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.
Attacks on indigenous communities intensify in Cauca
It was another bitter week in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, the most dangerous of Colombia’s 32 departments to be a social leader. Cauca is enticing to drug traffickers and armed groups because the Pan-American highway traverses it, it has an extensive Pacific coast, and the Colombian government is absent from most rural areas. Cauca has the largest indigenous population of all departments. The rural population—which is the majority of the department’s 1.5 million people, much of them Afro-descendant and indigenous—is both caught in the crossfire and more organized than counterparts in most regions of Colombia.
Many areas that had been under FARC influence before the 2016 peace accord are disputed between some of three or four FARC dissident groups, the ELN, and neo-paramilitary and organized crime bands. Violence has flared up in 2021. Just in the past week:
- On April 17 the Army killed 14 members of the “Carlos Patiño Front” dissident group in the rural part of Argelia municipality, in southern Cauca. One soldier died. Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro said that a column of troops was attacked. Fighting between this dissident group and the ELN has terrorized Argelia’s rural population all year, causing thousands to displace. The Carlos Patiño is aligned with the largest network of FARC dissidents, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.” It inexplicably still has an active Facebook page.
- On April 20, in the northern part of Cauca, assailants shot and killed Sandra Liliana Peña Chocue, the 34-year-old governor of the La Laguna Sibera indigenous reserve in Caldono municipality. Peña, a member of the Nasa nation who had led local efforts to eradicate coca plants, was killed as she rode her motorcycle in rural Caldono.
- Indigenous communities in northern Cauca, mainly within the framework of the Cauca National Indigenous Council (CRIC), quickly mobilized to demand respect for their territory and organizations, joining in a coca eradication effort to carry on Sandra Liliana Peña’s work. This, too, was attacked on April 22, as several assailants opened fire on the eradicators and members of the Indigenous Guard, an unarmed but very disciplined security force, in rural Caldono. The attack injured about 31 Indigenous people. The Indigenous Guard captured seven of the attackers and one of their vehicles. According to the CRIC, the eradication effort continued after the attack.
While the attackers were almost certainly FARC dissidents, the CRIC’s statement evidenced the community’s intense distrust of the national government and its armed forces:
Today we were outraged to hear in a TV newscast, General Marco Mayorga Niño, commander of the III Army Division, assuring that “it has been agreed to coordinate with the authorities the eradication of coca found in the area,” and “to dialogue with the Indigenous Guard about coordinating security activities in the reserves’ territories.“ None of this corresponds to the truth.
On March 26, the nearby municipality of Corinto had been rocked by a car bomb that went off just outside the mayor’s office in the center of town. (An earlier update covers this incident.) Like this week’s attacks in Caldono, the car bombing was probably carried out by the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, the most powerful FARC dissident group in this part of Cauca. Like the Carlos Patiño Front further south, the Dagoberto Ramos is linked to the Gentil Duarte network. A third dissident group, the Jaime Martínez (also active on Facebook), operates nearby and also appears to be part of the Gentil Duarte structure.
“After the peace agreement, there were several months of very significant calm, but after that it’s been changing and there has developed a much more complicated situation than before the accord,” Dionisio Rodriguez Paz of the Cococauca organization said during the presentation of a CINEP human rights report this week.
A report from several local human rights groups cited by El Espectador recalls that Cauca, with about 3 percent of Colombia’s population, concentrates 28 percent of its murders of social leaders, which increased by 40 percent in the department from 2019 to 2020. Of 271 leaders killed in Cauca since the peace accord’s 2016 signing, 50.9 percent were Indigenous leaders.
Foreign Minister’s comment at UN meeting generates outrage
Concerns about social leaders were a frequent topic of discussion among international diplomats at the UN Security Council’s quarterly meeting to review aspects of peace accord implementation, held virtually on April 21.
Ambassadors praised some aspects of implementation, like the enrollment of 50 percent of demobilized guerrillas in collective and individual productive projects, and several welcomed the government’s proposal to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission to include compliance with the post-conflict transitional justice system’s (JEP’s) sentences. But they echoed concerns about rising violence, especially in areas of former FARC influence. “It is urgent that the policies and measures taken by the State—including the recent Strategic Security Plan—translate into better results, especially in the 25 municipalities that concentrate most of this violence,” read the statement from the UN Verification Mission’s director, Carlos Ruiz Massieu.
A big point was the continued slaughter of demobilized FARC members. The JEP’s president, Eduardo Cifuentes, said on April 19 that at least 276 former guerrillas had been killed since the peace accord went into effect. The latest was Ever Castro, a former FARC medic shot to death in Meta department on April 18. Castro’s killing happened only four days after another former FARC member, Fayber Camilo Cufiño, was killed in the same zone. “Much of the country was committed to the peace process until they noticed that we’d surrendered our weapons; after we turned in our guns, they left us on our own,” lamented to El Espectador Alexa Rochi, a fellow ex-combatant and close friend of Castro.
