One of many, many tweets and videos that show how poorly the current Colombian government seems to understand what it’s up against.
A 73-year-old woman accompanying the “primera línea” kids in a Cali “resistance” neighborhood asks, “If these kids were vandals, why would an old lady who can’t even run anymore be here with them? …I have nothing to eat, but here they gave me three lunches.”
We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.
officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.
This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.
To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.
This panel is part of a very good conference about security in Latin America that the Friedrich Ebert Foundation is putting on this week. You can sign up at the main page, or watch the video on the Foundation’s Facebook page.
Thanks to my WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez for putting this event together last Friday, and for inviting me to comment about U.S. policy during Colombia’s protests and the subsequent crackdown. Here’s the video, almost entirely in Spanish.
Although many U.S. congressmen have rejected police violence in Colombia, the Biden administration continues to remain silent. Why?
Four weeks of the national strike have passed and the administration of Joe Biden has not said much about the current situation in Colombia.
The silence is partly explained by the fact that the U.S. government has other priorities and that politicians and diplomats do not like to speak publicly about the behavior of their allies when they disagree with them. The unfortunate consequence is that silence is misinterpreted as indifference or as an act of support for the security forces in Colombia.
But what is happening in Colombia has not gone unnoticed in Washington. A large number of progressive members of Congress, moved by videos of police brutality, has expressed outrage at the human rights violations, mostly committed by government forces. A small number of conservative voices have repeated some of the Duque government’s arguments: that the protests are the work of organized agitators.
More moderate legislators have either said nothing or taken a Solomonic position: “both sides are to blame.” For now, it appears that the Biden administration’s response follows the line of the moderates, who remain silent.
Some of the U.S. voices calling on the Duque administration to curb police violence are already well known in Colombia.
Massachusetts Democratic Representative Jim McGovern was the first to speak out on the issue. McGovern has visited Colombia repeatedly over the past twenty years and now heads the powerful House Rules Committee.
On May 3, he tweeted, “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend. U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”
The “Leahy Law” prohibits military assistance (though not the sale of military equipment) to foreign security forces with a pattern of serious human rights violations, without effective state action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although ESMAD does not receive U.S. assistance, the tear gas they use is made in the United States. But the Colombian state buys these and other equipment with its own funds.
On May 11, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who gives the law its name, tweeted, “It is shocking to see the violent police response by the Colombian govt of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters. Legitimate grievances, while no excuse for violence or vandalism, should be a cause for dialogue, not excessive force. If the Colombian govt has solid evidence that protests are being orchestrated by terrorists, as alleged, produce the evidence and arrest the perpetrators. If not then law abiding Colombians will understandably lose patience with their leaders.” Senator Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is one of the most powerful members of the chamber, and a veteran Colombia watcher.
Another high-level Democrat who strongly criticized the Colombian government was New York Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, who has championed the rights of Colombian Afro-descendants and now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On May 4, Meeks tweeted, “I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable.”
On May 14, 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where they asked the State Department to:
more forcefully denounce police brutality;
suspend all aid to the Colombian police;
stop the sale of riot control equipment;
publicly reject statements by Colombian officials linking protesters to terrorist groups; and
urge and even facilitate dialogue.
While progressives have been notably active, U.S. right-wing figures have been rather quiet.
On May 6, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”
If this sounds vaguely like the rhetoric of “molecular revolution dissipated” it is because many of Senator Rubio’s Colombian constituents are aligned with Uribismo. In South Florida, the Colombian protests are a frequent topic of conversation on Spanish-language radio, where commentators view the demonstrations as the result of a “hybrid warfare” strategy by the left.
Rubio’s tweet is the only statement on the strike that I have seen from a Republican member of the U.S. Congress. But that doesn’t mean the right is staying silent: a conservative Washington think tank called the Center for a Secure Free Society released a report on May 17 entitled “Asymmetric Assault on Colombia,” in which it argued that “the Colombian people, especially the peaceful protestors, are not the culprits in the crisis—they are the victims.”
They claim that the protesters, who lack agency, have been misled by international agitators. The report continues: “As some of the most vulnerable in society, the poor and middle class in Colombia are targeted as tools of asymmetric warfare by foreign and domestic adversaries to the Colombian state”.
The moderates and the Biden administration
As vocal as progressives are, and will continue to be, they alone will not get the Biden administration to act decisively against police violence in Colombia.
Much depends on what moderates in the Democratic Party, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., or Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, do or say. Both have so far remained silent.
These and other lawmakers, who are heard by Biden, do not dismiss the progressives’ arguments, although they may not share some recommendations, such as freezing police aid. And they are more likely to be in touch with the Colombian embassy and business community.
For its part, the Biden administration has expressed only mild concern. On May 4, Juan Gonzalez, White House National Security Council Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted, “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” Two days later Gonzalez told The Hill: “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”
The State Department issued a statement on May 4 with a message to both sides: “All over the world, citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights.”
A long-standing relationship
The Biden administration wants to be cautious for a primarily geopolitical reason: it does not want to clash with one of its few strong allies in the region, one that shares borders with Venezuela, while Chinese and Russian influence appears to be growing. At the same time, the Biden administration doesn’t ignore the long and deep relationship the United States has maintained with the Colombian police, forged since before the fight against the Medellin and Cali cartels.
I estimate that U.S. cooperation with the Colombian Police will amount to about $150 to $160 million in 2021 (out of a total police and military aid package of about $250 million, which in turn is part of a $520 million aid package). The purposes of this cooperation include:
cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in operations against drug traffickers;
intelligence sharing with police Special Investigation Units (SIU);
assistance in increasing the presence of rural police (Carabineros) and police posts in conflictive territories;
cooperation on extraditions and Interpol cases; and
cooperation on training other countries’ forces.
