Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Links from the Past Month

Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group completed a sixth round of peace talks in Cuba on February 6. They agreed to renew a six-month-old ceasefire for another six months, through August 4.

The ceasefire is to include a halt in guerrilla kidnappings. As of February 7, according to lead government negotiator Vera Grabe, the ELN had released 23 of 26 people it had been holding. On February 18 the group released a dentist whom it had kidnapped in Magdalena.

Negotiators also agreed to create an international multi-color fund to support peace activities. The next round of talks is to take place in Venezuela.

Despite the ceasefire, ELN units in the southern region of the northwestern department of Chocó declared an “armed strike,” prohibiting people from transiting on roads and rivers for about a week in mid-February. It was the ELN’s third armed strike in this area in seven months. The ELN and the Gulf Clan have been fighting in southern Chocó for years, and the humanitarian crisis—especially forced displacements and confinements—is worsening for communities along the San Juan and Baudó rivers, which are busy smuggling corridors.

The ceasefire, which is limited to stopping fighting between the ELN and the government, is “incomplete” and does not specifically prohibit confinements of populations, said negotiating team member Sen. Iván Cepeda.

ELN negotiators announced on February 20 that they are putting the dialogues on hold. They were reportedly unhappy with the government’s approval of separate dialogues between a single ELN structure and the government of the southwestern department of Nariño (which shares a party affiliation with President Gustavo Petro). The ELN is contesting territory in Nariño with the Central General Staff (EMC) ex-FARC dissident network.

The ELN’s Comuneros del Sur front appears to be more disposed to a faster-paced dialogue; conversations began informally in September 2023. While the Petro government supports the idea of “regional dialogues,” ELN’s national leadership prefers that it negotiate with the group as a whole.

The government has a strong incentive to seek talks with individual ELN units, as the guerrilla group has a loose central command structure with very autonomous units. “The Eastern and Western War fronts, due to their operability and lethality, represent more or less 70 percent of the ELN and these structures are not at the table,” Carlos Velandia, a former ELN leader who is now a frequently cited analyst, told El Tiempo.

The EMC staged a 27-day “armed strike” in parts of southern Caquetá department.

Following recent ELN and EMC armed actions against civilians in Antioquia, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, and elsewhere, High Commissioner for Peace Otty Patiño warned that “The ceasefire is not a permit to commit crimes.” Analysts viewed this as a hardening of the Petro government’s tone toward armed groups participating in negotiations, and a break with the approach of former High Commissioner Danilo Rueda.

Peace talks officially launched between the government and the Segunda Marquetalia ex-FARC dissident network. Nominally headed by Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator for the 2016 peace accord who rearmed in 2019, the Segunda Marquetalia is mainly active in Putumayo and Nariño departments in southwest Colombia.

This is the only negotiation with a group led by people who had already agreed to an earlier peace accord. Along with the ELN and EMC, the Petro government is now in active peace talks with three national groups.

Representatives of the 15 UN Security Council member states visited Colombia on February 7-11. The Council is considering expanding the scope of the UN Verification Mission’s mandate to include the Petro government’s new peace negotiations with additional armed groups; the U.S. government has been reluctant to approve a quick mandate expansion. In a press conference with Council members, President Petro acknowledged that aspects of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation, like land distribution, are running behind.

During their visit, UN diplomats traveled to Buenaventura and Cartagena, and to the former FARC demobilization and reincorporation site in La Montañita, Caquetá, which is now a fair-sized rural town.

Twenty-four of these reincorporation sites, in thirteen departments, continue to exist. As of October 31, the government recognized 11,269 people as ex-FARC, down from 13,394 in 2020, according to El Espectador.

Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office noted that the Petro government has increased budgets and resources for implementing the 2016 peace accord, especially its provisions on land and rural reform. In a new monitoring report, though, the Office voiced strong concern about how these resources are being allocated, and about armed groups’ continuing power to undermine people’s access to land, especially when landholders are women.

Of the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDET), a big peace accord commitment to bring state services to long-abandoned areas, less than 50 percent have even been launched, 7 years after accord implementation began.

