Adam Isacson

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

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Colombia peace update: Week of November 22, 2020

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Fourth anniversary of the FARC peace accord

On November 24, 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño signed a revised peace accord at a ceremony in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón. Four years later, analysts tend to note an intensification of violence in the past year or two, especially compared to the immediate pre- and post-conflict period. Most find Colombia’s armed conflict fragmenting into a collection of regional conflicts with different dynamics. Some contend that the government has not adapted to this new reality.

Here are some analyses published to coincide with the fourth anniversary:

  • An infographic from the Fundación Ideas para la Paz counts 65% more armed-group actions (318) in the fourth year after accord than it counted in the last year before the accord (192). The ELN, in first place, slightly exceeds dissidents’ activity.
  • “The question beginning to be asked is whether the window of opportunity opened by the accord has closed and we are in the midst of a new cycle of political-military violence, or whether we are just going through a difficult patch in a transition to peace,” notes Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.
  • CERAC, which maintains a database of conflict events, finds a slight increase in conflict-related violence so far in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
  • Sergio Jaramillo, the Santos government’s high commissioner for peace during the FARC dialogues, praised some aspects of the Duque government’s accord implementation, but voiced concern about rising violence in “post-conflict” territories.
  • El Espectador published a timeline widget highlighting major peace and conflict events over the past four years.
  • Oft-cited political scientist Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín talked about his new book warning of “A New Cycle of War in Colombia.”
  • “The country has improved a lot in many political and social areas, but there has been a huge deterioration of security in the last two years. We’ve had over 70 massacres and a rise in killings and illegal economies in various areas,” Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación told Al Jazeera.
  • “Strengthening the state’s presence in conflict-affected areas is a work in progress, which needs to be accelerated,” wrote former European Union Special Envoy Eamon Gilmore.

JEP hearing on ex-FARC protections

On November 25 the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) held an 8-hour hearing about threats and killings of demobilized guerrillas. The day before—the 2016 peace accords’ fourth anniversary—Paula Osorio, whose body was found in Yuto, Chocó, became the 243rd former FARC member to be murdered.

Just over 13,000 FARC members demobilized in 2017. At the current rate of one killing every five days, 1,600 ex-combatants will be dead by the end of 2024, said the director of the JEP’s Investigation and Accusations Unit (UIA), Giovanni Álvarez.

The JEP had ordered the government to take “precautionary measures” to protect former FARC members among its defendants. If they are killed or intimidated from testifying, ex-combatants will neither be able to clarify their crimes nor provide restitution to victims.

Álvarez summarized a JEP report about attacks on ex-combatants. Nearly all victims were rank-and-file guerrillas: only 10 of the dead had leadership positions. All but six were men. All of the killings have been concentrated in 17 percent of the country’s 1,100 municipalities.

Martha Janeth Mancera, the acting vice-prosecutor general, testified that as of November 11 the Fiscalía had “clarified”—identified the likely killers—in 108 of 225 cases (48%) it had taken on. She said that of these 108 cases, 44% were likely carried out by FARC dissident groups, 11% by the ELN, 10% by the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, and 6% by other criminal structures. Mancera did not specify the likely killers of the other 29 percent.

The dissident groups, Álvarez pointed out, should not be considered as a monolithic bloc. There are two main networks—Gentil Duarte’s group active in 155 municipalities and Iván Márquez’s “Segunda Marquetalia” active in 44—plus “openly narcotized and lumpenized” groups active in 38 municipalities.

The acting vice-prosecutor said that to date, the body had managed to bring 33 cases of ex-combatant killers to sentencing. She blamed the lack of greater progress on a lack of specialized judges “so that we can manage to advance.” She added that the Fiscalía had identified likely masterminds, rather than just “trigger-pullers,” in 52 cases of ex-combatant killings, attempts, threats, or disappearances.

She added that, when ex-combatants receive threats, the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit has been too slow to respond. “We send the alert to the National Protection Unit, but, it must be said calmly, this process is very slow. The most agile thing is to report to the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), which carries out the relocation of the ex-combatant.” In some cases, she added “we’ve had to send more than 10 official requests in which we say that this is an extreme risk case.”

Somos Defensores report

Somos Defensores is a non-governmental organization that documents attacks and killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. It takes care to verify cases, and its numbers are usually similar to those kept by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The group’s latest report, covering the third quarter of 2020, hasn’t yet been posted to its website, but summaries appear at El Espectador and Verdad Abierta. They indicate that:

  • 40 human rights defenders were killed, in 15 departments of Colombia, between July and September.
  • The number of murders stood at 135 by the end of September. Somos Defensores’ tally surpassed its figure for all of 2019, 124, in August.
  • Counting all types of aggression for which a responsible party can be alleged, neo-paramilitary groups are believed responsible for 54 attacks, FARC dissidents for 20, the ELN for 11, and the security forces for 8.

