Going over my photos from our early October visit to Colombia, I found this one, taken on October 3 from our car window, while driving through the hamlet of La Esmeralda, between Arauquita and Saravena, Arauca. This area is heavily under the influence of the ELN guerrilla group.
An unremarkable photo of a tidy small-town street. Until you zoom in:
You’ve got a mom and 2 cute kids, some street-sweeping equipment—and, below the window on the right, some stenciled ELN graffiti.
A tranquil scene, marred by a message from a group responsible for, by all accounts we heard, the largest share of Arauca’s 130-plus homicides so far this year.
After our early October visit to Arauca, Colombia, WOLA colleagues and I spent several days in the middle section of Chocó. This department (province) borders both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as Panama, in Colombia’s far northwest. It’s been a week and a half since we completed this last leg of our trip. It took a while for me to type up these notes, in part because the situation I’m describing is so grim.
Chocó is big and sparsely populated, with about a half-million people in an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is beautiful and biodiverse. Most of its forests remain in pristine condition—for now—which helps make it one of the two or three rainiest places on the planet. It has thousands of miles of rivers.
It is also Colombia’s poorest department, with a very slight presence of the government. Over 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Chocó is mostly roadless, and the only way to get around is via rivers, especially the Atrato, which runs from about 40 miles east of the Pacific into the Caribbean. Fuel is expensive, and so is riverboat travel.
Because Chocó is hard to get around, our visit was limited to the middle and upper Atrato River regions, a few hours north and south of Quibdó, the capital. The Atrato, which flows from south to north, is a major vector for trafficking cocaine and other contraband, and has long been violently contested by drug traffickers and armed groups.
The middle and upper Atrato is living a tense calm, sandwiched between more violent regions of Chocó to the north and south. The lower Atrato river, flowing into the Caribbean in northern Chocó, is a site of intense fighting between the ELN guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which have gained control of principal towns. To the south of where we went, in Chocó’s San Juan and Baudó river valleys, fighting between the ELN and paramilitaries (and more recently, FARC dissident groups) has displaced thousands of people, mostly indigenous communities.
In the communities we visited in the middle and upper Atrato regions—just as in Arauca—security conditions aren’t as dire, but the armed groups are on the move. People told us they had lived a period of peace from about 2016 to 2018. This coincided with the latter phases of the FARC-government peace negotiations and the FARC guerrillas’ subsequent withdrawal and demobilization in Chocó. “With the Santos government and the peace process, we breathed a new breath of tranquility,” a social leader told us. Populations’ mobility increased, and forced recruitment and laying of landmines abated.
As in Arauca, we heard that this began to get worse in late 2018 and early 2019. As in Arauca, we heard that the ELN and a growing number of FARC dissidents are observing a loose and fragile non-aggression pact (at least in the middle region; in southern Chocó, they are fighting). As in Arauca, we heard of large-scale recent recruitment by all armed groups, mostly of minors. A few times, social and religious leaders in the upper and middle Atrato used the term “time bomb” to describe conditions: a fear that violence may soon explode to levels not seen since the armed conflict’s worst years. We heard similar concerns in Arauca.
In Chocó, the ELN guerrillas quickly filled the vacuums left by the demobilizing FARC’s 34th and 57th fronts. Their territorial control was quickly contested by paramilitaries, nominally affiliated with the “Gulf Clan” organized crime network. More recently, some demobilized FARC have rearmed, though it appears that most of the dissidents’ membership are new recruits. Many communities now live in contested territory, which is far worse than living under the monopoly control of a single armed group.
The guerrillas, dissidents, and paramilitaries fight for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitaries are also violently appropriating land deeded to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Quibdó, a frequent destination for displaced people, is hardly an oasis of calm. Urban violence, much of it gang or armed-group related, has left Quibdó with one of the highest homicide rates among Colombia’s mid-sized cities. Nearly all businesses in the capital must make extortion payments to someone.