Former FARC leaders sent an angry letter to President Petro complaining that the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal currently trying their war crimes cases is “moving away from the spirit and letter of the peace accord.” They are upset that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), in their view, is resolving cases separately instead of all together, moving slow on amnesties for political crimes, and focusing too much on mid-level ex-commanders. The JEP appeared to resolve the amnesty issue on February 21.

68 bills before Colombia’s Congress whose passage is necessary to comply with 2016 peace accord commitments are in danger of failing because they must be approved in the legislative session that ends on June 20, according to the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP).

A FIP report found that Colombia’s armed groups increased their strength and reach in 2023, even as some negotiated with the government and some humanitarian indicators improved. “Disputes between the groups for territorial control increased 54% in 2023. Total armed actions by the groups also increased 11%. Disputed zones between groups increased from five to nine,” said FIP Director María Victoria Llorente.

FIP cited data from Colombia’s security forces pointing to an increase in the combined membership of the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan in 2023: from about 15,000 to about 16,700.

Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Links from the Past Month

Negotiators from the government and the “Central General Staff” (EMC)—the group of FARC dissidents that rejected the peace accord before its 2016 signing—completed a third, ten-day round of negotiations on January 18. Commitments included a dissident pledge to cease recruiting minors, a government pledge to evaluate the situation of jailed EMC members, and steps toward a negotiating agenda that will include environmental issues. They also ratified earlier agreements to halt EMC kidnappings and to extend a bilateral ceasefire through July 15.

With support from the UN and OAS peace missions, four out of five regional offices for verification of the EMC ceasefire have now been established: in Arauca, Santander, Meta, and Putumayo.

At the UN Security Council’s quarterly review of peace accord implementation in Colombia, on January 11, the U.S. representative withheld—for now—U.S. government support for including EMC ceasefire verification within the UN peace mission’s mandate. “These agreements still lack maturity,” said U.S. Acting Deputy Permanent Representative Elisabeth Millard.

Citing “intelligence reports,” El Tiempo estimated that the EMC “has, counting all its structures, 3,480 people in arms.”

Representatives of the Security Council will visit Colombia in February, the UN body announced during its January 11 quarterly review of Colombia’s peace efforts.

Government and ELN negotiators are to hold a sixth round of talks in Cuba from January 22 to February 6. High Commissioner for Peace Otty Patiño repeated the government’s insistence that the current ceasefire, which must be renewed by January 29, include an end to ELN kidnappings and the release of all remaining guerrilla captives.

The government reportedly gave the ELN a list of 26 kidnapped people whose release it demands. Army Sgt. Libey Danilo Bravo, whose the ELN kidnapped in Arauca for three weeks last February and March, told La Silla Vacía that the guerrillas took him to a makeshift prison across the border in Venezuela that they called “Alcatraz,” where they were holding ten other people.

ELN leader Antonio García said that the group would require government financing to sustain itself if it were to suspend ransom kidnappings while peace talks continue. Patiño said that the government would only seriously consider financing if the ELN committed to the conflict’s end “in a decisive and clear way.”

Between December 4 and January 3, the think-tank CERAC counted three ELN offensive actions considered to be ceasefire violations: a homicide, a kidnapping, and an armed attack on a vehicle.

President Gustavo Petro met with Pope Francis on January 19; he requested that a future round of ELN peace talks take place at the Vatican.

Otty Patiño expanded his staff at the High Commissioner for Peace office from 13 to 149 people, a number closer to the staffing strength that existed during the government of Iván Duque (2018-2022).

On January 14 in Pitalito, Huila, José Enrique Roa Cruz became the third FARC ex-combatant to be killed in 2024 and at least the 411th since the former guerrilla group’s 2017 demobilization. The UN Verification mission counted 47 killings in 2023, the fewest since 2017.

The Petro government transferred 363 billion pesos (US$93 million) to the Presidency’s Implementation Unit, where it will go toward ex-combatant reintegration programs and the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDET) foreseen in chapter 1 of the 2016 peace accord.

