

Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibility that a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)

The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-level FARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.

From U.S. diplomats, a new tone on peace accord implementation

The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.

During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:

  • Tweets on the U.S. embassy’s account (1) (2) (3).
  • A conversation between just-confirmed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Claudia Blum.
  • Interviews in Colombian media with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.

“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:

  • On peace accord implementation: “We’ve seen some progress, but we’ve also seen some problems with implementation, including opposition from illegal groups.”
  • On social-leader killings and security: “This problem of massacres and attacks against certain groups and leaders is something that needs much more attention. …The government is fighting them [illegal armed groups], but evidently it has not set a policy to prevent the problems they cause.”
  • On aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas: “This time, the fumigation, the aerial spraying, will be the total responsibility of the Colombian government. We’re going to help them in certain aspects, but they’re going to buy the glyphosate, they’re going to control the planes, it’s not contractors, as before. So now it will be completely different.”
  • On governing party members’ meddling in the U.S. election: “If there are some frictions as a result of that, we’re going to overcome it. It wasn’t President Duque or his cabinet, but some politicians.”

U.S. returns paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo, a voracious child rapist

On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.

Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.

Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, died of COVID-19-related pneumonia on the evening of January 26. Trujillo was a leading contender to be the ruling Centro Democrático party’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election.
  • The FARC political party, recognizing that its acronym is a political liability (see kidnapping discussion above), officially changed its name to Comunes (“common people”).
  • Between January 1 and 24, the JEP counted “14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the security forces, 13 death threats against social leaders, 6 massacres, 5 assassinations of former combatants of the FARC-EP, 14 homicides of social leaders, 3 attacks and 7 armed confrontations between illegal groups.”
  • As of November, there were 1.71 million Venezuelans in Colombia (over 3% of Colombia’s population), of whom 770,246 had “regular migration status,” according to the latest situation update from UNHCR.
  • A report from the Peace Accords Matrix program at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute finds implementation of the peace accord’s ethnic provisions to be lagging. “Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun implementation.”
  • “We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living,” reads a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris from Francia Márquez, a Cauca-based Afro-Descendant environmental leader and winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
  • El Espectador hosted a worthwhile panel on implementation of the peace accord’s vital rural reform chapter, with two top officials, the lead author of a critical January report from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), a Kroc Institute expert, and an activist from Caquetá. Video here, summary here.
  • The newspaper also produced an excellent multimedia feature on women searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
  • With Panama’s border closed due to COVID-19, about 1,000 U.S.-bound migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and several African countries are stranded in makeshift tents on a beach in Necoclí, in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region, according to AFP.
  • Threats and killings—most likely by the ELN, although other armed groups are present—forced 11 town council members to flee the municipality of Argelia, in southern Cauca department.
  • The latest bimonthly Gallup poll, whose time series for some questions goes back to the late 1990s, shows growing discontent on many issues. La Silla Vacía shares the full poll as a Google Doc. Favorability ratings for the military and police have recovered a bit after scandals, though they remain low in part because of enforcement of pandemic lockdowns. Joe Biden has a 60%-11% favorable-unfavorable rating. By a 69%-24% margin, respondents see peace accord implementation as “on the wrong track.”

Colombia peace update: January 23, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

U.S. inauguration spurs reflections about the bilateral relationship

As President Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump, Colombian media speculated about how the bilateral relationship might change.

One of the most likely shifts is renewed U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which Trump, in the final weeks of the campaign, derided as “the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels.” Biden, by contrast, had counseled President Iván Duque, at a 2018 event in Bogotá, that “the peace agreement was a major breakthrough and should not be minimized or ignored.”

In the new administration’s first days, the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave remarks strongly supportive of the accord’s implementation (discussed below), and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, along with the Bogotá embassy’s Twitter account, made clear that the accord’s implementation is once again a key U.S. priority.

President Duque, whose party, the Centro Democrático, opposed the accord in 2016, did not refer to it specifically in remarks congratulating Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. He noted “the defense of democracy, the fight against transnational crime, against drug trafficking, against terrorism; of course, cooperation, comprehensive development, the commitment to renewable energies and to confront the vicissitudes of climate change and, of course, to continue strengthening investment ties.”

Much media speculation surrounds the possibility of cooling relations amid accusations that members of the Centro Democrático improperly favored Donald Trump and other Republican candidates during the U.S. campaign. “Joe Biden has spoken, after the elections, with Latin American leaders, such as those of Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, but not with Ivan Duque,” noted El Espectador.

“The interference of some Colombian political figures in the U.S. election was inappropriate and not very strategic, and has left its mark especially among members of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority,” Michael Camilleri, a State Department official during the Obama administration, told the paper. Added WOLA’s Adam Isacson at Caracol, “the bilateral relationship will remain just as close, but relations between the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático are not going to be the best.”

Opposition Senator Antonio Sanguino called for the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, who was accused by his cousin, former President Juan Manuel Santos, of improperly favoring Trump. The Ambassador attended Biden’s January 20 inauguration ceremony.

Biden’s arrival “opens space for citizen diplomacy,” said much-cited conflict analyst Luis Eduardo Celis, adding, “we must prepare the messages and mechanisms to tell the new President of the United States that there is a peace to be built in Colombia.” Letters asking for more explicit U.S. support for peace accord implementation came from the Defendamos la Paz coalition, and from 110 Afro-Descendant, indigenous, campesino, and victims’ organizations.

UN Security Council meets to discuss peace implementation

The Security Council met virtually on January 21 for a quarterly review of Colombia’s peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission, which produced its most recent report at the end of December.

“2021 is year five of the 15-year timeframe envisioned for the implementation of the entirety of the Peace Agreement,” said the UN Special Representative in charge of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu. “It is incumbent to ensure 2021 is remembered as the year in which bold steps were taken to bring to fruition the full promise of sustainable peace enshrined in the Agreement.”

The UN mission director said his office has been warning repeatedly about budget shortfalls in the Colombian government agency charged with providing physical protection to threatened social leaders and former FARC combatants. “More than 550 vacancies for bodyguards remain and over 1,000 requests for close protection are still pending review” at the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit, he said. These numbers far exceed results presented by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Blum, who highlighted “more than 200 schemes to protect former combatants” in 2020, along with 24 sentences handed down for killing ex-combatants, 40 cases under investigation, and 48 arrest warrants issued.

The Security Council should find it “intolerable that more than 250 ex-combatants—signatories to the Peace Accord—have been killed since its signing,” said Norway’s UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who called for strengthening the National Protection Unit and three bodies created by the peace accord: the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the Special Investigative Unit of the Fiscalía, and the Comprehensive Program of Safeguards for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders.

Even during the Trump administration, U.S. representatives at Security Council meetings tended to give statements generally supportive of Colombia’s peace process. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador, was explicitly supportive, signaling an early change in tone with the arrival of the Biden administration. “What can often be often lost, I think, in the specifics of our discussions in this topic is the magnitude of the peace agreement, and the profound impact it has already had on Colombian society,” Mills began. He went on to voice strong concern about attacks on social leaders and ex-combatants, urging Colombia’s government to increase its presence in rural areas and to punish those responsible.

