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.

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Colombia Post-Conflict

43 social leaders murdered in Colombia in 3 months: UN

During the 3 months ending March 28, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Colombia Field Office “received information about killings of 43 human rights defenders and social leaders, including four women (7 documented, 35 under verification and 1 inconclusive or not verifiable).”

This from the latest quarterly report from the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, always a useful document:

Are Colombia’s peace accords binding?

In a January 4 interview with Emilio Archila, the Colombian government’s lead official for peace accord implementation, El Espectador’s Sebastián Forero asks, “Why do you always talk about [the Duque administration’s] ‘Peace with Legality,’ policy, but not about the Peace Agreement signed in Havana?”

Archila replies that the text of the 2016 accord, which ended 52 years of fighting with the FARC guerrillas, is not binding unless its commitments are enacted into law.

The Constitutional Court said that the Havana agreements did not generate obligations in themselves, except to the extent that they have been incorporated into legislation, as with all laws issued through Fast Track [the brief 2017 period when Congress could quickly pass laws to cement accord commitments into place]. The Court struck a very good balance made between compliance with the agreements—which must occur in good faith during three presidential administrations—and democracy, because each president will continue to be elected with different mandates. …Those who think that the agreements should be applied as they were signed in Havana are wrong, that is not what the Court said. It said that one should take those texts, turn them into legal and policy instruments, and through them put them into effect, which is what we have done.

Of course, this is technically correct. The peace accord isn’t law, it’s just a 300-page document full of promises that the government made in order to secure a 13,000-person armed group’s commitment to disarm.

The problem with this reasoning should be obvious. What happens if a big chunk of the commitments in the peace accord don’t make it into law? That’s what’s happened with about 41 out of 107 laws or norms that Colombia’s Congress would have had to approve in order to realize all of the peace accord’s commitments.

In the reasoning laid out by Archila, because the Congress did not enact these commitments, they are just dead words on a piece of paper signed in Havana. His administration—led by politicians who opposed the peace accord— is under no obligation to honor those that didn’t make it into legislation.

By another reasoning, though, the failure to pass necessary laws equals non-compliance with the peace accord. Colombia’s Congress didn’t act to pass much outstanding legislation, and especially during the government of Iván Duque (2018-present), the executive branch didn’t push hard for it to do so. Now, that same executive can say, “sorry, we can ignore what was signed five years ago because the laws weren’t passed.”

This creates a terrible set of incentives for any future peace dialogues, whether in Colombia or in other countries with similar legal systems. In order to entice an armed group to disarm, a government can promise its leaders far more than it ever intends to fulfill. Then, after the group disarms and demobilizes, that government can blame the legislature for failing to enact its lofty promises, wash its hands, and walk away.

Why would an armed group negotiate on those terms? If four years of negotiations end up with a piece of paper that the government and legislature can pick and choose from later, why pursue such negotiations?

This is a blow to the credibility of accords resulting from peace talks. If such accords lack credibility, then armed conflicts will be condemned to drag on for longer than they otherwise would. Unnecessarily prolonged conflicts mean years of preventable death, abuse, displacement, and tragedy. The implications of Archila’s position are grave.

The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

This article appears today at the Colombian analysis site Razón Pública as “¿Qué implica que las FARC ya no estén en la lista de terroristas de Estados Unidos? I last covered this issue on this site in March 2020.


The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

At least in the 20 years since “Plan Colombia,” it’s been rare to see the U.S. and Colombian governments disagree in public about something. Even during the worst days of police abuses during the Paro Nacional protests earlier this year, Washington’s expressions of concern were remarkably mild.

That’s why it was surprising to hear President Iván Duque express disagreement with a step that the Biden administration took to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. “We understand and respect this information from the United States, but we would have preferred a different decision,” he said on November 29, the day before the State Department removed the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The removal of the FARC, or rather the ex-FARC, should be uncontroversial. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on the U.S. list doesn’t exist, and hasn’t since August 2017. Of its 13,600 members who underwent demobilization, more than 90 percent haven’t carried out an act of organized violence in more than five years. They are playing by the rules and integrating themselves into civilian life.

A few continue to engage in violence against civilians. These are mainly members of Colombia’s two main ex-FARC dissident networks, the one headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the one known as “Nueva Marquetalia,” which either refused to demobilize in 2016 or abandoned the process later. Most of these groups’ members are new recruits with no guerrilla background; many weren’t even adolescents yet when the peace accord was signed. The Biden administration added these groups to the State Department’s list, in the FARC’s place.