The relationship between the U.S. government and the Colombian police runs deep: you can see it in the large number of olive green uniforms circulating in the corridors and on the sidewalks if you visit the U.S. embassy in Bogota.
So it is not hard to understand why Biden administration officials are reluctant to talk about freezing aid or sales to the police, and why their public statements have been far softer than those of the UN, the European Union and the OAS mission.
A conversation with Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an influential think tank in the U.S. capital. Isacson discusses the law and order situation in Colombia, its impact on the Biden administration, the international impact of allegations of police abuse, and the possibility of “authoritarian populism” winning the 2022 elections.
You have been an analyst of the political situation in Colombia for more than 20 years from the research centers where you have worked. To what do you attribute the social explosion of April and May 2021, outside the moment created by the pandemic and by a tax reform bill that was – to say the least – inopportune?
This could be the same social explosion that began in November 2019. If the year-end holidays and then the pandemic had not interrupted it, we would probably be talking about 18 months of continuous social unrest. The economic despair did not disappear; the anger at the government’s lack of empathy did not disappear; the pain for the lack of implementation of the Peace Agreement and the massacre of social leaders in remote territories did not disappear. On the contrary, all of the above were aggravated during the pandemic.
The country has not been, like other Latin American countries, a country of massive and sustained protests for days and weeks. Nor has it usually overthrown presidents. But this time, peaceful demonstrations and violent acts after them have been going on for almost a month continuously. What changed from its past, so that people decided to go out constantly despite the risk of COVID contagion and the danger of being injured or killed in the riots?
The big change came with the 2016 Peace Accord, because it reduced people’s fear of exercising their freedom of expression. The demobilization of the FARC removed the stigma attached to public protest. Prior to 2016, Colombia had a very large, violent, nationwide guerrilla group that was perceived as an existential threat. It was easy to label anyone who went out to protest as a “guerrilla” in order to delegitimize them, and many people did not dare to demonstrate because of that association. After the accord, the stigma disappeared or is much weaker. The Duque government still tries to present some protesters as linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents. However, these are regional groups that do not represent a great danger to the cities and it is not so convincing. In short, there is more political space for people to take to the streets and they are no longer afraid to express what they feel.
So, could it be said that although citizens knew they could demand their rights, they repressed themselves?
Yes. There was fear of expressing themselves publicly because of the stigmatization of being labeled as “guerrillas” and also because of the social contempt with which the demonstrators were viewed.
People from the governing party and those in uniform maintain that there is a systematic process: first, the massive, peaceful, daytime marches. Then, the nighttime ones that turn into riots produced by individuals who destroy public and private property. Do you think there is a “terrorist” plan of forces opposed to the Duque administration?
Something similar was seen in the United States during the protests that erupted after the assassination of George Floyd. In the daytime, they were peaceful, massive, disciplined, and inspiring. At night, especially in the first two weeks, a small number of people would break windows, set fire to property and clash with the police. On some occasions, these were young people who had become politically radicalized and were filled with hatred for the police, whose aggressive response then inflamed them even further. In others, they were criminals seeking economic gain, almost always through looting. In both cases, the fringe of late-night agitators gave the Trump administration the pretext to use rhetoric delegitimizing Black Lives Matter protesters and their demands. Trump focused his attacks against the demonstrations on something called “antifa” – short for “anti-fascist” – which is more a political posture than an actual group. There has no coordination of violence in the United States. A similar position now appears in Colombia: there is very little evidence of a national movement of violence, but the government tries to blame that activity on armed groups and even international agitators.
Regarding your mention of the “antifa” (supposed leftist extremists who would go, city by city, exporting vandals and vandalism), is the Trump strategy and that of the Colombian government when it blames the “castrochavistas” for vandalism and looting, is it the same and does it intend the same effects?
The term “castrochavista” is the closest thing there is to “antifa”: it means almost the same thing and is the same pretext to justify a violent official response and to disqualify the demonstrators.
But what would the government get out of lying? In any case, gaining time while the social order deteriorates does not seem to be beneficial for the administration nor for its party in the medium or long term when it is discovered that it was only trying to hide its inability to solve a problem?
It is a distraction that serves to avoid facing conversations with protesters, for example, about inequality, just as Trump did not want to talk about racism. It’s a way to put off decisions you don’t want to make by inventing phantoms that distort reality.
The electoral period will soon begin in the country. A scenario of street vandalism, looting and public disorder would be favorable to those who have traditionally fed on voters’ fear. Would this strategy of the ruling party, successful in the past, work in today’s Colombia?
The Democratic Center will use the scenes of violent disorder in the streets to mobilize its electoral base, that is, the roughly one third of Colombians who are hardcore Uribistas. The governing party needs that third of the country to vote massively, but what about the more moderate voters, who seem to share many of the protesters’ demands? They are unhappy with the violence of the protests, but they are also shocked by videos of police brutality. As long as the non-Uribista candidates do not propose anything that scares moderates – just as the slogan “defund the police” scared some moderates in the United States – the appeal of the Democratic Center may be limited to its most rabid base.
Taking into account the situation of permanent social unrest in the country, which does not seem likely to subside immediately, and according to your office’s analysis, do you see the possibility that democracy could be interrupted in Colombia?
