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

I haven’t aged a bit

A colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies sent me this photo from October 2007, when Colombian President-Elect Gustavo Petro won the organization’s Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

The last polls are done in Colombia

It’s illegal in Colombia to publish new poll data less than 7 days before an election. The final round of the country’s presidential election is next Sunday, so this is it.

La Silla Vacía maintains a weighted poll of polls, sort of 538 style. It shows Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez within 0.7 points of each other. And we’re not going to see any more polling after this.

With this close of a vote, and this much uncertainty, the looming question for the evening of the 19th and the days immediately afterward is: will the loser and his base of supporters concede? Or will the second half of June be a scary time of anger, fear, and disorder in Colombia?

If Petro wins by a razor-slim margin and Rodolfo Hernández rejects it: Hernández has picked up support from some wealthy and far-right elements who don’t have a history of playing by the rules. Though the political bosses, landowners and others who supported paramilitarism 15-20 years ago probably can’t force non-recognition of a Petro victory, they can spend the succeeding weeks and months making much of the country ungovernable and violent if they don’t accept the outcome. There also appears to be white-hot hatred of Petro in some corners of the military, and while I don’t foresee unconstitutional saber-rattling during the days following the election, I can’t dismiss the possibility either.

If Hernández wins by a razor-slim margin and Gustavo Petro rejects it: Petro’s supporters include core participants in last year’s national strike, which paralyzed the country for two months. They can control the streets again. And don’t expect Colombia’s National Police to obey proper use of force standards when they respond: they have little record of doing that in the past.

The second half of June could be really complicated.

Spanish version of today’s “Responsible Statecraft” analysis of Colombia

I’m grateful to the Quincy Institute’s online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, for publishing my analysis of the current moment in Colombia’s elections. The first round was five days ago, and the second, between two very non-traditional candidates, is coming on June 19. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Read the English version there.

Here (with help from DeepL, and me giving that a non-native-speaker edit) is el contenido en español.

“Cómo un populista esquivó la vieja maquinaria de izquierda-derecha de Colombia”

Por Adam Isacson

Las elecciones presidenciales de Colombia se dirigen a una segunda vuelta el 19 de junio. Es imposible predecir quién gobernará de 2022 a 2026, pero es seguro que habrá un cambio sorprendente. Por primera vez en la historia moderna del tercer país más grande de América Latina, el candidato elegido por la arraigada élite política colombiana no es uno de los finalistas.

Los colombianos están agotados por la pandemia, el aumento de la pobreza y la desigualdad, el incremento de la delincuencia y la proliferación de grupos armados, y un gobierno en funciones que no ha sabido transmitir empatía. En la primera vuelta del 29 de mayo, el 40,3% apoyó a Gustavo Petro, el primer candidato viable de centro-izquierda en al menos 80 años, en un país donde los candidatos reformistas han sido asesinados con frecuencia.

Aunque estaba llenando plazas y recibiendo mucha cobertura de los medios de comunicación, las encuestas habían mostrado correctamente que era improbable que Petro, ex guerrillero y ex alcalde de Bogotá, alcanzara el umbral del 50 por ciento necesario para una victoria en la primera ronda. Las encuestas apuntaban a que Petro se enfrentaría en la segunda vuelta, y probablemente vencería, a Federico Gutiérrez, el candidato respaldado por el partido del actual presidente de Colombia, Iván Duque, un conservador impopular.

Eso no fue lo que ocurrió: Gutiérrez quedó en tercer lugar, y Petro se enfrentará a otro candidato “outsider” a favor del cambio. Rodolfo Hernández, un irascible ex alcalde de la sexta ciudad más grande de Colombia, de 77 años, obtuvo el 28,2%. Hernández, un acaudalado empresario que se presenta sin partido político y que aparece más a menudo en Tik-Tok y otras plataformas que en persona, atrajo a los colombianos opuestos a la política de Petro pero descontentos con el statu quo. Se ha disparado en las últimas encuestas, impulsado por un estilo populista, campechano y propenso a las meteduras de pata, y por un mensaje anticorrupción de gran calado (aunque se están investigando algunas irregularidades en la contratación durante su gestión como alcalde).