The organization noted that it may be undercounting, as the pandemic has made it difficult to verify killings in the remote territories where they often happen.

Links

  • Human Rights Watch asked Colombia’s Senate not to promote Army Generals Marcos Evangelista Pinto and Edgar Alberto Rodríguez, who commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings in the 2000s.
  • HRW also released a report on March prison protests, just as the COVID-19 lockdowns began, that led to the killing of 24 prisoners in Bogota’s La Modelo jail. According to coroners’ reports, the wounds on the prisoners’ bodies indicated that prison guards were shooting to kill.
  • Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said that forces have eradicated 111,131 hectares of coca so far in 2020, on track for the government’s goal of 130,000 hectares by year’s end.
  • On November 24, the fourth anniversary of the final peace accord, a FARC party senator for the first time presided over a meeting of Colombia’s Senate: Griselda Lobo Silva, once the romantic partner of deceased maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, is the Senate’s second vice-president during the chamber’s 2020-21 session.
  • A November government decree allows lands seized under Colombia’s asset forfeiture laws to be handed over to ex-combatants for approved productive projects. Transferring land to former guerrillas who sought to become farmers was a question the peace accord had omitted.
  • A La Silla Vacía investigation finds 7,491 complaints of police abuse or brutality since 2016, not one of which has even reached the indictment phase.
  • Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez, of the recently founded Conflict Responses think tank, map out the FARC dissident group phenomenon around the country.
  • The New York Times published a feature about the arduous journey of Venezuelans leaving Colombia because the pandemic dried up economic opportunities. Once they find that Venezuela is “in free fall,” many are going back to Colombia.
  • The U.S. Air Force sent two giant B-52H Stratofortress bombers to Colombia for “Brother’s Shield,” a Colombian Air-Force-led exercise. The planes, which ceased production in 1962, also participated in the annual regional UNITAS naval exercise, hosted this year by Ecuador.
  • The government’s High Counselor for Stabilization issued a statement reminding the FARC that it has until December 31 to turn over all promised illegally acquired assets.
  • WOLA’s latest human rights update documents 28 cases and developments of concern since mid-September.
  • The Bogotá daily El Espectador ran a wide-ranging interview with WOLA’s Adam Isacson.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

On Sunday evening I posted this tweet in response to a statement from Colombia’s Defense Minister that, while red meat for his political base, is just incredibly off-base as a strategy.

Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador, reached out to me about this. We had a good conversation, and the newspaper did a good job of translating my gringo Spanish in a piece posted last night. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

Colombia peace update: Week of November 15, 2020

Between now and the end of the year, we’re producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Four ex-FARC members killed in a week

Four demobilized FARC combatants were assassinated this week, bringing the total of murdered ex-guerrillas to 242 since the peace accord’s December 2016 ratification. Of those, 50 happened during the first nine months of 2020, according to the UN Verification Mission.

The latest victims are:

  • Heiner Cuesta Mena alias Yilson Menas, shot November 14 in Neguá, Quibdó, Chocó.
  • Jorge Riaño, shot November 15 in Florencia, Caquetá. Riaño had left the FARC demobilization site (ETCR) in Montañita, Cauca, to raise fish and chickens with his wife and young daughter.
  • Enod López, shot on November 15 along with his wife Nerie Penna, a Conservative party municipal council representative and community leader in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo. The department’s police commander blamed the “Carolina Ramírez” FARC dissident group, part of the 1st Front structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.”
  • Bryan Steven Montes alias Jairo López, shot November 19 in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo.

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino responded to Montes’s killing by calling on the government “to stop simulating the peace accord’s implementation and to implement it comprehensively.” In an article published on November 16, InsightCrime described a very precarious security situation in eight of the twenty-four former ETCRs.

At the end of October, over 200 former FARC combatants carried out a “Pilgrimage for Life and Peace” march to Bogotá to call for better protections. Twelve of the march’s leaders met on November 6 with President Iván Duque at the presidential palace.

Security Forces kill top “paramilitary” and capture a FARC dissident; a second dissident is killed in Venezuela

A November 16 army-police operation killed Emiliano Alcides Osorio Macea, alias “Caín” or “Pilatos,” the head of the “Caparros” neo-paramilitary group. “Caín” reportedly died in combat as forces raided a ranch in Tarazá, in northeastern Antioquia’s violent Bajo Cauca region.

