During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Two high-profile attacks in Cúcuta in two weeks
The helicopter in which President Iván Duque and other top officials were traveling got hit by six bullets as it prepared to land in Cúcuta, capital of the conflictive Norte de Santander department in northeastern Colombia, on June 25. Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios, and Norte de Santander Governor Silvano Serrano were returning to Cúcuta from a visit to the municipality of Sardinata. All landed safely, with no injuries.
Sardinata is part of the Catatumbo region, which in 2019 made Norte de Santander Colombia’s number-one coca-producing department. It is an area of strong campesino organizations, but also has strong influence of armed groups like the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, a weak remnant of the old Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla group, and organized crime.
As of June 26 no group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the presidential helicopter.
This was the second major attack in 10 days on a difficult-to-reach government target in Cúcuta. On June 15, a car bomb injured 36 people at the headquarters of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade. It remains unclear how—as security camera footage reveals—the bomber was able to enter the base after a cursory security check an hour and a quarter before his vehicle exploded. The blast slightly injured some U.S. military trainers who had been present at the base.
The ELN denied responsibility for the bombing; in January 2019, the group had quickly admitted to a lethal bombing at the National Police academy in Bogotá. At Razón Pública, researcher Jorge Mantilla points to reasons why the ELN or ex-FARC dissidents might not be responsible. While he also casts doubt on “self-attack” hypotheses, Mantilla faults the government for a clear failure of counter-intelligence and force protection, asking how an attacker could so easily enter a base in one of Colombia’s most militarily fortified regions.
Ingrid Betancourt faces her former captors
The Truth Commission hosted three “recognition encounters” during the week, in which those responsible for war crimes met with, and showed contrition to, their victims. The highest-profile of these took place on June 23 in Bogotá, where FARC leaders who have admitted responsibility for kidnappings met with several people whom the group had held captive for years. The post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), has estimated that the FARC kidnapped 21,396 people during the conflict, either to extort ransom payments or to press for prisoner exchanges.
The best-known former hostage at the Bogotá event was Íngrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician whom the FARC held captive between 2002 and a July 2008 rescue. This was the first time Betancourt had agreed to meet with former FARC leaders. She participated at the invitation of the Truth Commission’s president, Fr. Francisco de Roux.
FARC leaders Rodrigo Londoño, Pastor Alape, Julián Gallo, and Pedro Trujillo voiced contrition. “We committed a serious crime, a product of the process of dehumanization into which we fall when we only see the world as divided between friends and enemies,” said Alape. “When we believe that all resources are valid to win the war.”
In her remarks, Betancourt noted that the ex-guerrillas’ participation was cause for “hope.” But she said she had wanted more. “I must confess that I am surprised that we on this side [the victims] are all crying, while the other side has not shed a single tear.” From some FARC leaders, she said she heard a “political speech” of contrition, but not enough words spoken from the heart.
Betancourt asked her former captors to reflect more fully on how they lost touch with their humanity, tying her remarks to the ongoing social protests that have swept Colombia since late April.
Interviewed by El Tiempo, Betancourt applauded the work the JEP did in documenting the FARC’s kidnappings and leading the ex-guerrilla leadership to recognize its responsibility. “Now what we are waiting for are the sentences, which I hope will be at the same level as the indictment,” she said, hoping that the JEP hands down punishments in conditions as austere as the peace accord allows. “It would be very sad if after having done this exercise, after weaving together all the experiences of so many people, we end up with justice condemning them to planting trees.”
U.S. reports an unexpectedly large increase in estimated coca cultivation
On June 25 the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP, also known as the “Drug Czar”) released the U.S. government’s estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia in 2020. It found a 16 percent increase from 2019, from a record 212,000 estimated hectares of coca to an even greater record of 245,000 hectares. This coca was potentially used, ONDCP estimated, to produce 1,010 metric tons of pure cocaine, up from 936 in 2019—an 8 percent increase.
The release notes that the cultivation increase happened despite Colombia’s government reporting a record 130,000 hectares of manual eradication of coca bushes, and the seizure of nearly 580 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base.
