Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




Civil-Military Relations

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

What happened in the United States, and the danger of politicized security forces

Here’s the original English text of an article I contributed to Fonte Segura, a newsletter produced by Brazil’s Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Analítica Comunicação. It offers some warnings and lessons, for Brazil and elsewhere, from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It borrows a few sentences of language from my January 11 e-mail newsletter update, but is otherwise original material.

On the afternoon of January 6, as television images showed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters entering and ransacking the U.S. Capitol building, my first thought—the first thought of many Americans—was: where are the security forces?

A thin line of U.S. Capitol Police (the force that protects the installations of the U.S. Congress), not outfitted for crowd control, was quickly overwhelmed. For far too long—hours—a few hundred Washington, DC city police were the only other law enforcement personnel to arrive on the scene.

The United States has been rigorously preparing and drilling its law enforcement forces to deal with attacks and disturbances since September 11, 2001. Off-the-shelf interagency plans exist. Tens of billions have been spent on new capabilities to protect federal government facilities and monuments. Displays of force and caution are so common that the term “security theater” is now part of the American vernacular. We all saw, in response to the June 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the remarkable and intimidating capability that U.S. law enforcement, both local and federal, can muster. In one night in Washington—June 1, 2020—police arrested 289 mostly peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protesters.

On January 6, though, when the protesters were mostly white and egged on by a sitting president, the deployment was far smaller, and agents were not initially equipped with riot gear. Capitol Police arrested only 13 people during the day of the rampage; Washington municipal police arrested 69 more.

The U.S. Congress’s Capitol Police force had seemed formidable. Though it only protects a neighborhood-sized area, its force of 2,000 officers has a half-billion-dollar budget, greater than that of the armed forces of Guatemala. They give an impression of being a thorough force that controls its territory on a micro level, known for scolding tourists for minor transgressions and arresting peaceful protesters, while mobilizing quickly when a threat arises.

But the force fell apart rapidly and spectacularly on January 6, and investigators are trying to figure out why. Clearly, a small but not insignificant number of Capitol Police officers shared sympathies with the pro-Trump rioters and were complicit, allowing them to enter the Capitol grounds and posing for selfies.

That’s of huge concern, and must be punished to the maximum criminal penalty. But the complicity of some doesn’t explain the failure: some Capitol police performed heroically to stop or divert the rioters. One died and more than 50 were injured.

The more urgent unanswered question is why the force received so little backup, so slowly, from a presidential administration that has been quick to contain other recent protests by deploying border agents, DEA agents, Bureau of Prisons personnel, and Army National Guardsmen. Barricaded in rooms with the mob just outside, congressional leaders and even Vice President Pence (who had been presiding the Senate) were calling urgently for help. Why did it take hours to come?

We now know that President Trump spent those hours glued to the television, appearing delighted at the spectacle and unwilling to call in security. Capitol security leadership and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have spent days engaging in finger-pointing, blaming each other for not responding, or for not making requests “the right way.” But the message the delay left is clear. Federal security forces’ management—and especially the Trump appointees at Homeland Security and Defense who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard and other backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent.

The United States’ legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. January 6 shows how important that norm is. Ignore it—leave another branch of government vulnerable to mob attack—and everything falls apart if there’s no accountability. That’s why we obey democratic norms: because if we don’t, then nothing matters. We plunge into the abyss.

In the United States, for now at least, the norms have held. Congress made Joe Biden’s election victory official. The U.S. military remained loyal to the constitution, even as some in law enforcement seemed more loyal to the president. Donald Trump is now being impeached, even as he leaves office, for his role in enabling the January 6 insurrection—and the high-level delay in calling for more security will certainly be considered during his Senate trial.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Nearly everywhere in the world, security force memberships tend to be conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them apolitical while on the job, from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader, is a common challenge.

It means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies. This starts by removing commanders and officials who are more loyal to a political leader than to the constitution.

It also means returning to an ethic of service, actively fighting against an encroaching “us versus them” mentality. Too often, officers view themselves as a “thin blue line” guarding against an entire sector of society. As the wildly uneven response to recent U.S. protests indicates, that sector to be guarded against tends to be racial minorities and people who hold left-of-center political views. In the United States, those who hold this “thin blue line” view even have a flag depicting it. This is toxic.