Osorio, a longtime paramilitary who demobilized from the AUC’s Antioquia-based Mineros Bloc in 2006, was what the authorities consider a “high value target.” With over 400 estimated members, the Caparros, also known as the Caparrapos or the Virgilio Peralta Arena Bloc, is one of the larger single-region armed groups active in Colombia. It split off in early 2017 from the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization and, possibly in tandem with the ELN and FARC dissidents, has been violently disputing control of the Bajo Cauca region and neighboring southern Córdoba. It is believed responsible for several killings of local social leaders. It is doubtful that the death of Caín will reduce violence in this territory, which sees much coca cultivation and cocaine transshipment.

Another mid-level commander, in this case of the dissident group headed by former chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, was killed in Venezuela this week. Venezuelan forces killed Olivio Iván Merchán, alias “Loco Iván,” under unclear circumstances in Venezuela’s Bolívar state. Merchán was a FARC member for more than 30 years, part of the military command (estado mayor) of the powerful Eastern Bloc. He demobilized in 2017. He joined Iván Márquez’s “Nuevo Marquetalia” dissident group when it formed in 2019.

Researcher Miguel Ángel Morffe told El Espectador that Venezuelan forces either killed “Loco Iván” by mistake, or that they did it at the bidding of his fellow dissidents who wanted him dead for some reason. Morffe saw little possibility that Venezuelan forces did so out of a desire to keep order.

Meanwhile in rural La Macarena, Meta, an Army-Fiscalía team wounded and captured Rolan Arnulfo Torres Huertas, alias Álvaro Boyaco, whom the government identified as the “finance chief” for Gentil Duarte, who heads what is probably the largest national FARC dissident group.

Military questioned for misogynistic chants

Adriana Villegas, a columnist for the La Patria newspaper in Manizales, Caldas, lives across the street from the base of the Colombian Army’s Ayacucho Battalion. Soldiers on training drills routinely run past her house, chanting cadence rhymes.

On October 18, Villegas wrote a column about the content of some of those rhymes, which alarmed her and her daughter. We won’t reproduce them here; they included some vivid imagery about committing violence against girlfriends, mothers, mothers-in-law, and women related to their enemies.

Villegas’s cause got taken up by a local feminist group and the president of the Caldas legislature, who called on the Army to apologize. It did not: it issued a statement maintaining that the misogynistic cadences were not part of training or doctrine. The Battalion’s commander called Villegas for more information, a conversation during which, she noted, he kept calling her “doctorcita” and insisted that the misogynistic rhymes were “an isolated case.”

Colombia’s Free Press Federation (FLIP) got involved after Villegas received citations from the Battalion calling on her to their base to give a statement. While this may be part of the Battalion’s internal investigation, Villegas said she found the formal requests intimidating.

“I regret that the Army is wasting this opportunity to recognize a problem and, instead, is assuming an attitude of denial,” Villegas wrote in her November 15 column.

Other links

  • Hurricane Iota passed over the Colombian Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés y Providencia as a Category 5 storm. On Providencia, El Tiempo reports, “There is no house that hasn’t suffered damage. And the majority are destroyed.”
  • A Guardian longread by Mariana Palau, about the “False Positives” scandal and former Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, is a nuanced portrait of 21st century Colombia.
  • In an El Espectador blog post, an unnamed scholar who spent months accompanying military personnel at Colombia’s Superior War College is struck by officers’ frustration with forced coca eradication, which “turns the campesinos into enemies.”
  • Colombia’s Senate passed a bill extending for another 10 years the “sunset date” for Colombia’s 2011 Victims’ Law, which was to expire in 2021. It goes to President Duque’s desk for signature.
  • Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación visited an encampment of FARC dissidents in Cauca, and published an overview in El Espectador of these violent groups, dividing them into three coalitions or categories.

Colombia peace update: Week of November 8, 2020

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org)

WOLA had a good experience this fall producing weekly updates, on a pilot basis, about U.S. border security and migration. Between now and the end of the year, we’re carrying out a similar pilot for Colombia, producing weekly sub-1,000-word updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. After that, we will evaluate the experience—both audience response and our own time commitment—before deciding whether to produce these permanently.

Revelations about Santrich case point to entrapment

The Bogotá daily El Espectador reported on November 8 that 24,000 audios from the Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) pointed to “an entrapment operation against guerrilla negotiators,” with a possible political motive against the FARC peace accord.