The figure of 276 murders represents more than 1 out of every 50 of the 13,185 guerrillas who passed through the peace accords’ demobilization process. Colombia’s Constitutional Court is reportedly studying legal petitions (tutelas) seeking to declare that the government’s insufficient protection of ex-combatants has reached an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” a term in Colombian law that would require the executive branch to take emergency measures.
In this context, part of the Colombian government’s remarks before the Security Council, as read by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum, were especially disconcerting. “The existence of FARC dissident groups,” she told the UN body, “should be considered as an example of non-compliance, precisely, of the former guerrillas who are now converted into a political party.”
Dissident groups are led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the accord or who abandoned the demobilization process and rearmed—a common outcome in peace processes. Perhaps 10 percent of former FARC members have chosen this path. Many if not most of the new groups’ members are new recruits with no prior FARC membership.
That the former FARC political party is somehow coordinating with the dissidents, perhaps using them as a “Plan B,” is an occasional talking point on Colombia’s right. (A few years ago, WOLA staff were surprised to hear it from a Trump administration official.) Blum appeared to be reinforcing this unfounded theory, further endangering the large majority of ex-guerrillas who have given up arms—a population already facing serious threat.
The “Plan B” theory is especially bizarre when one recalls that the dissidents are among the most frequent killers of their former comrades who demobilized. Estimates ranging from about 44 to 49 percent of ex-FARC killings were carried out by dissident groups. How then, could the demobilized guerrillas be responsible—using the Foreign Minister’s logic—for the existence of the same groups that are killing them?
La Silla Vacía pointed out another serious misstatement in Blum’s comments before the UN. “So far in 2021,” she said, “the total number of victimizations has fallen 51 percent compared to the same period of last year.” The online investigative site recalled that killings dropped by only 10 percent, from 20 during the first 3 months of 2020 to 18 during the first 3 months of 2021.
Expressions of disagreement with Blum’s comments came quickly.
- “For the United Nations it is very clear first to distinguish between the dissidents who have never been part of the process, those who were part of the process and unjustifiably left it, and the 90 percent who remain in the process and have been fulfilling their obligations,” said UN mission chief Ruiz Massieu. “For us this distinction is very clear.”
- “I reject the statements made by Foreign Minister Blum,” tweeted the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño. “Her speech is untrue and puts a target on the heads of the thousands of signatories of the Peace Accord who are committed to the fulfillment of what was agreed, despite the permanent non-compliance of this government.” Londoño went on to call for Blum’s resignation.
- “That the government would say this makes those who are killing us feel authorized to attack us,” said ex-FARC senator Julián Gallo.
- “I protest the statements made by the Foreign Minister,” tweeted Humberto de la Calle, who was the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the 2012-16 FARC talks. “She puts at risk the lives of former combatants who laid down their arms. It is the negation of the accord. It is a provocation. I demand retraction.”
In an April 22 tweet, the Colombian Presidency official most in charge of peace accord implementation, Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, raised eyebrows with a tweet thread that appeared to contradict the Foreign Minister’s UN comments. The dissidents “are the ones who have to answer individually, and this is not a responsibility that belongs to the Comunes party,” he wrote, tagging Londoño. Later that day, Archila’s office and the Foreign Ministry issued a joint statement that at least partially walked back Blum’s much-derided words at the UN:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Counselor’s Office emphasize that Colombia’s [UN] statement emphatically recognizes and reiterates the National Government’s support for the reincorporation process of the former combatants committed to the process, in its multiple political, economic, and social dimensions, and its commitment to their security and protection, and those of the members of the political party that emerged from it.
Fumigation edges closer to approval
In August 2018, Iván Duque assumed Colombia’s presidency vowing to restart a U.S.-backed program to eradicate coca by spraying a controversial herbicide, glyphosate, from aircraft. Thirty-two months later, this “fumigation” program is very close to restarting. “It seems like the return of illicit crop fumigation using glyphosate is imminent,” noted Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group at Razón Pública. “There is a high probability that in 2021 we will see the planes take off for the coca-growing areas,” wrote Juan Carlos Garzón and Ana María Rueda of the Ideas for Peace Foundation. As we noted in last week’s update, sources in Colombia’s presidency predicted to La Silla Vacía that aerial spraying could restart in June.
Following a World Health Organization study determining that glyphosate could be carcinogenic, Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years in which police and U.S. contractor-piloted planes sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) in an effort to kill coca. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out several criteria that would have to be met before any eventual restart of the spray program. (Those are laid out in last week’s update.) With a decree, an environmental finding, and a health study, Colombia’s government claims to have met these criteria.
The only step that remains is for the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government, to meet and ratify the program’s restart. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen with few obstacles. “The most likely scenario,” write Garzón and Rueda, “is that in 2021 spraying will begin in a dozen municipalities—in one of the six ‘nuclei’ for which the Anla [Colombia’s National Environmental Licensing Agency] has already given authorization.”
The main remaining potential obstacle to a renewed fumigation program is a Constitutional Court review of a legal complaint (tutela) filed by several Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Court has indicated it will hand down a decision in about a month.
