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




Colombia Post-Conflict

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.

Notes from Arauca, Colombia

Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.

Looking north at Arauca city. Beyond the buildings, to the horizon, is Venezuela.

Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.

A pretty common sight outside the main towns, where there’s no security-force presence.

The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.

Colombian Army armored personnel carrier outside Saravena.

A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.

Domingo Laín Front graffiti.

The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.

ELN banner on the highway between Arauquita and Saravena.

That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.

Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.

It seemed like ELN graffiti were all black or red, and all FARC dissident graffiti were blue. Perhaps that’s part of their non-aggression pact.

That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.

The Arauca River near Arauquita, with Venezuela in the background. The border is 200-plus-miles long, but there’s only one official border crossing.

Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.

One of several groups of Venezuelan migrants we saw walking along the highway outside Arauca capital.

I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.

Smuggled cheap Venezuelan gas is on sale all along the road.

Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)

The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.

Checkpoint near the Caño Limón oil installation.

Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.

We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.

Colombia’s defense minister is a problem

Guillermo Botero is at it again. Colombia’s defense minister said that the security forces he oversees can’t capture a wanted criminal because, as a demobilized FARC member, that criminal is somehow protected by the peace accord.

Leider Johani Noscue, alias “Mayimbú,” is a rearmed FARC dissident in Cauca department whose group is believed to be behind the brutal September 1 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García on a rural road in Suárez municipality. As a former guerrilla, “Mayimbú” faces trial in the post-conflict justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), for war crimes committed during the conflict. The JEP, a deliberative judicial body, hasn’t yet formally expelled him from its list of defendants.

For that reason, Botero seems to think that “Mayimbú” is untouchable. On Tuesday he told Colombia’s Senate chamber, “We consider that he should be taken out of the JEP in order to be arrested. If not, we’ll have to confront him ‘enfusilao’ [on the battlefield, or in the act of committing a crime].” Botero then tweeted that he had sent a letter to JEP President Patricia Linares asking that Mayimbú be expelled “so that the security forces may act.”

But of course the security forces can act. Just because he’s still on the JEP’s list doesn’t mean that “Mayimbú” is exempt from arrest for any crimes committed after December 1, 2016, when the FARC peace accord was ratified. There is ample proof that he has taken up arms again, and indications that he was involved in the attack on Karina García. Of course Colombia’s police and military are free to arrest him without regard to the JEP, and an arrest order exists regardless of his JEP status.

Defense Minister Botero, who oversees both Colombia’s armed forces and police, must know that. So either he was badly confused, or cynically launching a false attack on the JEP, and by extension Colombia’s peace process. Neither case is good.

In a letter to Botero, the JEP responded yesterday that “The security forces have NO limitation to pursue or capture the accused parties who have rearmed or are committing crimes.” “Let the JEP work,” read a statement from Colombia’s increasingly active “Defendamos la Paz” movement. “It does damage to institutions and the peace process to keep promoting this discrediting campaign against the JEP, with inexact, imprecise statements or with lies, to seek to generate a perception in public opinion that transitional justice is promoting or tolerating impunity.”

Guillermo Botero is a problem. He is supposed to be managing military and police forces totaling nearly 450,000 people, including Latin America’s second-largest armed forces. His tenure of more than a year has seen human rights and corruption scandals within the military, signs of discontent among some officers, and some erosion in security gains.

He also makes frequent misstatements that reveal either an alarming lack of diligence about, or deliberate disregard for, critical security concerns. Botero has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the past few years’ hundreds of threats and murders of human rights defenders and social leaders. He has demanded changes in the law that would allow the security forces to confront social protests. Earlier this year, opposition legislators sought to censure him for these and other missteps, including promoting a false narrative about soldiers’ April extrajudicial execution of a former FARC member in the Catatumbo region.

I have heard that Botero is in his position because he was the preferred choice of Álvaro Uribe, the former president and current senator who is the central figure in President Iván Duque’s ruling Centro Democrático party. During his eight years in the presidency, though, Uribe never had a defense minister who was quite this ideologically hidebound, gaffe-prone, or divorced from reality. Guillermo Botero is showing serious managerial shortcomings, he doesn’t appear to have a grip on the truth, and he keeps making egregious public misstatements. He’s out if his depth, and he’s making Colombia’s security apparatus less effective.

A bad misreading of Colombia’s moment

“Fewer than three years after Colombia’s oldest guerrilla group signed a peace agreement with the government, the terror leaders have said never mind,” reads today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal’s influential and ultraconservative editorial page. For the Journal, the defection of former chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez and a handful of other ex-leaders means that the peace accord is over: “[T]he country’s war on terrorism is back on. But the truth is that it was never off. The sooner everyone admits that the better.”

There are three things wrong with this analysis. (You can read my analysis of Márquez’s August 29 defection in the September 3 New York Times.) They are:

1. Assuming that today’s FARC is a monolith. The Journal doesn’t distinguish between re-armed “dissidents” like Márquez, and the 90-plus percent of ex-guerrillas and leaders who remain committed to the peace process. It’s hard to conclude otherwise from a paragraph like this:

It’s doubtful there was ever a FARC commitment to peace. A better read is that the guerrillas took a deal that included amnesty and 10 unelected FARC seats in Congress, but that they had no intention of giving up the lucrative cocaine business or their dream of bringing down Colombia’s democracy.