Ambassador Mills also voiced support for Colombia’s “truly innovative” transitional justice system, a topic on which U.S. diplomats have generally avoided comment. In 2019, the U.S. ambassador at the time even supported President Duque’s unsuccessful efforts to weaken this system.

Community leaders threatened in El Salado, a town that suffered an emblematic massacre

The village of El Salado, in El Cármen de Bolívar municipality, in the once-conflictive Montes de María region a few hours’ drive from Cartagena, is known throughout Colombia for the massacre and displacement its residents suffered at the hands of paramilitaries between February 16 to 21, 2000. About 450 AUC members killed 60 people amid days of uninterrupted torture and rape, while the security forces failed to respond.

The name “El Salado” evokes the worst moments of Colombia’s armed conflict. Those memories revived this week as 11 community leaders received a written death threat. A flyer circulated by the so-called “Black Eagles” on January 18 reads, “The people who appear on this list, whose pictures or names are here, leave, or we will come for you at any time.” El Salado social leaders have also received text messages reading, “Either you leave or you die. We know where you are,” “this is how we started 21 years ago,” and “we already know where every family member lives.”

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) responded by sending a delegation to El Salado, led by Vice-Ombudsman Luis Andrés Fajardo. 2019 and 2020 “early warning” reports from the Defensoría point to a growing presence of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization, which moves cocaine through the Montes de María en route to the Caribbean coast. The National Police stated that it was sending an elite team along with representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía).

The name “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras) frequently appears on death threats sent to human rights defenders and social leaders around the country. But the group does not seem to have visible leadership or hold any territory. “The Black Eagles don’t exist,” said Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. “These are people, surely not among those wanted by the law, who use the ‘Black Eagles’ emblem to threaten. The authorities, led by the Fiscalía, must determine the threats’ origin. The problem is that this is never investigated.”

Links

  • As the FARC political party begins an “extraordinary assembly” meeting that some key leaders are skipping, leader Rodrigo Londoño declared an intention to abandon the name “FARC,” in order to ease formation of coalitions and to distinguish the group from armed dissidents. Fundación Paz y Reconciliación analyst Ariel Ávila told El Tiempo that a name change “would help the Farc party to get off the list of terrorist organizations.”
  • Two prominent Colombians are hospitalized with severe cases of COVID-19: Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Luis Fernando Arias, leader of the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC).
  • The Inter-American Human Rights Commission ordered precautionary measures for Ricardo Calderón, an intrepid investigative journalist who, during his longtime tenure at Semana magazine, revealed several major corruption and human rights scandals in Colombia’s armed forces, particularly in military intelligence. Calderón is one of many reporters who left Semana after a recent management change, but he continues to receive threats.
  • Judicial proceedings have begun for Bogotá police accused of killing civilians during a violent citywide police response to anti-police brutality protests last September, in which police killed 13 people over two days. Defense lawyers are seeking to have officers John Antonio Gutiérrez, José Andrés Lasso, and Andrés Díaz Mercado tried in the military justice system instead of the regular criminal justice system, arguing that their role in four of the killings was an “act of service.”
  • El Espectador took brief looks at the activities in southeastern Colombia of Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) criminal group, and at those of Mexican organized crime throughout the country.
  • Vorágine looks at the grim human rights and security situation in southern Chocó’s San Juan River valley, a major narcotrafficking corridor with very little government presence beyond sporadic sweeps from security forces and coca eradicators.

Colombia peace update: January 16, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Trump administration, citing the ELN talks’ outcome, puts Cuba on the U.S. terrorist sponsors list

On January 11, with nine days left to the Trump presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government was once again designating Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” alongside North Korea, Syria, and Iran. President Barack Obama’s administration had removed Cuba from this “terrorist list” in 2015.

The measure carries penalties, like bans on assistance and arms sales, that already apply to Cuba through other laws. The Biden administration can remove Cuba, American University’s William LeoGrande explains, by submitting “a presidential report and certification to Congress, which then has 45 days to reject the certification before it goes into effect.”

The main pretext cited for re-listing Cuba involves Colombia. In May 2018 Colombia’s government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host ELN-government peace talks. At the talks’ April 2016 outset, all involved—including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These made clear that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was skeptical about peace talks.

In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police Cadets’ School, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government rejected the protocols: it demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves demand to leave Cuba as detailed in the protocols.

Critics of the State Department decision pointed out that Havana is being punished for assisting a peace process and obeying its rules. “They felt they were doing what they were asked to do, then being accused of being terrorists themselves,” said a source whom The Washington Post described as “a former senior U.S. official familiar with Latin American policy.”

Condemnation came from many quarters, including WOLA.

  • “Efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable,” read a letter from nine Democratic senators, led by incoming Appropriations Committee Chairperson Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont.)
  • “I am outraged,” said the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York).
  • “If a country risks being placed on a terrorism list as a result of facilitating peace efforts, it could set a negative precedent for international peace efforts,” read a statement from the government of Norway.
  • The Colombian government’s two lead negotiators during the FARC peace process warned “that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments.”
  • On the other side, legislators from Colombia’s ruling rightist Centro Democrático party signed a letter calling on President Duque to consider breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba. And Colombia’s national security advisor, Rafael Guarín, tweeted that “The Government of Colombia will be forceful against diplomats who attempt to act and interfere within the country.”

Presidency peace and stabilization official reports results, responds to critics

The Colombian Presidency official who oversees most peace accord implementation, Emilio Archila, told El Espectador that he doesn’t know why critics accuse his government of focusing too exclusively on certain aspects of the accord, like the Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). “A very small part of it,” he surmised, “is that it is in the political opposition’s interest that we arrive at [the election year of] 2022 with the idea that not enough is being done, and perhaps the opposition has done better than me.”

Archila had choice words for Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco, who upon the release of HRW’s annual worldwide report said that “in Colombia you turn over a stone and a sicario comes out,” while accusing the government of “a fundamentally military response” to human rights problems. “This is an insulting statement regarding Colombia,” the presidency official replied.

In interviews and in the release of monthly results reports, Archila pointed to a Defense Ministry “intelligence bubble” to follow up on risks and threats against ex-combatants “which has saved the lives of several.” Presidency documents cite 1,134 mostly small development projects delivered in the PDETs’ 170 municipalities (counties). Archila rejected criticism that delivery of these projects has not been as consultative as the accords envisioned. To criticisms that the projects have been too small to bring fundamental change in rural Colombia, he responded that larger projects, like tertiary roads, are coming but take longer.

FARC party spokesman Pastor Alape Lascarro told El Espectador that the PDETs “are not responding to the expectations of the communities, carrying out works that are not within the framework established in the Peace Agreement.” He questioned the long-term sustainability of economic projects offered to ex-combatants, while recalling that 253 of 13,185 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the accords’ signature.

Environmental defender Gonzalo Cardona is assassinated

On January 11 the Fundación ProAves, which seeks to protect birds and other wildlife in Colombia, announced the murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, coordinator of a ProAves preserve in Tolima department that provides refuge for the endangered yellow-eared parrot. ProAves had reported Cardona missing on January 8, and confirmed a few days later that he had been killed.