The step taken on November 30, then, was less a “removal” of the FARC than an updating of the terrorist list to reflect reality.

As the list was being interpreted, “Gentil Duarte” and “El Paisa” were in the same category as former fighters now raising children and going to schools, starting their own businesses, or participating in competitive rafting teams. That was absurd.

But that was the reality. Under the “material support for terrorism” provisions in U.S. law, as they were being interpreted, it has been a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any demobilized FARC members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

The U.S. government was interpreting this very strictly. It has literally been illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less include them in development meetings or—as in the case of Humanicemos, a group of ex-FARC deminers who were unable to get any U.S. aid—to instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have eaten a snack provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.

The delay in removing the FARC not only undermined U.S. programming, though. It made the U.S. government look out of date, unaware that the FARC on the list didn’t exist anymore. It even made the U.S. government appear actively hostile to the entire peace process, echoing the notion—expressed this year by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum and Defense Minister Diego Molano—that the Comunes party and the dissident groups (which, in fact, often target Comunes members) are somehow linked. Either way, the message Washington sent by keeping the FARC on the list was toxic.

It is great news that this step has finally been taken. But the Biden administration certainly could have rolled it out better. News of the impending decision leaked to the Wall Street Journal very early, on November 23, perhaps from an individual who opposed removing the FARC from the terrorist list. The explanation, with fuller context, did not come from the State Department and White House for days afterward, in part because November 25 was a major national holiday in the United States.

As a result, the initial reaction from many colleagues and journalists in Colombia was confused. Those of us who work on Colombia policy here in Washington got a lot of questions. Here are answers to a few of them.

Why did it take so long to take the FARC off the list, especially if it was causing so many problems for U.S. programming? There is no great answer to this, other than that while it is easy to add a group to the State Department’s list—all you need is a few attacks on civilian targets—it is hard to remove it. Revocation of a “terrorist” status requires a deliberative process within the State Department in which all interested actors have to reach consensus. The AUC formally demobilized in 2006 but remained on the list until 2014. Peru’s MRTA barely existed after the 1997 Japanese embassy fiasco, but was on the list until 2001. The Washington Post reported that each group’s terrorist designation usually gets reviewed every five years, and that the FARC had last been considered in April 2015. A fresh review of the FARC didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Does this mean FARC leaders are no longer wanted by U.S. justice? Nothing changes about extradition requests for FARC members. They are wanted in U.S. courts either for sending cocaine to the United States or for kidnapping or killing U.S. citizens. These are specific crimes, not the vague charge of “terrorism.” Those processes continue, so former FARC leaders wanted by U.S. justice still face risks if they travel internationally. Because he was arrested in Ecuador in 2004 while apparently serving as an intermediary for talks about three U.S. citizen defense contractors whom the FARC was holding at the time, Simón Trinidad remains imprisoned in the state of Colorado for his role in that specific case.

Is this an insult to the FARC’s victims? Annette Taddeo, a Democratic Party state senator in Florida, emigrated from Colombia when she was 17, after the FARC kidnapped her father. “For me and many of us, this is painful and very personal,” she tweeted. The FARC upended the lives of thousands of Colombians; many of them, and their loved ones, are no doubt outraged to see any sign of conciliation like a U.S. recognition that those leaders are no longer behaving as terrorists. The fact, though, is that the top non-dissident ex-FARC leadership appears truly to have renounced terrorism. They remain guilty of many things, and must answer to their victims and the transitional justice process. But the “terrorist” label no longer sticks.

What about Sen. Marco Rubio’s complaint that any U.S. money that benefits ex-FARC members should go through the Colombian government? The Colombian government “doesn’t want the delisting,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida), who is close to Uribismo, told U.S. radio. “What they wanted was, to the extent that you’re going to provide assistance to these people who abandoned the guerrilla fight, laid down their weapons, become politically engaged, we want you to run that assistance through the democratically elected government of Colombia, not unilaterally.” This argument is confusing. Most US assistance with ex-combatants’ participation—reincorporation, rural development, demining—would go hand-in-hand with the efforts of Colombian government agencies. U.S. aid almost never goes to such agencies directly as cash payments.