In addition to moving the ELN and EMC peace processes forward, in 2024 the Petro administration has big decisions to make about the future of talks with regional gangs, with the Segunda Marquetalia FARC dissident group, and with the Gulf Clan paramilitary structure, wrote Camilo Pardo and Cindy Morales at El Espectador. The Catholic Church’s representative to the peace process, Msgr. Héctor Fabio Henao, told El Espectador that no roadmap currently exists for eventual talks with the Segunda Marquetalia and the Gulf Clan.

“Colombia’s quest for ‘total peace’…has become a thorny path, with some progress, but slower than President Gustavo Petro had anticipated,” according to an Associated Press analysis.

Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
– ELN
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022), https://indepaz.org.co/informe-sobre-presencia-de-grupos-armados-en-colombia-2021-2022-1/

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

Read More

Tomorrow Morning in Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”

Tune in tomorrow morning (or on YouTube later) for what will be a really interesting discussion of how governments can protect their citizens and their institutions from organized crime, without violating human rights.

It’s unusual to have two people from one organization in these hearings. I’m a substitute for someone who just had to cancel. I’ll be talking mainly about Colombia.

OK, time to work on my testimony.

More Photos from Colombia

I just got back to Washington at mid-day today, after two weeks in Colombia. Before I left, I replaced my four-and-a-half year-old phone with a current model, because the old one’s port wasn’t always connecting to the cable and I didn’t want to find myself there with an unpowered phone.

The new phone isn’t much different than the old one, with one huge exception: the camera, which makes me seem like a much better photographer than I actually am.

Here are some images that are less work-related but just pretty cool. Presented in no particular order. Click on any to expand in a new window. (I’ve shared other photos from the trip in two earlier posts.)

Bogotá at night.

Mural in El Placer, Putumayo, Colombia.

A few hundred people from Embera-Katío Indigenous communities, displaced by violence in northwestern Colombia, have been camped since October in Bogotá’s Parque Nacional, in the middle of the city near the Javeriana University.

A griffin atop Colombia’s Congress building.

The people of Ipiales, Nariño celebrated Halloween with aplomb.

Not usually a fan of dressing kids up as cops, but the kid in the lower left in Ipiales is super cute.

The spot where we had a hearty breakfast in La Bonita, Ecuador, along the border with Nariño, Colombia.

Outside Lago Agrio, Ecuador, a few minutes’ drive south of Colombia.

Paramilitary display in the “Museum of Memory” in El Placer, Putumayo. The building used to be a school (hence the beat-up chalkboard), where paramilitaries committed numerous abuses. One of the photos on the chalk ledge was taken by me in 2004.

Darién Gap-bound migrants bathing in the Gulf of Urabá in Necoclí, Antioquia.

Boats in Necoclí, ready to take migrants across the Gulf of Urabá to the Darién Gap.

Orito, Putumayo on Saturday night.

Central Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar, recently grafitti’ed by student protesters.

Roadside arepas in La Hormiga, Putumayo.

Looking into San Miguel, Putumayo, Colombia from the Ecuador side of the border bridge.

Provisions for migrants’ walk through the Darién Gap, on sale near the dock in Turbo, Antioquia.

The army and police welcome you to Urabá, northwestern Colombia (at the Apartadó, Antioquia airport).

At the Rumichaca bridge between Ipiales, Nariño, Colombia and (in the background) Tulcán, Carchi, Ecuador.

Six days in Putumayo and Along the Colombia-Ecuador Border

Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here until tomorrow night, with 10 meetings on the schedule today and tomorrow.

This was day 13 of a 14-day research trip. I’ve slept in 10 different hotels in 9 places:

  • Bogotá
  • Apartadó, Antioquia
  • Necoclí, Antioquia
  • Bogotá
  • Puerto Asís, Putumayo
  • Orito, Putumayo
  • La Hormiga, Putumayo
  • Lago Agrio, Sucumbíos, Ecuador
  • Ipiales, Nariño
  • Pasto, Nariño
  • Bogotá

The purpose of this insane itinerary was to learn about the latest developments in migration through, and to, Colombia. I was able to visit the Colombia-Panama and Colombia-Ecuador border regions.