It seems very unlikely to me that there will be a rupture of the constitutional order in Colombia. For that to happen, it would require a broad consensus on an opposition candidate or party, or the security forces declaring their lack of confidence in the president. But the picture is different: the opposition is divided, all institutions continue to support the current democratic rules, very few people are seriously calling for Duque’s resignation and most political actors are focused on the impending election campaign.
And what would be the attitude of the United States if there were a total rupture of democracy, for example, declaring and extending the figure of internal commotion [state of siege] or suspending next year’s elections?
In the case of a declaration of internal commotion, as it is a constitutional mechanism, perhaps the U.S. government would keep silent. But if an unconstitutional maneuver is made, such as postponing the elections or extending the current presidential term, I think the Biden administration would speak out because, at that point, the credibility of the United States would be at stake: it cannot criticize Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador for what is happening in each of those countries, and remain silent if its best friend in the region does the same.
The Duque government and his party have been conducting a prolonged fear campaign against the supposed possibility of Colombia becoming “another Venezuela”. In the analysis of Washington officials, is there also this fear of the popularity and high vote of political figures who are opposed to Duque and Uribe and would oppose a leftist triumph?
My perception is that Joe Biden sees himself as one of the few “post-populist” presidents in the world, who managed to remove an authoritarian from power by winning an election. His administration has distanced itself from or opposed populists on the left (Maduro), center (Bukele), and right (Bolsonaro). It could be expected to show the same discomfort with a candidate in Colombia, right or left, Uribista or socialist, who seeks to weaken institutions or collapse democratic checks and balances. At the same time, I do not believe that the Biden administration would oppose a leftist candidate who respects institutions and works within the framework of democratic rules.
U.S. Congressional leaders have called for suspending or not renewing aid to the Colombian police force because of evidence and reports of abuses of power in riot control, and because of protesters killed and injured by ESMAD intervention. How likely is it that the Biden administration will suspend its aid?
We have confirmed that the ESMAD does not receive aid, although it buys equipment manufactured in the United States. As for the institution, unless the human rights situation continues to worsen, it is unlikely that there will be a total suspension of aid to the National Police because the relationship with the United States is very close. It extends from eradication to drug interdiction, to DEA operations, to the establishment of Carabineros units, to the training of forces from other countries. However, there may be some important changes. Since Police General (r) Rosso Jose Serrano fired thousands of officers [in the 1990s], the institution was believed to be less corrupt, more respectful of human rights and more professional. Videos and accounts of abuses in the current protests and the aggressive words of the directors of the Colombian Police and Defense Ministry have alerted U.S. policymakers to the fact that the institution is now badly troubled. The United States is wrestling with its own need to implement police reform, and policy actors in Washington will be examining the situation in Colombia from that perspective.
From several think tanks there are proposals for dialogue to find a solution to the national crisis. Among these proposals, there are two directed to the United States: a. To demand an immediate reform of the Police. b. That while the ESMAD’s protocols are being reviewed, the sale to Colombia of “crowd control” material (dissuasion weapons, gases, tanks) be suspended. Could these requests be well received in Washington?
I believe that both proposals enjoy sympathy among Biden administration officials. But again, because of the long and close relationship with the Colombian police, they will prefer to speak privately. U.S. government officials should be aware that publicly expressing concern about unacceptable behavior by a partner does not mean breaking with that partner.
Does it mean that they privately scold and ask them to correct or else they will receive a financial or arms ban reprimand?
Yes. In some cases, if, for example, a military unit is prohibited from receiving aid by the Leahy Law (the U.S. will not provide foreign military assistance to human rights violators), such a prohibition will be communicated privately to the state. Where such lists [of banned units] exist, they are also kept in reserve. Uniformed personnel who have not been cleared or whose names are in the database of suspected human rights violators may not receive training in the U.S. or enter the country. [Note: “enter the country” was added by editors. Visa denial does not automatically accompany Leahy Law disapproval.]
In one of your articles, recently published by El Espectador, you state that if the Biden administration pushes the Duque administration to opt for the path of dialogue to face the current crisis, “it would be developing a framework” for all Latin America where several countries are facing “authoritarian populism”. What do you mean by this term and to which political phenomena are you referring to?
Worldwide, democracy is in retreat as leaders are being elected who ignore institutional controls, constantly lie, attack the media, call their opponents “terrorists” or worse, and seek to stay in power by any means. Venezuela and Russia were the pioneers, but it also happened in Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, El Salvador and many other countries. The United States just had such a president for four years, and he is leading one of our two main political parties. What is happening in Colombia today is a big test: whether democratic institutions can channel desperate social demands, stemming from generations of inequality, or not. The Peace Accord was a great vote of confidence in these institutions. Can Colombia resolve this crisis through dialogue without violence and without resorting to a populist figure? If so, Colombia would be an astonishing example for the rest of the world in this troubled beginning of the 21st century.
Or else, could “authoritarian populism” win in the 2022 election?
It is quite possible that an authoritarian populist candidate could win, yes. At both ideological extremes there may be candidates who see institutions as obstacles or who see themselves as the saviors of the country.
You are not only an expert in security matters but also in human rights. Could the Colombian state be subject to sanctions promoted by Washington, the United Nations and other organizations for the violation of the rights of demonstrators, in addition to the fact that it already has a negative record for the assassination of defenders, social leaders, and former combatants?
This really depends on the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] and the Colombian justice system. We know that human rights violations are occurring at an unacceptable level. Will Colombian institutions identify those responsible and hold them accountable? Will they do so in an efficient manner so that the victims don’t have to wait 10 years for a result? If so, it would be a hopeful break from a very bitter history of impunity in Colombia. If not, then, yes, there will be sanctions. U.S. law, for example, prohibits aid to units (police or military) that commit abuses with impunity. And the Inter-American System and the International Criminal Court are also there for cases in which a country’s judicial system proves unwilling or unable to bring to justice perpetrators of serious human rights violations.