Colombia’s security forces, to the extent they’re present, stand widely accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries, allowing them to pass through riverine checkpoints, sometimes in large numbers, and to bring their illicit products downriver or overland into Panama. We heard this denounced several times. “The paramilitaries pass by in boats easily,” a social leader told us. “There’s no trust with the security forces,” said another. “If you talk to them about something, the paramilitaries will get the information.… I see, and I stay quiet—that’s how the people have to be.”
For the military, collaboration with paramilitaries is not a counterinsurgency strategy, as it was in the 1980s-2000s. It’s mainly corruption: local personnel are getting something in return. And to some extent, it’s fear: what would actually happen to an army, police, or marine commander who challenged the paramilitaries or seized large amounts of their cocaine? Would forces based in faraway Bogotá, Medellín, or even Quibdó be able to protect that officer from retribution? It’s doubtful.
The resurgent ELN is treating the population brutally, controlling their movements, recruiting youth, and laying landmines. Residents of riverside communities say they are crueler than the FARC. Rapes of women, in particular, are happening “every day.” ELN leaders are ignoring communities’ attempts at dialogue. “With the FARC we knew who to talk to, now, we don’t. You get a phone number, nobody answers,” a leader told us.
Paramilitaries are similarly terrorizing the population. Combat and tight controls on people’s movement have confined indigenous communities up the Atrato River’s tributaries. Guerrilla landmines are doing the same. Confined communities are suffering malnutrition and lack of medical care. Selective killings are increasing. Paramilitaries are arriving in communities demanding that they turn over social leaders.
We visited the town of Bojayá, on the Atrato about 3 1/2 hours’ boat ride downriver from Quibdó. In May 2002, Bojayá was the site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Colombia’s conflict. During an episode of combat between the FARC and paramilitaries, much of the town’s population was taking refuge in its church. The FARC indiscriminately launched a gas-cylinder and shrapnel bomb into the church, killing 79 people, most of them children, and wounding many more. Even before the FARC peace talks concluded, local guerrilla leader Pastor Alape visited Bojayá and asked for forgiveness.
Bojayá’s victims have received some reparations from the government, including the building of a new town about a kilometer upriver (a town that lacks electricity much of the time), and money that many used to buy their own riverine passenger boats. Still, Bojayá’s residents feel unsafe as the ELN activates and paramilitaries move in from the north. Bojayá and the town across the river, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, sit on a junction of rivers that is strategic for trafficking and control of tributaries. Opogadó, about an hour downriver in Bojayá municipality, has seen a jump in selective killings this year. “Bojaya is remembered for a massacre. We don’t want there to be another,” said a local leader.
Chocó also has a lot of illegal gold-mining, causing severe environmental damage on rivers. Criminal groups, usually with acquiescence or collaboration from local political leaders, send dredges and backhoes up the Atrato’s tributaries, digging up river banks and dumping mercury into the streams. Some rivers have been “killed” by the churning of their banks, leaving them wide, shallow, and impassable. There is less mining now than before, thanks to a police crackdown, but some tributaries continue to suffer from it. And once gold is mined, it mixes in with “legal” gold and can’t be interdicted easily. The mining thrives with corruption, which allows it to operate in the open in some river tributaries.
Political corruption is epic in Chocó. The two dominant political clans, the Sánchez Montes de Oca and Torres networks, face numerous accusations (and some convictions) of collaboration with paramilitary groups. With a well-oiled political machinery, their preferred candidates are likely to do well in the October 27 local elections.
Chocó also has coca, mainly in the San Juan and Baudó river regions south of where we were. But it is not a major producer: the UNODC measured 2,100 hectares in 2018, putting Chocó in 11th place among Colombia’s 32 departments, a reduction from 2,600 in 2017. Chocó is unlikely to be a major target of U.S.-backed forced eradication (or renewed aerial herbicide fumigation) campaigns.