Why is Cuba still on the list of state sponsors? Before leaving office in January 2021, the Trump administration re-added Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The main reason cited was Cuba’s refusal to extradite ELN leaders who had been in the country for peace talks with the Colombian government, a move that would have violated those talks’ protocols. That the Biden administration hasn’t taken steps to remove Cuba, even as it removes the FARC, probably owes more to the politics around U.S.-Cuban relations. It would be very difficult to take Cuba off of the list—or perform any other act of engagement—in the weeks after Cuba’s government aggressively suppressed a citizen protest movement.

Why was the announcement rolled out this way? When we heard that the FARC were being taken off, why didn’t we know right away that the dissident groups would be added? There is no great answer to that. The impending decision was leaked, possibly by a hostile party. But for days, the Biden administration offered no new context, so many actors were left think that all of the FARC was being taken off of the list, and even that FARC leaders were no longer wanted by U.S. justice.

The rollout of this news was not graceful. In today’s climate, when a lie travels around the world before the truth can even get its running shoes on, that does damage. Still, there is only so much that the Biden administration could have done. Many sectors of our societies will always be determined to believe what they want, regardless of the facts we present to them.

There is a communications lesson here, though—one that recalls the plebiscite debacle of 2016. It is crucial to get out ahead of a story as much as possible, so that when it breaks, the response can be nimble, and people who are open to the truth—the majority of people, still—can get the context quickly.

Big new report—A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years

I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.

I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.

I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.

I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.

Read it here. Here’s a super-brief summary:

November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.

The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.

For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.

Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.

It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.

That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.

10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost.
2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate.
3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021.
4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011.
5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits.
6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.”
7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020.
8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups.
9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women.
10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.

Read the report

In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”

The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.

  • The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
  • The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
  • The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
  • The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
  • The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.

Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.

Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.

The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.

WOLA Podcast: Colombia’s peace accord at five years

Today is the fifth anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord with the FARC. Gimena Sanchez, WOLA’s director for the Andes, and I recorded this conversation last Thursday about where things stand. Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Colombia’s government and largest guerrilla group signed a historic peace accord on November 24, 2016. The government took on many commitments which, if implemented, could guide Colombia away from cycles of violence that its people have suffered, especially in the countryside, for over a century.

Five years later, is the peace accord being implemented? The picture is complicated: the FARC remain demobilized and a transitional justice system is making real progress. But the countryside remains violent and ungoverned, and crucial peace accord commitments are going unmet. WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez joins host Adam Isacson for a walk through which aspects of accord implementation are going well, and which are urgently not.

Download the episode (.mp3)

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

Imagine seeing the world like Colombia’s ex-president

Once again, Colombia’s populist-extremist former president Álvaro Uribe uses Twitter to reveal the dark lens through which he views the world.

Imagine feeling threatened by conflict victims’ organizations—not political parties—having 16 temporary seats in Colombia’s 107-member House of Representatives for 8 years, as the 2016 peace accord foresaw.

Imagine being unable to distinguish between victims and “Farc and allies.”

Imagine believing that you get to judge who Colombia’s “true victims” are.

WOLA Podcast: Demining sacred space in Colombia’s Amazon basin

Nice to have a podcast coincide with a short film’s debut on the New Yorker website. Congratulations to Tom Laffay for this piece of work. The WOLA podcast page is here.

Tom Laffay is an American filmmaker based in Bogotá, recipient of the inaugural 2020 Andrew Berends Fellowship. In 2018, his short film, Nos están matando (They’re killing us), which exposed the plight of Colombian social leaders, reached the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in Geneva.

This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.

In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat. The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

New “explainer” on FARC dissident groups in Colombia

I’ve added a fifth “explainer” feature to our Colombia Peace website: an overview of the armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who either rejected the 2016 peace accord, or demobilized in 2017 and then re-armed.

There are about 23 such armed groups around the country. What I hadn’t realized when I set out to write this was the extent to which they are consolidating into two national networks. One of those networks is tied to the first set of FARC dissidents, the 1st and 7th Front structure headed (loosely) by alias Gentil Duarte. The other is the organization begun by former FARC chief negotiator Iván Márquez, who abandoned the process with an August 2019 video message. I thought Márquez’s group was proving to be a dud, but it has in fact convinced dissident bands to align themselves in Nariño, Antioquia, probably Arauca, and possibly elsewhere.

Anyway, since I was lower on the learning curve than I thought, this took a long time to write. Many thanks to my program assistant Matt Bocanumenth for helping with early research and drafting to put it together.