The revelations surround the case of Seuxis Pausías Hernández alias “Jesús Santrich,” a top FARC ideologist. The nearly blind Santrich was close to Luciano Marín alias “Iván Márquez,” the politically radical top leader who led the guerrilla group’s negotiating team during the 2012-16 peace talks. Santrich was a vocal member of that team.

  • In April 2018, just before he was to be sworn in as one of the FARC’s five members of Colombia’s House of Representatives, Santrich was arrested for conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. Video showed him in a meeting with purported Mexican narcotraffickers.
  • The meeting was arranged by Márquez’s nephew, Marlon Marín, who was not a FARC member and was under investigation for improprieties in peace accord implementation contracts.
  • At the Mexicans’ insistence, Marín drew Santrich into a scheme to ship cocaine to the United States, bringing him into the meeting recorded on video.
  • The narcotraffickers were, in fact, DEA personnel. The U.S. government requested Santrich’s extradition, and brought Marlon Marín to the United States, where he is now a protected witness.
  • A year later, in May 2019, after failing to get compelling evidence out of the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) or the U.S. Department of Justice, the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) ordered Santrich’s release. The decision led an infuriated chief prosecutor Néstor Humberto Martínez to resign.
  • Santrich was then sworn into Congress, but disappeared shortly afterward. He and Iván Márquez turned up again in late August 2019, in a video announcing that they and other former FARC leaders had rearmed.

The episode dealt the FARC peace process its severest blow. Now, the El Espectador revelations cast doubt on the extent to which Santrich was involved in the fake drug deal. This appears to be a case of entrapment, involving the DEA and former prosecutor-general Martínez, who had bitterly opposed the peace accord’s transitional justice provisions.

The Fiscalía’s 24,000 audio clips are mainly Marlon Marín’s intercepted communications. In the weeks leading up to Santrich’s arrest, the newspaper notes, “the calls between the ‘Mexicans’ and Marín were many and extensive, and in almost all of them the fundamental characteristic was the former’s insistence on putting Marín on the phone with the former chief peace negotiator of the Farc, Iván Márquez.” They failed to do that, but Marín did get them a brief meeting with Santrich.

The revelations have the Fiscalía under a cloud. “There remains the feeling that the Fiscalía did everything possible to sabotage the reputation and actions of the JEP,” contends an El Espectador editorial. “It is regrettable to find that there was ‘friendly fire’ with something as delicate as the treatment of former Farc combatants.” At a November 11 press conference, the JEP’s new director, Eduardo Cifuentes, said that the Fiscalía had shared very little evidence from the Santrich case with his tribunal, turning over only 12 audios and keeping the remaining 24,000 secret.

As for the former chief prosecutor, Néstor Humberto Martínez: President Iván Duque’s government has just named him to be its next ambassador to Spain.

US Senate reveals its draft 2021 aid bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill on November 10. The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. The House of Representatives passed its version of the aid bill in July.

As our latest table of aid to Colombia shows, the two chambers’ foreseen amounts don’t differ widely. The House would appropriate $458 million, and the Senate $456 million. (Another $55-60 million or so would come through the Defense budget.)

Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate a bit less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total. It also contrasts with the Trump administration’s aid request, which would have slashed economic aid in a $413 million aid package.

Like the House bill, the Senate attaches human rights conditions to a portion of Foreign Military Financing aid, and specifies that some support go to the Truth Commission and the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (but not the JEP).

The Senate appropriators’ bill also requires the State Department to produce a report about Colombian government actions to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for illegal military intelligence spying on civilians.

Here are links to the Senate bill and explanatory report, and to the House bill (see Division A) and explanatory report.

Links

  • Rodrigo Pardo (who has since joined the parade of journalists abandoning Semana magazine, where this appears) writes that Colombia can expect more U.S. engagement on the peace accord once Joe Biden is inaugurated.
  • La Silla Vacía believes Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, former vice-president Fransicso Santos, is staying in his post. This despite allegations by his cousin, ex-president Juan Manuel Santos, that the ambassador actively sought to help the Trump campaign.
  • “The proliferation of coca cultivations in southwestern Colombia undermines black and indigenous struggles for autonomy,” writes Lehman College’s Anthony Dest (formerly of WOLA’s Colombia program) in an article based on fieldwork in Cauca.
  • The FARC admitted on November 3 that it had twice tried to kill former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras. The right-of-center politician responded in a column that he wants to know the full truth about what happened, and that the JEP should be allowed to work to do that.

Latest table of aid to Colombia

Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org.)

The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill yesterday morning. And two weeks ago, a Congressional Research Service report revealed new data about Defense Department assistance.

The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. This table depicts the White House’s February request and the House and Senate versions of the bill. The two chambers’ amounts don’t differ widely.

Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total.

Sources for most of these numbers:

Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.

“Collapse” is unevenly distributed

I was eating a quick between-meeting lunch in a cheap Bogotá restaurant one afternoon in the early 2000s, probably during Álvaro Uribe’s first term. The TV under which I was sitting started playing a treacly theme song, and on came the opening sequence of Padres e Hijos, a long-running soap opera that was dominating Colombia’s daytime ratings at the time. It looked like this 2004 version posted to YouTube:

I stared at this sequence, open-mouthed. I found it so jarring that I remember it today. I’d just sat through several meetings with security experts and human rights activists, hearing of untold horror in Colombia’s countryside, and I would be hearing more before my day’s agenda wrapped up. Did the cultural artifact on the screen above me really come from the same country? A country that, at that moment, was grinding through the most intense period of one of Latin America’s longest armed conflicts?

As the intro indicates, Padres e Hijos focused on an upper-middle-class, dominant-ethnicity Bogotá family. Though they undergo soap-opera tribulations, the Franco family is an Uribe-era Colombian take on the American Dream, and the country’s armed conflict doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in their lives.

I dwelled on this memory while reading this very good, much-shared September 26 essay by Indi Samarajiva, a wealthy young Sri Lankan who lived alongside the brutal denouement of his country’s long civil war.

I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.

Samarajiva is writing for a U.S. audience fearful that America as we know it is about to disintegrate. His message is: it’s already happening, but most people are lucky enough not to feel it.

Even as he turned out lights for air raids, waited on gas lines, and saw smoke rising from bombing sites in Colombo, Samarajiva went to concerts, went out dancing, and played Scrabble with friends. There is no moment at which the conflict defined his life. What he calls “collapse” (also the name of a grim but very popular Reddit group) is always there in the background, a steady horror, but he can tune it out.

Samarajiva argues that the United States in 2020 has collapsed, though many of us haven’t noticed it yet. COVID-19 is killing 1,000 people per day. There are mass shootings and protests, crackdowns on dissent, and very long lines at food pantries.

A thousand families are grieving tonight. A thousand more join them every day. The pain doesn’t go away, it just becomes a furniture of bones, in a thousand homes. But that’s exactly how collapse feels. This is how I felt. This is how millions of people have felt, including many immigrants in your midst. We’re trying to tell you as loud as we can. You can get out of it, but you have to understand where you are to even turn around. This, I fear, is one of many things Americans do not understand. You tell yourself American collapse is impossible. Meanwhile, look around.

The science-fiction writer William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same goes for armed conflict or social collapse.

Are you a U.S. resident with the free time to be reading this? Do you have the means to do so over a broadband connection? Are you reading the screen of one of a few internet-capable devices in your home? If so, then it’s likely that you—like the Franco family in Bogotá—aren’t bearing the brunt of the breakdown already underway here at home.

But first, back to Colombia. The late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was gaping over my sandwich at Padres e Hijos, was the most intense period of Colombia’s conflict. The data show it: this plotting of massacres, kidnappings, homicides, disappearances, and displacements, from the 2013 report of the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, illustrates how badly the country was going off the rails at the turn of the century. That’s when everything peaks:

This was a bloody period, punctuated by paramilitary massacres and guerrilla mass kidnappings that still haunt the country today. About 1 percent of the population was being forcibly displaced each year. A peace process limped along for three years then failed. U.S. intelligence analysts were worrying about Colombia becoming a failed state.

For many Colombians, though—probably the majority, especially in cities—life went on. Even as displaced families begged at busy intersections and the possibility of visiting other cities by land grew too risky, life was, by and large, pretty normal.

Colombia’s economy, which rarely goes into recession, grew at a sluggish 0.6 percent rate in 1998 and dipped into a -4.2 percent slump in 1999. But then it recovered to 2.9 percent growth in 2000 and remained in positive territory; by 2004 it, and the local stock index, were booming. Cars had to be checked by bomb-sniffing dogs at shopping malls’ entrances, but the malls had lots of customers and few empty storefronts. In Bogotá, where mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa were building parks and opening (in December 2000) the TransMilenio rapid transit system, homicide rates fell sharply. Mockus deployed an army of mimes to busy intersections to shame traffic violators and jaywalkers.

Bogotá’s Carrera Séptima in 2002.

