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

The Duque Presidency Limps to the Finish Line

Left, October 23, 2021: Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, proclaims “the end of the Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. (Also known as the “Úsuga Clan,” the “Urabeños,” and the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.”)

Right, May 7, 2022: the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group declares an “armed strike” upon its onetime leader’s extradition to the United States. With threats and over 100 acts of violence, the group stops economic activity in at least part of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments.


Unsurprisingly, analysts of Colombia’s conflict—like Esteban Salazar of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation on October 25, 2021—understood what was going on:

Southern Command’s “digital magazine” just stigmatized one of Colombia’s youth protest movements

U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activity in most of the Americas, manages a “digital magazine,” called Diálogo. It has some degree of editorial freedom from Southcom itself—an arrangement unusual outside the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That thin editorial line between the U.S. military and Diálogo’s writers, who are opinionated and amplify strongly conservative political views, probably isn’t evident to most of its readers in Latin America.

Often, Diálogo’s writers get things wrong. Sometimes, they get things dangerously wrong. Here’s a big example in an April 27 piece about the March 30 arrest of Sergei Vagin, an alleged Russian spy, in Bogotá.

To remain undetected, Vagin was steadily flowing small amounts from Russia — between $2,000 and $4,000. In addition, he sent detailed reports to various contacts in Moscow about activities in Colombia, especially during the social protests, Semana reported. He also allegedly tried to bribe a Colombian Army officer to obtain “top secret reports,” reported El Colombiano.

The money is believed to have ended up in the coffers of the criminal group Primera Línea, reported Argentine news site Infobae. This group has links to dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) and the ELN, and uses terrorism to cause systematic and collateral damage, Semana said.

Hold. Up.

The “Primera Línea” (“First Line”) is the name used by the groups of mostly poor young people who took to the frontlines in Cali’s “Paro Nacional” protests a year ago. They organized in response to the Cali police force’s initial, brutal attacks on peaceful protesters. Some of them were violent, but most were practicing civil disobedience. They engaged in constructive dialogues with Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina. And many were wounded or killed by police.

The government of Iván Duque has been casting about for evidence that participants in last year’s mass protests were useful idiots inflamed by outside forces like Russian propaganda, rather than an organic response to social exclusion, a deep economic crisis, hunger, and an un-empathetic government.

This is stigmatization based on the thinnest of allegations, and should not have made it past Diálogo’s editors. Worse, it may be self-fulfilling. As the Police continue rounding up Primera Línea members, leaving them and their relatives unprotected, Cali’s young protest participants may be pushed toward armed groups’ embrace—both out of frustration with peaceful tactics and for their own protection.

Here, Southcom’s “digital magazine” lends itself to the “Russian dupes” narrative by citing the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. This is sad and cynical. Until 2020, Semana was one of Latin America’s premier, and bravest, investigative journalism outlets. But its principal owners sold to one of Colombia’s richest men, Gabriel Gilinski, who set about turning the magazine and its Internet properties into a Colombian “Fox News.” Semana today regularly publishes information fed to it by the armed forces.

And in this case, Semana‘s “reporting” launders this smear into a form that Diálogo can cite, which endangers the kids in the Primera Linea even more.

This article, or at least the above-cited segment with the unfounded allegations against the Primera Línea kids, really needs to come down now.

Colombia analysis at “Responsible Statecraft”

The Quincy Institute posted an analysis by me about Colombia’s election campaign and its implications for U.S. policy. It went up last Friday on their very good Responsible Statecraft site.

Head-to-head second-round scenario polling shows a razor-thin margin between the two leading candidates, who represent dramatically different visions of government. Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, a former Medellín mayor, offers continuity with Duque’s conservative politics, which the Biden administration might find reassuring. It would, however, mean continuity with a model of which most Colombians appear to disapprove after four years of worsening violence and economic insecurity.

Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, offers radical change that could consolidate a 2016 peace accord and implement reforms to address one of the world’s worst records of income and land inequality. Petro leads in first-round polling by a comfortable margin. However, he carries a strong whiff of populism and appears open to cooperation with China and Russia, which worries the United States. U.S. diplomats have sounded alarms about Russian interference in Colombia’s campaign, mostly via social media, and they could only be referring to Petro.

Read the whole thing here.