La ventaja de Petro y el auge de Hernández supusieron un duro golpe para la maquinaria política tradicional de Colombia, incluida la del otrora dominante ex presidente Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), un conservador cuyo candidato elegido (incluido él mismo) había llegado a la ronda final de todas las elecciones desde 2002, perdiendo sólo una vez. Quien gane el 19 de junio no estará en deuda con los partidos mayoritarios de Colombia, aunque éstos sigan teniendo muchos escaños en el Congreso. Y muy notablemente, independientemente del resultado, la próxima vicepresidenta de Colombia será una mujer negra: la líder del movimiento social Francia Márquez (Petro) o la académica Marelén Castillo (Hernández).

La matemática ahora mismo favorece a Rodolfo Hernández. Su porcentaje de votos válidos el 29 de mayo, más los de Gutiérrez, arroja un voto de “cualquiera menos Petro” de hasta el 54 por ciento. Una primera encuesta, publicada el 1 de junio, mostraba a Petro y a Hernández dentro del margen de error, con Hernández ligeramente por delante, y un gran número de indecisos (14 por ciento). Un segundo sondeo, sin indecisos, daba a Hernández un margen de 52-45.

Aunque se trata de una votación entre dos candidatos del “cambio” con fuertes tendencias populistas, el 19 de junio no será una contienda entre la izquierda y la derecha: ver las elecciones de Colombia de esa manera es malinterpretarlas. Hernández, en un claro esfuerzo por despojarse de la etiqueta de “derecha”, expuso en un tuit el 30 de mayo un hilo de propuestas políticas tan centristas, incluso de izquierda en algunos temas, que Petro lo acusó de “regoger mis propuestas”.

  • Ambos prometen implementar el acuerdo de paz de 2016 con las FARC, al que Uribe y sus partidarios se opusieron. El programa de Petro discute en mayor detalle cómo lo implementaría, incluyendo las prioridades de género y étnicas.
  • Ambos prometen proseguir negociaciones con el grupo guerrillero que queda en Colombia, el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), de más de 50 años de antigüedad.
  • Ambos restablecerían las relaciones con el régimen de Nicolás Maduro en Venezuela, un probable golpe al gobierno alternativo opositor de Juan Guaidó, a quien tanto Bogotá como Washington reconocen actualmente como presidente de Venezuela.
  • Ambos son muy críticos con la política de drogas tal y como se ha practicado en el último medio siglo. Hernández le dijo al embajador estadounidense que estaba a favor de la legalización de las drogas, cuando se reunieron en enero. Ambos buscarían legalizar el cannabis recreativo, y no se reanudará la dura política de erradicación de la coca mediante la fumigación de herbicidas desde aviones, apoyada por Estados Unidos y suspendida por razones sanitarias desde 2015.
  • Ambos candidatos se oponen al fracking, apoyan el derecho al aborto (recientemente legalizado por una decisión de la Corte Constitucional), y apoyan los derechos del colectivo LGBTQ, el matrimonio gay, y la adopción por parte de parejas homosexuales.
  • Ambos dicen que apoyan el derecho a la protesta social, incluido el paro nacional que paralizó Colombia durante semanas en abril y mayo de 2021. Y ambos critican duramente a Uribe, el ex presidente de línea dura al que los colombianos asocian con importantes logros en materia de seguridad, pero también con violaciones de los derechos humanos y faltas de ética.

La lente izquierda-derecha, entonces, es de poca utilidad para entender lo que está sucediendo. Las posiciones de Gustavo Petro son tradicionalmente de izquierda, pero no está claro si Petro gobernaría como un socialdemócrata o como un “hombre fuerte” populista. Hernández es más amigable con el sector de las grandes empresas, pero las posiciones enumeradas muestran más flexibilidad ideológica que la que hemos visto en populistas de derecha como Jair Bolsonaro o Donald Trump. En lugar de llamarlo el “Trump colombiano“, tiene más sentido comparar a Hernández con populistas latinoamericanos semiautocráticos que no encajan fácilmente en los encasillamientos de izquierda-derecha, como el mexicano Andrés Manuel López Obrador o el salvadoreño Nayib Bukele.

Gane quien gane, el próximo presidente de Colombia será un líder que tratará de apelar directamente al pueblo, que se peleará a menudo con los medios de comunicación, y que probablemente no defenderá las normas establecidas y las frágiles instituciones. El próximo líder se resistirá a los controles y equilibrios democráticos; ambos han planteado la idea de utilizar poderes de emergencia. Se enfrentará a los enemigos: para Petro, son las élites tradicionales de Colombia; para Hernández, son los que considera corruptos, o, de forma alarmante, la población inmigrante venezolana, que ha sido objeto de algunos comentarios xenófobos.