Even as paramilitaries massacred communities in Tibú, the Alto Naya, Chengue, and El Salado, Yo Soy Betty la Fea—which ABC would later adapt for a U.S. audience as Ugly Betty—ran on RCN from 1999 to 2001. Even as the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt and 12 local legislators in Cali, Juanes released his debut album, Fíjate Bien (2000), and followed it up with Un Día Normal (2002). Even as Plan Colombia vastly expanded aerial herbicide fumigation, Shakira released Dónde Están los Ladrones? (1998) and her first English album, Laundry Service (2001), while Aterciopelados produced Caribe Atómico (1998) and Gozo Poderoso (2000). Even as peace talks with the FARC veered toward collapse, Colombia successfully hosted, and won, the 2001 Copa América soccer tournament.

Here in the United States, we’re not going to have a traditional armed conflict or civil war, with organized armed groups controlling territory and fighting pitched battles against the security forces. Instead, as a 2017 New Yorker overview put it after the Charlottesville violence, we may face “low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. [Diplomat Keith] Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it.”

“Collapse” is even less dramatic than that. Right now, I can step out my front door in central Washington DC and, within a few blocks, see the boarded-up fronts of shops that existed before March, a growing number of tents sheltering homeless people in a park, anti-police graffiti, lines of people at public kitchens during mealtime, and a construction project to counter chronic flooding. Turn on the television or Twitter and it’s lone gunmen, police killings, and protests with some violent elements seeking confrontations that the police are quick to escalate. Out-of-control open-carry militias. Profiles of people, some of them insured, forced into bankruptcy by medical bills. Evictions, cruel immigration detentions, and parents unable to feed their families. Climate events exacerbating all of it.

All of this will keep happening, even if Donald Trump loses on or after November 3, and even if the transfer of power is peaceful. Desperation won’t ease right away, and polarization won’t stop giving way to violence. But the violence won’t be everywhere. As was the case even during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict, for most of us it will only be something we see on TV or in our social feeds.

We’ll still have hundreds of new hit streaming shows, reality shows, and movies each year. Especially after the virus fades, there will be thriving hipper-than-thou music scenes. People will obsess over college football, new social apps, and celebrity gossip. Books about how to declutter your house and lose weight will remain on bestseller lists. Art galleries, theaters, and opera houses will be open. There will still be pumpkin spice at Starbucks.

Many of us will be outraged at “collapse” and its causes, and will dedicate our lives to fixing it. We may even succeed. But many of us—perhaps most—won’t bother. As societies all around the world have done, we’ll go through our reasonably prosperous lives while tuning out the human suffering in our vicinity.

How so many of us manage to do that—to tune it out and stay comfortable—is a mystery of human nature that I find baffling, just as I was perplexed by Padres e Hijos during my brief early-2000s Bogotá lunch. Whatever it is, it’s not resilience, and it’s not quite apathy, either. It may, I suspect, be a form of grieving.

Dangerous times in Colombia

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.

A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begetd them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.

These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.

Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.

You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).

Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.

With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.

As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.

They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.

There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.

Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”

These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.

Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.

When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”

Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.

This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.

Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.

A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.

New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

What does its aggressive coca eradication campaign tell us about Colombia—and about the United States?

Over the next few weeks I expect to use this space to think some things through in a series of bite-sized but connected posts. I’m going to start with the reality of forced coca eradication and the Colombian government’s larger plan for the millions who live in rural zones where illicit crops and armed groups predominate.

One such zone especially got me thinking: the Guayabero River region in Meta and Guaviare departments, in south-central Colombia about 200 miles south, and 20 hours’ drive, from Bogotá. (I’ve been near here—but not quite this far south—when working on this 2009 report.) In early June and again in early August, this zone saw strong confrontations between coca-growing farmers and security forces.

Strong images from June 4 in the Guayabero region.

The main military unit operating in the Guayabero is the Omega Joint Task Force, which has received heavy U.S. assistance since its founding in 2003. Its current commander (who has threatened legal action against local human rights groups) holds degrees from both the National Defense University in Washington and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (which means he probably speaks English better than I do). Omega is one of four units specified to be receiving assistance from a four-month, fifty-three-person detachment of U.S. military trainers that arrived in Colombia at the beginning of June.

The Omega Task Force isn’t accused of killing anyone in these confrontations, but local campesino groups and national human rights groups have leveled some very troubling allegations of rough and aggressive treatment of farmers at the soldiers’ hands. I’ll summarize those in another post.

Omega in the Guayabero is just one example among many of a more combative approach to forced coca eradication this year, and especially since the pandemic lockdown began in March. I discussed this trend in a post in early July, but it’s time to dig deeper.

Here are the points I want to explore over the next few weeks. The outline may change as research accumulates and thoughts evolve.

Forced coca eradication has been notably rougher and more aggressive this year.