Cardona was a founding member of the environmental group , working in Roncesvalles municipality in west-central Tolima since 1998 to save a bird species whose population in Colombia’s central cordillera, by then, had fallen to 81. His work there during some of the conflict’s most intense years placed him in periodic danger, as rural Tolima was a key battleground between the FARC and government forces. But it made a difference: a late 2020 census counted 2,895 yellow-eared parrots in the preserve.

Cardona’s likely killers are not known. “It is outrageous that the second most biodiverse country on the planet continues to lose its great defenders to violence,” read a statement from Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute.

In more dismaying news, Francisco Javier Vera, an 11-year-old environmental activist in Cundinamarca, received a grisly threat of death and torture this week in a comment posted to his Twitter account.

Links

  • Sign up for Con Líderes Hay Paz, WOLA’s new digital advocacy campaign in support of Colombia’s threatened Afro-descendant and indigenous social leaders and human rights defenders.
  • Iván Márquez, the FARC leader who headed the guerrillas’ negotiating team in Havana then rearmed in 2019, released a video endorsing the idea of a recall vote to remove President Duque. At the request of Colombia’s National Police, Twitter shut down Márquez’s account, and that of his longtime dissident collaborator Jesús Santrich. YouTube followed suit. National Security Advisor Rafael Guarín tweeted that Márquez will be “taken down” like Pablo Escobar.
  • The Duque government is inexplicably removing the Interior Ministry security detail for Iván Velásquez, the former auxiliary magistrate who suffered extensive illegal surveillance while investigating the “para-politics” scandal, then went on to head Guatemala’s CICIG anti-corruption body.
  • The restart of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing regions, which was likely to begin in the first months of 2021, may be delayed for weeks or months further. A judge in Nariño accepted an injunction (tutela) filed by Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, alleging that required prior consultations have been insufficient.
  • El Espectador produced worthwhile sets of infographics about the reintegration of ex-combatants and implementation of the PDETs.
  • Sixteen women were killed in Colombia during the first thirteen days of 2021, a sharp rise in the rate of femicides.
  • President Duque reiterated his government’s refusal to offer COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelans in Colombia, saying it would cause “a stampede.”
  • At War on the Rocks, Andrew Ivey explores “integral action” as a direction for the Colombian military’s post-conflict role. While we don’t share his conclusion that the military should play eminently civilian roles like carrying out development projects, Ivey presents detailed information about the evolution of the armed forces’ thinking.

Colombia peace update: January 9, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.

U.S. Congress passes 2021 foreign aid bill

On December 27 Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s budget for 2021, including the foreign aid appropriation (see “Division K” here). As in nearly all of the past 30 years, that bill makes Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The law appropriates $461,375,000 in State Department and USAID-managed aid for Colombia this year, about $30-40 million more than the past few years’ laws and about $50 million more than the Trump White House had requested in February.

The proportions between programs and priorities are similar to prior years. Our best estimate (derived here) is that 47% of the $461 million will go to economic and civilian institution-building aid programs; 18% will go to strictly military and police aid programs; and 34% will go to programs, mainly counter-drug programs, that can pay for either type of aid but for which we don’t have a breakdown.

In addition to the $461 million in the foreign aid bill, a significant but unknown amount of military and police aid will come from the Defense Department’s $700 billion-plus budget. In 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service, Defense accounts contributed another $55.39 million or more to benefit Colombia’s security forces.

As in previous years, the law includes human rights conditions holding up about $7.7 million in military aid until the State Department can certify to Congress that Colombia is holding gross human rights violators accountable, preventing attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society leaders, protecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, and holding accountable senior military officers responsible for “false positive” killings.

After some very concerning military intelligence scandals in 2020, the law includes a new condition on the $7.7 million: the State Department must also certify that Colombia is holding accountable those responsible for “illegal surveillance of political opponents, government officials, journalists, and human rights defenders, including through the use of assets provided by the United States.”

Killings of former FARC combatants accelerate

The UN Verification Mission’s latest quarterly report, dated December 29, voices strong concerns about “248 killings of former combatants (six women), including 21 during the reporting period (two women, three of indigenous origin and two Afro-Colombians) and a total of 73 during 2020.”

The problem is worsening. Five demobilized FARC combatants were murdered over a 12-day post-Christmas period.

  • Rosa Amalia Mendoza Trujillo and her infant daughter were among several victims of a December 27 massacre in Montecristo, Bolívar.
  • Manuel Alonso, killed on December 27 on the road between Florida, Valle del Cauca, and Miranda, Cauca.
  • Yolanda Zabala Mazo, killed on January 1, together with her sister, on January 1 in Briceño, Antioquia.
  • Duván Armed Galíndez, shot on January 2 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
  • Diego Yule Rivera, who had been displaced from Caloto, Cauca after receiving threats, was shot in Cali on January 7.

This, according to the FARC political party, brings the number of assassinated ex-combatants to 252 since the peace accord went into effect.

The chief prosecutor’s office’s (Fiscalía’s) Special Investigative Unit has managed 289 cases of killings and other attacks on ex-combatants, the UN report informs. Of these, the Unit has achieved convictions of responsible parties in 34 cases, while 20 cases are on trial, 38 are under investigation, and an additional 49 have arrest warrants issued.

The report notes that conditions are most perilous for ex-combatants in the zone surrounding the triple border between Meta, Caquetá, and Guaviare departments in south-central Colombia. This area, once the rearguard of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, is now under the strong influence of the largest FARC dissident organization, the 1st and 7th Front structure under alias “Gentil Duarte.”

Coca eradication hits record level as a restart of fumigation nears

In an end-of-year security declaration, President Duque announced that Colombia, with U.S. backing, had met its 2020 goal of eradicating 130,000 hectares of coca. This is a manual eradication record, the first time Colombia has exceeded 100,000 hectares and an area “roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles” according to AFP. The 130,000-hectare goal will remain in place, Duque added, for 2021.

(Any discussion of eradication statistics must mention mid-2020 allegations from former officials and contractors, who contend that eradication teams may have inflated their results by as much as 30 percent.)

Duque added that Colombian forces had seized 498 tons of cocaine in 2020, which would shatter the 2017 record of 434.7 tons.

We probably won’t find out how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2020 until the U.S. government and UN Office on Drugs and Crime release their estimates in mid-2021. In the meantime, the Colombian government continues to move closer to relaunching a program, suspended in 2015 for health concerns, that would eradicate coca by spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft.

On December 19 and 20 Colombia’s environmental authority (ANLA) held a virtual public hearing on one of the main requirements that must be fulfilled to relaunch fumigation: the National Police’s application to modify its environmental management plan to allow aerial glyphosate spraying. This hearing was delayed for months, as communities in remote areas with poor internet service objected to holding a “virtual” consultation due to pandemic restrictions.

At the hearing, National Police Gen. Julio Cesar González presented a summary of the force’s proposed modifications to the environmental management plan (available here as a large trove of Google documents). “We’re going to go to areas that are already deteriorated, so we don’t expect to affect them further. This is based on technology, and aerial spraying will focus on large plots.” The General insisted that the spray program’s technology has advanced over what it was before, allowing greater accuracy over the area to be sprayed and the amount of herbicide to be applied. More than 60% of the spray mixture will be conditioned water, glyphosate will be 33% (less than some commercially available mixtures), and the rest will be a mineral coadjuvant.