Todos estos son elementos de lo que podríamos llamar el “libreto populista”, un elemento emblemático de las democracias en declive del siglo XXI en todo el mundo. El próximo presidente de Colombia podría ser popular y transformador, pero el país podría ser aún menos democrático que es.

Esto supone un reto para Estados Unidos. Tanto las administraciones demócratas como las republicanas han invertido 25 años, y más de 13.000 millones de dólares, en construir una “relación especial” con Colombia, especialmente con las fuerzas de seguridad colombianas. Al presidente Joe Biden le gusta llamar a Colombia “la piedra angular de la política estadounidense en América Latina y el Caribe”. A Washington le preocupa perder influencia en el hemisferio occidental en favor de China y otras grandes potencias rivales.

Washington está a punto de descubrir que sólo ha construido una “relación especial” con un pequeño segmento de Colombia -las élites urbanas, las fuerzas armadas, las asociaciones empresariales-, lo que le deja sin preparación para trabajar con un gobierno cuya base está en otra parte, en la sociedad civil organizada y entre las clases medias descontentas, los colombianos más pobres, y los afrodescendientes e indígenas. Independientemente de quién gane, es probable que la relación entre Estados Unidos y Colombia siga siendo cordial en general, pero el camino que queda por recorrer será muy accidentado.

Los puntos de vista de ambos candidatos sobre las relaciones con Venezuela y sobre la política antidroga -especialmente la erradicación de cultivos forzados y la extradición- podrían ponerlos en vías de colisión con la administración Biden y con los republicanos del Congreso. La visión crítica de Petro sobre el libre comercio y la inversión extranjera, y su probable deseo de relajar la asociación militar entre Estados Unidos y Colombia, provocaría hostilidad en algunos sectores de Washington. El resultado podría ser palabras desagradables, reducción de la presencia diplomática, reducción de la asistencia y, quizás, un abrazo aún más estrecho a las élites empresariales y políticas de Colombia ya fuera del poder.

La relación de Washington con Colombia podría llegar a parecerse a la que tiene ahora con otros gobiernos populistas o de tendencia autoritaria en la región (aparte de los de izquierda dura -Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela- con los que las relaciones son totalmente hostiles). Si es así, los funcionarios estadounidenses evitarán airear la mayoría de los desacuerdos en público. Preferirán enfatizar las áreas de cooperación, como hacen hoy en día en materia de migración con México y Centroamérica, o en los lazos militares con Brasil.

Los funcionarios estadounidenses tratarán de relacionarse con algunas instituciones aunque se mantengan al margen de los líderes políticos. En Brasil, El Salvador y Guatemala, por ejemplo, el Comando Sur de EE.UU. continúa con un programa intenso de compromisos militares incluso cuando las relaciones con los presidentes Bolsonaro, Bukele y Giammattei son distantes. Es fácil imaginar un escenario en el que la relación entre militares, en vez de entre civiles, se convierta en la interacción más estrecha del gobierno estadounidense con Colombia.

El próximo reto inmediato para la política estadounidense -y para la diplomacia internacional en general- se producirá el 19 de junio. Si, como parece probable, los candidatos están a pocos puntos porcentuales de distancia entre sí, la posibilidad es alta de que uno de ellos clame “fraude” y rechace el resultado. Si Hernández rechaza el resultado, podría contar con el apoyo de poderosos intereses empresariales y jefes políticos, y quizás incluso de facciones de las fuerzas de seguridad. Si Petro lo rechaza, las protestas callejeras podrían paralizar el país, y quizás volver a encontrarse con una respuesta policial violenta.

Si esto ocurre, el gobierno de Estados Unidos, junto con la OEA y todos los amigos de Colombia, deben trabajar para desactivar la violencia y canalizar las tensiones hacia el diálogo. Eso significa basar todas las declaraciones públicas en hechos establecidos, no en resultados deseados. Significa condenar el comportamiento que viola los derechos humanos, algo que la administración Biden tardó en hacer durante las protestas nacionales de 2021.