Current chart of aid to Colombia

There’s some guesstimating here, because I don’t have current numbers for Defense Department “train and equip” aid, and I don’t have a breakdown for how much of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement aid goes to the military/police and how much goes to the judiciary and other civilian priorities. But I think this pretty close, for Latin America’s largest U.S. aid recipient:

Here’s a Google spreadsheet attempting to break it all down.

What we know about the March 28, 2022 military raid in Putumayo, Colombia

A new analysis at colombiapeace.org tries to explain in English what looks like a serious case of human rights abuse committed by a U.S.-aided military unit in the part of Colombia where “Plan Colombia” began 21 years ago.

The Guardian called it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.

Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.

The piece addresses 14 questions:

  • What happened?
  • What was the human toll of the operation?
  • Were those killed combatants, or civilians?
  • What is the security situation in Putumayo?
  • Do the military units involved receive U.S. aid?
  • Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?
  • Did the soldiers wear black outfits and say they weren’t the Army?
  • Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?
  • Was the scene tampered with?
  • What happened to the money and the whiskey?
  • Are credible investigations happening?
  • What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?
  • What does this mean for politics and civil-military relations in Colombia?

Read it here.

The growing, and dangerous, politicization of Colombia’s security forces

Here’s translated English of a brief Twitter thread from Sandra Borda, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, which sounds right to me.

  1. The security forces’ problem is one of civilian leadership: a government that encourages abuses against the citizenry to exercise control, and is incapable of preventing or at least sanctioning misconduct for the sake of keeping the military and police on its side, is a government responsible for every outrage.
  2. Uribismo has politicized the security forces in order to use it as an extension of their campaigning, to place them on their side and against those who they perceive to be their enemies. The continuity of this policy, at the direction of their candidate, is a threat to democracy.
  3. The project that we must seek is one of security forces that are on citizens’ side, and not on the side of a particular political project; a professional force that the people trust. This is the only way to keep us safe. We need leadership, not complicity.

During the past four years in Colombia, the current military and police leadership’s identification with the country’s main right-wing party has gone hand in hand with an increase in human rights abuse events.

This should worry the U.S. government, which continues to invest heavily in its relationship with Colombia’s security forces. The danger is that this investment evolves into an investment in one particular party’s worldview, one that I don’t believe most officials in the Biden administration share.

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:

Victims of eye damage at the hands of Colombian police have had to leave the country

During Colombia’s April-June 2021 Paro Nacional protests, human rights advocates documented 82 cases of protesters who suffered severe eye damage, often resulting from Colombian National Police agents’ misuse of “less-lethal” weapons, like improperly fired tear gas canisters.

Some of the victims have not only lost their eyes or their eyesight: they are now being hounded out of the country by constant death threats. An article by José David Escobar in today’s El Especatador profiles two young women who have had to leave Colombia, their families selling all of their belongings in order to buy the plane tickets out. At least two more victims, Escobar adds, are trying to get out of Colombia for the same reasons.

This is why my colleagues and I get so stridently angry every time we see Biden administration officials offer unalloyed praise for Colombia’s National Police force. This is a really troubled institution, and the U.S. posture toward it is disastrous.

A few translated excerpts from Escobar’s article:

Sandra Pérez, mother of Sara Cárdenas, who was also attacked on May 5, 2021 by the Esmad [riot police squadron], says that they received messages and calls warning them that they were going to kill them or that “they were going to take out her daughter’s other eye”. Even, a week after leaving the country, her neighbors told her that the windows of their apartment had been broken.

”After receiving the attack, we denounced everything that happened that day. From then on we started receiving calls and messages from unknown people threatening us. …I had to hide my other daughter with a relative in another area of the city. We were very scared. Also, before they broke the windows of where we lived, they pointed a laser at the windows of the apartment three times.”

…In the case of Leidy Cadena, she also said that in the months after her attack, she and her boyfriend were searched for no reason. “When I was attacked by the Esmad, there was even a policeman who went to the San Ignacio hospital to make me testify, hours after I had lost my right eye, something inexplicable. But the event that forced us to leave the country was when, in October 2021, we found that they had put gunpowder tubes under the door of my house. That’s when I felt that my life was really in danger.”

…While this article was being written, El Espectador learned of complaints filed last December and April 6, 2022 by one of Sara Cardenas’ aunts, who lives in Colombia and has been in charge of closely following the investigations of her niece’s case. The documents show that, since December 2021, she has been receiving calls and that she was approached by a stranger who told her: “You look better when you are quiet”, “Do you want to die? Stop investigating”, among other phrases.

WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

There’s a lot going on, security-wise, in Colombia. We spent an hour on Zoom today with longtime colleague Kyle Johnson in Bogotá, who gave WOLA podcast listeners a grim but thorough tour of the complicated security landscape.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page.

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

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.

Colombia’s prisons still coddle powerful inmates

Kiko Gómez is serving a 55-year sentence in Bogotá’s La Picota maximum-security prison for ordering the 2012 murder of a former mayor in Colombia’s department of La Guajira. Between 2011 and 2013, Gómez was the governor of La Guajira which, because it’s on the Caribbean and borders Venezuela, is hugely strategic for smugglers.

Kiko Gómez was a close ally of Marquitos Figueroa, a major drug trafficker currently imprisoned in Colombia. He and Figueroa repeatedly threatened the lives of journalists and NGO investigators, including some whom I consider friends.

So it’s really frustrating that a video circulating on Twitter shows Kiko Gómez ringing in the New Year with a whisky and beer party in his prison cell, while video-chatting with a noted vallenato musician on his mobile phone.

Colombia’s prisons have been notoriously gentle on wealthy or powerful inmates. Unlike poorer, more vulnerable prisoners, their incarceration conditions are far from austere. This is sometimes a matter of policy, but it’s often the result of endemic corruption in the prison system.

The classic example is El Catedral, the luxurious one-man prison compound overlooking Medellín where Pablo Escobar was briefly held in 1991-92. Even captured guerrilla leaders tend to have large spaces with access to communications and entertainment. I once interviewed some who had phones (in part because they were serving as intermediaries), video games, hundreds of books, pet cats, a pool table, even a maid to clean up.

The U.S. government has spent millions assisting Colombia’s prison system. The U.S. Embassy website describes the State Department International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement “corrections reform program” as “aiding prisons to operate in a safe, secure, humane, and transparent fashion. The primary focus of INL’s assistance includes basic training, international accreditation, and implementation of systems and processes to improve operations.”

Kiko Gómez’s little New Year’s fest shows that this U.S. program has failed even to make a dent in some very key areas, like among high-profile prisoners in one of Bogotá’s most important prisons.

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.

Notes from Colombia

I spent October 3-9 in Colombia, flying back on the 10th. Most of the time, I was with a member of Congress, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), and his staff. We went to Cali, a city still reeling from intense protests and the security forces’ vicious response. We went an hour and a half south of Cali to Santander de Quilichao, in the north of the department of Cauca, which leads all of Colombia’s 32 departments in killings of social leaders and of demobilized ex-combatants. We went to Bogotá, of course, and to the formerly guerrilla-controlled Sumapaz region about 2 1/2 hours’ drive south of Bogotá.

Traveling with Rep. McGovern meant having access to a wide variety of officials, activists, and experts. This was my first chance to visit Colombia for nearly two years, as I didn’t travel during the pandemic.

Here are eight reactions that are really fresh in my mind upon returning. These aren’t final, comprehensive, or necessarily backed up by hard data. These are my reactions, not necessarily those of the organization I work for or the people I traveled with. Some of them are just feelings or impressions. But they are strong impressions, and I am disturbed by them.