With two WOLA colleagues I was on the outskirts of the Darién Gap region straddling Colombia and Panama, through which nearly 500,000 migrants have passed so far this year. With longtime Colombian colleagues I also visited the border between Carchi, Ecuador and Nariño, Colombia, through which hundreds of Darién-bound migrants from dozens of countries pass each day.

While at the Colombia-Ecuador border I was also able to spend a few days in the department of Putumayo, which is where U.S.-backed military and police anti-drug operations began after the 2000 passage of the Clinton administration’s mammoth initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. Twenty-three years later, Putumayo remains a principal zone of coca and cocaine production, under the heavy influence of two feuding armed groups.

I need to go through my tens of thousands of words of notes just to come up with the number of meetings and conversations I’ve had since October 22. It’s more than 50. I’ve talked to people migrating, aid workers, international organizations, migrants associations, Indigenous groups, campesino groups, coca cultivators, mayors and other local officials, national government officials, U.S. diplomats, journalists, human rights defenders, police, scholars, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some sectors.

I’ve barely had time yet to process my notes, much less wrap my head around what I’ve seen and heard. But here are some photos from Putumayo, northern Ecuador, and Nariño. (I posted Darién-area photos about a week ago.)

The Putumayo River, which eventually flows in to the Amazon, just north of Puerto Asís, Putumayo.

At a supermarket in Orito, Putumayo, a sign advertises money transfers to Venezuela. People who have fled Venezuela live all over Colombia, even in places like Orito that are very distant from Venezuela and have a strong presence of coca cultivation and armed groups.

Colombia held local elections on Sunday October 29. On the evening of the 28th in Orito, mayoral candidates held rallies outside their party headquarters.

El Placer, Putumayo, was the site of a 1999 paramilitary massacre; the town became notorious nationwide for the paramilitaries’ systematic rapes of the town’s women and girls. At the time, the United States was pumping military aid into Putumayo under “Plan Colombia” even though the local armed forces collaborated with the paramilitaries. The town’s school, where paramilitaries committed many of the violations, is now a “museum of memory.” I took one of the photos on the wall here (see page 323 of this report) during a 2004 visit when I worked for the Center for International Policy.

The bridge between San Miguel, Putumayo, Colombia and General Farfán, Sucumbíos, Ecuador.

The mountains of Nariño, Colombia viewed from La Bonita, Sucumbíos, Ecuador.

Families—almost certainly Darién-bound, as they’re traveling with sleeping gear and minimal backpacks—at the bus station in the border city of Tulcán, Ecuador.

The two kids on the left, one with a Venezuelan flag-themed backpack, are southbound: they said they just left Venezuela and are headed to Peru, where they have relatives. This is the bus terminal in Tulcán, Ecuador.

We encountered several groups of people fleeing China. This is the Tulcán bus terminal, but people holding Chinese passports were also at the official border crossing and on my flight today from Pasto, Nariño to Bogotá.

The Rumichaca border crossing between Tulcán, Carchi, Ecuador and Ipiales, Nariño, Colombia.

The bus terminal in the border city of Ipiales, Nariño.

Migrant shelter run by Pastoral Social (Caritas) in Ipiales.

Back From Urabá, Colombia

I spent the past few days in and around Necoclí, Colombia, an area through which tens of thousands of migrants, from dozens of countries, pass. Here, they take boats across the Gulf of Urabá to the Darién region straddling Colombia and Panama, where they undergo a treacherous several-day journey through dense jungle.

Here are a few photos. I’m in another zone of Colombia now, as research continues, so there’s no time to write much yet. We had our photographer Sergio with us, who took much better photos than the ones here.

The Darién region, viewed from across the Gulf of Urabá.

Carrying provisions, people prepare to board boats. Most people we spoke with were from Venezuela, but we also spoke with people from Ecuador, Haiti, and Cuba, and saw some migrants from China.

