(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 18-24.)
Duque Pulls Ahead in Presidential Polls
After handily winning a primary of right-wing candidates that accompanied March 11 legislative elections, Bogotá Senator Iván Duque has rapidly emerged as the frontrunner for the May 27 presidential elections. Duque, the candidate of far-right former president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, now holds a comfortable double-digit lead and is in striking distance of the 50 percent threshold he would have to hit to avoid a second-round runoff in June.
An Invamer poll commissioned by three large Colombian media outlets found Duque with 45.9 percent of voters’ preference. He is followed by:
- 26.7% for leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, who won his own “primary” ballot on March 11;
- 10.7% for center-left former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo;
- 6.3% for center-right former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras;
- 5.0% for former vice-president and former government peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle;
- 2.5% for socially conservative former chief prosecutor Viviane Morales; and
- 0.6% for leftist former senator Piedad Córdoba.
The same polling company found Duque with only 8.4 percent support in December and 9.2 percent in January.
Though he is President Uribe’s standard-bearer (and has to keep denying that he is Uribe’s “puppet”), Duque presents himself as a more moderate candidate than his party’s firebrand leader. He did so on a brief visit to Washington this week, when he called his governing platform “center-centrist” and said that “left and right” is a thing of the past. Duque met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and spoke at an Inter-American Dialogue event.
Political moderation aside, Duque called for adjustments to the FARC peace accord that could be fatal to the process, such as demanding that no ex-guerrillas hold office without first being judged by a transitional justice tribunal. He also proposed a constitutional change to make narcotrafficking a “non-amnistiable” offense. If applied retroactively to ex-guerrillas who did not enrich themselves through the drug trade, this reform would send many to jail for a long time, a prospect that would probably cause them to take up arms again.
Duque also called for a reactivation of the U.S.-backed program of aerially fumigating coca fields with herbicides, which Colombia suspended in 2015. This time, Duque proposed using a chemical other than glyphosate, which a 2015 WHO study found to be potentially carcinogenic.
U.S. Congress Extends the “Peace Colombia” Aid Package Into 2018
Back in May, the Trump White House proposed a 36 percent across-the-board cut, from 2016 levels, in U.S. assistance to Colombia. The cut would have more than undone the 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package, proposed by then-president Barack Obama a year earlier, that intended to help Colombia implement aspects of the FARC peace accord. Colombia was not being singled out: Trump’s “America First” priorities called for similar cuts to Latin America and most of the world.
The Republican-majority U.S. congress un-did those proposed cuts completely, repeating the “Peace Colombia” numbers exactly for 2018. Colombia will receive $391 million in mostly non-military assistance this year from the State Department and Foreign Operations appropriation. In addition, it would get an as-yet undetermined amount of military and police aid (in 2016 it was $78.8 million) through the Department of Defense’s counter-drug budget.
Undaunted, the Trump administration has requested a similar cut to Colombia aid for 2019.
This week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would transfer $2.5 million from other accounts to Colombia to “provide emergency food and health assistance for vulnerable Venezuelans and the Colombian communities who are hosting them.”
Also this week, the State Department published its latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, an annual document looking at the state of worldwide illicit drug production and trafficking, and U.S. efforts to stop them. This year’s report noted that “Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production exceeded all-time record levels during 2016,” but that “Colombia continues to take steps to combat the drug trade.”
An editorial in the Colombian daily El Espectador was critical. “Since Donald Trump arrived in the Presidency, the United States has been a diffuse ally with regard to narcotrafficking. We went from understanding that the peace accord would bring an increase in violence and illicit crops while new measures began to be implemented, to being constantly reminded that they’re watching us and that not enough is being done.” It concludes, “the situation is not good, but the seeds for solving the problem are in the accord. We must persist.”
ELN Talks Develop “Roadmap”
The round of negotiations with the ELN guerrillas that began March 15 is slowly progressing. Negotiators agreed on a timeline for discussions to be held in Quito, Ecuador between now and May 18.
For now, they are considering proposals for how to incorporate civil-society participation in future dialogues. On April 2, they will begin discussing a future cessation of hostilities, based on the experience of a 100-day bilateral ceasefire that the government and guerrillas failed to renew on January 9. Meanwhile, on April 5 they will develop a response to a civil-society proposal that they agree to, and observe, a humanitarian accord in the northwestern department of Chocó, where fighting between the ELN and the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group has displaced thousands.
“We have reasonable expectations of advancing quickly in the building of a new ceasefire with the ELN, based on experiences collected by the oversight and verification mechanism of the prior ceasefire,” said chief government negotiator Gustavo Bell. That mechanism was made up of staff from the UN mission verifying security for the FARC peace process, and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference.
ELN-EPL Fighting Continues in Catatumbo
Aggression continues between the ELN and the EPL, a small but locally powerful guerrilla group, in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing areas. The two groups got along for years, but are now confronting each other as they compete to fill spaces vacated by the FARC, and as the EPL undergoes leadership changes. The population of Catatumbo is caught in between.
A week after a meeting between local leaders ended with six dead and three wounded, several Catatumbo municipalities have seen businesses and schools shuttered for fear of further violence. The EPL has blockaded roads, leaving parts of the region cut off. The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) says that at least 1,350 people have been displaced.
Slain Afro-Colombian Leader’s Children Are Murdered
Last June, many Colombians were horrified by the murder of Afro-Colombian leader Bernardo Cuero. A leader of the National Association of Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in the Pacific port city of Tumaco, Cuero was killed by an assassin in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla.
This week in Tumaco, two motorcycle-mounted hitmen shot and killed two of Cuero’s children, Silvio Duban Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero. Denouncing the crime, AFRODES pointed out that the double murder took place twelve days after the first hearing in Bernardo Cuero’s case.