  1. Even putting human rights concerns aside, Colombia’s security forces are in retreat. There is a notable territorial pullback in many parts of the country. Once you pass the last Army checkpoint, you’re on your own: everything after that is effectively ceded to illegal armed groups. These days, that last checkpoint is often quite close to population centers or the main road. After that, people plant coca while armed groups put up their banners and enforce their own sets of rules with a remarkable degree of freedom. I can’t remember feeling such a sharp security pullback since the Samper presidency in the mid-1990s.
  1. Some of this is because of COVID: the government has very few resources right now (or is unwilling to seek enough revenue from its wealthiest citizens). In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, only 15 of the Colombian army’s 42 Black Hawk helicopters were reportedly functioning. Even if that particular situation improved (I don’t know if it did), the pandemic depression has likely hollowed things out further—and civilian ministries are probably in even rougher shape.
  2. In government-abandoned territories, community leaders don’t know what to do or whom they should be dialoguing with to protect themselves. When the FARC existed, and ungoverned spaces tended to be under a single illegal group’s uncontested control, at least the rules were clear. There were local commanders to whom communities could appeal when a group’s fighters became too abusive or its norms became too onerous. Now, though, there are often a few small, overlapping groups—the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, “Gulf Clan” paramilitaries, single-region armed groups, mafias—with constantly shifting territorial control, alliances, and divisions. Caught in the middle, civilian communities don’t know whom they should even be talking to.
  1. Community leaders can’t publicly ask for the government to be present in their territories. That would be suicidal: retaliation from armed groups would be swift. The most they can call for is a “humanitarian accord” in which all armed actors agree to some degree of restraint in their actions against civilians. Though it’s hard to envision how to compel armed actors to honor them, humanitarian accords offer the best hope for protection in a situation of statelessness and abandonment, and communities’ proposals deserve support.
  2. Armed groups’ aggression against civilians seems more common than their combat with the security forces. Though of course there are ambushes and attacks, today’s small, fragmented armed groups prefer not to initiate combat with the military and police. In fact, we heard that local-level cooperation from security forces is ever more common, especially along trafficking routes. This is due to corruption, but also to incentives: who wants to give their life fighting a small local band that poses no existential threat to the state, and that most Colombians haven’t even heard of?
  1. People are afraid of their own security forces. Between the April-June paro nacional protests and violent forced coca eradication operations in rural areas, the military and police have been very hard on civilians this year, killing dozens and wounding or torturing many more. Body counts aren’t a measure of anything, but the number of armed and criminal group members that the Defense Ministry reports as killed or “neutralized” this year is greater—but not wildly greater—than reported killings or wounding of civilians. “Today, the war is the government against the peasant,” a coca farmer told the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, and I heard similar last week. I’d add, though, that the armed groups have also declared war on the civilian population, and the security forces are usually nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, in places like Cali, people who participated in protests are terrified. We spoke to people who were wounded, or who suffered torture in police custody, but are afraid to come forward and publicly denounce what happened to them.
  2. Human rights defenders are in bad shape. Longtime colleagues—lawyers, national ethnic organization leaders, campesino activists—are exhausted. They looked and sounded terrible, like asylum lawyers I interviewed at the U.S.-Mexico border at the worst moments of the Trump administration. Some broke down in tears. It was painful for them to recall the hope they felt in 2016-17 when the peace accord held a promise of tranquility and progress. For them, Colombia has taken a giant step backward from that hope—way farther back than I’d been led to believe before visiting.
  1. We’re doing old-fashioned human rights work again. For several years—from the latter moments of the FARC peace negotiations until quite recently—we had the luxury of advocating “state presence,” “crop substitution,” “rural reform,” “land restitution,” “restorative justice” and similar proposals typical of a country leaving a bitter history behind. Not anymore. There are too many new victims: victims of violence at the hands of state actors, displaced and confined communities. Too many people left unprotected. Sure, even during the more hopeful late-2010s period we were documenting unpunished murders of social leaders and ex-combatants. Now, though, the crisis feels more generalized, happening in both rural and urban areas.

Many thanks to Rep. McGovern and his staff for taking this initiative to visit Colombia, to accompany its human rights defenders and victims, and to encourage the U.S. and Colombian governments to change course. I’m really glad they came, because this is a desperate time.

Colombia already had a plan for avoiding the outcome I’m describing here. It’s laid out in the 2016 peace accord. Despite the present desperation, and even though the U.S.-backed government rarely invokes it, the accord’s development, protection, reintegration, victims, and justice provisions continue to point to the best way forward. The hour is getting late, but it’s still possible to implement that accord.

Colombia Peace Update: September 4, 2021

Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org.

Colombia Peace Update: September 4, 2021

Security deteriorates along the Colombia-Venezuela border

The ELN’s “Camilo Torres Urban Warfare Front” took credit for a bomb that detonated outside a police station in Cúcuta, the largest city along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, on the morning of August 30. The device wounded 14 people, among them 12 police, in Cúcuta’s Atalaya neighborhood.