It has been seen that the Duque government’s response to protests has been violent repression, even of peaceful demonstrations. While the official language is partially conciliatory, the shock troops (ESMAD and others) are authorized to attack, reduce, and capture. How can the Biden administration call out the national administration for its handling of street grievances?
Although the Biden administration values human rights much more than the Trump administration, it also thinks about stability and the geopolitical reality of the continent. It is concerned about any symptom of instability in a country considered a close ally, in a region facing challenges from Russia and China, sometimes through Venezuela. Meanwhile, the United States has a longstanding relationship with the Colombian police and doesn’t want to risk it with public criticism. That said, U.S. officials can’t possibly support the brutal tactics of units such as ESMAD, because they know that such tactics prolong and escalate protests unnecessarily. They must be aware that such practices continue to worsen the instability they are so concerned about.
As of May 20, the database of protest-related deaths maintained by the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz totaled 51 victims of fatalities: 50 civilians and one police agent. In 35 cases for which the groups could name an alleged perpetrator, 29 were police, of whom 18 were likely members of the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD). Six likely perpetrators were civilians. Of the 51 killings, 38 took place in Cali or its environs. Eight people died between May 17 and 20, all in the Cali metropolitan area.
José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, tweeted that his organization has received credible information about 58 deaths in the context of the protests, of which it has been able to confirm 19.
“Negotiations,” a mechanism more formal than “dialogues,” began on May 16 between the government and the Strike Committee, the group of mostly union leaders that convened the ongoing National Strike on April 28. The Committee’s most immediate of 19 demands is that the government withdraw the Army and the ESMAD riot police, cease excessive use of force, and allow the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to carry out a field visit.
On May 16 President Iván Duque ordered a “maximum operational capacity” deployment of soldiers and police to clear road blockades set up around the country. By the end of the week, dozens of blockades remained.
In an effort to get businesses to hire young people, Duque also said the government would subsidize 25 percent of the minimum wage of all workers between 18 and 28 years old.
Protests grew violent the evening of May 16 and on May 17 in Yumbo, near Cali. A harsh response to protests by the ESMAD riot police may have prolonged the chaos.
In a May 17 statement, the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), which represents numerous Indigenous communities in southwestern Colombia, said it was not participating in ongoing negotiations between the government and the Strike Committee.
President Duque confirmed on May 18 that Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez will also serve as foreign minister, replacing the departed Claudia Blum. As Colombian law requires presidential candidates to have held no other government office during the year prior to elections, this means Ramírez will not be a presidential candidate in May 2022. La Silla Vacíacontends that a key reason for Blum’s departure from the foreign ministry was that she was being undercut by Vice-Minister Adriana Mejía, who sent a very strongly worded letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights without Blum’s approval.
Cali’s police chief, Gen. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, resigned on May 18 after four and a half months on the job.
Colombia’s Senate and House of Representatives voted on May 19 to oppose a healthcare system reform bill that the National Strike protesters had opposed.
A court in Ibagué, Tolima agreed on May 19 with the civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which argued that the police killing of protester Santiago Murillo should not go to the military justice system. Murillo was killed on May 1 in Ibagué; the Constitutional Court now must decide which justice system will try his killers.
The military justice system “has historically been criticized for its slowness in cases, for allegations of impunity in many others, or because many find it difficult to believe that justice can be served when those investigating are colleagues, friends or subordinates,” El Espectadorpointed out to that system’s director, Fabio Espitia. He responded, “If any decision is issued affecting a member of the security forces, ideologues will use that decision to delegitimize the security forces.”
South America’s soccer federation CONMEBOL decided on May 20 that conditions in Colombia would not allow the country to host any games of the June 13-July 10 Copa América tournament.
On May 20 the Standard and Poor’s credit-rating agency downgraded Colombia’s foreign currency debt. This, the Economistnotes, ends “a decade in which it had enjoyed investment-grade status.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano said on May 20 that forces in Cali had captured 25 people who “by way of outsourcing, supplied firearms and explosive devices to the protagonists of the latest riots.” Among those captured was an individual whom Molano alleged was involved in “politico-organizational activity of the masses” on behalf of the ELN’s urban units.
Indigenous protesters blocking the Pan-American Highway in Cauca allowed a three-day “humanitarian corridor” to allow vehicles transporting essential times to pass through from May 20 to 23. On May 20, masked individuals seeking to re-block the highway confronted Indigenous Guards in Caldono, Cauca.
On May 21 representatives of the government and the Strike Committee held a third meeting in the framework of ongoing negotiations. “Today we’re focused on pragmatic issues, and that is that 17 million people are suffering from hunger, 21 million are living in poverty,” said Strike Committee member Francisco Maltés of the CUT labor federation.
After nearly three days in Medellín, a minga (coming together) of Antioquia indigenous groups departed on May 21 after reaching agreements with the governor’s office about investments in health, education, housing, and other demands. The negotiation process seemed to go smoothly and respectfully.
As of May 19, 134 people were still “urgently” missing in the context of protests, according to official data cited by Verdad Abierta. The Fiscalía and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) reported locating 261 missing people, mostly in police custody.
At Vice, Joshua Collins tells the story of a 17-year-old protester who apparently took her own life in Popayán on May 14, two days after she said she was sexually abused by police. The police denied her story until a human rights lawyer released video of her arrest. El Espectadorinterviewed the victim’s mother.