Diego Trujillo, the delegate for agricultural and environmental issues at Colombia’s inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría), voiced concerns about the proposed renewal of spraying. He argued that it runs counter to the peace accord’s commitments, and relies on purchases of Chinese-produced glyphosate that, according to El Espectador’s summary, “led in 2015 to an investigation into corruption in the this herbicide’s acquisition, which was was not recommended by health and environmental authorities.”

Mauricio Albarracín of the legal NGO DeJusticia objected to the process, citing a lack of prior and informed participation of possibly affected communities who were being asked to consider an environmental management plan “that consists of more than 3,000 pages, contains language that is not accessible to the possibly affected population, and suffers a lack of transparency in information.” Albarracín added that information about harms and risks is “insufficient, poorly structured and biased,” and that the spraying plan fails to meet the obligation to implement the 2016 peace accord in good faith. (The accord sets aside aerial spraying as a last resort, when coca growers who have been offered help with alternatives persist in growing the crop, and when conditions on the ground are too dangerous for manual eradication.)

María Alejandra Vélez, director of the University of the Andes’ CESED (Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), argued that fumigation is not cost-effective and could carry unacceptable health and environmental risks. Vélez, an economist, found fault with the police proposal’s methods and quality of information.

Following the hearing, the daily El Espectador published a tough editorial titled “insisting on the useless.”

Presidency officials are investing their time complying with the requirements imposed by the Constitutional Court to resume an ineffective and insufficient activity that destroys ties with communities in the most affected areas. One would think that after decades of failure, the political consensus in Colombia would show signs of reflective capacity. But this is not the case. The useless is presented as the magical solution.

Links

  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s homicide rate fell 4.6% in 2020 to a rate of 23.79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest level since 1974. However, the country suffered a jump in massacres—killings of three or more people at a time—with 89, claiming 345 victims.
  • President Iván Duque said that his government has no intention of providing COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “Of course they won’t get it,” he told Blu Radio. “Imagine what we would live through. We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”
  • La Silla Vacía wades through the Fiscalía’s record on bringing social leaders’ killers to justice, and finds 30 percent of cases have reached the indictment stage but only 7 percent have concluded with a conviction. Meanwhile, WOLA published a second alert, just before Christmas, about threats to social leaders, a week after warning of a large number of urgent situations. And on January 1 Gerardo León, a community leader in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, became the first murdered Colombian social leader of 2021.
  • Colombia expelled two Russian diplomats, accusing them of espionage. The Putin government followed suit, expelling two diplomats from Colombia’s Moscow embassy.
  • As of December 22, Joe Biden still hadn’t given a call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his post-election congratulations. If a call has taken place since, the Colombian government hasn’t announced it. Governing-party officials’ meddling in the U.S. campaign is the most likely explanation for the presidential ghosting.
  • Colombia has a new National Police chief. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, an officer with an intelligence background and the son-in-law of 1990s chief Gen. Rosso José Serrano, replaces Gen. Óscar Atehortúa, whose tenure was marked by protests against brutality and allegations of corruption. An El Espectador editorial urges the new chief to carry out badly needed reforms to the force.
  • Hernán Giraldo, a former top paramilitary leader from northern Colombia whose name is synonymous with systematic rape of young girls, is being extradited back to Colombia nearly 13 years after being sent to the United States to serve a sentence for another crime, drug trafficking.
  • Retired military officers are becoming more politically active. La Silla Vacía reports on a late October meeting at which former soldiers and police agreed to form a political party to run candidates in 2022 national elections, in order to counter what they see as “a radical left.” Meanwhile retired Gen. Jaime Ruiz, president of Colombia’s hardline association of former officers (ACORE), shared with El Nuevo Siglo his view that, largely because of the FARC peace accord, “2020 was not a good year for the security forces.”
  • December 31 was the deadline the government set for the FARC to hand over all illegally obtained assets, as mandated by the peace accord. The ex-guerrillas appear to have fallen short on turning over land and property, but claim that they face security and legal obstacles to doing so. El Espectador explains the “ABC” of the controversy.

Colombia peace update: Week of December 13, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Consultation puts a restart of fumigation on the front burner

On December 19 Colombia’s environmental authority, the ANLA, is holding a long-awaited public hearing about resuming coca fumigation. The term refers to a U.S.-backed program that uses aircraft spraying the herbicide glyphosate to eradicate coca. The hearing is a step toward ANLA’s deciding whether to award the controversial program an environmental license, one of several prerequisites that Colombia’s Constitutional Court has set for its restart.

Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years and over 1.8 million hectares sprayed, following a World Health Organization literature review’s finding that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic.” Since then, the government was slow to implement an alternative—whether on-the-ground eradication or building state presence and services in coca-growing zones—and coca cultivation surged.

The December 19 public hearing centers on the 4,000-page modification that the National Police—which runs the spray program—is proposing to the ANLA’s environmental management plan for the spraying. The hearing responds to a March request from four NGOs, Acción Técnica Social, Elementa, Viso Mutop, y Dejusticia. The pandemic has delayed it: courts ruled that communities in remote areas far from internet access could not be consulted “virtually.” A higher court overruled that in October, however, finding that virtual consultations could go ahead.

The groups that called for the hearing contend that the spray program is risky and ineffective. DeJusticia’s co-founder, Rodrigo Uprimny, notes, “The argument against fumigation is simple: it is not effective, it has serious negative effects, its legal viability is precarious, and there are better strategies.” María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs (CESED) contends that fumigation causes “a loss of state legitimacy,” a “balloon effect” as coca cultivation moves elsewhere, and conflict with the peace accords’ offer of help with crop substitution.

Should this process lead to a restart of spraying, we can expect Colombian organizations—including those that called for the December 19 hearing—to challenge it before the Constitutional Court. An analysis from DeJusticia advocates finds “poor transparency and access to information in the process, weak evidence, and failure to comply with constitutional orders,” while little is known about the health study that Colombia’s equivalent of the CDC (the INS) has been required to carry out. A joint letter from numerous Colombian organizations found that “the government is not complying with the legal and constitutional mandate to respect consultation and free, prior, and informed consent in eradication plans in ethnic territories,” and demanded that the December 19 hearing be suspended.

Coca fumigation has been the subject of numerous WOLA reports and commentaries, a November 30 joint letter with Colombian partners, and an event we co-hosted on December 9.

International warnings about massacres and social leader killings

“I call on the Colombian authorities to take stronger and much more effective action to protect the population from this appalling and pervasive violence,” reads a statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that counts 375 people murdered in 2020 by massacres and targeted social leader killings. A summary of the statement was featured for at least two days this week on the main page of the United Nations’ website. During the past week, strong concerns about massacres (defined as the killing of multiple people at a time) and social leader murders also came from:

  • The 29th semi-annual report of OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA), drawing attention to “illegal armed groups’ territorial and social control.”
  • A Verdad Abierta resource that allows a reader to view brief biographical and geographical information about 602 social leaders killed between January 2016 and September 2020, selecting for year, region, and stage of judicial investigation.
  • WOLA’s monthly alert about the human rights situation, which “cannot stress enough that international actions are required to stop the human rights rollbacks occurring as a result of the inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace accord.”