Crop-Substitution Leader Killed in Bajo Cauca
Colombian army personnel found the body of José Herrera in Valdivia, Antioquia, not far from the town of El Aro, Ituango (the site of a notorious 1997 paramilitary massacre). A local Community Action Board leader, Herrera was a founder of the Bajo Cauca Campesino Association and a member of the Marcha Patriótica, a left-leaning nationwide campesino network. He was also one of his community’s leading participants in a coca-substitution program that the government is carrying out within the framework of the FARC peace accord.
Herrera’s home region of Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, a few hours’ drive northwest of Medellín, has been one of Colombia’s most violent in 2018. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 2,192 people displaced there between January 18 and March 9.
Nationwide, participants in peace-accord crop substitution programs are being increasingly targeted. At least twelve were killed in 2017, and nine so far in 2018. El Colombiano cites a recent report from INDEPAZ blaming most of these killings on the Urabeños and the EPL. Eduardo Álvarez of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank (FIP) also cites “tensions between small-scale coca cultivators and large-scale farmers who don’t view substitution as any kind of incentive.” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas adds that four members of the security forces were killed during forced eradication operations in 2017, and another thirty-one, plus nine civilians, were wounded.
Dissident Groups Attack at the Colombia-Ecuador Border
A group of un-demobilized ex-FARC fighters active in the coca-growing countryside of Tumaco in far southwestern Colombia, set off a roadside bomb across the border in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers.
The group believed responsible is headed by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” a native of Esmeraldas, Ecuador who spent time in the FARC. His group, El Colombiano reports, “wants to recover for Mexican ‘narcos,’ according to military intelligence sources, a strategic corridor allowing him to take coca paste into the country.” FIP’s Eduardo Alvarez says, “‘Guacho’s’ people are sponsored by Colombian narcos, and intermediaries of Mexican cartels, who help with logistics, resources, and arms.” Alvarez told El Colombiano that Guacho’s group has perhaps 400 to 450 members (a very high estimate), many of whom belonged to FARC structures.
Tumaco and adjoining northwest Ecuador appear to be the busiest coastal jumping-off point for cocaine shipments headed to Mexico and Central America.
New Military Estimate of FARC Dissidents
The government’s estimate of the nationwide membership of these FARC “dissident” groups leapt to 1,200, amid rapid desertion of the accord implementation process and recruitment. Armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía’s February 2017 estimate of dissidents was 300 members. “Initially there was a jump from 500 to 750, to 1,000… and now the figure is approximately 1,200,” Mejia told reporters. This coincides with a February review of the situation by the FIP, which estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 members of at least a dozen groups operating most often in 6 departments.
Gen. Mejía added that the government has captured, killed, or accepted the desertions of 248 FARC dissidents since the middle of 2017.
Bill Would Change Law for Small-Scale Illicit Crop Cultivators
Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero introduced legislation in Colombia’s Congress to change how the government deals with some criminal aspects of drug policy. If passed into law, the bill would fulfill a commitment the government made in the Havana peace accord.
It would offer lighter penalties to small-scale coca cultivators. The government reduced that definition of small-scale cultivator from an initial proposal of 3.8 hectares (9.5 acres) or less of coca, to 1.7 hectares (4.25 acres) or less. The FARC political party complained about this reduction, arguing that it leaves out many cultivators who should be considered small-scale.
The bill also hold the possibility of a 50 percent reduction in sentences for members of criminal groups who turn themselves in and give evidence about their group’s activities. While its language appears to be ambiguous about whether FARC dissidents count as members of such “criminal groups,” President Santos insisted that dissidents, who violated the terms of their demobilization, would not qualify.
Coca Eradication and CEO Expansion
Since 2017, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said, the Colombian government has forcibly eradicated 60,000 hectares of coca: 53,000 in 2017 and 6,500 so far this year.
These operations are supported by the U.S. government, most notably through the establishment of Strategic Operational Commands (CEOs) combining police and military activities in specific regions. Vice-President Oscar Naranjo said that a fourth CEO will be established next week in Norte de Santander department. The other three are based in Tumaco, Nariño; San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; and Caucasia, in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region.
The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2016. The White House released that estimate on March 14, 2017. It has been more than a year, but no estimate for 2017 has yet appeared.
New UN Human Rights Representative
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá is bidding farewell to Todd Howland, a U.S. citizen who held the post since 2012. Howland gained high marks for outspoken but well-researched advocacy for judicial accountability for past human rights abuses, protection of human rights defenders and ethnic groups, assistance in bringing a peaceful end to campesino protests, and technical support to the peace process.
Howland’s replacement, accredited by the Colombian government, is Alberto Brunori, an Italian citizen who had been heading UNHCHR’s Central America regional office. Before that, he headed the High Commissioner’s offices in Guatemala and Mexico, and helped to launch the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
- Dario Villamizar, “¿Por Qué Colombia Necesita a la Farc en la Política?” (The New York Times, March 23, 2018).
- Thale Jenssen, “10 Things Threatening the Peace in Colombia” (Norwegian Refugee Council, March 22, 2018).
- Helga Malmin Binningsbø, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård, Marianne Dahl, Michael Weintraub, “Perceptions of and Experience With the Peace Process in Colombia” (PRIO (Norway), March 22, 2018).
- Andres Garcia Trujillo, Martha Maya Calle, “Las Seis Cosas de la Implementacion Que las Campanas Electorales No Dejan Ver” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), March 21, 2018).
- Juan Diego Ortiz Jimenez, “Metrocable de San Javier: Los Suenos al Viento” (El Colombiano (Medellin Colombia), March 21, 2018).
- Yhoban Hernandez, “En Cacarica se Preparan para Comision de la Verdad” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), March 20, 2018).