Como demuestra la elección de dos candidatos ajenos a la sociedad, los colombianos están con los ánimos crispados en este momento. El objetivo diplomático debe ser amplificar lo que es cierto y buscar desescalar rápidamente. Sólo entonces podremos pasar a preocuparnos por la política y el populismo.

Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

Here’s highlights of a discussion Gimena Sánchez and I had with Héctor Silva at WOLA the other day.

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

Read in English at wola.org | Leer en español en wola.org

The Duque Presidency Limps to the Finish Line

Left, October 23, 2021: Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, proclaims “the end of the Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. (Also known as the “Úsuga Clan,” the “Urabeños,” and the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.”)

Right, May 7, 2022: the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group declares an “armed strike” upon its onetime leader’s extradition to the United States. With threats and over 100 acts of violence, the group stops economic activity in at least part of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments.


Unsurprisingly, analysts of Colombia’s conflict—like Esteban Salazar of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation on October 25, 2021—understood what was going on:

Southern Command’s “digital magazine” just stigmatized one of Colombia’s youth protest movements

U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activity in most of the Americas, manages a “digital magazine,” called Diálogo. It has some degree of editorial freedom from Southcom itself—an arrangement unusual outside the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That thin editorial line between the U.S. military and Diálogo’s writers, who are opinionated and amplify strongly conservative political views, probably isn’t evident to most of its readers in Latin America.

Often, Diálogo’s writers get things wrong. Sometimes, they get things dangerously wrong. Here’s a big example in an April 27 piece about the March 30 arrest of Sergei Vagin, an alleged Russian spy, in Bogotá.

To remain undetected, Vagin was steadily flowing small amounts from Russia — between $2,000 and $4,000. In addition, he sent detailed reports to various contacts in Moscow about activities in Colombia, especially during the social protests, Semana reported. He also allegedly tried to bribe a Colombian Army officer to obtain “top secret reports,” reported El Colombiano.

The money is believed to have ended up in the coffers of the criminal group Primera Línea, reported Argentine news site Infobae. This group has links to dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) and the ELN, and uses terrorism to cause systematic and collateral damage, Semana said.

Hold. Up.

The “Primera Línea” (“First Line”) is the name used by the groups of mostly poor young people who took to the frontlines in Cali’s “Paro Nacional” protests a year ago. They organized in response to the Cali police force’s initial, brutal attacks on peaceful protesters. Some of them were violent, but most were practicing civil disobedience. They engaged in constructive dialogues with Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina. And many were wounded or killed by police.

The government of Iván Duque has been casting about for evidence that participants in last year’s mass protests were useful idiots inflamed by outside forces like Russian propaganda, rather than an organic response to social exclusion, a deep economic crisis, hunger, and an un-empathetic government.

This is stigmatization based on the thinnest of allegations, and should not have made it past Diálogo’s editors. Worse, it may be self-fulfilling. As the Police continue rounding up Primera Línea members, leaving them and their relatives unprotected, Cali’s young protest participants may be pushed toward armed groups’ embrace—both out of frustration with peaceful tactics and for their own protection.

Here, Southcom’s “digital magazine” lends itself to the “Russian dupes” narrative by citing the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is sad and cynical. Until 2020, Semana was one of Latin America’s premier, and bravest, investigative journalism outlets. But its principal owners sold to one of Colombia’s richest men, Gabriel Gilinski, who set about turning the magazine and its Internet properties into a Colombian “Fox News.” Semana today regularly publishes information fed to it by the armed forces.

And in this case, Semana‘s “reporting” launders this smear into a form that Diálogo can cite, which endangers the kids in the Primera Linea even more.

This article, or at least the above-cited segment with the unfounded allegations against the Primera Línea kids, really needs to come down now.

Colombia analysis at “Responsible Statecraft”

The Quincy Institute posted an analysis by me about Colombia’s election campaign and its implications for U.S. policy. It went up last Friday on their very good Responsible Statecraft site.

Head-to-head second-round scenario polling shows a razor-thin margin between the two leading candidates, who represent dramatically different visions of government. Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, a former Medellín mayor, offers continuity with Duque’s conservative politics, which the Biden administration might find reassuring. It would, however, mean continuity with a model of which most Colombians appear to disapprove after four years of worsening violence and economic insecurity.

Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, offers radical change that could consolidate a 2016 peace accord and implement reforms to address one of the world’s worst records of income and land inequality. Petro leads in first-round polling by a comfortable margin. However, he carries a strong whiff of populism and appears open to cooperation with China and Russia, which worries the United States. U.S. diplomats have sounded alarms about Russian interference in Colombia’s campaign, mostly via social media, and they could only be referring to Petro.