Two reports warn about security along the Colombia-Venezuela border

Two high-credibility security think tanks released reports raising alarms about worsening security conditions at the Colombia-Venezuela border. Even as pandemic measures stop all legal border crossings, violent organized crime activity has increased, in a way that mixes dangerously with the neighboring governments’ poor diplomatic relations.

“In the 24 border municipalities of Colombia, during 2020, 472 people have been assassinated, 63 of Venezuelan nationality; 24 have been massacred; 1,365 persons have been forcibly displaced and 13 have been kidnapped,” reports the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación in a 55-page report on The Situation of Security and Migration on the Colombia-Venezuela Border. “On the Venezuelan side,” however, the Foundation could obtain “no known figures that would allow us to specify” how bad the situation is.

“Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings,” reports the International Crisis Group’s Disorder on the Border: Keeping the Peace between Colombia and Venezuela. “High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.”

Both reports find the Rastrojos, a paramilitary-derived organized crime group, losing ground to the ELN along the border between Norte de Santander, Colombia and Táchira, Colombia: a more densely populated part of the border especially coveted by smugglers. The Rastrojos were found to have helped Venezuelan Assembly President (recognized by several dozen countries as Interim President) Juan Guaidó to cross overland into Colombia in February 2019. Since then, Venezuela’s security forces have cracked down on the group, along with the ELN, which moved quickly to fill the vacuum and to consolidate its dominance on the Venezuelan side on the border.

The Venezuelan government appears to have aided and abetted the ELN, the Crisis Group notes, as Caracas officials “view the ELN as a supplement to the state’s border defenses and seem willing to overlook occasional clashes between its fighters and the Venezuelan military.”

Other groups, like FARC dissidents, remnants of the EPL guerrillas, Venezuelan gang networks, and Mexican cartel middlemen, are also very active, adding to the chaos. “The Colombian army, for its part, is under orders not to rock the boat” in order to minimize the likelihood of conflict, the ICG finds.

Links

  • The Fiscalía is investigating 2,314 cases of “false positive” cases involving 10,949 members of the Army, including 22 generals, involving 3,966 victims, according to a September document that the prosecutor’s office sent to the International Criminal Court.
  • Despite the sharp rise in massacres and social leader killings, Colombia’s 2020 homicide rate to date is 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents, which Colombia’s Police say is the lowest in 46 years.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses take issue with government claims that nearly all 250 killings of ex-FARC guerrillas are related to narcotrafficking.
  • “Of the 75 municipalities with the most coca or substitution leader killings…there were specialized judges in only 3 (Puerto Asís, Tumaco, and Cúcuta) and criminal judges in 6. There were judicial police in 11 and specialized prosecutors in 7,” reads a La Silla Vacía analysis of the justice system’s absence.
  • Prominent center-left columnists Ramiro Bejarano, María Jimena Duzán, and Cecilia Orozco continued to question former Fiscal General Néstor Humberto Martínez, whom they accuse of plotting with the U.S. DEA to entrap participants and supporters of the peace process between 2017 and 2019.

Colombia peace update: Week of December 6, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fumigation is coming

Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, told the Blu Radio network that a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation might restart in as little as “between a month and a half and two months.”

Five years ago, citing health concerns, the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos suspended this program, which used aircraft to spray the controversial herbicide glyphosate over 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015. The current government of Iván Duque is working to restart the program, with U.S. funding and exhortations from Donald Trump: “you’re going to have to spray.”

That requires meeting a series of requirements laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, among them consultations with communities and studies of environmental and health impact. The consultations had been slowed by the pandemic: a court in Nariño found that “virtual” exchanges were impossible with communities in remote areas far from internet coverage. That decision, though, was reversed by an October higher-court ruling. Now, 17 consultations are ongoing, and the environmental licensing authority, ANLA, will hold a final national consultation beginning on December 19.

Though Minister Ruiz’s maximum-two-months is on the fast end of estimates we have heard for when fumigation might restart, it is not implausible.

At a December 9 event WOLA hosted with five experts from around Colombia, speakers warned about potential damage that a renewed aerial glyphosate spraying might cause: to human health, to the environment, to indigenous cultures, and to nearby crops needed for food security. Speakers warned that a fumigation program would be costly, would cause forced displacement, and, under most circumstances, would violate the peace accords’ fourth chapter. They warned that a renewed fumigation program could inspire a wave of protest in coca-growing zones, especially if carried out under current conditions of insufficient prior consultation and few opportunities to receive crop substitution assistance.

FARC dissident activity around the country

Concerning reports from around the country point to increasing activity of FARC dissident groups. These are armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who rejected the peace accord in 2016, ex-guerrillas who demobilized but later rearmed, and new recruits. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación’s (PARES) latest report on the country’s security situation estimates that about 30 such groups, totaling perhaps 2,600 members, are active in 113 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). It places them in three categories:

  • Those networked under the 1st and 7th Front structure headed by Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who refused to demobilize in 2016. PARES estimates that 65% of dissidents are in this network.
  • The “Nueva Marquetalia” network headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks but rearmed in 2019.
  • Smaller, “dispersed” groups, often headed by very young people.

After Iván Márquez and several other top ex-FARC leaders launched their “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group in August 2019, Gentil Duarte’s larger dissident network appeared to rebuff their outreach. Now, “Police say there is a war to the death in the areas [the two dissident networks] aspire to control, such as Putumayo, Nariño, Catatumbo, and Cauca,” according to a December 10 story in El Espectador, which relies heavily on National Police information.

That story warns that Nueva Marquetalia is moving into the heartland of Gentil Duarte’s group, seeking to traffic cocaine along the Guaviare River between Meta and Guaviare. A December 7 half-ton cocaine seizure in Puerto Concordia, Meta, may indicate that Iván Márquez may have sent a powerful emissary to do this: Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” who twenty years ago was one of the most feared FARC members because he pioneered ransom kidnappings along main roads out of Bogotá. Much of the cocaine produced in Meta and Guaviare goes through Arauca into Venezuela, then by air or boat to Central America and Mexico, or on to Europe.

To the west of Puerto Concordia, in La Macarena, Meta, dissidents are believed to be behind the murder of Javier Francisco Parra, the director of Cormacarena, the Colombian government’s regional environmental body. Parra was known as a defender of Caño Cristales, a tourist destination famous for its uniquely colored algae. The site’s accessibility was widely hailed as a tangible benefit of the peace accord.

Another feared member of the Nueva Marquetalia, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa”—who headed the FARC’s brutal, elite Teófilo Forero Mobile Column—was dispatched to Putumayo. There, he made an alliance with that department’s most powerful regional organized crime group, called “La Constru” or occasionally “La Mafia Sinaloa,” and with remnants of the FARC’s 48th front. All are fighting the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group, which is aligned with Gentil Duarte, for control of Putumayo’s lucrative trafficking routes through Ecuador and out to the Pacific, and down the Caquetá river into Brazil and on to Europe.

Colombian press reports from the past week also find a worsening humanitarian situation in Nariño’s Pacific coastal region. In the busy port of Tumaco, “where, curiously, there are hundreds of Mexicans these days,” Alfredo Molano Jimeno reported in El Espectador about the wave of violence that followed the September collapse of a two-year truce between two local dissident groups, the Frente Óliver Sinisterra and the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico.