A May 17 El Espectador feature profiles 14 young protesters who suffered severe eye damage from “non-lethal” police riot control weapons, particularly 12-gauge shotguns firing rubber projectiles.
Dairo Hidalgo, a respected artist and youth leader in Medellín’s poor Comuna 13 neighborhood, inexplicably appeared on a police “most wanted” poster featuring protesters accused of committing acts of violence and vandalism.
A shootout broke out the night of May 19 in Cali’s Calipso neighborhood between police and armed individuals near a supermarket. A young woman was killed in the crossfire.
A Washington Post multimedia team analyzed videos of police abuse and found that they show “how Colombian police appear to have crossed a lethal line.”
Protesters denounced on May 20 that police in civilian clothing fired on them in Cali. This is one of several denunciations of armed plainclothes people, at times alleged to be linked to security forces, firing on protesters in Cali.
By May 21, Defensoría had counted 23 cases of sexual violence, “within a universe of 106 reports of gender-based violence against women and persons with diverse sexual orientation.” As of that date, Temblores had counted 21 cases of sexual violence.
Attorney Víctor Mosquera said on May 21 that he is appealing to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission on behalf of a female police agent who suffered torture and sexual violence at the hands of a mob during protests in Cali on April 29.
“Yes, the National Police will reform,” the force’s commander, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, toldEl Tiempo in an article that ran on May 21. As of May 17, 122 disciplinary investigations had been opened regarding allegations of protest-related abuse. Gen. Vargas said that human rights training and certification would be a priority, along with “adjustments” to the ESMAD riot police. “We are the first to reject illegal behavior by an officer and we will ask for forgiveness when there’s a judicial decision,” Vargas told Reuters on May 17.
The U.S. angle
Marta Lucía Ramírez, now filling double duty as vice president and foreign minister, began a multi-day trip to the United States on May 21.
On May 19, the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee met to consider the Biden administration’s nomination of career diplomat Brian Nichols to be the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. In nearly two hours of questioning of Nichols and a second nominee, there was only one mention of Colombia, an exchange between Nichols and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) that took a minute and five seconds. Markey asked “what steps should the U.S. government be taking to decrease violence and suppression of ordinary citizens” in Colombia. Noting that “the situation in Colombia is complicated,” Nichols called for engaging the Duque government on “de-escalating challenges,” supporting economic recovery, and prioritizing “getting back on track to implementation of the peace agreement.”
In south Florida, where a recent poll found Latinos agreeing “that keeping socialism out of Florida is a bigger issue than jobs,” conservative leaders are “on the airwaves and social media telling Latinos not only that Marxist forces started the protests—but that President Biden and the Democrats are allied with those forces,” local journalist Tim Padgett told WRLN.
At Foreign Policy, Genevieve Glatsky looks into the Leahy Law or other human rights measures that might interrupt the flow of U.S. assistance to Colombia’s police.
At the New York Times, Amanda Taub discusses how, in Colombia and elsewhere, police violence backfires by escalating, prolonging, and encouraging more people to participate in protest movements.
At Spain’s El País, Sally Palomino points out how the response to protests, especially in Cali, has highlighted longstanding racism and classism.
“Despite decent growth since the early 2000s, inequality remains high,” recalls a report in the Economist. “At the current rate of improvement, it would take 11 generations for descendants of a poor Colombian to attain the average income, estimates the OECD.”
At the Washington Post, Erika Moreno of Creighton University finds serious fault with the Defensoría, which lacks effective independence from the executive. “[T]he agency will probably follow what it has done in the past and give a mild response to accusations against members of the military and security apparatus.”
At La Silla Vacía, director Juanita León reflects on how the dividing lines around Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—the “yes” and “no” sides of the October plebiscite—are similarly drawn around the National Strike. “While the Uribistas consider that the way out is more authority and a strong hand, the Yes supporters believe that what is needed is to deepen social reforms and deliberation.”
Also at La Silla, negotiation expert Julián Arévalo discusses some of the “best practices” for successful dialogues that President Duque and his government are ignoring right now.
Jesus Santrich is killed in Venezuela
One of the best-known former FARC leaders was killed, probably in Venezuela’s state of Zulia, probably during the beginning of the week. Seuxis Hernandez alias Jesús Santrich, a 53-year-old, nearly blind guerrilla ideologue who returned to arms in 2019, was killed under circumstances that remain unclear.
Jesús Santrich was very close to Iván Márquez, the top leader who led the FARC’s negotiating team in Havana between 2012 and 2016. At the negotiations, Santrich was noted for his hardline views and occasional inflammatory statements.
In April 2018, police arrested Santrich on charges of conspiring to send cocaine to the United States during the post-peace accord period. Video appeared to show Santrich, who was brought into a meeting with DEA informants by Iván Márquez’s nephew, assenting to a drug deal. A year later, Santrich was released from prison when the transitional justice tribunal (JEP) decided there was insufficient evidence to prove that Santrich had committed a crime. Upon his May 2019 release, Santrich was sworn into Colombia’s House of Representatives—then disappeared several days later. He resurfaced in August in a video alongside Iván Márquez and other former guerrilla leaders, carrying a weapon as Márquez announced their rearmament as a dissident group called the “Segunda Marquetalia.” (Marquetalia was the site of the 1964 Army attack that gave rise to the FARC.)
A May 18 statement from the Segunda Marquetalia alleged that Colombian Army commandos entered Venezuelan territory and intercepted a vehicle in which Santrich was traveling, just over the border from Colombia in the northern Serranía de Perijá region. The statement said the troops killed Santrich, cut off his pinky finger, and flew back into Colombia in a yellow helicopter.