Brazil is in a similar situation. It, too, has an authoritarian populist president who heaps praise on, and seeks to instrumentalize, the security forces. The country’s 2022 election promises to be very close. When it happens, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters’ tendency to deny reality could lead them, like Trump, to dispute the result of the voting. If something like that happens, what role will Brazil’s security forces play?

Authoritarian populist leaders have been gaining ground worldwide, and there are very few examples of one being defeated in an election before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. The United States, though, is doing it. It’s not pretty—January 6 could hardly be uglier—but democratic institutions are holding. As one of the world’s very few “post-populist” democracies, the United States could end up being an even stronger example of functioning democracy than before.

There is much work to do, especially with our law enforcement agencies. But if the United States succeeds, it will hold up a light for countries, like Brazil, that remain under the the spell of 21st century “post-truth” elected authoritarians.

A video archive about late 2020 civil-military relations, covering 11 Latin American countries

After a very successful event today, we now have, on WOLA’s YouTube page, four hours of discussions of the current moment with premier experts in civil-military relations from 11 Latin American countries. It’s in two parts: today’s discussion, and an earlier one, with a similar format, hosted in September.

Taken together, they are a tremendous resource for understanding this uneasy, precarious moment in the hemisphere’s politics and democratic transitions (or reversions). Sort of like two focus groups taking the pulse of things, shared with the public.

This is raw video in Spanish, though. Some audiences, like busy policymakers with competing commitments and responsibilities, won’t watch all of it. We need to repackage it, perhaps in a variety of formats. I need to figure out over the holidays how best to do that.

In the meantime, though, here are the event videos, which are really worth your time. In reverse chronological order:

Today’s video (December 11), covering Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.
Our September 11 event, covering Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay.

December 11 event: Civil-military relations in Latin America after nine months of pandemic

I continue to be very concerned about what COVID-19 is going to mean for the role of militaries in Latin America’s democracies, many of which were already having a hard time consolidating.

We had an event about this in September with experts from five countries, with our friend Claudio Alonso, an Uruguayan defense expert, moderating. (English highlights video here.)

Camilo will be back with us on December 11 at 12:00 noon Eastern for another round of conversations, this time with experts from six different countries. Please join us. The event will be in Spanish. Here’s the “save the date” information from WOLA’s site:

Las relaciones cívico-militares en América Latina después de nueve meses de pandemia

La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) cordialmente le invita a un webinario:

WOLA auspiciará una discusión necesaria de los últimos cambios de las relaciones cívico-militares regionales. Escucharemos presentaciones breves de expertos sobre cinco países, seguidas por una discusión abierta.

Detalles del evento:
Viernes, 11 de diciembre de 2020
12:00 p.m – 2:00 p.m.
Hora Este de los Estados Unidos
(EST – Washington DC, UTC−05:00)

Este webinario se transmitirá en la página de YouTube de WOLA.

Panelistas:

  • Lilian Bobea
    Fitchburg State University
    Presentando sobre la República Dominicana
  • Iduvina Hernández
    Seguridad en Democracia (SEDEM)
    Presentando sobre Guatemala
  • Francine Jácome
    Instituto Venezolano de Estudios Sociales y Políticos (INVESP)
    Presentando sobre Venezuela
  • Leticia Salomón
    Centro de Documentación de Honduras (CEDOH)
    Presentando sobre Honduras
  • Ricardo Soberón
    Centro de Investigación Drogas y Derechos Humanos (CIDDH)
    Presentando sobre Perú
  • Loreta Tellería
    Observatorio de Democracia y Seguridad
    Presentando sobre Bolivia

Moderador: 
Claudio Alonso
Exdirector general de política de defensa
Ministerio de la Defensa Nacional de Uruguay

Introducción:
Adam Isacson
Director del programa de veeduría de defensa en WOLA

La discusión se hará en español.

Two interviews from last Thursday

I enjoyed talking about the border for an hour, on DC poet and all-around-brilliant person Ethelbert Miller’s radio show, on November 19.