In 2020, the Trump administration’s ONDCP release covering 2019 had called for more forced coca eradication, including aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate. The government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this controversial U.S.-backed “fumigation” program in 2015 due to public health concerns, but the current government of Iván Duque has been working to reinstate it.
The June 25 ONDCP release barely mentions eradication. It makes no mention of the (now probably unreachable) objective of cutting coca cultivation in half by 2023, which the outgoing Santos administration had agreed with the Trump administration in 2018.
The U.S. estimate emerged about two weeks after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) made public its estimate of 2020 cultivation. (ONDCP and UNODC are the two institutions that estimate coca cultivation in the Andes.) Unlike the White House, the UN agency found a downward cultivation trendline. The UN estimate of 143,000 hectares is a 7 percent decrease from 2019, and 102,000 hectares fewer than what the U.S. government estimates.
While the two entities’ coca estimates are rarely close, it has been unusual for their trendlines to diverge, as has now happened for two consecutive years. The Colombian government considers the UN number to be “official” but does not publicly dispute the U.S. figure.
The UN estimate of Colombia’s potential 2020 cocaine production, however, increased by 8 percent from 2019 to 2020. More cocaine from fewer hectares probably means taller coca bushes, higher-yielding crops, and more robust chemical extraction methods. The UNODC estimate of Colombian cocaine production—1,228 metric tons—is, in fact, higher than the U.S. estimate (1,010).
“Technicians from both countries and the United Nations will review [the statistics] to identify methodological criteria necessary to harmonize for the next measurement cycle,” El Espectador reported. We know more about how the UN derives its estimates than we do about the U.S. methodology. In coming weeks, we can expect UNODC to publish a full report presenting crop monitoring trends by region. That report usually includes a discussion of how the agency relies on satellite imagery and closer monitoring of selected regions. The U.S. government has been more secretive; the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report points to much extrapolation, noting that it “conserves limited personnel and technical resources by employing sample survey methodologies to estimate illicit crop cultivation.”
Some protests continue as Colombia has difficult human rights discussions
The committee of civil-society leaders—mainly union leaders—who called for a national strike (Paro Nacional) on April 28, only to see protests go on for many weeks, have stopped calling for street demonstrations for now. They are taking their demands to Colombia’s Congress, where they plan to work with sympathetic legislators to introduce a raft of bills when the next legislative session begins on July 20. Labor leader Francisco Maltés told Reuters that if the Comité del Paro’s demands go unmet, an even greater national strike will take place during the second half of the year.
The Comité does not command all protesters, of course, and groups of mostly young people continued to take to the streets in Bogotá’s poorer southern neighborhoods, in “resistance” sites around Cali, and in Medellín, Bucaramanga, Pasto, and Popayán. While demonstrations and blockades were mostly peaceful, violence between police and protesters broke out several times during the week. A protester was killed in Bogotá. In Tuluá, north of Cali, the decapitated head of a young man who had participated in protests was found in a plastic bag; police blamed local drug trafficking gangs.
As the country eased COVID-19 restrictions before vaccines were widely available, Colombia now finds itself in a devastating third wave of infections and deaths. Colombia recorded more than 23,000 new infections per day in June, about three times as many as in March, Public Radio International reported. More than 600 people are dying every day, well over double the number in the United States right now. Only India and Brazil are seeing more death. Intensive-care wards in major cities are over 95 percent full.
The government and human rights defenders continue to disagree vehemently about the extent of human rights abuses committed by security forces.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) counts 24 deaths linked to the protests and is investigating 11 more.
- As of June 18, the widely cited NGO Temblores counted 43 homicides and was investigating 21 more.
- As of June 22, an effort to cross and verify databases by the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacía found 47 people likely killed in the framework of protests, 44 of them protesters. La Silla notes that the Fiscalía is omitting 23 killed people from its statistic even though they appear to meet the agency’s criteria.
- Voicing “deep concern about allegations of serious human rights violations by the state’s security forces,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council that “from April 28 to June 16 we have recorded allegations of 56 deaths, including 54 civilians and 2 police officers.” Bachelet’s remarks, which contrast with the Colombian government’s official figures, drew an angry response from Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Alicia Arango, who had drawn attention for troubling statements about killings of social leaders while in her previous post as interior minister.