Defense Minister Diego Molano confirmed that the government had heard word of Santrich’s death. The Venezuelan government has said nothing. No image of a body has emerged.
Colombian media published other rumors, among them that Santrich was killed by mercenaries seeking reward money, or that the killing was the work of a rival, larger FARC dissident band, the “First Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who had rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized.
Because Santrich was more of an ideologist than a military strategist or financial coordinator, and probably commanded few if any fighters, his death may have little impact on the balance of power between the Colombian armed groups that operate with much freedom inside Venezuela. These include the Segunda Marquetalia, the First Front, the ELN, and smaller paramilitary-descended or narcotrafficking groups. For the Segunda Marquetalia, the loss of Santrich is probably more of a symbolic than a strategic blow.
His killing draws attention to Zulia, another part of the chaotic Colombia-Venezuela border, after more than two months of fighting further south and east in Venezuela’s Apure state, across from Colombia’s Arauca department. There, the 10th Front, apparently part of the Gentil Duarte organization, has faced the Venezuelan military’s largest offensive in many years. The 10th Front has perhaps 300 fighters, a Colombian Army source tellsLa Silla Vacía, of which about 60 are in Colombia.
That offensive may have hit the population of Apure’s borderlands harder than it has hit the 10th Front. More than 6,000 Venezuelan citizens have fled to Colombia, denouncing brutal abuse at the hands of the Venezuelan military and other security forces. The 10th Front, however, has hit the Venezuelan military quite hard, killing at least 16 soldiers. It continues to hold eight soldiers captive, and is reportedly in talks with at least a faction of the Venezuelan Army.
Venezuelan military analyst Jackeline Benarroche toldTal Cual that the Venezuelan military’s performance in Apure leaves big questions about its combat capacity, its professionalism, and the obsolescence of some of its equipment. “They sent many troops to try to control, but they did not evaluate well the nature of the people they were going to confront, nor the scope of the situation and the migration to Colombia.” At Efecto Cocuyo, analyst Javier Mayorca sees the border tensions worsening further: “It is not going to end in the immediate future, it can be prolonged and extended in geographical terms. If one connects the dots, one begins to see an increasingly extensive border area where there are various interests in dispute.”
High court rescues special congressional seats for victims
By a 5-3 vote on May 21, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld—rescued from oblivion, really—a key commitment of the peace accord’s second chapter. For the next two congressional terms (2022-2030), Colombia’s 172-seat House of Representatives will have 16 more seats. Each will be held by an elected representative of conflict victims, from one of the zones hit hardest by the conflict with the FARC. These representatives may not be from established political parties, including the party formed by the former FARC: they should come from victims’ organizations.
This commitment of section 2.3.6 of the peace accord had appeared= dead. In 2017, a bill to create the special congressional districts for victims passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November. That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption.
Legal challenges to revive the “special peace districts” foundered in lower courts, and this promise of the accord appeared nearly dead. In December 2019, though, Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case and review the 2017 Senate vote.
The Court has not issued details of its decision yet, so timetables are not clear. But it appears certain that most of Colombia’s 9 million victims will soon have a louder voice in the legislature.
Somos Defensores published its annual report covering attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia in 2020. The group counted 199 murders of social leaders, a 60 percent increase over 2019. The report profiles the 95 people the group verified as murdered during the second half of the year.
A video of members of the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group threatening a community just 15 minutes’ drive from Montería, the capital of Córdoba department, shows the continued power of paramilitarism in this region of northwestern Colombia, La Silla Vacíaexplains. At the same site, Reynell Badillo Sarmiento and Luis Fernando Trejos contend that more than “paramilitarism,” what plagues Córdoba is “criminal governance,” noting that “it is difficult to argue that the AGC [Gulf Clan] is a paramilitary group.”
With U.S. backing, a team of Colombian police came up with a list of recommendations for Haiti, which is suffering a rash of kidnappings, Reuters reports.
After revelations that it has sustained contacts via intermediaries with the ELN, the Duque government named Tulio Gilberto Astudillo Victoria alias Juan Carlos Cuéllar, a captured member of the group, to serve as a “gestor de paz” (official peace intermediary). Cuéllar has played this role before. This new status will allow Cuéllar to be freed from prison.
Security forces in Santander captured alias “Matamba,” a narcotrafficker who leads an armed group called La Cordillera Sur, active in northern Nariño department. The Fiscalía believes him to be aligned with the Gulf Clan, though the police say he had forged a pact with the Nueva Marquetalia FARC dissident group, El Espectadorreports.
The Fiscalía ordered house arrest for Cristian Saavedra Arias, the soldier who shot and killed Juliana Giraldo, a trans woman, at a checkpoint in Miranda, Cauca in September 2020.
While the AP noted that leading 2018 leftist candidate Gustavo Petro has maintained a surprisingly low profile during the protests, government-aligned Semana magazine put a chaotic image of Petro on its cover with the headline “Petro, enough is enough!”
“The fact that, despite all the evidence against it, the Colombian state continues to try to reinstate glyphosate spraying [to eradicate coca, with U.S. backing] only demonstrates this administration’s disinterest towards its most vulnerable citizens,” writes Olga Behar in an excellent overview essay in Spanish at the Washington Post.
The security forces’ response to Colombia’s nationwide protests became less lethal over the past week. Three people involved in protests were killed in the 8 days between May 7 and 14, increasing the overall confirmed toll from 39 to 42, according to a database maintained by the non-governmental organizations Temblores and Indepaz.