There have been many more denunciations of aggressive behavior in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. While coca farmers aren’t models of nonviolence either, the security forces have the guns and the option whether to escalate or de-escalate. Where armed groups are forcing some coca farmers to protest against their better judgment, that should be another reason to de-escalate.

Eradication is larger in scale this year.

Too much is being guided right now by a single, short-term number: hectares of coca planted in Colombia. The U.S. government is pushing Colombia to cut that number by half in 2023, and Bogotá is pursuing some record eradication targets in order to get there. The number of eradication teams has grown sixfold, much of it with U.S. funding.

Eradication is happening with the participation of U.S.-aided armed forces units.

Joint Task Force Omega in the Guayabero is a key example. The U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade that arrived in June is also accompanying military units in two other major coca-growing zones, Catatumbo and Nariño, as well as the nationwide mobile Army Counternarcotics Brigade created with funds from the original 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package. As eradication operations grow more aggressive, U.S.-aided units’ behavior requires especially tight scrutiny.

Eradication is happening uncoordinated with food security or any other economic assistance—even in a pandemic.

Colombia’s defense minister has acknowledged this, as have officials with whom I’ve recently spoken. Leaving coca farming families hungry is not only cruel, it would seem to be a recipe for rapid re-planting. Perhaps it makes sense if the goal is to meet an eradication goal just for 2020, future be damned. But it makes no sense if the goal is to achieve permanent reductions in planting, or to integrate these abandoned territories into the rest of the country.

Farmers are caught in the middle.

With no land titling, no government presence, no access to credit, and no farm-to-market roads, coca—an easily transportable product that for years has sold at a reliably steady price—is farmers’ best, and often only, option. Armed groups in some cases require farmers to plant it, and there’s no government nearby to prevent that. Armed groups in some cases are forcing farmers to protest eradication. Campesino leaders, especially those leading coca substitution projects, are being killed in shocking numbers.

Depite all this, when eradicators show up in a territory, who bears the brunt of the security forces’ aggressive behavior? The farmers.

Some past efforts tried to establish a state presence, to uphold farmers’ organizations, and to integrate communities into the national economy. Right now, these are underfunded at best, or stalled or abandoned at worst.

Examples in the past 10 years include the National Territorial Consolidation Program, the Land Restitution Law of 2011, and the 2016 peace accords’ rural reform and crop substitution chapters. None of these efforts is thriving right now.

Trying to reveal the “real agenda” behind this means exploring the Colombian elite’s split personality.

This is where I’d like to conclude this series of posts. Colombia’s elite seems to show two very different faces to communities in rural areas, including coca cultivators. The same probably applies to the urban poor.

The first face—that of “consolidation,” “stabilization,” land restitution, and the peace accords’ commitments—says to communities, “you can stay where you live.” Even if they don’t see the rural smallholder model as the most efficient approach, they’re willing to direct resources, and in some cases to foster participation.

The second face—that of paramilitarism, “mega-projects,” impunity for social leader killings, refusal to govern territory, and nakedly favoring large landholders—says to communities, “we don’t want you here.” (Or perhaps, “the free market doesn’t want you here”—a message as old as the British Enclosure Movement of the 1700s, and nothing unfamiliar to residents of declining factory towns and poor urban neighborhoods in the United States today.)

Forced, aggressive coca eradication without any food or economic aid? That’s solidly an example of that second face.

The U.S. government supports both faces of Colombia’s elite, to an extent that approaches split-personality disorder. Its aid programs have helped dozens of rural communities to remain where they are and to obtain land ownership, and some military aid programs helped improve Colombia’s overall human rights record. But it also supports aggressive forced eradication and (as we saw in documents released this week) has been too slow or quiet in its response to paramilitarism, social leader killings, and serious human rights abuses.

I’ll be digging more into these questions over the next several weeks.

Top Defense Official in 2004: Backing Paramilitarism “Goes With the Job”

For nearly 20 years, when uniformed U.S. military deploy to Latin America, the U.S. Southern Command has required that they carry a little card reminding them of “the five ‘Rs’ of human rights”: to “recognize, refrain, react, record, and report” if they hear of, or witness, a human rights violation.

Higher up in the Pentagon, though, standards have been lower.

The National Security Archive just revealed a 2004 memo from Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon (George W. Bush’s first term). It’s a series of bullet points addressing the suspicious past of Colombia’s then-president, Álvaro Uribe.

Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia [the department that includes Medellín, between 1995 and 1997],” Rodman informs Rumsfeld. But he brushes it off: “It goes with the job.