“Cúcuta is subject to these types of terrorist acts and violence in its rural zones due to the presence of no less than 20 foreign criminal groups,” said Jairo Tomás Yáñez, the mayor of the city of half a million people. While Venezuelan organized crime operates in the area, particularly a band calling itself the Tren de Aragua, it’s not clear why the mayor would have specified “foreign” groups. Colombian groups active in Cúcuta, the conflictive nearby Catatumbo region, and on the Venezuelan side of the border include the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, at least two groups descended from the paramilitary networks of the 1990s and 2000s (the Gulf Clan and Rastrojos), a criminal group descended from the long-demobilized EPL guerrillas which the government calls the “Pelusos,” and smaller local bands.

The latest attack follows two high-profile events in June: a car bomb on the premises of the Army’s 30th Brigade headquarters in Cúcuta on June 15, and President Iván Duque’s helicopter being hit by gunfire as it overflew the region 10 days later. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía) has arrested and charged several people, including a former Army captain, for both crimes, alleging their affiliation with the “33rd Front” ex-FARC dissident group.

These incidents, including the August 21 killing of the vice president of a Junta de Acción Comunal (local advisory board) in rural Cúcuta, “are a small sample of the complexity that the area is experiencing,” warns a Peace and Reconciliation Foundation analysis of Cúcuta, which sees the situation worsening as Colombia’s 2022 presidential and congressional elections draw near. “Some of the factors affecting this reality have to do with the closing of the border [both during and before the pandemic], the reconfiguration of armed actors, and the increase in cocaine cultivation and processing” in this region, “a zone without the rule of law or institutional presence.”

Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander department, is just south of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo enclave, a cluster of about a dozen barely governed municipalities that currently grows more coca than any other region of Colombia. The region “effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state,” reads an analysis by Joshua Collins at The New Humanitarian. Catatumbo has easy access to Venezuela through the large border municipality of Tibú and the presence of all of the above-mentioned armed groups, while one of Colombia’s main oil pipelines (the Caño Limón-Coveñas) runs across its territory.

Catatumbo has strong campesino, Indigenous, and other organizations, including eight former FARC women, profiled this week in a lengthy Vorágine article, leading local reintegration efforts near the site where they demobilized. It has always been a dangerous place to be a social leader, though. This week, the “Madres del Catatumbo por la Paz,” a women’s organization, denounced that its entire leadership had received new and serious threats.

South and east of Norte de Santander, the oil-producing border department of Arauca is also seeing increased tensions. The department has been under heavy ELN influence since the 1980s, endured a bloody mini-war between the ELN and FARC in the 2000s, and is now seeing a growing presence of ex-FARC dissidents. In Saravena, Arauca’s westernmost border municipality, members of an armed group this week stopped employees of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (UBPD, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord) and demanded that they hand over their official vehicle. Municipal authorities meanwhile held an “extraordinary security meeting” after an ex-FARC dissident group calling itself the 28th Front threatened local Indigenous communities, accusing them of petty theft.

An internal dispute between leaders of the 10th Front, a large and fast-growing ex-FARC dissident group, brought a jump in homicides in Arauca in August: at least 28 in a department of 230,000 people. La Silla Vacía notes how the dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca river. Across from the departmental capital, “We can stop at the river’s edge and look them in the face,” said Arauca’s chief of police.

Corruption enables this on both sides of the border. “In Arauca,” on the Colombian side, “there are rumors that all spheres of power are permeated by the dissidents,” La Silla notes. “The most frequent [rumor] is that a good part of the political class of the department works with them.” In the departmental capital, the accusations “even touch the municipality’s security forces.”

Relations between the ELN and local government have been alleged for decades in Arauca. This is the region of Colombia that the ELN, through its powerful Domingo Laín front, is believed to control most tightly. While the dissidents’ presence grows, though, the ELN “has been conspicuous by its absence,” La Silla Vacía observes. “According to a source close to a commander of that group, they continue in the tone of not confronting them in order to avoid a guerrilla war like the one the region suffered ten years ago. However, the tension between them continues to grow.”