WOLA Podcast: Democracy, Displacement, and “Political Cleansing” in Colombia’s Armed Conflict

Here’s a great conversation with Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences who, as she notes, was my intern at the Center for International Policy way back in the fall of 2000. (Deep in the archives are 3 memos she co-authored during her internship: here, here, and here.)

Today, Abbey is a professor at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, a scholar of violence and politics who has done most of her work in Colombia. She is the author of Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War (2017, Cornell University Press).

In this episode, she discusses her work in Apartadó, in Colombia’s Urabá region, which saw forced displacement by paramilitary groups intensify after Colombia began direct local elections and leftist parties performed well. She calls what happened “political cleansing” or “collective targeting”: the paramilitaries targeted entire communities for displacement based on election results.

She explains this and other findings, particularly how communities have organized to resist the onslaught. She has a sharp analysis of the challenges that continue for the displaced—and for communities and social leaders at risk of political cleansing—today, in post-peace-accord Colombia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Communities, and Human Rights in Colombia

(Photo from Colombia Army Twitter account)

As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.

This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”

In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

Lecture: “Saving Colombia’s Fragile Peace”

Here’s a well-produced video of a lecture that I gave at Florida State University on October 30.

It’s a recent iteration of my “Colombia 101” talk, covering the conflict, U.S. policy, Plan Colombia, the peace process, and today’s security challenges. It’s 55 minutes plus Q&A.

The folks at FSU did a great job of integrating my dozens of slides into the video. I’m grateful to them for documenting this so well.

WOLA Podcast: Protest and Politics in Post-Conflict Colombia

In this podcast, recorded this afternoon, I talk about Colombia with my longtime WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, and we talk about the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. She also covers what we saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.

(mp3 download)

The Colombian military plotted to murder a demobilized guerrilla. Will there be accountability?

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, known over the years for excellent investigative reporting, came under fire in May for sitting on a story about the new high command’s demand that military officers produce higher “body counts,” which the New York Times instead picked up as a front-page bombshell. Since then, Semana has come roaring back with a series of alarming revelations—most of them based on information leaked from military officers themselves—about corruption within the armed forces, evasion of accountability for human rights abuse, and a general pullback from promising post-conflict reforms.

Semana’s latest revelation about out-of-control behavior in the Colombian military is a shocker. Part two of a two-part series, published October 27, details the military’s April 22 killing of Dimar Torres, a farmer and former FARC militia member, in the conflictive and strategic Catatumbo region, near the Venezuela border. About 167 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the November 2016 peace accord’s signing, but Torres is the only demobilized fighter known to have been killed by the armed forces.

Soldiers dig a grave in an illustration, by Angélica María Penagos, for Semana’s investigation of Dimar Torres’s murder.

The killing of Torres, a father-to-be who cared for his elderly parents, was big news in Colombia at the time. Word of the military’s responsibility got out because residents of his village, in the municipality of Convención about 10 minutes from a 40-man army post, had seen soldiers searching a worried-looking Torres at a checkpoint, and later heard shots fired. A contingent of villagers found soldiers digging a large hole near the grounds of the base. Then they found his body on the ground, shot four times. The community members took videos of their search and of their confrontation with the soldiers, which were widely shared on social media. (Thank heaven for smartphones.)

At the time, the Colombian defense sector’s response was contradictory: both hopeful and worrisome. Civilian authorities began investigating Corporal Daniel Eduardo Gómez Robledo, the alleged killer. General Diego Luis Villegas, the commander of the “Vulcan Task Force” charged with securing Catatumbo, went to Torres’s home village and said the right thing. “Not just any civilian was killed, a member of the community was killed, members of the armed forces killed him. That’s why the commander should come and show his face. I regret it in my soul. In the name of the 4,000 men I have the honor to command, I ask your forgiveness.”

(Gen. Villegas, by the way, is a complicated individual. He faces a currently suspended arrest warrant for commanding a unit that committed a “false positive” extrajudicial killing of a mentally disabled man in 2008, which makes it odd that he would have been put in charge of military operations in a high-stakes territory like Catatumbo, which has a strong presence of the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the EPL, a local splinter guerrilla group. In August, Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Villegas had said, “The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”)

The apology and the prosecutorial moves were good. But other responses were not. Colombia’s independent Noticias Uno network revealed an audio in which a fellow general insulted Villegas for asking forgiveness: “If you’re so upset, then retire and go join the guerrillas, so the military forces can have the honor of chasing you down and getting you out of there.”

