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.”
- 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 three–part 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.