Migrants who can’t pay the boat fare, and fees charged by organized crime, sleep on the beach until they can get enough money together. There are no migrant shelters in Necoclí.

A smaller number of migrants lacking boat fare waits in tents near the dock in Turbo, south of Necoclí.

Water purification tablets and mosquito spray for the jungle journey.

Armed-group tag in Turbo.

We Should Reflect and Discuss Events in a Way That Will Not Increase the Despair and the Anger in People.

The row began one day after Hamas’s unprecedented 7 October attacks when Petro used his official X account to denounce what he called “neo-Nazi” efforts to destroy the Palestinian people, freedom and culture.

The World Jewish Congress accused Colombia’s leftwing president of completely ignoring the hundreds of Israeli civilian victims and called Petro’s statement “an insult to the six million victims of the Holocaust and to the Jewish people”.

The next day Petro returned to social media to comment on claims by Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Galant, that his troops were fighting “human animals” in Gaza. “This is what the Nazis said about the Jews,” tweeted Petro. “All this hate speech will do, if it continues, is lead to a Holocaust.”

Over the coming days, Petro – who has declined to strongly condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas – repeatedly used social media to criticize Israel’s military response.

“I’ve been to the Auschwitz concentration camp and now I see it being copied in Gaza,” Petro said in one post, drawing a polite rebuke from Israel’s ambassador in Bogotá, Gali Dagan, who offered to take him to the kibbutzim in southern Israel that Hamas attacked “and where many Latinos live”.
From the Guardian.

I’m deeply saddened by Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s decision to respond to a man-made calamity, on the brink of a calamitous reprisal, by taking to Twitter and using inflammatory language that does nothing to bring peace closer.

The world needs to hear wisdom right now, especially from the leader of a country that’s struggling to heal the wounds of its own generations of man-made calamity. The Colombian people need to hear wisdom.

That’s all. Except for this Thich Nhat Hanh quote.

If one terrorist group is violently destroyed, another will emerge; it’s endless. So I told the editors, “When you report on terrorist acts, use your compassion and deep understanding. Explain the story in such a way that the reader doesn’t become enraged and perhaps become another terrorist.”

We can tell the truth, but we must help people understand. When people understand, their anger will lessen. They don’t lose hope, they know what to do and what not to do, what to consume and what not to consume in order not to continue this kind of suffering. So my message that morning was that we should reflect and discuss events in a way that will not increase the despair and the anger in people. Instead, we can help them to understand why things happen, so their insight and compassion increase. We can make a big difference with the practice of looking deeply. The solution isn’t to hide the truth.

Lawless Lands: Where Colombia’s Justice System Has Not Arrived

Colombia’s judicial system has 9.65 judges per 100,000 inhabitants of the country. In the 170 barely governed municipalities hardest-hit by the country’s armed conflict, which the 2016 peace accord selected for investment in “Territorially Focused Development Programs” (PDET), the number falls to 7.70 judges per 100,000 inhabitants.

That’s one of hundreds of findings of a thorough September 25 report on fulfillment of the 2016 FARC peace accord’s commitments, published by the Peace Committee of Colombia’s Congress together with the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation. The report paints a mixed but often disappointing picture of accord compliance overall.

It notes that 9.65 judges (or fewer) is really bad: “in the other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, the average is 65 judges per 100,000 inhabitants.”

In some of the PDET zones, the lack of judicial presence is especially dire.

Sur de Córdoba 3.18 - Número de jueces: 9

Catatumbo 3.61 - Número de jueces: 7

Alto Patía y Norte del Cauca 4.32 - Número de jueces: 36
Southern Córdoba, left, is where soldiers, apparently posing as FARC dissidents, were caught on video last month threatening a town’s inhabitants. Catatumbo, center, is Colombia’s number-one coca-growing region. Northern Cauca, right, is notorious for human rights defender killings and has seen very frequent recent combat incidents. The absence of the justice system has consequences.