Worse, Colombia’s maximum security authority after the president, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero—who has come under much criticism for irresponsible statements in the past—upheld the story offered by Corporal Gómez, the alleged killer of Dimar Torres. “This corporal affirms that he found this person [Torres] and that this person tried to take his gun away.” “I don’t see the motive in causing a homicide of a person whom the corporal doesn’t know, whom he surely hadn’t seen in his life.” “If there was a homicide, then there must have been some motive for it.”

And now this week Semana has reported, with extensive proof from prosecutorial investigations, that this was not a case of a rogue corporal. It goes up to the lieutenant colonel in charge of his entire battalion. And Defense Minister Botero is on the wrong side of the truth.

The armed forces’ Vulcan Task Force, commanded by Gen. Villegas and responsible for security operations in Catatumbo, was established in early 2018. It has eight battalions with about 500 personnel in each. One of these eight, the 11th Land Operations Battalion, was commanded earlier this year by Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita.

At the beginning of April, three weeks before Dimar Torres’s murder, troops in the 11th Battalion were carrying out an operation to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, a frequent target of guerrilla bombings. During this operation, near Torres’s home village, a soldier stepped on a landmine or hidden explosive device, which killed him.

Semana reports that the soldier’s death enraged Lt. Col. Pérez, the battalion commander. The senior officer ordered his subordinates to get revenge, even if it means breaking the law. “I don’t need to report anything. What I need is to get revenge for the death of the soldier, we have to kill,” he allegedly said, based on soldiers’ testimonies to Colombia’s prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía).

Corporal Gómez, the accused killer, told the Lieutenant-Colonel that he believed Dimar Torres was responsible for the landmine. Without any evidence, he reported that Torres, the farmer and demobilized guerrilla, was an explosives expert with the ELN guerrillas.

Lt. Col. Pérez, Corporal Gómez, and other soldiers formed a WhatsApp group called “Dimar Torres” to coordinate their surveillance of the ex-guerrilla and their plans to execute him extrajudicially. “We don’t have to capture this man, we have to kill him so he doesn’t get fat in jail,” Lt. Col. Pérez wrote to this WhatsApp group, whose texts are now in prosecutors’ possession. The group shows that the soldiers were closely tracking Dimar Torres’s movements and routines, posting photos, over the last three weeks of his life. “All this without a judicial order,” Semana notes.

On the afternoon of April 22, Corporal Gómez told 2nd Lieutenant John Javier Blanco, the commander of the small military post near Torres’s village, “I’m going to kill Dimar.” Within hours, he and perhaps others had intercepted Torres’s motorcycle and shot him to death.

Later, Corporal Gómez radioed Lt. Col. Pérez to tell him he had killed Dimar Torres. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered him not to say such things on the radio, but to use WhatsApp instead. “What did the son of a bitch say?” Lt. Col. Pérez asked the group. He went on to order the corporal to keep a close eye on the other members of Dimar Torres’s community, who had confronted the soldiers and found the body: “Check up on them, because they’re next,” he wrote menacingly.

The Lieutenant-Colonel also instructed Corporal Gómez to use radio communications to give a false story about what happened. This false narrative, in which Torres supposedly tried to wrest Corporal Gómez’s weapon from him, was amplified and repeated by Defense Minister Botero’s statements before the press.

Today, Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita stands accused by civilian prosecutors for the crime of homicide of a protected person. But the case is moving slowly: his lawyers’ delaying tactics are working.

Lt. Col. Pérez’s lawyers filed a motion to move his case to the military justice system, which is only supposed to judge “acts of service” and has a terrible record of failing to punish human rights violations. While the civilian and military courts work out their jurisdictional dispute, Lt. Col. Pérez and other soldiers accused of killing Dimar Pérez are at large, out of preventive detention.

Semana’s revelations about the Dimar Torres case could hardly be more alarming, for at least three reasons. First, they show a military that had been making important human rights progress reverting, brutally, to old behaviors. Second, this plan to victimize a former guerrilla will give pause to thousands of other guerrillas who willingly disarmed, many of whom may abandon the peace process if they feel vulnerable to attack from the very armed forces that are supposed to protect them. Third, this episode happened in Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s most violent, ungoverned, and strategic regions, where winning a deeply distrustful population’s confidence should be the government’s number-one mission. Overcoming distrust is why Gen. Villegas’s visit to Torres’s community, where he publicly recognized responsibility for the killing, was so crucially important.