In fact, maximum leader Rodrigo Londoño and other FARC political party members have been outspokenly critical of Márquez and other dissidents. In Spain’s El País the other day, Londoño called them “a handful of deluded compañeros who, with a proclamation of armed struggle outdated in time and space, want to hide their own mistakes.” (Londoño seems to be more engaged these days going to spiritual reconciliation retreats with ex-paramilitaries and top recording artists.) Meanwhile, preliminary reports indicate that rank-and-file ex-guerrillas, who have long since begun new lives at peace, aren’t being tempted by Márquez’s call to arms. “Everyone saw the video [of Márquez’s August 29 announcement], nobody talked about it, not even the slightest comment. There were activities already scheduled and everyone went out to do their work, and that was it,” an ex-combatant told El Espectador. “I don’t know if they really thought we’d just throw everything aside.”

2. Assuming that Márquez’s group has huge convening power. “Mr. Márquez’s paramilitary will pull together thousands of FARC who abandoned the demobilization process,” the Journal warns. That’s not impossible, but it’s not likely.

After nearly three years, about 1,050 ex-guerrillas who demobilized, out of 13,000, are “whereabouts unknown.” Some of them are probably members of over 20 rearmed “dissident” groups around the country. Another 800 or so never demobilized in the first place, they’ve been dissident from the start. These dissidents have probably recruited several hundred more people with no FARC background.

Where does Márquez’s group—whose inaugural video showed only about 20 people, no more—fit in with them? If you’re one of the main dissident leaders, like “Gentil Duarte” or “Iván Mordisco,” it’s not clear what benefit you’d gain from an alliance with high-profile figures like Márquez, “El Paisa,” or “Romaña,” other than adding several commanders with long combat experience. Would you have to share resources with them? Would they challenge your command and your decisions? Would they compete with you internally?

While the FARC dissident phenomenon is a growing security challenge for Colombia (and Venezuela, and Ecuador, and Guyana, and Suriname), they are far from unified, and it’s far from clear that Márquez’s rearmed faction will be their center of gravity.

3. Assuming that “post-accord” really meant “post-conflict.” A sentence like “the country’s war on terrorism is back on” tells us that the Journal‘s editorial-writers haven’t been paying close attention. Violence indicators have been rising in many former conflict zones since at least early 2018. A social leader is killed about every two and a half days. The government failed to fill the vacuum of authority in formerly FARC-influenced territories. Instead, other groups have rushed in: the ELN, FARC dissidents, the Gulf Clan post-paramilitary network, and regional organized-crime militias (“La Constru”, the “Caparros,” the EPL, the “Puntilleros,” “La Empresa,” and many others).

The International Committee of the Red Cross identifies five distinct armed conflicts going on in post-accord Colombia. Of 281 municipalities (counties, of which Colombia has about 1,100) that the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation prioritized for post-conflict analysis, “there are 123 in which the FARC had previously operated and have since been taken over by illegal armed groups and criminal organizations.”

It is normal for an immediate post-accord period to be more violent than the last years of a conflict, as violent competition continues in ungoverned territories. But that’s where the problem lies: the Colombian government is not doing enough to fill the vacuum in these territories.

The Journal misses that completely. Its editorial-writers apparently have an axe to grind about Colombia’s peace accord, and are keen to declare it prematurely dead. But that analysis not only misses the greater security challenges Colombia faces today: it’s based on some glaring analytical flaws. Good policy will not be based on analyses like these.

Big Colombia conference tomorrow

WOLA s Colombia Peace Conference Protecting Peace

We’ve done this every year since 2012: organize a day-long, open-to-the-public event about Colombia. Mostly Colombia-based people, chosen because they’re good explainers, share their on-the-ground knowledge of security challenges, peace efforts, drug policy, and human rights.

The next edition is tomorrow, at the National Press Club in downtown Washington. The event announcement is here. Come join us.

We will also have a livestream at that site, though you’ll have to be familiar with both English and Spanish to follow it without an interpreter feed. If I can, I’ll embed that here too.

Some of the speakers on the agenda are can’t miss.

  • Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation is on TV constantly in Colombia because he’s a clear, analytical, and energetically opinionated explainer of the conflict, organized crime, corruption, and similar issues. Don’t miss the Foundation’s late-August annual report on the conflict (in Spanish, English summary).
  • Christoph Harnisch, the longtime head of the International Commission of the Red Cross office in Bogotá, is also a brilliant explainer of what is happening right now in Colombia. The ICRC’s alarming analysis finds “five conflicts” coinciding in this “post-accord” moment.
  • Xiomara Balanta is the vice president of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice system set up by the 2016 peace accord.
  • Luis Eduardo “Lucho” Celis of REDPRODEPAZ knows more than nearly anybody about the ELN, and what it would take to make a peace process with them function.
  • Socorro Ramírez, who unfortunately will have to appear via Skype, has been studying the conflict for decades and I’ve learned a lot from her.
  • Jacqueline Castillo Peña lost a brother to the Colombian Army’s “false positive” killings a decade ago, and now heads a victims’ group, the Mothers of False Positives.
  • Father Sterlin Londoño is a longtime social leader from central Chocó department and member of the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council.
  • Marco Romero, a longtime colleague, heads CODHES, a human rights group that pioneered work on internal displacement in the 1990s and has grown in recent years.
  • I first knew Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno when she was Human Rights Watch’s Colombia person and, later, author of the excellent book There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia. Now, she’s the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




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