Heavy, and often outraged, international scrutiny of the police and military response has likely contributed to restraint. So has a reduction in the protests’ overall intensity, as formal negotiations begin. While large turnouts continue in Bogotá, Medellín, and elsewhere, they are not consistently large every single day. Colombia’s southwest, though, remains very active, especially the cities of Cali, Valle del Cauca; Popayán, Cauca; Neiva, Huila; and Pasto, Nariño.
As of 11:30pm on May 12, Temblores had counted 39 killings committed by security forces; 1,055 “arbitrary detentions,” 442 “violent interventions in the framework of peaceful protests” including 133 uses of lethal firearms and 30 protesters suffering eye damage, and 16 cases of sexual violence.
Hundreds of people are still missing, with most probably in police custody. Sebastian Lanz, the co-director of Temblores, toldVice that some are being charged with crimes, but others “have ended up in unauthorized ‘clandestine’ detention centers where ‘there is no legal authority to verify the human rights situation there,’” or in “special centers for protection“ where people may be held without charges for up to 12 hours.
Geography of protest
Activity remains widespread geographically. On May 12, the protests’ two-week mark, the Defense Ministry’s “Unified Command Post” counted 170 protest activities in 391 of Colombia’s 1,123 municipalities (counties). That day, Defense Minister Diego Molano said that protesters continued to block 80 roads around the country.
In Cali early in the week, protesters maintained blockades stopping most road traffic in and out of the city. Some of these protesters were members of an Indigenous minga (“coming together”) that brought thousands from Cauca, to the south of Cali, to show solidarity with protesters in Colombia’s third-largest city. The blockades generated reports of shortages of goods in Cali, including gasoline, and an inability to get export cargo to Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port.
The Defense Ministry deployed 10,000 police and 2,100 soldiers to Cali. Most road blockades were lifted peacefully, but the military and police used heavy force in Siloé, a neighborhood in western Cali that has seen many casualties. On May 9, assailants in civilian clothes shot at indigenous protesters in broad daylight, wounding eight. The mingapulled back to Cauca on May 12, citing government plans for “an armed police and paramilitary attack against our delegations” if it stayed in Cali.
A road blockade in Buga, along the Pan-American Highway north of Cali, was the site of bitter, prolonged clashes between protesters and a combined police-military force on May 13. No deaths were reported. In fact, the Temblores and Indepaz database shows no new deaths in the Cali metropolitan area since May 7. Still, of the 42 fatalities on this list, 29 happened in Cali or the neighboring municipality of Yumbo.
In Cauca’s departmental capital of Popayán on May 12, police threw to the ground and sexually abused a 17-year-old girl who had been using her phone to record abuse during a protest. The girl was taken to an “Immediate Reaction Unit” (URI)—a facility of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía)—where she reported what was done to her. After being freed hours later, the girl reportedly took her own life. Popayán human rights lawyer Lizeth Montero said that a total of three underage girls denounced sexual abuse at the hands of police on May 12.
News of the abuse spurred angry protests in Popayán on May 14, during which some protesters burned down the URI where the girl had been taken. During the police response, an ESMAD anti-riot policeman fired a projectile, possibly a tear-gas canister, into the neck of 22-year-old college student Sebastián Quintero Múnera, killing him.
Rural areas appear to be joining the protests in increasing numbers. About 5,000 coca-growers from rural Cauca converged on Popayán to demand that the government comply with peace accord commitments to assist with the transition to licit crops, and that the government abandon plans to restart a program to eradicate coca by fumigating fields with herbicides from aircraft.
Lucas Villa, a 37-year-old activist who was known for his ebullient nature—he appeared often in videos dancing during protests—died in a hospital in Pereira, Risaralda, on May 10. A gunman on a motorcycle hit Villa with eight bullets during a peaceful protest in Pereira on May 5.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking aggravated homicide charges against a Cali motorcycle police officer who, in a much-shared April 28 video, repeatedly shot and killed a 17-year-old who had run up and kicked him. This is the fourth case of a protest-related fatality for which the Fiscalía has filed charges. On May 12 Prosecutor General Francisco Barbosa told Colombia’s House of Representatives that the Fiscalía had counted 14 homicides so far; by that date Temblores and Indepaz had confirmed 41, including 1 policeman.
Investigations haven’t moved in the case of Maycolt Stiven Florido, a Bogotá barber attacked April 30, on video, by 12 police who accused him wrongly of throwing stones. The police knocked out three of Florido’s teeth, among other injuries, while stealing the equivalent of US$135 and his mobile phone.
Negotiations are getting underway
President Duque met on May 10 with the Comité del Paro, the group of mostly union leaders that called for the initial April 28 protests. The three hour exploratory meeting yielded little other than a government announcement that it is willing to open a process of negotiations with the Comité, managed on the government side by High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos.
President Duque announced on May 11 that the government would pay tuition for public university students who come from the bottom three levels of the government’s six-layer income system. The measure would waive tuition for 97 percent of students in public universities.
On May 14 the Comité del Paro, after a long meeting with mediators from the UN and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference, agreed to the negotiations framework proposed by the government, and the first round of talks is to occur on May 16.
“If the National Government thinks that this process will be managed under the same scheme of the ‘great national conversation’ of late 2019 [after November 2019 protests], consisting of listening, taking notes, and then sitting in front of a computer to see what can be accommodated in the government’s plan and then coming out with what seems feasible, this new dialogue won’t calm things down either,” warned an El Espectadoreditorial.