Missing or disappeared people
A June 23 overview of people missing or disappeared in the context of the protests, compiled by La Liga Contra el Silencio, finds a variety of estimates of the missing, some of whom may still be in custody of the authorities. The Fiscalía counts 84 people who have yet to be found.
- “Between April 28 and May 27, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances registered 775 missing persons, of which 327 have yet to be found.”
- “In the report that Temblores ONG, Indepaz and PAIIS delivered to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) during its visit to Colombia, 346 people were reported missing directly to these entities between April 28 and May 31.”
- Just in the department of Valle del Cauca, of which Cali is the capital, “the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network has a report of 179 people missing since the strike began. Of these, 75 remain unaccounted for. …More than twenty of the people found had been taken to police stations and held without the right to communicate with their families. Some of them had wounds from firearms and sharp weapons, and signs of torture.”
The La Liga investigation recounts the experience of a Bogotá protester who, after being detained, was one of several young men kept in the back of a truck that uniformed police drove around the city nonstop, changing drivers, for more than two days while they threatened to kill their captives.
Gender-based and sexual violence
- The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría), which has come under fire and may be undergoing senior management changes after a less-than-vigorous response to the protests’ human rights situation, counts at least 113 cases of gender-based violence, the BBC reports.
- Temblores counts 28 cases of protesters being sexually abused.
The need to reform Colombia’s National Police, which President Duque acknowledged with a series of modest proposals on June 6, continues to be a frequent topic of discussion.
- Ingrid Betancourt, the former FARC hostage, raised it in a June 21 meeting with Duque. “What we have seen is that the security forces confronted them as if they were confronting the traditional enemies of this war, without the peace transition having happened,” Betancourt told El Tiempo. “The security forces have not been able to adapt to the new reality of peace.”
- Defense Minister Diego Molano sent a letter to Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa refusing Barbosa’s June 1 request to provide information about protest-related human rights cases currently before the military justice system. Molano said that, due to recent reforms, the military courts are no longer under his direct command, and that it is up to the judges in each case to share information.
- American actor Kendrick Sampson, who is Black, wrote in El Espectador of extreme hostility from police while on a visit to Cartagena last December. “Two police officers pulled up behind me, yelling and gesturing for me to face the wall. This was the sixth time I had experienced Cartagena’s stop and frisk policy in five days.I thought I knew what to expect, but this time was far more violent.” He concluded, “Our political leaders are funneling the bulk of our taxes into violent, militarized policing and the oppression of Black and Indigenous communities worldwide, instead of bringing adequate housing, healing and care.”
- La Silla Vacía’s Daniel Pacheco sat down with a group of police, who voiced grievance and a sense that the allegations against them are unfair and out of context. “If you make a mistake in your actions, if you do wrong, if you go too far, go to jail, my friend. But if you do nothing, you just lost your life, my friend.”
- A Datexco poll gave President Duque an approval rating of just 16 percent, with 79 percent disapproval. 31 percent of Colombians surveyed approve of the National Police, compared with 64 percent disapproval. (March 2020 was the first time Datexco found the Police with higher disapproval than approval.) The Police’s anti-riot unit, the ESMAD, had 28 percent approval and 66 percent disapproval. The Army is still in positive territory, with 56 percent approval and 38 percent disapproval.
Congress lets peace accord bill expire
On June 21 Colombia’s Congress finished a legislative session that had begun on July 20, 2020. While Interior Minister Daniel Palacios celebrated that the legislature passed 49 laws during the past year, the session ended with the Senate failing to bring up for debate a law necessary to implement key elements of the 2016 peace accord.
The “Agrarian Specialty” law intended to fulfill a key commitment of the accord’s first chapter, which covers “comprehensive rural reform,” seeking to address issues of land tenure, rural inequality, and lack of state presence that have underlain so much of the armed conflict.
The law would have established a system of judges specializing in rural issues. While Colombia’s cities have 11 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, the country’s notoriously abandoned rural areas have only 6 judges per 100,000. Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute, which the peace accord gives a formal role in monitoring implementation, noted in May that “other important Point 1 [chapter 1] commitments depend on the implementation of this system.”