Under those circumstances, who settles disputes for people, enforces rules, and imposes sanctions when those rules are broken? Sometimes, the answer is “nobody,” but more often, the answer is “armed and criminal groups.”

Darién Gap Migration Through August 2023

Panama just posted updated data, detailed by country, gender, and age, about migration through the Darién Gap in August.

Annual Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

2023: Venezuela 60%, Ecuador 13.0%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 12.9%, China 4%, Colombia 3%, India 1.0%, All Others <1%

Since 2010: Venezuela 43%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 25%, Ecuador 9%, Cuba 8%, Colombia 2.0%, All Others <2%

	2010	2011	2012	2013	2014	2015	2016	2017	2018	2019	2020	2021	2022	2023 (Aug)
Venezuela						2	6	18	65	78	69	2819	150327	201288
Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile)	0	1	0	2	2	8	16742	40	420	10490	5331	101072	27287	42959
Ecuador		15	18	4	1	14	93	50	51	31	40	387	29356	43536
Cuba	79	18	1154	2010	5026	24623	7383	736	329	2691	245	18600	5961	700
Colombia		65	24	26	9	32	16	36	13	23	21	169	5064	11276
China	268	9	11	1		1		6			3	77	2005	12979
India	12	11	48		1	1	20	1127	2962	1920	39	592	4094	3338
Nepal	29	9	213	297	468	2426	1619	2138	868	254	56	523	1631	1659
Bangladesh	53	45	89	398	377	559	580	506	1525	911	123	1657	1884	1158
Other Countries	118	110	220	313	291	1623	3601	2119	2988	5704	538	7830	20675	14811

Data table

It broke all records: 81,946 people passed through this treacherous jungle region in 31 days. The previous monthly record, set in October 2022, was 59,773.

In the first eight months of this year, 333,704 people have migrated through the Darién. Ten years ago, in 2013, the full-year total was 3,051 migrants. In 2011, it was just 281.

Monthly Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

August 2023: Venezuela 77%, Ecuador 11%, Colombia 4%, China 3%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 2%, all others <1%

January 22-Aug 23: Venezuela 60%, Ecuador 13%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 12%, Colombia 2.8%, China 2.6%, all others <2%

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23	Apr-23	May-23	Jun-23	Jul-23	Aug-23
Venezuela	1421	1573	1704	2694	9844	11359	17066	23632	38399	40593	668	1374	2337	7097	20816	25395	26409	18501	38033	62700
Ecuador	100	156	121	181	527	555	883	1581	2594	8487	6350	7821	6352	5203	2772	2683	3059	5052	9773	8642
Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile)	807	627	658	785	997	1025	1245	1921	2642	4525	5520	6535	12063	7813	8335	5832	3633	1743	1548	1992
Colombia	48	72	59	72	248	287	407	569	1306	1600	208	188	333	637	1260	1634	1645	894	1884	2989
China	32	39	56	59	67	66	85	119	136	274	377	695	913	1285	1657	1683	1497	1722	1789	2433
India	67	74	88	172	179	228	431	332	350	604	813	756	562	872	1109	446	161	65	96	27
Cuba	367	334	361	634	567	416	574	589	490	663	535	431	142	36	35	59	59	74	123	172
Afghanistan	1	3	40	31	67	82	162	128	180	551	379	596	291	276	359	386	192	217	321	467
Peru	17	23	18	29	88	109	136	247	365	438	34	39	39	100	261	277	394	209	376	653
Other Countries	1842	1361	1722	1477	1310	1506	1833	1986	1742	2038	1748	1862	1602	1338	1495	1902	1913	1245	1444	1871

Data table

60 percent of this year’s migrants through the Darién Gap have been citizens of Venezuela: 201,288 people. In August, the migrant population was 77 percent Venezuelan: 62,700 people.

Jaw-dropping numbers from a region that was viewed as all but impenetrable until perhaps 2021. And there’s little reason why they won’t continue to increase. Any plan to “block” migrants on this route would require a staggeringly large and complex operation that would create additional challenges, like what to do with tens of thousands of stranded migrants.