Read the whole thing here.

Does this actually work?

A sound truck drives slowly through a neighborhood in a small city in west-central Colombia. A soldier aboard plays a recorded audio message, jacked in from his phone, encouraging members of armed groups to turn themselves in and demobilize.

This seems like an empty exercise. These messages, broadcast by radio, may sometimes work on homesick guerrilla recruits in remote jungle encampments, convincing them to disarm. But in the middle of a population center like Chaparral, Tolima, any armed-group members are likely to be un-uniformed and mixed in with the population. The promise of returning to one’s home and family, who are probably right there in town, doesn’t make particular sense.

Current chart of aid to Colombia

There’s some guesstimating here, because I don’t have current numbers for Defense Department “train and equip” aid, and I don’t have a breakdown for how much of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement aid goes to the military/police and how much goes to the judiciary and other civilian priorities. But I think this pretty close, for Latin America’s largest U.S. aid recipient:

Here’s a Google spreadsheet attempting to break it all down.

What we know about the March 28, 2022 military raid in Putumayo, Colombia

A new analysis at colombiapeace.org tries to explain in English what looks like a serious case of human rights abuse committed by a U.S.-aided military unit in the part of Colombia where “Plan Colombia” began 21 years ago.

The Guardian called it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.

Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.

The piece addresses 14 questions:

  • What happened?
  • What was the human toll of the operation?
  • Were those killed combatants, or civilians?
  • What is the security situation in Putumayo?
  • Do the military units involved receive U.S. aid?
  • Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?
  • Did the soldiers wear black outfits and say they weren’t the Army?
  • Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?
  • Was the scene tampered with?
  • What happened to the money and the whiskey?
  • Are credible investigations happening?
  • What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?
  • What does this mean for politics and civil-military relations in Colombia?

Read it here.

The growing, and dangerous, politicization of Colombia’s security forces

Here’s translated English of a brief Twitter thread from Sandra Borda, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, which sounds right to me.

  1. The security forces’ problem is one of civilian leadership: a government that encourages abuses against the citizenry to exercise control, and is incapable of preventing or at least sanctioning misconduct for the sake of keeping the military and police on its side, is a government responsible for every outrage.
  2. Uribismo has politicized the security forces in order to use it as an extension of their campaigning, to place them on their side and against those who they perceive to be their enemies. The continuity of this policy, at the direction of their candidate, is a threat to democracy.
  3. The project that we must seek is one of security forces that are on citizens’ side, and not on the side of a particular political project; a professional force that the people trust. This is the only way to keep us safe. We need leadership, not complicity.

During the past four years in Colombia, the current military and police leadership’s identification with the country’s main right-wing party has gone hand in hand with an increase in human rights abuse events.

This should worry the U.S. government, which continues to invest heavily in its relationship with Colombia’s security forces. The danger is that this investment evolves into an investment in one particular party’s worldview, one that I don’t believe most officials in the Biden administration share.

43 social leaders murdered in Colombia in 3 months: UN

During the 3 months ending March 28, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Colombia Field Office “received information about killings of 43 human rights defenders and social leaders, including four women (7 documented, 35 under verification and 1 inconclusive or not verifiable).”

This from the latest quarterly report from the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, always a useful document:

Victims of eye damage at the hands of Colombian police have had to leave the country

During Colombia’s April-June 2021 Paro Nacional protests, human rights advocates documented 82 cases of protesters who suffered severe eye damage, often resulting from Colombian National Police agents’ misuse of “less-lethal” weapons, like improperly fired tear gas canisters.

Some of the victims have not only lost their eyes or their eyesight: they are now being hounded out of the country by constant death threats. An article by José David Escobar in today’s El Especatador profiles two young women who have had to leave Colombia, their families selling all of their belongings in order to buy the plane tickets out. At least two more victims, Escobar adds, are trying to get out of Colombia for the same reasons.

This is why my colleagues and I get so stridently angry every time we see Biden administration officials offer unalloyed praise for Colombia’s National Police force. This is a really troubled institution, and the U.S. posture toward it is disastrous.