The bill passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, with apparent support from President Duque’s governing Centro Democrático (CD) party. But it ran into trouble in the Senate, even as it sailed through committee on May 25 by an 18-3 vote. The three opponents were CD senators.
Ultraconservative CD Senator María Fernanda Cabal, an outspoken defender of large landholders’ interests (her husband heads Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation, Fedegán), began to campaign against the bill. Cabal, La Silla Vacía reports, “recorded a video urging peasants to call their senators to oppose the ‘dangerous desk law’ that would create ‘an agrarian JEP where judges will begin to persecute rural property.’”
The congressional session neared its end without the bill coming up for Senate consideration. President Duque and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz told foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, that the Agrarian Specialty law would move ahead. But it did not. La Silla Vacía alleges that Duque was saying one thing and doing quite another.
The reason [for the bill’s expiration], as La Silla was able to confirm with two sources who have ways to know, was that the Government expressly asked [Senate President Arturo] Char not to place it on the agenda. Calendarizing is a key step for a bill to be voted on the following day.
“The Colombian Senate adjourned its session and did not consider the Agricultural Specialty Law,” tweeted Rep. Juanita Goebertus, who before her election was a member of the government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana. “The government committed to moving it forward. The Minister of Justice lied and betrayed his word. They swore to the entire international community that they are implementing the peace accord, and they’re laughing in our faces.”
Longtime maximum ELN leader quits
After 23 years as top commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, Nicolás Rodríguez Batista alias “Gabino” is standing down at age 71. Rodríguez joined the ELN as a 14-year-old in 1965. He is among guerrilla leaders who remain in Cuba after the 2019 collapse of peace talks, and has been getting medical treatment there since 2018.
His replacement atop the group’s loose chain of command is longtime top leader Antonio García (the alias of Eliécer Chamorro Acosta), who is considered a hardline ideologue but has participated in past dialogues with the government. The new number-two ELN leader is alias Pablo Beltrán, who also remains in Cuba; he was the chief guerrilla negotiator during the peace process that failed following a January 2019 guerrilla bombing of Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The new number three leader, Pablo Marín, also known as “Pablito,” commanded the ELN’s largest unit, the Eastern War Front located in and around Arauca, and across the border in Venezuela. He is probably a skeptic of peace negotiations. Fighters under Marín’s command almost certainly carried out the 2019 bombing.
- “Given the large volume of reports we have received from Colombia since the start of the national strike on April 28, we are releasing English-language information about these human rights violations in two parts,” begins WOLA’s latest regular overview of Colombia’s human rights situation. It is, sadly, a long document.
- Colombia’s Defense Minister and National Police Chief told those at a June 22 press conference that Dairo Úsuga alias “Otoniel,” the maximum head of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, is “cornered and going hungry” as security forces pursue him in the country’s northwest.
- A graphical update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports a 101% increase in forced displacement in Colombia from January to May 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. The agency counted 29,252 people displaced in 63 events, with Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca the hardest-hit departments.
- Senators Rick Scott (R-Florida), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a resolution supporting Colombia’s government and condemning “efforts to undermine democracy.” It makes no mention of the Colombian security forces’ human rights record in the context of recent protests. Four Florida Republican House of Representatives members introduced an identical resolution in their chamber.
- Former top leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary confederation, who demobilized in the mid-2000s, told a transitional justice judge that they feel unprotected and fear for their lives. Among those participating virtually in the hearing was former maximum AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is in a U.S. immigration detention center, fighting deportation to Colombia after serving a drug trafficking sentence in U.S. prison. They said that 4,000 of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who demobilized in the so-called “Justice and Peace Process” have since been killed, some of them in Colombian prisons.
- The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported that six members of the Jivi indigenous nation were killed by ex-FARC dissident fighters in the state of Apure, which borders Colombia and has seen combat between dissidents and Venezuelan forces since March. The crime may have been retribution for the indigenous people’s theft of government food handouts from a truck.
- El Espectador profiles 11 social leaders and local government officials in Arauca whom authorities arrested in the early morning hours of May 27. Prosecutors allege that they are part of the support network for the “10th Front” ex-FARC group, believed to be aligned with dissident leader Gentil Duarte.
- The Bogotá-based think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of political violence, reports a decline in deaths resulting from political violence since December 2020.