Marta Ruiz on Colombia’s “Reverse Land Reform”

If a drug-funded armed group on the U.S. government’s terrorist list forces thousands of family farmers off their land, can companies who bought that land just a few years later really claim to have done so “in good faith?”

Marta Ruiz, a journalist who served as a commissioner of Colombia’s Truth Commission, asked that question in a September 10 column at the Colombian news site La Silla Vacía. She was writing about the Montes de María, a region near the country’s Caribbean coast where small farmers struggled to win titles to their lands, only to be massively displaced by an early 2000s scorched-earth campaign, including a string of notoriously bloody massacres, by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC were a paramilitary network—on the State Department’s terrorist list between 2001 and 2013—that colluded with large landowners, narcotraffickers, and elements of Colombia’s armed forces.

In late August, Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited El Salado, a village in the Montes de María known for a grisly 2000 massacre. There, he called out Argos, a cement company that is one of Colombia’s largest corporations. (Argos USA’s website calls it “the most sustainable company in the industry.”) Marta Ruiz reported that Petro said:

“Argos took the land of the displaced, I am not going to accuse them of the massacre, but they benefited from the fruit of the massacre and the blood.” The company immediately responded by arguing its good faith in the purchase of 6,600 hectares in the municipalities of Carmen and Ovejas.

Ruiz’s column then recounts the recent history of this troubled region, which is less than two hours’ drive from Cartagena. First, the land-tenure struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the subject of many histories and academic studies in Colombia.

Populated by mestizos, indigenous people and Afros, it was the scene of strong agrarian struggles against unproductive large estates throughout the 20th century. In fact, it was the site chosen by [1966-1970 president] Carlos Lleras Restrepo to launch the ANUC [government-sanctioned small-farmers’ organization] and his agrarian reform, with much more radical speeches than Petro’s against the rentier landowners and landlords. In those years, many peasant families obtained plots of land of a maximum of 12 hectares, and others after 1994 when, with Law 160, land adjudication resumed.

Then, the paramilitary onslaught of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which reversed so many farmers’ hard-won gains.

By the mid-1990s, the FARC-EP—which were already in the region—became very strong in the mountains, and from there they tried to dominate the entire region. The ranchers, tired of kidnapping and extortion, demanded that [top AUC leader] Carlos Castaño send his army of thugs to that part of the Caribbean. But since a war is expensive and they were not going to finance it, it was obvious that drug traffickers, who eventually became owners of immense lands in the region’s lowlands and coastal areas, would have to enter the war, thus consolidating their illicit trade routes.

Then came the “expediting” of massacres. First was Pichilín, a small village high in the mountains between Colosó and Morroa. Everyone left there, except one old man who ended up talking to the trees. Then followed Macayepo, Chengue, El Salado, Las Brisas, Capaca, Los Guaimaros… I can go on until I fill the page with more than 50 names of villages that were razed to the ground. Between 2000 and 2005 at least one million peasants in the Caribbean region were displaced and lost their land. In Carmen de Bolivar alone, once a prosperous town, 80 percent of the rural inhabitants were exiled.

Home abandoned in Chinulito, Colosó, Sucre (photo by me in 2011)

The AUC went through a sort of demobilization process in the mid-2000s. By then, for a time, the armed forces became the major human rights violators in the Montes de María.

After the demobilization of the AUC…there was a time of extrajudicial executions, disappearances, dispossessions and mass arrests. The latter were a nefarious practice of the public forces because they were based on biased intelligence, based on the stigmatization of entire towns such as Ovejas, where 130 people were arrested in a single day. Between paramilitaries, guerrillas and security forces, a century’s worth of campesino organization was almost wiped out.

In 2007 the final “battle” took place with a bombing where [top regional FARC leader] Martín Caballero died. Thus the guerrillas were annihilated in that region.

President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) oversaw military operations that weakened the FARC, and also oversaw a negotiation process that demobilized the paramilitaries in exchange for light jail sentences. Uribe had the full support of large landowners and business elites, who moved rapidly into the lands abandoned by the small farmers of the Montes de María.