Several hours north and inland from Tumaco, in the violent Telembí Triangle region, La Silla Vacía reports on fighting between the Óliver Sinisterra, the Gentil Duarte-tied 30th Front, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, for control of the Patía River’s trafficking routes. Violence broke out six months ago, during the pandemic, and has been worsening ever since. Further north along the coast, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA alerted about combat between dissidents and other groups causing mass displacements in Iscuandé, Nariño.

In all of these reports, a common theme is the near-total absence of Colombia’s state. Usually, the only government presence is military—and in places like coastal Nariño, there is only so much even a corruption-free armed forces could do. In La Silla Vacía, the general heading the local armed forces task force “recognizes that the Patía River is too extensive and connects with a maze of smaller rivers that are impossible for the security forces to control in their entirety.”

Links

  • Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his first overseas trip as chairman will be to Afro-descendant regions of Colombia , a country he knows well (and, some contend, controversially).
  • Colombia’s Senate approved a round of 19 military promotions, including those of Army Generals Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo and Edgar Alberto Rodriguez Sánchez, who commanded units during the 2000s alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings.
  • Joshua Collins reports for The New Humanitarian from Caucasia, in northeastern Antioquia’s convulsed Bajo Cauca region. Verdad Abierta also focused on the Bajo Cauca region, publishing a threepart series, with some striking photos, about armed group activity and social leaders’ precarious situation.
  • At a virtual hearing of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, representatives of Colombia’s Truth Commission denounced obstacles that the government has placed in the way of their work, such as security forces’ refusal to turn over requested documents. Colombian government representatives declined even to participate in the hearing.
  • A UNDP-PRIO-Universidad de los Andes poll of 12,000 residents of the 170 post-conflict “PDET” municipalities found reduced overall perceptions of armed-group control, and 80% support for programs that reintegrate former FARC combatants.

Video of yesterday’s discussion of coca and eradication in Colombia

That was a great discussion yesterday. As you could see if you “attended,” our partners in Colombia are very concerned about what might happen if the U.S-funded program of aerial glyphosate fumigation returns to Colombia’s coca-growing zones, as the Bogotá government is promising may happen in two months or less.

I’m pleased that several dozen people tuned in to the live event. Here is the video. There’s no translation track, so you have to be comfortable with Spanish.

We’ll keep making noise about this, because it’s bad policy, it’s going to harm people, and even if it temporarily brings the “hectare” number down, it will do so at great cost to social peace and to Colombia’s peace process.

Colombia peace update: Week of November 29, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission calls for changes

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, an independent, bipartisan entity established by a 2017 law, published a report based on a year and a half of work on December 1, and discussed its findings at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on December 3. Its Colombia recommendations call for some breaks with how the United States has engaged for decades on drug supply control.

The Commission began work in mid-2019, charged with evaluating U.S. counternarcotics programs in the Americas and recommending improvements. Its chair, Shannon O’Neil, is an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; other commissioners included a former commander of U.S. Southern Command; a former ambassador to Brazil; two former Republican and one former Democratic members of Congress; and two Colombian-American former Obama administration officials, Dan Restrepo and Juan González, who frequently represented the Biden campaign in 2020 appearances before Colombian media.

The report flatly declares that “while Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency success, it was a counternarcotics failure.” It calls for a more nuanced, long-term, and cooperative approach.

The Commission backs implementing the peace accord’s first chapter, on rural reform, praising its Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) which “if carried out…would be unprecedented.” It endorses building tertiary roads, land titling, and financial inclusion.

It calls for a Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control license, an exception to “terrorist list” prohibitions that would allow U.S. programs finally to support development and reintegration projects involving FARC ex-combatants.

It recommends relegating forced coca eradication to a lower priority. “Sending workers and security forces into remote areas to eliminate small plots of coca is a wasteful and ultimately fruitless effort.”

The commission calls for protecting local social leaders, with specific mention of Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and women’s leaders.

President Duque criticized the Commission’s findings, insisting that Plan Colombia brought coca cultivation down from 188,000 hectares in 2000 to 60,000 in 2014. He did not address why these gains were so quickly reversed later in ungoverned territories.

Defense bill requires report on misuse of military intelligence aid

The U.S. Congress is poised to pass the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the 1,000-plus-page law governing the Department of Defense. The House-Senate committee that resolved differences in both chambers’ version of the law included, in its narrative report, a requirement that the Defense Department inform about Colombian military intelligence bodies’ misuse of assistance to spy on reporters, legislators, human rights defenders and other civilians. Explosive revelations of such spying rocked Colombia in January and May.

The House version of the bill had required an extensive report about these human rights scandals. The Republican-majority Senate’s bill did not. Though the reporting requirement was relegated to narrative report language, the Defense Department still has 120 days from the NDAA’s passage to furnish an unclassified report describing credible allegations of misused aid since 2016, steps the Department took in response, and steps the Colombian government has taken to hold those responsible accountable, and to avoid future misuse.

Colonel’s resignation highlights Army’s internal divisions

El Tiempo’s November 30 edition revealed that, on September 22, a prominent Army colonel had sent President Duque a strongly worded resignation letter.

“I have absolutely lost confidence in the institutional High Command, headed by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro, commander of the National Army, which, without a shadow of a doubt, not only prevents me from continuing under his orders but also goes against my Christian principles and values such as loyalty, fidelity and transparency,” reads the missive from Col. Pedro Javier Rojas, who since 2011 has directed the Army’s Doctrine Center.

In this position, Rojas played a central role in rethinking the Army’s doctrine for a post-conflict mission set. The “Damascus Doctrine” (a Biblical reference to truth being revealed) was central to Colombia’s Partnership and Cooperation Program with NATO. It encourages a more professional army to work jointly and to prepare for more complex threats. Its development was a top priority of Gen. Alberto Mejía, who headed the armed forces durign the latter part of Juan Manuel Santos’s administration, coinciding with the signing and early implementation of the FARC peace accord.

Col. Rojas alleges that Gen. Zapateiro, the current army commander, is doing away with the Damascus Doctrine, erasing references to it. Zapateiro’s defenders, including the hardline association of retired officers ACORE, contend that the doctrine remains the same but is being rebranded to eliminate associations with Gen. Mejía and ex-president Santos, who are unpopular with the Army’s right wing.

Col. Rojas told El Tiempo that the problem goes deeper: “There is a clear internal leadership crisis. We have 25 fewer generals than we should have, and officers from other ranks have also left.”

“What is clear,” notes El Espectador, “is that this situation shows that there are considerable differences within the high commands of the National Army.”

How land theft was legalized

“If land in Colombia were a cake cut into ten pieces, one person would control nine of the pieces,” begins a series of videos featured by the “Rutas del Conflicto” project of Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. The four-chapter presentation, “How They Took Our Land,” explains how Colombia’s remarkably unequal land concentration worsened in recent years. While paramilitary groups played a brutal role, the videos show graphically, with thorough documentation, that mass land theft from campesinos also depended on unscrupulous government officials, military officers, and prominent businessmen.