The communities argue that they were not given an opportunity to participate in prior informed consultation on one of the Court’s required steps, the determination of environmental risk. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government sought to hold these consultations virtually over the internet. But most of the affected ethnic communities are in remote areas without broadband signal, if any.
As it weighs the evidence, the Constitutional Court has sent lists of tough questions to the Anla and the National Police. If the Court decides that barely accessible virtual meetings fail to meet its criteria, then the fumigation program’s restart will be substantially delayed. If the Court gives the program a green light, the “June” timetable mentioned above is likely.
If that happens, Garzón and Rueda predict that protests will quickly follow (though a recent La Silla Vacía report contended that coca-growers’ organizations are much weakened):
The photo of the [first] plane spraying will cause tensions and mobilizations that have already been anticipated. Beyond the discussion of whether the communities’ resistance is organic, spontaneous, or pressured by armed groups, this will be a difficult situation for the government to handle in a context of high social discontent that has been accumulating throughout the pandemic. This could be the spark that triggers and coheres protests and blockades.
Opposition to fumigation, on public health, environmental, and “bad drug policy” grounds, continues to mount. 39 NGOs sent a letter to the Constitutional Court asking the justices to rule in favor of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant complainants and suspend the spray program. A petition on change.org, meanwhile, is nearing 35,000 signatures.
- WOLA’s “Con Líderes Hay Paz” campaign hosted an event featuring stirring testimonies from prominent social leaders from Chocó, Buenaventura, Cali, and Córdoba.
- Colombian Army Colonel Pedro Pérez has gone missing in Saravena, Arauca, a town along the Venezuelan border with a long history of ELN influence. He was last seen, off duty, leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman on April 17. In another strange story, Semana revealed that another member of the Army, Sergeant Antonio Misse, may have been taken by Venezuelan forces while off duty on the Colombian side of the border near Cúcuta in December, and remains in Venezuelan custody.
- About 5,877 Venezuelans displaced by fighting between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group remain in 58 “informal reception points” in Arauca as of April 15, UNHCR reports. Though fighting has died down, very few have felt safe to return. A La Silla Vacía analysis contends that the ELN, which has strong influence over this zone of Arauca and Apure, Venezuela but has stayed to the margins of the latest fighting, is emerging as “the big winner.”
- The Jesuit think tank CINEP released a flurry of publications this week. The 62nd edition of Noche y Niebla, a publication synthesizing results of the group’s extensive conflict database, counts 846 victims of “social-political violence” in 2020, with 300 of them in Cauca. CINEP also published the latest edition of its long-running Cien Días political analysis magazine, and a five–part series in El Espectador about the ELN, drawn from a recently published book.
- Two police officers were shot and killed, probably by FARC dissidents, in the town center of Puerto Rico, Caquetá.
- The Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP), charged with providing security for prominent ex-guerrillas, is limiting their domestic travel. Comunes (ex-FARC) party Senator Julián Gallo had to go to court to get the UNP to provide security, as agreed in the peace accord, so he could carry out party business outside Bogotá. The judge who considered his case determined that the UNP had “placed in danger” the former FARC leader. On April 20 former FARC members of the Commission to Search for People Believed to be Disappeared, a body created by the peace accord, denounced that they are unable to do their work because the UNP is refusing to send bodyguards to accompany them on many of their missions.
- A bill seeking to legalize and regulate production, processing, and distribution of coca leaf passed its first step, gaining approval of a Colombian Senate committee. Members of the governing Centro Democrático party boycotted the 12-0 vote. By an 8-5 vote, a different Senate committee rejected a bill that would have prohibited aerial fumigation of coca with glyphosate.
- Journalist Jeremy McDermott of the investigative website InsightCrime is being sued for libel—a criminal charge in Colombia, potentially involving prison and steep fines—for a meticulously documented 2020 series showing that a Colombian businessman living in Spain is, in fact, a paramilitary-tied narcotrafficker. McDermott made a strong case that Guillermo Acevedo is a shadowy criminal warlord known as “Memo Fantasma”; Acevedo is pressing charges.
- VICE has produced a seven-episode podcast about the case of Drummond Coal, an Alabama-based mining company with large investments in Colombia, whose managers in Cesar stand accused of working with paramilitary groups to put down a unionization effort 20 years ago.
- Basing his 150-page analysis on 50 interviews with specialists and advocates, Mariano Aguirre unpacks the many causes of Colombia’s massive late-2019 social protests, and offers insight into how donor nations should shift their priorities. Lots of insight here into Colombia’s current challenges.
- An investigation by La Silla Vacía takes down the Chief Prosecutor’s Office’s (Fiscalía’s) tendency to rely on the term “clarifications” (esclarecimientos) when reporting its results, especially results for its efforts to bring to justice the killers of social leaders and ex-combatants. The term, which indicates that prosecutors have at least identified suspects, “adds up so many categories of judicial events—including several that do not provide the truth about who committed the crimes—that, in the end, it clarifies little about the progress of justice.”