And later that same day I was pleased that Cuestión de Poder, on the NTN24 cable network, wanted to dig into the COVID-era expansion of Latin America’s militaries’ roles. We’ll be wrestling with this for a while.

Also, the plants in my home office are thriving right now.

Video: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America after Six Months of the Pandemic

On September 11 I helped put together an event with experts from six Latin American countries to discuss the worsening imbalance of civil-military relations throughout the region, and how COVID-19 is complicating things further.

Military officers are occupying civilian government agencies, keeping order, handing out food, enforcing curfews, and just generally becoming a daily part of people’s lives to an extent unseen since the military dictatorships of a decade ago.

This is mainly happening at the behest of civilian presidents, but there is real cause for alarm here, and our presenters made the case very clearly. They did so in Spanish, without translation, as seen in the video at the bottom of this post.

The video at the top of this post, though, is new. My excellent intern Elissa Prieto took highlights from that event and added English subtitles, giving you a fast-moving, 14-minute pulse-taking of this increasingly worrisome trend.

Here is the original 2-hour video in Spanish:

In Latin America, COVID-19 Risks Permanently Disturbing Civil-Military Relations

“Across Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is embedding the armed forces more deeply into citizens’ daily lives,” reads an analysis from me that was just posted to WOLA’s website. “At a time when it’s more important than ever to rethink the role of policing and the accountability of public security forces to the people they protect, this militarization of public security is greatly concerning because it will be difficult to reverse.”

In many Latin American democracies that have spent decades trying to leave military dictatorships behind, COVID-19 has put soldiers back on the streets playing roles ranging from handing out food to enforcing curfews. Once this is over, will the region be able to put this toothpaste back into the tube? Read on.

In the meantime, here’s a text box that appears in the piece that I think even non-Latin Americanists will find useful.

Key differences between militaries and police forces

Though exceptions exist, with several listed below, some of the characteristics that distinguish military and police forces include the following.

Police seek to de-escalate situations, using force—especially lethal force—only as a last resort. Combat demands that militaries escalate quickly and use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.

Police tend to carry much lighter weaponry than military forces.

Police tend to live among the population, and constant interaction with them is central to their work. Military personnel tend to live in barracks and bases or otherwise separate from society as a whole. In countries that maintain a sharp division between military and police roles, citizens rarely come across armed, uniformed soldiers.

Police are expected to respond quickly to citizens’ calls for assistance, often through emergency call centers. Armed forces may respond to some calls for help, but do not maintain this response capacity.

Police forces include detectives and other specialists in investigating crimes after the fact, and all are trained in preserving crime scenes, respecting rules of evidence, and otherwise coordinating with the criminal justice system. Military forces have little or no criminal investigative capacity.

Police who commit human rights abuses tend to be tried in the regular criminal justice system. Military personnel who commit international humanitarian law violations tend to be tried in a separate military justice system. In countries that employ militaries for public security, how to investigate and prosecute military personnel who violate fellow citizens’ rights is nearly always a controversial topic.

Police tend to operate at or near capacity, immersed in daily duties with little opportunity or capacity for planning. When not at war, militaries maintain much excess capacity, with soldiers trained and equipment maintained to a state of “readiness” while officers draw up contingency plans.

Exceptions to these distinctions exist, and many of them have emerged or evolved in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them blur the lines dangerously between military and policing missions. They include:

  • Military police, peacekeeping, or national guard units that, while military, keep order in emergencies or in overseas territorial occupations.
  • Special Operations Forces, or military personnel who may be trained to relate to populations or “win hearts and minds” while seeking to stabilize territory or carry out “operations other than war.”
  • Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or commando units that use escalated force and heavy weapons against lawbreakers believed to be heavily armed.
  • Gendarmeries, constabularies, or border guards that tend to be more mobile, more heavily armed, and more hierarchically organized than police, and are often expected to operate in sparsely populated and lightly governed rural areas.

For more, see WOLA’s 2010 report Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Police and Military Roles in the Americas.