“Goes with the job?” The AUC, at the time, was on the Bush administration’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Bush administration had in fact added the AUC to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations on September 10, 2001. At the time, AUC leaders were sending hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States. The AUC grew rapidly in size and strength in Antioquia while Uribe was governor, committing massacres including one that destroyed the village of El Aro in 1997—a crime for which Colombia’s Supreme Court recently called Álvaro Uribe to provide testimony. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the paramilitaries committed the majority of extrajudicial killings and massacres in Colombia’s conflict, according to the government’s National Center for Historical Memory.

Assistant Secretary Rodman was not ignorant about Colombia. In August 2001, he had a long exchange with reporters about an initiative for which he was playing a lead role: the new Bush administration was reviewing U.S. policy toward the country with an eye to allowing Colombia’s military to use counter-drug aid to fight its armed conflict.

No U.S. official would ever, during Uribe’s presidency, have said publicly that the Colombian president—a Bush administration favorite—had links to the paramilitaries. In private, Rodman’s blasé attitude about a group that was killing thousands of civilians per year—a listed terrorist organization, no less, during the war on terror’s most intense moment—flies directly in the face of the uniformed U.S. military’s publicly stated attitude toward human rights in Latin America, going back to the 1990s.

Southcom’s “five ‘Rs,’” if truly observed, would have required evidence about Uribe’s dealings with the paramilitaries to have been recognized, reacted to, recorded, and reported, while U.S. officials should absolutely have refrained from shrugging it off as something that “goes with the job.” The exact opposite happened.

A succinct evaluation of Colombia’s President Duque at the midpoint of his presidency

On August 7, Iván Duque completes two years as president of Colombia, with two left to go. I’ve seen a lot of midterm evaluation analyses in Colombia’s press. Most are largely negative: Duque has had a bumpy ride, and he’s governing from the center-right with the support of a party dominated by the ultra, populist right.

Daniel Samper, writing at Los Danieles, gave what I think is the fairest, most succinct evaluation of Iván Duque and his “mediocre” presidency so far. Here’s an English excerpt.

The evaluations I have read of Duque’s mid-term mandate are mostly unfavorable. Mediocre commentator that I am, I declare myself incapable of delving into all government issues and efforts. That is why I choose an evaluation formula worthy of a waiting room magazine. Here goes:

The good. Duque is not rowdy, like Uribe, or a cheater, like Santos; he belongs to the category he’s-basically-a-good guy, something that cannot be said of the other two … He does a good job in sectors such as technology and infrastructure … He fosters interesting productive projects … He has had gestures of solidarity with Venezuelan exiles … He has faced up to the virus …

The bad. He torpedoes peace [accord implementation] … He has not been able to manage or clean up the Army … The environment and culture are absent from his concerns … He does not know the value of self-criticism … Cronyism and companionship are his misguided guide to choosing personnel, so he has empowered unprepared, vain, immature and insecure officials … He designed a tax reform for the wealthy … He brought his personal religious fervor into the public arena … He kneels before the United States on many issues including the failed war on drugs …

The terrible. The abandonment of social leaders and environmentalists, the everyday drumbeat of diverse murders … His disastrous international policy, managed through phantoms and mediocre people, which worsened the relationship with Venezuela, broke bridges with a loyal ally like Cuba and betrayed Latin American interests.

The bad news. Two years of his period still remain.

The good news. If Duque changes the course of his administration, gets out from under his perverse godfathers [a reference to Uribe and his circle], governs with the best, and really seeks peace—even with the ELN—he would take the first steps toward a better country. As the mute person said, we’ll talk in two years.

As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

Every couple of weeks, we get another alert that someone has been killed in Colombia by security forces carrying out coca eradication operations. Those operations are happening under U.S. pressure to go faster, and with lots of U.S. funding, even in the pandemic. And they’re getting more aggressive and violent.

Last Friday, someone else was killed in Putumayo. That appears to be the sixth civilian death since the COVID-19 lockdown began. So I wrote and distributed this commentary on WOLA’s Colombia Peace site.

That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.

While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.

Read the whole thing there.

Colombia’s military: worse than we thought

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

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

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.

2 videos in which I talk about U.S. troops in Colombia

Earlier today I joined Colombian Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino on Ariel Ávila’s El Poder program, on the YouTube channel of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. The subject was the recently announced deployment of a contingent of U.S. military trainers.

Later, I joined Daniel García Pena and Laura Gil for a discussion of the same subject hosted by the Colombian NGO Planeta Paz.

I cringe watching myself speak Spanish, but the subject matter is important. And my high-def webcam has turned out to be a good pre-quarantine investment.

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