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.
Updates on the situation at the Venezuela border
Fighting continued this week on the Venezuelan side of the common border in Apure, across from Colombia’s department of Arauca, between Venezuelan forces and a Colombian guerrilla dissident group. While confirmed information remains scarce, the intensity of combat and number of casualties appeared to be less than in the prior two weeks, since Venezuela’s initial March 21 attack on dissident targets. The combativeness of Colombian and Venezuelan officials’ statements, however, has intensified.
“We’re witnessing the escalation of tensions between the two countries, which is extremely dangerous,” observed defense analyst Rocío San Miguel of the Venezuelan think tank Control Ciudadano, adding, “I don’t remember, in terms of duration, a similar situation in the last 30 years.”
Indeed, Venezuelan forces likely did not anticipate that the 10th Front dissident group—whose leaders, and some of whose members, spent years as FARC guerrillas—would fight back with such ferocity. On April 5 Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino reported that eight Army personnel had been killed since March 21, including four officers. A mortar misfire on April 3 killed three members of an artillery unit, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel, and wounded nine others. Gen. Padrino added that a total of 34 troops had been injured, and that Venezuelan forces had killed 9 rearmed guerrillas and captured 33.
Despite the continued fighting, Venezuelan officials insisted that they are consolidating control of the Apure border zone. Measures include deployment of a temporary military command, an Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) for the region. (Reuters reports that “Venezuela’s military maintains standing ZODI units for each of its 23 states and the capital Caracas.”) In the zone, military personnel are restricting the population’s movements. Units from elsewhere are being reassigned to Apure and equipped with Russian-made Orlan-10 surveillance drones.
Venezuela continues to face charges that it is focusing its efforts on only one of three Colombian guerrilla, or post-guerrilla, groups active in Apure. Rocío San Miguel, according to Tal Cual, “pointed out that the Armed Forces’ actions do not seem to be similar with respect to all the armed groups present in the area, and that there seems to be a pattern of neutrality with respect to the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN).”
Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, alleged that Venezuela is deliberately favoring a third group, the “Nueva Marquetalia” FARC dissidents headed by Iván Márquez, who was the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in the 2012-2016 peace talks but rearmed in 2019. “The objective of the operations there is not protection of the border, it’s protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.
Security expert Jorge Mantilla told the BBC that something must have happened to cause a breakdown in “arrangements, sometimes tacit, for the distribution of rents and territorial control” between Venezuelan forces and the three Colombian groups, causing Caracas to target the 10th Front.
Venezuelan officials haven’t addressed charges of armed-group favoritism, instead claiming that they are dealing with the effects of Colombia’s failure to govern its side of the border. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Colombia a “failed state” and a “narco-state” lacking control of its territory. “I’d say it’s Colombia’s ineptitude, but sometimes I think this is in their interest,” added Gen. Padrino.
The humanitarian toll of the fighting continues to be grave. At least 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Arauca, Colombian officials say. Venezuelan officials claim the number is lower, insisting the border municipality of La Victoria had a total population of about 3,500. They also deny displaced people’s claims that Venezuelan forces extrajudicially executed civilians during the operation.
Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes said that some residents of the region have remained there amid continuing combat, mainly out of fear of losing their livestock or other property, or having their houses burned or sacked. Tarazona also alleged that elements from the 28th Front FARC dissidents—part of the same “First Front” dissident network as the 10th—were arriving in the region to reinforce the 10th Front in Apure.
Tarazona and FundaRedes don’t have a 100 percent accuracy record, though. The Venezuelan NGO director also alleged that Rodrigo Londoño, the maximum leader of the demobilized FARC’s legal political party, Comunes, had been holding quarterly coordination meetings with leaders of both main dissident networks. This made little sense to observers within Colombia, where Londoño has been a strong advocate of the peace accord and outspoken critic of the dissidents. It’s also hard to imagine the party leader, who is 62 and has had health problems, shaking his police guard for days to meet with dissident leaders in the jungle. “There is absolutely nothing that identifies me with them, and I am not an a**hole,” Londoño said in a video.
Amid concerns about the remote—but not zero—possibility of the border situation escalating into conflict with Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza said that his regime would submit a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres asking the UN to mediate or provide good offices, “establishing a direct and permanent communication channel” between the two neighboring countries, whose de facto governments maintain no diplomatic relations, “to resolve all issues related to the border.” This runs along somewhat similar lines to a civil society proposal, issued a week earlier, calling on the UN to name a special envoy to the border crisis.
At the same time, other Venezuelan officials issued more bellicose rhetoric. “The incursions into Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque,” said Gen. Padrino, the defense minister. Diosdado Cabello, a politician often considered the second most-powerful individual in the Maduro regime, was characteristically even more blunt. “Colombia has declared, internally, that it is going to try to set the table for U.S. imperialism to attack Venezuela. They will be making a mistake because if we have a war…with Colombia, we are going to do it in their territory.”
A decree makes it harder to challenge the president, and fumigation, through legal means
With a new decree changing how citizens can seek redress before the presidency, “the government of Iván Duque made an unprecedented display of power,” in the words of the news website La Silla Vacía. While it raises strong concerns about democratic checks and balances and will certainly face constitutional challenges, the decree could open the door to a much faster restart of a controversial U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where farmers grow coca.
The change affects the “tutela,” a figure in Colombian law that gives citizens the right to seek a quick response from courts when government is infringing their rights. Supporters view the tutela as a major victory won in the drafting of Colombia’s progressively worded 1991 Constitution. It has been unpopular on Colombia’s political right, which views it as an obstacle, since it gives minority interests and activists the ability to block policies’ implementation.