I wish I could end these notes with something positive about what we saw. Chocó does have a very strong network of civil society groups, especially Afro-Colombian community councils, indigenous reserves, victims’ associations, the Catholic Church’s Quibdó Diocese, and—perhaps most vibrantly—women’s groups.
Many have been promoting a humanitarian accord, committing the ELN to respecting the civilian population, the government to protecting citizens and breaking up paramilitary groups, and both parties to restarting negotiations. But for now, with ELN peace talks over since January, the “Acuerdo Humanitario Ya” movement is having trouble getting traction. Meanwhile, the social leaders promoting peaceful solutions are keeping a lower profile amid worsening threats and attacks.
These civil society groups need all the solidarity and international accompaniment that they can get. Especially now, as the “time bomb” keeps ticking in Chocó.
The conference I participated in is over (see coverage at the #FESSeguridadIncluyente Twitter hashtag). It was great to spend 2 1/2 days with people working on aspects of security policy from at least 10 other countries in the region. Well worth having to spend the weekend working.
Today (Wednesday 16th) is the second day in October during which I’ll spend all 24 hours in Washington. I was in Colombia September 30-October 11, then in New York for family reasons on the 12-14.
And tomorrow I fly back to Bogotá. I’ll be participating in a conference, hosted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, that will be gathering security experts from all over Latin America to talk about the current moment. It’s going to be great to see so many old colleagues, and hear from new ones. As indicated in the program, I’m on the eighth and final panel, on Saturday afternoon.
Because I’ll be mobile and in meetings, posting to this website will continue to be sporadic. For a while, in fact: between now and November 15 I’ll be in Colombia, Florida, at the U.S-Mexico border, and in Ohio. Then the travels should settle down for the remainder of the year.
En Nariño, Norte de Santander y Putumayo, que a diciembre pasado sumaban el 61 por ciento de las hectáreas (según cifras de la Unodc), todos los candidatos a gobernaciones están en contra de la fumigación
He was forced to balance demands of the Indigenous protesters, whose opposition has contributed to the downfall of three modern presidents, and those imposed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for a $4.2 billion loan
Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.
Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.
The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.
A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.
The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.
That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.
Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.
That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.
Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.
I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.
Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)
The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.
Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.
We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.
Here’s the unremarkable view from my hotel near the Bogotá, Colombia airport. We just arrived last night, and in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to another region of the country. If I post from that region at all, it will be content that doesn’t reveal my location. I’ll be back in Bogotá on Friday.
I’m leaving Monday morning for an 11-day visit to Colombia. We’ll be doing field research in two regions of the country, plus a couple of days in Bogotá. It’s shaping up to be an incredible trip, though there’s never enough time to do things as thoroughly as one would like.
That’s four days from now. Over those four days, I need to finish a draft of a big report based on our mid-August visit to the Mexico-Guatemala border. I’m already up over 6,000 words, and I think a barely workable first draft is about six hours away.
Once that’s in the bag, I plan to put in many hours of “desk research” about the two Colombian regions I’ll be visiting, so that I can get the most out of our scheduled interviews. All that, plus 11 hours of meetings scheduled for today and tomorrow, packing for the trip, and spending some time with my family over the weekend before I go away.
This is all to say that, because of that workload, this site may be barely active over the next two weeks. I’ll try to post from Colombia, though for security reasons I won’t post from the regions I visit until I leave those regions.
As of today, though, I need to put on hold things like posting news links. I’ll actually be traveling quite a bit in October: Colombia twice, Florida, Los Angeles, and maybe New York. So my posts here will probably be sporadic for a while.
My calendar shows three calls scheduled today with mostly academic colleagues in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also taking my daughter for her annual doctor checkup in the early afternoon. This evening WOLA is holding a public reception for Latin American human rights defenders who are in town for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission hearings.