Meanwhile, President Uribe and his closest circle encouraged his countrymen in Medellín and Envigado to buy land and invest in Montes de María.

…The consolidation of Democratic Security [Uribe’s signature security policy] would be done hand in hand with businessmen, and the military committed themselves to the construction of a road that would join the Magdalena River with the Caribbean Sea: the Montes de María transverse road. And they did it. Thus, the counterinsurgency strategy contained an anti-peasant bias which, aligned with a certain vision of development, assured that Colombia’s progress depended on businessmen’s money rather than on the regions’ human capital.

What happened next was a “reverse land reform” throughout the mid-2000s to the early 2010s.

The massive purchase of land was done at a surprising speed and with all kinds of trickery… The businessmen had access to these databases [of forcibly displaced farmers’ delinquent mortgages] and set themselves the task of looking for the displaced in the poverty belts of Sincelejo, Cartagena, and Barranquilla to ask them, through trickery, half-truths and deceit, for the transfer of their titles… The intermediaries took the land and in exchange left the campesinos with despair, fear, lack of protection and defeat. It was an express agrarian counter-reform.

It is a legend, but absolutely true, that in order to consummate this operation, notary offices worked 24 hours a day for several weeks. It was necessary to accelerate because another part of the state’s institutional framework, the one that was trying to return displaced people, announced the protection of the lands and the prohibition of their sale until the circumstances in which these transactions took place were verified.

In 2011, some investors buying up land in the Montes de María portrayed themselves as rural development associations. (Photo by me in El Carmen de Bolívar, Bolívar)

Of the business organizations that bought up all of the land vacated after the paramilitary onslaught, Argos is the best known.

In the midst of such a panorama, Argos bought its first land in San Onofre, Sucre, a municipality where the feared [regional paramilitary leader] Rodrigo Cadena had his headquarters. The company was obliged to compensate for the environmental damage caused by its cement activity by planting forests. Thanks to a forestry incentive law, this compensation became a business: planting teak, a fine and very expensive wood, which has an assured international market… The land was cheap because in their exodus, people left the land. Argos decided not only to stay but to expand to other municipalities and that is when it set its eyes on El Carmen, Ovejas, etc.

Courts, Ruiz noted, have cast doubt on Argos’s claims to have been unaware of the violent dispossession that took place in the lands they purchased, just a few years earlier.

The courts have said that Argos did not comply with the due diligence expected of a multinational company that is listed on the world’s major stock exchanges; that is among the five most powerful groups in the country; and that to top it off is part of global pacts for good human rights practices. According to the judges, it is unlikely that a company of its size and capacity would be unaware of the context in which the land purchases and sales took place, let alone their implications.

Ruiz credits Argos for steps that it has since taken: “once the Victims Law was approved [2011] and the massive purchases scandal became a reputational risk, the business group cancelled its project in those municipalities. It created the Fundación Crecer en Paz, which remains under its tutelage for the management of the 6,600 hectares already acquired.” Farmers have recovered some of the land.

That is more than can be said of other opportunistic investors who benefited, indirectly or directly, from paramilitary violence in the Montes de María. Still, “it is a pity that Argos maintains its anachronistic discourse about the ‘good faith’ that led it to these purchases, instead of gallantly recognizing that its actions were opportunistic and encouraged dispossession. It should ask for forgiveness.”

After all, “Montes de María was not a wasteland in need of corporate colonization as was said in certain circles in Medellín. It was home to many people who had fought fervently to be there.”

These are just a few highlights of a great column about a chapter of Colombia’s conflict that shows what a lot of the fighting was actually about: the strong taking advantage of a crisis to seize land and wealth from the weak.

The U.S. officials who adhered Washington so closely to the project of Álvaro Uribe and his allies—giving him effusive praise, billions in aid, and even the Medal of Freedom—can claim, too, that they were acting in good faith. But they enabled a good deal of harm.

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