Decree 333 of 2021, which Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz issued on April 6, states that from now on (and possibly retroactively—it’s not clear), all tutelas filed against the President, or considered important for national security—like those having to do with coca eradication—will no longer go to courts of law. They are to be considered by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), a Bogotá-based high court that makes administrative rulings.
Going to the Council of State will make it harder for communities to challenge a re-start of the aerial fumigation program. This program, active since 1994, was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns about spraying the chemical glyphosate over residential coca-growing zones. In response to a tutela, in 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of health, environmental, and consultative requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the spraying, as Iván Duque has pledged to do. In 2020, as the pandemic made it difficult for communities to participate in consultations about renewed spraying, another tutela resulted in regional court rulings that paused the controversial program’s restart.
The decree may put fumigation on a fast track to re-starting. First, it appears to offer a way around regional courts that have ruled on the side of affected communities. Second, filing complaints with the Bogotá-based State Council is more challenging for people in the very remote areas where coca is cultivated and spraying may happen. “There is a direct violation of the right to equality,” explained Diana Bernal of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which has represented communities subject to fumigation. “The decisions will fall to judges who lack regional context, and who will not have the same ability to go deeper because the plaintiffs will be in remote areas.”
Either way, if the decree stands, fumigation could restart in as little as a couple of months, once the government determines that it has met the Constitutional Court’s requirements. “The Government believes that the current actions will favor it, and that is why announcements have been made that spraying will begin in a short time,” an unnamed Justice Ministry source told La Silla Vacía.
Beyond coca fumigation, the new decree raises concerns about democratic checks and balances. It presumes that the Presidency can “choose its own judge” on a constitutional issue, cutting out courts that have proved more likely to issue rulings unfavorable to it. “The proposed reform is subtle and may go unnoticed by the general public,” wrote EAFIT University constitutional law professor Estaban Hoyos. “The Duque government is issuing decrees for its own interest, intending to evade judges’ oversight of its actions or omissions that disregard fundamental rights. This is profoundly undemocratic.” Hoyos recalled to El Espectador that President Duque is further weakening checks and balances at a time when he has already named political allies to the leadership of oversight bodies like the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
It’s not at all clear that such a change can happen by decree, bypassing the legislature. Law professors and opposition legislators, probably together with legal NGOs, are preparing a legal challenge to the decree. It is not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.
The peace accord’s special congressional seats for victims suffer a new setback
The 2016 peace accord had sought to “place victims at its center,” according to its negotiators. As part of that commitment, it promised to create special congressional districts that would represent 16 regions of Colombia hardest-hit by the conflict. For two congressional terms (eight years), residents of those zones would elect to Colombia’s House of Representatives candidates chosen by victims’ organizations, not political parties.
This never happened, and while Colombia’s Constitutional Court considers whether to make it happen, the special congressional districts plan suffered another setback this week with an unfavorable recommendation from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
The long story begins in 2017, as Colombia’s Congress was passing a series of laws to make peace accord commitments official. Among those was a bill creating the special districts for victims. The measure passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November 2017.
That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption. Still, that argument has not prospered in lower court challenges.
In December 2019 Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case of the special electoral zones and the 2017 Senate vote. This week the Procuraduría issued its recommendation to the Constitutional Court, which dealt another blow to the plan to create the special districts for victims. The agency—now headed by a political ally of President Duque, whose party opposes the seats—called for the Court to strike down the measure because it lacks sufficient “immediacy and subsidiarity.”
The Constitutional Court could still decide that the special congressional zones are valid, ignoring the Procuraduría opinion and making this peace accord commitment to victims a reality. It is not clear how the Court might rule, or whether it would issue a decision with enough lead time before Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections.
- The UN Verification Mission issued its latest quarterly report, which counted 14 murders of former FARC combatants and 24 killings of social leaders during the previous 3 months. 262 former FARC members of about 13,000 who demobilized, or 2 percent, have been killed since the group demobilized in 2017. The report also noted that “several actors… continue to question the Government’s view of the development programs with a territorial focus [PDETs], claiming that its approach is not in line with the Comprehensive Rural Reform as envisioned in the Final Agreement.”
- WOLA published its latest monthly alert on Colombia’s nationwide human rights and humanitarian situation.
- Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed a phone call to Colombian President Iván Duque on April 5. They discussed “ways to renew our focus on issues including climate change, the protection of human rights, and the regional economic recovery from the pandemic,” as well as “the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela and Colombia’s efforts to promote democracy throughout the region.”
- The Colombian government’s State Legal Agency (ANDJE) asked the Constitutional Court to review a Supreme Court order calling on the National Police to curb rights abuses during social protests. It argued that the right to protest should be regulated because “the public will take advantage of it, ‘discrediting the police’s authority,’” El Espectador reported.
- The ELN carried out 58 percent fewer offensive actions (27), was involved in 30 percent fewer combat incidents (14), and was responsible for 9 percent fewer deaths (19) during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think tank.
- A Bogotá court met on Tuesday and Friday to consider the Prosecutor-General’s (Fiscalía’s) controversial request to drop witness-tampering charges against former president Álvaro Uribe.
- Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed an 898 million peso (US$245,000) no-bid contract with a public relations firm that Minister Diego Molano “knows very well,” El Espectador reported. The contract seeks “to improve ‘public perception’ and ‘protect the collective imagination’” about the Defense Ministry.
- As the former FARC leadership decides whether to accept the JEP’s charges of ordering and overseeing tens of thousands of kidnappings of civilians, its members are worried about their historical legacy, reports La Silla Vacía. “They fear they will go down in history as a criminal gang that committed crimes against humanity if they accept the charges against their leaders.”