A few translated excerpts from Escobar’s article:

Sandra Pérez, mother of Sara Cárdenas, who was also attacked on May 5, 2021 by the Esmad [riot police squadron], says that they received messages and calls warning them that they were going to kill them or that “they were going to take out her daughter’s other eye”. Even, a week after leaving the country, her neighbors told her that the windows of their apartment had been broken.

”After receiving the attack, we denounced everything that happened that day. From then on we started receiving calls and messages from unknown people threatening us. …I had to hide my other daughter with a relative in another area of the city. We were very scared. Also, before they broke the windows of where we lived, they pointed a laser at the windows of the apartment three times.”

…In the case of Leidy Cadena, she also said that in the months after her attack, she and her boyfriend were searched for no reason. “When I was attacked by the Esmad, there was even a policeman who went to the San Ignacio hospital to make me testify, hours after I had lost my right eye, something inexplicable. But the event that forced us to leave the country was when, in October 2021, we found that they had put gunpowder tubes under the door of my house. That’s when I felt that my life was really in danger.”

…While this article was being written, El Espectador learned of complaints filed last December and April 6, 2022 by one of Sara Cardenas’ aunts, who lives in Colombia and has been in charge of closely following the investigations of her niece’s case. The documents show that, since December 2021, she has been receiving calls and that she was approached by a stranger who told her: “You look better when you are quiet”, “Do you want to die? Stop investigating”, among other phrases.

WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

There’s a lot going on, security-wise, in Colombia. We spent an hour on Zoom today with longtime colleague Kyle Johnson in Bogotá, who gave WOLA podcast listeners a grim but thorough tour of the complicated security landscape.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page.

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Are Colombia’s peace accords binding?

In a January 4 interview with Emilio Archila, the Colombian government’s lead official for peace accord implementation, El Espectador’s Sebastián Forero asks, “Why do you always talk about [the Duque administration’s] ‘Peace with Legality,’ policy, but not about the Peace Agreement signed in Havana?”

Archila replies that the text of the 2016 accord, which ended 52 years of fighting with the FARC guerrillas, is not binding unless its commitments are enacted into law.

The Constitutional Court said that the Havana agreements did not generate obligations in themselves, except to the extent that they have been incorporated into legislation, as with all laws issued through Fast Track [the brief 2017 period when Congress could quickly pass laws to cement accord commitments into place]. The Court struck a very good balance made between compliance with the agreements—which must occur in good faith during three presidential administrations—and democracy, because each president will continue to be elected with different mandates. …Those who think that the agreements should be applied as they were signed in Havana are wrong, that is not what the Court said. It said that one should take those texts, turn them into legal and policy instruments, and through them put them into effect, which is what we have done.

Of course, this is technically correct. The peace accord isn’t law, it’s just a 300-page document full of promises that the government made in order to secure a 13,000-person armed group’s commitment to disarm.

The problem with this reasoning should be obvious. What happens if a big chunk of the commitments in the peace accord don’t make it into law? That’s what’s happened with about 41 out of 107 laws or norms that Colombia’s Congress would have had to approve in order to realize all of the peace accord’s commitments.

In the reasoning laid out by Archila, because the Congress did not enact these commitments, they are just dead words on a piece of paper signed in Havana. His administration—led by politicians who opposed the peace accord— is under no obligation to honor those that didn’t make it into legislation.

By another reasoning, though, the failure to pass necessary laws equals non-compliance with the peace accord. Colombia’s Congress didn’t act to pass much outstanding legislation, and especially during the government of Iván Duque (2018-present), the executive branch didn’t push hard for it to do so. Now, that same executive can say, “sorry, we can ignore what was signed five years ago because the laws weren’t passed.”

This creates a terrible set of incentives for any future peace dialogues, whether in Colombia or in other countries with similar legal systems. In order to entice an armed group to disarm, a government can promise its leaders far more than it ever intends to fulfill. Then, after the group disarms and demobilizes, that government can blame the legislature for failing to enact its lofty promises, wash its hands, and walk away.

Why would an armed group negotiate on those terms? If four years of negotiations end up with a piece of paper that the government and legislature can pick and choose from later, why pursue such negotiations?

This is a blow to the credibility of accords resulting from peace talks. If such accords lack credibility, then armed conflicts will be condemned to drag on for longer than they otherwise would. Unnecessarily prolonged conflicts mean years of preventable death, abuse, displacement, and tragedy. The implications of Archila’s position are grave.

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