Reuters reporter Sarah Kinosian documents the extent to which the ELN and dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the border. In a village in Zulia—across from Colombia’s department of Cesar, which lies north of Catatumbo—ELN members from Colombia “function as both a local government and a major employer,” recruiting people—including children—to work in Colombian coca fields, Kinosian writes. “Rebels who once hid from Colombia’s military in Venezuela’s jungles,” mainly ELN and ex-FARC dissidents, “have moved into population centers, ruling alongside Maduro’s government in some places, supplanting it in others.” ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, speaking from Havana where he was a negotiator until peace talks ended in January 2019, told Reuters that while guerrillas cross into Venezuela, he denies that they are present with the permission of Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

Gen. Montoya will not be indicted in regular justice system

In a decision that, El Tiempo reported, “didn’t cause surprise for the majority of sectors,” Bogotá’s Superior Tribunal refused to allow the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to charge or indict Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, for human rights crimes. The court ruled on August 30 that Colombia’s regular criminal justice system, led by the Fiscalía, may continue to investigate Gen. Montoya’s role in the military’s numerous killings of non-combatants during his tenure. But while his case remains before the 2016 peace accords’ special transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP), the Fiscalía cannot separately charge him or bring him to trial.

Gen. Mario Montoya, now 72, faces allegations of creating a command climate and incentive structure that led soldiers to kill thousands of civilian non-combatants. Throughout the country, under pressure to increase “body counts,” officers claimed falsely that civilian victims were armed-group members killed on the battlefield. The JEP is investigating these abuses, known as “false positives,” and has charged former commanders in two regions of the country so far. It surprised the country earlier this year by releasing a very high estimate of the number of civilians killed by the military: 6,402 between 2002 and 2008, which would be well over 40 percent of the armed forces’ claimed combat kills during those years.

A highly decorated officer whom many Colombians associated with the country’s security gains of the mid-2000s, Gen. Montoya resigned in November 2008 after a particularly egregious example of “false positive” killings came to light, blowing the scandal open after years of human rights groups’ denunciations. Former subordinates have portrayed the general as a key architect of the incentive system that encouraged officers to pad their units’ body counts even if it meant paying criminals to kill the innocent.

In 2018, Gen. Montoya agreed to have his case tried in the JEP instead of the regular justice system, even though the Fiscalía at the time was barely moving on its investigation of him. In his appearances before the transitional justice tribunal so far, Montoya has insisted on his innocence. This is risky: if he were to confess to his role in false positives and take actions to make amends to victims, Gen. Montoya would most likely be sentenced to up to eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison. However, if he pleads “not guilty” and the JEP determines otherwise, he could go to regular prison for up to 20 years. The JEP has not yet formally charged Montoya with anything.

The Fiscalía, led by chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa, surprised many in July when it announced it would seek to indict Gen. Montoya for his role in 104 “false positive” killings that took place after a 2007 order requiring the military to de-emphasize body counts. With his case already moving in the JEP, it was not clear whether the regular justice system had the legal standing to issue charges against Gen. Montoya at the same time. On August 30, Judge Fabio Bernal decided that it did not.

For now, Gen. Montoya’s case will proceed in the transitional justice system. While the Fiscalía is not appealing the August 30 decision, relatives of some “false positive” victims plan to do so, because they believe that separate charges in the regular justice system would increase the chances of the General being held accountable. According to Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, who represents some of the victims, a Fiscalía indictment would have helped because of Gen. Montoya’s reticence so far before the JEP:

If the Fiscalía were to continue with these investigations and charge him for at least some of these acts, it would contribute to the participants reaching a scenario of recognition [of responsibility for crimes]. In the case of Montoya, although he submitted voluntarily to the JEP, because his case was not advanced in the regular justice system, he has come to the [transitional] jurisdiction with an attitude of denying his participation in the policy that promoted these acts, and of not recognizing his responsibility from any point of view.”

Government blames Nariño violence on court-ordered freeze in coca eradication

A firefight between anti-narcotics police and members of the “Óliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 14 police wounded in a rural zone of Tumaco, Nariño, not far from the Ecuador border, as they sought to raid a cocaine laboratory on August 20.

This is part of a worsening climate of violence in Nariño’s Pacific coast region, in Colombia’s far southwest, which is one of the country’s busiest and most fought-over drug trafficking corridors. The same municipalities host coca fields, processing laboratories, and coastal transshipment points. Just north of Tumaco, in the “Telembí Triangle” region, fighting between various armed groups, most of them ex-FARC dissidents, has displaced over 21,000 people—a large part of the population—so far this year.

Reporting from El Tiempo mentions fighting between three factions of ex-FARC dissidents, mostly derived from former Tumaco-area FARC militia members who did not demobilize: the “Óliver Sinisterra,” whose highest profile leader, alias “Guacho,” was killed in 2018; the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico; and more recently members of the Putumayo-based “Comandos de la Frontera,” a group made up of former guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and organized crime. The latter group is apparently aligned with the “Segunda Marquetalia,” the dissident faction founded by former chief FARC peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other top ex-FARC leaders.