The FY2020 Homeland Security appropriations bill fully funds the President’s request for the border wall while also providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the detention capacity needed to enforce immigration laws
Las personas que realizaron este reconocimiento a la Comisión son el mayor del Ejército Gustavo Enrique Soto; José Éver Veloza, excomandante de las AUC; y José Benito Ramírez, quien en la guerra fue conocido ‘Fabián Ramírez’
Según el documento, el objetivo de la reunión habría sido discutir “la propuesta de crear un bloque político de la izquierda Latinoamericana, y el apoyo de movimiento de tropas y entrenamiento a milicias (Eln y Gao-re)”
As the one-year anniversary of López Obrador’s presidency approaches, expectations are high that his government will do what his predecessors have not: provide answers to the tens of thousands of families of the disappeared
Central America Regional, Mexico
Rick Jervis, Daniel Borunda, Vicky Camarillo, Rafael Carranza, Daniel Connolly, Hannah Gaber, Diana Garcia, Julia Gavarrete, Alan Gomez, Daniel Gonzalez, Jack Gruber, Harrison Hill, Sandy Hooper, Bart Jansen, Mark Lambie, Pamela Ren Larson, Sean Logan, Aaron Montes, Omar Ornelas, Nick Oza, Rebecca Plevin, Annie Rice, Joe Rondone, Courtney Sacco, Matt Sobocinski, Lauren Villagran, Jared Weber, “One Deadly Week Reveals Where the Immigration Crisis Begins — and Where It Ends” (USA Today, September 25, 2019).
In one week, thousands of migrants overwhelm the U.S. border. We reveal their dangerous journeys and the broken immigration system that awaits them
Resource conflicts and the management and protection of Venezuela’s natural heritage are not only important from a conservation angle—they are the key to achieving a sustainable political solution and unlocking Venezuela’s future
El presidente de Rusia, Vladímir Putin, reiteró junto al gobernante venezolano Nicolás Maduro, su apoyo a «todas las autoridades legítimas» del país y expresó su respaldo al diálogo entre el chavismo y 5 partidos minoritarios
Other than an internal meeting in the morning, I should be around today. My goal is to make huge progress on a report about the Mexico-Guatemala border, so that I can have an advanced draft in process by the time I travel to Colombia for a 10-day trip starting Monday.
I’ll be attending an all-day discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace about implementation of the the “Leahy Law,” a 20-plus-year-old condition that (in theory) stops U.S. security assistance to foreign units that violate human rights with impunity. I’ll be hard to contact.
The department said no Native American tribal lands or national parks were included in the transfer, which includes areas next to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona and Otay Mountain Wilderness in California
Archila reveló que están en ejecución 1,1 billones de pesos y anticipó que en diciembre se sabrá realmente cuánto se requerirá en los próximos años para atender las necesidades de los seis pilares básicos
El escolta de Yolanda González, una lideresa protegida por la UNP, murió abatido por militares y ella resultó gravemente herida. La mujer contradice la versión del Ejército que asegura que el escolta habría disparado primero
En las pasadas elecciones guatemaltecas ganó la presidencia el exdirector del Sistema Penitenciario Alejandro Giammattei —quien asumirá el próximo enero—, conocido por haber sofocado un supuesto motín en 2006 y después acusado de facilitar una lista de reos para ejecutarlos
Neither the United States nor Venezuela’s neighbors support military action, so barring direct aggression by Venezuela or the Colombian groups now based on its territory, that’s unlikely to be a means for toppling the regime
1:00–3:00 at Due Process of Law Foundation: ¿Puede América Latina perseguir eficazmente crímenes atroces y gran corrupción? Desafíos de las fiscalías y el papel del derecho internacional (RSVP required).
I spent the weekend writing a memo about police assistance, then a declaration for one of the several cases being litigated against the Trump administration’s efforts to limit asylum. Today, I’ve got a long morning staff meeting, coffee with a colleague in the afternoon, and will be speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event in the evening.
Otherwise I’ll be working on a big report about the Mexico-Guatemala border, nailing down details for a trip to Colombia next week, and answering messages that went unanswered while working on last week’s Colombia conference.