Colombia’s military: worse than we thought

The Army reported that 118 cases of sexual violence are under investigation. All involve uniformed personnel who are part of the Armed Forces. The most striking thing about that number is what it does not say: it does not speak of the silenced cases, it does not speak of results, it does not speak of reparation for victims and communities, it does not speak of a state commitment against these crimes, it does not speak of an understanding of the complexity of the problem. Why didn’t we know about this before? Why, nine months after the rape of an indigenous girl, neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor the Army have been able to find those responsible and apply exemplary punishments? Why, moreover, do they insist on the discourse of bad apples?

From a very strong editorial in Colombia’s daily El Espectador about what, as revelations continue to mount, we can only describe as a culture of tolerating rape—including rape of children—in the country’s armed forces.

At wola.org: A New Scandal Underscores Colombia’s Stubborn Inability to Reform Military Intelligence

Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.

Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.

Here’s what I came up with. The whole 4,000-word (but not boring!) commentary is at WOLA’s website.

Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.

Semana has a long record of revealing malfeasance in the security forces. The last five covers are from the past twelve months.

This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.

The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.

Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.

What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.

Continue reading at WOLA’s website.

Illegal Surveillance by Colombia’s Military is Unacceptable

Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.

In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. 

Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.

The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation. 

Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.

Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.

In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.  

While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists. 

Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.” 

That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.

Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership. 

WOLA Podcast: Soldiers and Civilians in Latin America Today

Here’s a conversation we recorded late Friday over a beer.

After nearly 30 years of movement away from military rule and toward civilian democracy, Latin America’s armed forces are again playing larger, more political roles. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the trend, with the danger that having soldiers on the streets may again become “normalized” throughout the region.

Joining me to talk about this is Gregory Weeks, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Weeks doesn’t see a return to 1970s-style military regimes anytime soon—but he is not optimistic about civil-military relations in the region.

A political scientist, Weeks is the author of two volumes that appear very often in university Latin American studies curricula: Understanding Latin American Politics (available as a free PDF and for sale) and U.S. and Latin American Relations. He is one of the first Latin America bloggers, posting to Two Weeks Notice almost daily since 2006. And his Understanding Latin American Politics podcast is one of few other Latin America podcasts in English.

Listen above, or download the mp3 file.

Notes on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Annual Report

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.

The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”

This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.

Here are some highlights from the report:

On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders

In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.

The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.

Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.

Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.

OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.

On the government’s response to these attacks

OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.

The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.

The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.

The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.

OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.

On the military and human rights

OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.

OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.

On blurring the lines between military and police

OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.

On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.

In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.

On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories

Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.

The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.

In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).

[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.

On illicit crop eradication and substitution

Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.

OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.

Slides from today’s talk about “militarization” in Latin America

The Historical Memory Project at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice invited me to be on a panel this morning about the “military-industrial complex” in Latin America today.

I explained that the “M.-I.C.” is not a term I use very often these days. Instead, I worry about “militarization”: the region’s armed forces playing an ever greater role in the political sphere, taking on responsibilities that civilians should be able to fulfill.

Here are the slides I used.

Loyalty to whom?

On the left, Mexico. On the right, El Salvador. Both from yesterday. Both wrong.

A military swears its loyalty to the Constitution and the law. It obeys the orders—and only the legal orders—of the president serving as commander in chief.

At wola.org: What is Latin America’s Political Turmoil Doing to Civilian Control of the Military?

If you follow Latin America, do you feel like you keep seeing the same photo over and over again?

I talk about that in a new commentary that went up on WOLA’s website today:

A president—usually one with low approval ratings—announces a politically risky or unpopular move, often a crackdown on social protests or dissent. To give the announcement more weight and menace, the president issues it while surrounded by uniformed military officers. The subtext is “the military is with me on this”—even if the message is a political one that doesn’t fall within the military’s responsibilities.

It’s part of a larger trend of “the pendulum… swinging back, fast, in the militaries’ direction. It probably won’t go so far back that Latin America re-enters an age of military juntas holding total power. It’s hard, though, to see where or how far it will go.”

Latin America may not be headed back to the age of coups. But it might not be democracy, either. This piece looks at five worrying trends, including an unhelpful U.S. role. Read it here.

Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.