The video series, produced by lawyer Yamile Salinas of the INDEPAZ think tank, names names. It shows how this model of mass land theft was piloted with the military-paramilitary campaign of massacres and forced displacement in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region in the 1990s. It goes on to show how the model was perfected in the Montes de María region of Colombia’s Caribbean during the early 2000s, in the oilfields of eastern Meta in the late 2000s, and more recently in the massive deforestation currently taking place in the ancestral lands of the Nukak people in Guaviare.

“We wanted to show how this displacement and dispossession runs throughout the whole country,” Salinas told El Espectador. “The model is being perfected, and it is moving through several territories involving all actors: the guerrillas, the ‘paras’, public servants, and big companies.”

Links

  • An Army report submitted to the Truth Commission contends that the institution did not collaborate widely with paramilitary groups during the conflict, omitting mention of many emblematic cases.
  • The pandemic has been the largest of many obstacles faced by the Truth Commission, which must finish work in November 2021, Santiago Torrado writes at Spain’s El País.
  • Leyner Palacios, an Afro-descendant social leader and survivor of the 2002 massacre in Bojayá, Chocó, is the 2020 winner of the National Human Rights “defender of the year” Prize given by the Church of Sweden and the Swedish development organization Diakonia. The “lifetime achievement” prize went to another well-known Chocó Afro-descendant leader, Marino Córdoba of AFRODES.
  • La Liga Contra el Silencio reports on increasing paramilitary activity in Santa Marta, Magdalena, once a stronghold of the AUC blocs headed by “Jorge 40” and Hernán Giraldo. Further west along the Caribbean coast, El Espectador reports on rising paramilitary activity in the Montes de María.
  • Perhaps because members of Colombia’s governing party campaigned improperly for Republican candidates in the United States, President-Elect Joe Biden hasn’t yet made a pro forma phone call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his congratulations, La Silla Vacía reports.

Colombia peace update: Week of November 22, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fourth anniversary of the FARC peace accord

On November 24, 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño signed a revised peace accord at a ceremony in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón. Four years later, analysts tend to note an intensification of violence in the past year or two, especially compared to the immediate pre- and post-conflict period. Most find Colombia’s armed conflict fragmenting into a collection of regional conflicts with different dynamics. Some contend that the government has not adapted to this new reality.

Here are some analyses published to coincide with the fourth anniversary:

  • An infographic from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz counts 65% more armed-group actions (318) in the fourth year after accord than it counted in the last year before the accord (192). The ELN, in first place, slightly exceeds dissidents’ activity.
  • “The question beginning to be asked is whether the window of opportunity opened by the accord has closed and we are in the midst of a new cycle of political-military violence, or whether we are just going through a difficult patch in a transition to peace,” notes Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.
  • CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds a slight increase in conflict-related violence so far in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
  • Sergio Jaramillo, the Santos government’s high commissioner for peace during the FARC dialogues, praised some aspects of the Duque government’s accord implementation, but voiced concern about rising violence in “post-conflict” territories.
  • El Espectador published a timeline widget highlighting major peace and conflict events over the past four years.
  • Oft-cited political scientist Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín talked about his new book warning of “A New Cycle of War in Colombia.”
  • “The country has improved a lot in many political and social areas, but there has been a huge deterioration of security in the last two years. We’ve had over 70 massacres and a rise in killings and illegal economies in various areas,” Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación told Al Jazeera.
  • “Strengthening the state’s presence in conflict-affected areas is a work in progress, which needs to be accelerated,” wrote former European Union Special Envoy Eamon Gilmore.

JEP hearing on ex-FARC protections

On November 25 the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) held an 8-hour hearing about threats and killings of demobilized guerrillas. The day before—the 2016 peace accords’ fourth anniversary—Paula Osorio, whose body was found in Yuto, Chocó, became the 243rd former FARC member to be murdered.

Just over 13,000 FARC members demobilized in 2017. At the current rate of one killing every five days, 1,600 ex-combatants will be dead by the end of 2024, said the director of the JEP’s Investigation and Accusations Unit (UIA), Giovanni Álvarez.

The JEP had ordered the government to take “precautionary measures” to protect former FARC members among its defendants. If they are killed or intimidated from testifying, ex-combatants will neither be able to clarify their crimes nor provide restitution to victims.

Álvarez summarized a JEP report about attacks on ex-combatants. Nearly all victims were rank-and-file guerrillas: only 10 of the dead had leadership positions. All but six were men. All of the killings have been concentrated in 17 percent of the country’s 1,100 municipalities.

Martha Janeth Mancera, the acting vice-prosecutor general, testified that as of November 11 the Fiscalía had “clarified”—identified the likely killers—in 108 of 225 cases (48%) it had taken on. She said that of these 108 cases, 44% were likely carried out by FARC dissident groups, 11% by the ELN, 10% by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, and 6% by other criminal structures. Mancera did not specify the likely killers of the other 29 percent.

The dissident groups, Álvarez pointed out, should not be considered as a monolithic bloc. There are two main networks—Gentil Duarte’s group active in 155 municipalities and Iván Márquez’s “Segunda Marquetalia” active in 44—plus “openly narcotized and lumpenized” groups active in 38 municipalities.

The acting vice-prosecutor said that to date, the body had managed to bring 33 cases of ex-combatant killers to sentencing. She blamed the lack of greater progress on a lack of specialized judges “so that we can manage to advance.” She added that the Fiscalía had identified likely masterminds, rather than just “trigger-pullers,” in 52 cases of ex-combatant killings, attempts, threats, or disappearances.

She added that, when ex-combatants receive threats, the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit has been too slow to respond. “We send the alert to the National Protection Unit, but, it must be said calmly, this process is very slow. The most agile thing is to report to the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), which carries out the relocation of the ex-combatant.” In some cases, she added “we’ve had to send more than 10 official requests in which we say that this is an extreme risk case.”

Somos Defensores report

Somos Defensores is a non-governmental organization that documents attacks and killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. It takes care to verify cases, and its numbers are usually similar to those kept by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The group’s latest report, covering the third quarter of 2020, hasn’t yet been posted to its website, but summaries appear at El Espectador and Verdad Abierta. They indicate that:

  • 40 human rights defenders were killed, in 15 departments of Colombia, between July and September.
  • The number of murders stood at 135 by the end of September. Somos Defensores’ tally surpassed its figure for all of 2019, 124, in August.
  • Counting all types of aggression for which a responsible party can be alleged, neo-paramilitary groups are believed responsible for 54 attacks, FARC dissidents for 20, the ELN for 11, and the security forces for 8.

The organization noted that it may be undercounting, as the pandemic has made it difficult to verify killings in the remote territories where they often happen.