That something as monstrous as the plot against Dimar Torres could take place and remain covered up demands accountability from Colombia’s highest defense authorities. Nonetheless, as Semana reports, “Minister [of Defense] Guillermo Botero remains in his post, and his declarations about Dimar’s case weren’t the object of any disciplinary measure.… The Defense chief hasn’t retracted his statements, nor has he apologized to Dimar’s family for his declarations.” In June, opposition legislators sought to censure Botero for these and other statements, but lacked the votes to do so.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero continues in his post. The photo is from a story in La Silla Vacía explaining why that is.

“This isn’t the moment to speak of Minister Botero’s renunciation,” President Iván Duque said after Semana published these revelations. So Colombia’s defense sector, badly adrift at the moment, continues to be led by Guillermo Botero, an archconservative who has called for crackdowns on peaceful protest, downplayed the seriousness of a wave of social leader killings, and absurdly blamed the post-conflict transitional justice system for a failure to arrest recidivist guerrilla leaders.

This week, Botero remains under fire for events in the tumultuous department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. First, community members in Corinto municipality alleged that the Army tortured and killed local campesino leader Flower Jair Trompeta; Botero caused outrage by claiming, before an investigation could take place, that Trompeta died in “a military operation.”

Then, on October 29 in Tacueyó municipality, assailants—probably FARC dissidents—massacred an indigenous leader and her unarmed guards. This incident shone a light on the Defense Ministry’s failure to consult with Cauca’s indigenous communities about their protection. Botero and others in the Duque government have insisted that the military be given free rein to patrol indigenous reserves, but these communities have strong memories of soldiers being accompanied by paramilitaries and want another arrangement. Instead of consulting, Botero’s Defense Ministry has left these communities badly unprotected in a zone where several armed and criminal groups operate.

How can a defense minister hang on for so long after presiding over so many backward steps for Colombia’s armed forces? Guillermo Botero survives, the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacía contends, because he is “a chess piece” for former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the founder and most prominent member of President Iván Duque’s political party. As long as he has the hard-right former president’s favor, Guillermo Botero appears safe in his office regardless of questions of competence, and apparently President Duque can’t do much about it.

Interview with “Colombia Calling” podcast

I’m a regular listener of Richard McColl’s “Colombia Calling” English-language podcast, so I was delighted to accept his invitation to appear in an episode (number 297, very impressive). Even better, I happened to be in Bogotá when we recorded (back on October 20), so I stopped by his lovely home where gave me very strong coffee.

I think the conversation turned out well, we covered a lot of ground in about 35 minutes. It’s always great to be in the hands of an experienced interviewer. Here’s Richard’s summary from the show notes:

Adam Isacson of WOLA (The Washington Office on Latin America) needs no introduction to the latin americanists amongst us, but, suffice it to say that it was an honour to invite him on the Colombia Calling podcast and hear his thoughts about recent events here in Colombia. As the Director of Defence Oversight for WOLA, Isacson’s remit takes in all of latin america and now includes border issues such as those occurring right now on the Mexico/ US frontier and so, we manage to catch him for a few short minutes in Bogota to discuss: President Duque’s speech to the UN, the future for former president Alvaro Uribe, the reality on the ground in Colombia’s far-off regions such as Choco and Arauca and so much more. Frankly, 35 minutes is nowhere near long enough with one of the most knowledgeable voices for human rights in the region. Tune in and enjoy and be sure to check out his website at: adamisacson.com/
expatoverseascolombiasouth america

Notes from Chocó, Colombia

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.

The green line shows the routes we took in Chocó. It also shows how few roads (the red lines) exist in a department the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

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.

Quibdó, Chocó’s capital.

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.

Boats parked by the Malecón, on the Atrato River in central Quibdó.

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.

A riverine checkpoint manned by Colombian Marines near Vigía del Fuerte and Bojayá.

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.

A boat’s-eye view of Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, across the Atrato River from Bojayá.

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.

Names of the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre.

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.

Interior of Bojayá’s rebuilt church, site of a 2002 FARC indiscriminate bombing that killed 79 civilians who had sought refuge there.

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.

Names of the victims of the 2002 Bojayá massacre.

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.

Abandoned classroom next to the church in old Bojayá.

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.

Bojayá’s basketball court reverts to jungle.

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.

Mural in the “new” Bojayá, just upriver from the old Bojayá.

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.

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