All the armed groups “are looking to control coca crops and production,” a “church spokesperson who knows the region” told El Tiempo. “Everyone here has a Mexican ally, from a cartel, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Defense Minister Diego Molano is blaming increased violence on a court ruling. In May 2021, in response to a judicial appeal (tutela) from the Nariño Pacific Human Rights Network, which represents several Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities, the Superior Tribunal of Pasto prohibited all coca eradication—including that done by manual eradication teams—until the government engages in prior consultation with affected communities. The court ordered the Interior Ministry to carry out consultations within 100 days, with a possible 60-day extension. It is not clear how much progress the Ministry has made, if any, on consultations with residents of these remote, poorly governed zones.

Since May, then, coca eradication has been on hold in much of 10 municipalities along coastal Nariño. This includes Tumaco, which ranks second in coca acreage among Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. Nariño, however, has seen a decline in coca cultivation, from nearly 42,000 hectares in 2018 to 30,751 in 2020, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Long the number-one coca-growing department, Nariño has been surpassed by Norte de Santander (see the Venezuela discussion above). About one-fifth of Nariño’s coca is planted in indigenous reserves, the UNODC estimates.

Molano, the defense minister, calls the result of the court order “a case of national security,” adding that “denying the possibility of manual eradication in 10 municipalities of Nariño has had an impact on the increase in homicides and forced displacements in that area.”

The communities themselves, though, blame a near-total absence of government presence, including security and other basic services. “We have been negotiating with the governments in power for almost 26 years, and we have not been able to get roads we need to transport our legal products,” a leader of Nariño’s Juntas Comunales La Cordillera organization told El Tiempo. “We have no roads, we have no schools. We want to substitute [coca], but they do not present us with options.” Community leaders note that the government is badly behind on payments promised to those who voluntarily eradicate their coca, in the framework of a program set up by the 2016 peace accords.

Unable to eradicate coca in coastal Nariño, “the authorities have opted for a path that, paradoxically, is the one that many experts recommend because of its effectiveness: attacking other links, such as inputs or capital for the purchase of coca leaf and coca base,” reads an El Tiempo editorial. It is not clear how energetically the government is pursuing these alternative measures, though, or whether they could possibly be enough to substitute for state presence in a climate of worsening combat between guerrilla dissidents and other armed groups.

Links

  • WOLA’s latest alert details numerous cases of human rights abuse committed around the country during July and August.
  • VICE reports on the National Police’s practice, during the April-June Paro Nacional protests, of taking arrested protesters to unofficial “black sites” in Cali, where hundreds were beaten and forced to make false confessions.
  • Colombia’s universities “were not exempt from the conflict, and were stigmatized. When I was director of police intelligence, I contributed to stigmatizing it, because I considered them to be related to armed groups and that guerrilla fighters were linked to them. What a big mistake,” said former National Police chief and vice president Gen. Oscar Naranjo, in an appearance before the Truth Commission.
  • Colombia and Panama have agreed to limit, to 500 people per day, the flow of migrants from other countries traveling northbound from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap jungle region. “So far this year, Panama estimates more than 50,000 migrants have come through the dangerous Darien route,” the Associated Press reports, adding, “An estimated 15,000 migrants are currently en route through Colombia heading for Panama.”
  • U.S. Army South, the Army component of U.S. Southern Command, held a two-day seminar for members of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), who will soon deploy to Colombia, Panama, and Honduras for a lengthy military training mission. The SFAB’s first visit to Colombia, between May and October 2020, generated much publicity and some controversy.
  • An investigation by La Silla Vacía finds that the Land Restitution Agency—a body created in 2011 by the government of Juan Manuel Santos—has recently been inaccurately inflating the amount of land that it has been distributing to small farmers dispossessed by the conflict.
  • Interviewed by the New York Times, President Iván Duque said “he had done more than his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, to put in place the peace deal’s landownership overhauls and development plans that would give poor farmers and former rebels jobs and opportunities.”
  • WOLA laments the unexpected and premature death of our longtime colleague and friend Yamile Salinas, a great and generous legal mind, teacher, and fighter for land rights and human rights in Colombia’s countryside.
Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




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