Links

  • Human Rights Watch asked Colombia’s Senate not to promote Army Generals Marcos Evangelista Pinto and Edgar Alberto Rodríguez, who commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings in the 2000s.
  • HRW also released a report on March prison protests, just as the COVID-19 lockdowns began, that led to the killing of 24 prisoners in Bogota’s La Modelo jail. According to coroners’ reports, the wounds on the prisoners’ bodies indicated that prison guards were shooting to kill.
  • Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said that forces have eradicated 111,131 hectares of coca so far in 2020, on track for the government’s goal of 130,000 hectares by year’s end.
  • On November 24, the fourth anniversary of the final peace accord, a FARC party senator for the first time presided over a meeting of Colombia’s Senate: Griselda Lobo Silva, once the romantic partner of deceased maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, is the Senate’s second vice-president during the chamber’s 2020-21 session.
  • A November government decree allows lands seized under Colombia’s asset forfeiture laws to be handed over to ex-combatants for approved productive projects. Transferring land to former guerrillas who sought to become farmers was a question the peace accord had omitted.
  • A La Silla Vacía investigation finds 7,491 complaints of police abuse or brutality since 2016, not one of which has even reached the indictment phase.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez, of the recently founded Conflict Responses think tank, map out the FARC dissident group phenomenon around the country.
  • The New York Times published a feature about the arduous journey of Venezuelans leaving Colombia because the pandemic dried up economic opportunities. Once they find that Venezuela is “in free fall,” many are going back to Colombia.
  • The U.S. Air Force sent two giant B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Colombia for “Brother’s Shield,” a Colombian Air-Force-led exercise. The planes, which ceased production in 1962, also participated in the annual regional UNITAS naval exercise, hosted this year by Ecuador.
  • The government’s High Counselor for Stabilization issued a statement reminding the FARC that it has until December 31 to turn over all promised illegally acquired assets.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update documents 28 cases and developments of concern since mid-September.
  • The Bogotá daily El Espectador ran a wide-ranging interview with WOLA’s Adam Isacson.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

On Sunday evening I posted this tweet in response to a statement from Colombia’s Defense Minister that, while red meat for his political base, is just incredibly off-base as a strategy.

Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador, reached out to me about this. We had a good conversation, and the newspaper did a good job of translating my gringo Spanish in a piece posted last night. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

Colombia peace update: Week of November 15, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Four ex-FARC members killed in a week

Four demobilized FARC combatants were assassinated this week, bringing the total of murdered ex-guerrillas to 242 since the peace accord’s December 2016 ratification. Of those, 50 happened during the first nine months of 2020, according to the UN Verification Mission.

The latest victims are:

  • Heiner Cuesta Mena alias Yilson Menas, shot November 14 in Neguá, Quibdó, Chocó.
  • Jorge Riaño, shot November 15 in Florencia, Caquetá. Riaño had left the FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in Montañita, Cauca, to raise fish and chickens with his wife and young daughter.
  • Enod López, shot on November 15 along with his wife Nerie Penna, a Conservative party municipal council representative and community leader in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. The department’s police commander blamed the “Carolina Ramírez” FARC dissident group, part of the 1st Front structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.”
  • Bryan Steven Montes alias Jairo López, shot November 19 in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo.

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino responded to Montes’s killing by calling on the government “to stop simulating the peace accord’s implementation and to implement it comprehensively.” In an article published on November 16, InsightCrime described a very precarious security situation in eight of the twenty-four former ETCRs.

At the end of October, over 200 former FARC combatants carried out a “Pilgrimage for Life and Peace” march to Bogotá to call for better protections. Twelve of the march’s leaders met on November 6 with President Iván Duque at the presidential palace.

Security Forces kill top “paramilitary” and capture a FARC dissident; a second dissident is killed in Venezuela

A November 16 army-police operation killed Emiliano Alcides Osorio Macea, alias “Caín” or “Pilatos,” the head of the “Caparros” neo-paramilitary group. “Caín” reportedly died in combat as forces raided a ranch in Tarazá, in northeastern Antioquia’s violent Bajo Cauca region.

Osorio, a longtime paramilitary who demobilized from the AUC’s Antioquia-based Mineros Bloc in 2006, was what the authorities consider a “high value target.” With over 400 estimated members, the Caparros, also known as the Caparrapos or the Virgilio Peralta Arena Bloc, is one of the larger single-region armed groups active in Colombia. It split off in early 2017 from the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization and, possibly in tandem with the ELN and FARC dissidents, has been violently disputing control of the Bajo Cauca region and neighboring southern Córdoba. It is believed responsible for several killings of local social leaders. It is doubtful that the death of Caín will reduce violence in this territory, which sees much coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.

Another mid-level commander, in this case of the dissident group headed by former chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, was killed in Venezuela this week. Venezuelan forces killed Olivio Iván Merchán, alias “Loco Iván,” under unclear circumstances in Venezuela’s Bolívar state. Merchán was a FARC member for more than 30 years, part of the military command (estado mayor) of the powerful Eastern Bloc. He demobilized in 2017. He joined Iván Márquez’s “Nuevo Marquetalia” dissident group when it formed in 2019.

Researcher Miguel Ángel Morffe told El Espectador that Venezuelan forces either killed “Loco Iván” by mistake, or that they did it at the bidding of his fellow dissidents who wanted him dead for some reason. Morffe saw little possibility that Venezuelan forces did so out of a desire to keep order.

Meanwhile in rural La Macarena, Meta, an Army-Fiscalía team wounded and captured Rolan Arnulfo Torres Huertas, alias Álvaro Boyaco, whom the government identified as the “finance chief” for Gentil Duarte, who heads what is probably the largest national FARC dissident group.

Military questioned for misogynistic chants

Adriana Villegas, a columnist for the La Patria newspaper in Manizales, Caldas, lives across the street from the base of the Colombian Army’s Ayacucho Battalion. Soldiers on training drills routinely run past her house, chanting cadence rhymes.

On October 18, Villegas wrote a column about the content of some of those rhymes, which alarmed her and her daughter. We won’t reproduce them here; they included some vivid imagery about committing violence against girlfriends, mothers, mothers-in-law, and women related to their enemies.

Villegas’s cause got taken up by a local feminist group and the president of the Caldas legislature, who called on the Army to apologize. It did not: it issued a statement maintaining that the misogynistic cadences were not part of training or doctrine. The Battalion’s commander called Villegas for more information, a conversation during which, she noted, he kept calling her “doctorcita” and insisted that the misogynistic rhymes were “an isolated case.”

Colombia’s Free Press Federation (FLIP) got involved after Villegas received citations from the Battalion calling on her to their base to give a statement. While this may be part of the Battalion’s internal investigation, Villegas said she found the formal requests intimidating.

“I regret that the Army is wasting this opportunity to recognize a problem and, instead, is assuming an attitude of denial,” Villegas wrote in her November 15 column.

Other links

  • Hurricane Iota passed over the Colombian Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés y Providencia as a Category 5 storm. On Providencia, El Tiempo reports, “There is no house that hasn’t suffered damage. And the majority are destroyed.”
  • A Guardian longread by Mariana Palau, about the “False Positives” scandal and former Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, is a nuanced portrait of 21st century Colombia.
  • In an El Espectador blog post, an unnamed scholar who spent months accompanying military personnel at Colombia’s Superior War College is struck by officers’ frustration with forced coca eradication, which “turns the campesinos into enemies.”
  • Colombia’s Senate passed a bill extending for another 10 years the “sunset date” for Colombia’s 2011 Victims’ Law, which was to expire in 2021. It goes to President Duque’s desk for signature.
  • Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación visited an encampment of FARC dissidents in Cauca, and published an overview in El Espectador of these violent groups, dividing them into three coalitions or categories.
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