An El Tiempoanalysis outlines some of the points that a dialogue between the government and protest leaders would be likely to cover. They include basic income guarantees; affordable college education; reopening of schools closed by the pandemic; suspending forced coca eradication, especially fumigation; ending gender, ethnic, and sexual-orientation discrimination; withdrawing a controversial health care reform; and more participation in the national Covid vaccination plan.
La Silla Vacíaprofiles the 20 members of the Comité del Paro, finding the group to be overwhelmingly male and representative mainly of workers in the formal economy. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), organizers of the “minga” (coming together) that brought thousands of its members to Cali, issued a statement declaring that it does not feel represented by the Comité del Paro.
134 environmental groups signed a statement supporting the protests. They added a list of demands including securing communities’ prior and informed consent, opposing large extractive projects, and opposing coca eradication with the herbicide glyphosate.
Foreign Minister Claudia Blum resigned after 18 months in office, amid a steady drumbeat of international communications voicing concern about the severity of the government’s response to protests. “The country will reject external pronouncements that do not reflect objectivity and seek to fuel polarization in the country,” Blum had said a week earlier. The comment was not well received. Blum was the second cabinet minister to quit since the protests began. Alberto Carrasquilla, the author of the proposed tax hike that first detonated the protests, resigned as finance minister on May 3.
A Datexco telephone poll of 700 adults found75 percent in favor of the national strike, 15 percent against, and 10 percent with no opinion. 82 percent disapproved of the government’s management of the situation.
President Duque told the New York Times “he did not believe the police department needed significant reform. He said that the police have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward abuse, and pointed to the fact that the police inspector general has opened at least 65 investigations into alleged misconduct.”
National Police Commander Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas is among authorities who insist that the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, along with both of Colombia’s principal networks of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident bands, are behind disturbances. While members of these groups may be taking advantage of disorder to pursue drug trafficking and other criminality, sources in the security forces tellEl Espectador that evidence does not point to them playing a leading or coordinating role.
“What we are seeing here,” Gen. Vargas toldEl Tiempo’s María Isabel Rueda, “is a systematic attack against the police. This has happened in Chile and in other countries around the world, including the United States. There are organized systematic attacks, platforms in foreign countries, with a lot of false news and disinformation, that want to attack the Police for its role in crime containment, not public and peaceful demonstration.” He added, “In the ELN’s computers, in those of the FARC dissidents, we have found intentions to systematically attack the credibility of the police.”
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the maximum leader of President Iván Duque’s Centro Democrático party, called on May 13 for a greater military role in maintaining order during the protests, during an address before Colombia’s House of Representatives. Uribe warned that people exercising their right to “legitimate defense” might begin “the organization of private justice, with all its cruelty and the deinstitutionalization that the country had overcome.”
El Espectadorrecounted leaked audio of a Google Meet conversation between legislators from the governing Centro Democrático party and business leaders from Pereira, Risaralda. The CD legislators rejected any negotiation with groups carrying out road blockages and suggested boycotting advertising for all media outlets whose reporting has been unfavorable to the government and the security forces.
Business-sector representatives on this call recalled the “dissipated molecular revolution” thesis, popularized by a Nazi-sympathizing Chilean polemicist and advanced by former president Uribe, which contends that even peaceful protest is part of a dispersed, transnational leftist plot to overthrow the government. “They are looking to take over a government and I feel that businessmen have remained quiet on this issue. We need to support the institutional framework, because they have taken advantage of us, light years, in letting the outside world know what is happening in Colombia.”
Of the 11 million Colombians between ages 14 and 28, 3 million (27 percent) are neither employed nor in school. These “ni-nis” are heavily represented in the ongoing protests.
The Ministry of Finance said that the protests are costing the economy about half a trillion pesos (US$135 million) per day.
Comments and analyses
55 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the State Department to more forcefully denounce police brutality in Colombia, to freeze police aid and sales of crowd control equipment, and to promote dialogue.
The leads of the Colombian government’s negotiating team during the 2012-16 peace process with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo, published a series of 10 recommendations in El Tiempo outlining how dialogue might go forward, suggesting a big role for young members of Congress and the use of mechanisms envisioned in the peace accord. “If we were able to reach an agreement between the government and the FARC, our institutions can do the same with the citizenry. But this requires, in addition to political will and respect for the other side, methods to reach agreements and guarantees for the participants.”
“One way to move forward is to stop thinking about the peace agreement in terms of concessions made to the much-disliked former FARC combatants,” reads an Americas Quarterlyanalysis from former finance minister Mauricio Cárdenas. “The peace agreement is about building a new social contract, where marginalized groups will have more political representation while bringing the state in, in the form of roads and schools, to some parts of Colombia for the first time in our history.”
“By helping Colombia move toward dialogue,” WOLA’s Adam Isacson writes in a May 12 New York Timescolumn, “the Biden administration would be developing a template for engaging with counterparts throughout Latin America, where several countries battered by the virus are confronting authoritarian populism amid stark social divides.”
In a May 13 WOLA podcast, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli explains why she’s optimistic that ongoing protests “can allow for more diverse voices to take up leadership in the country” and why she rates the US government’s response so far as “3 or 4 out of 10.”
Government acknowledges outreach efforts to the ELN
The Duque government’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, announced that the government has approved or participated in 32 meetings over the past 17 months “to verify the ELN’s true will to seek peace.” Outreach, Ceballos said, has included 22 meetings with intermediaries in the Vatican Nunciature in Bogotá, 6 meetings with intermediaries in the presidential palace, often with President Duque’s participation, and 4 trips to Havana, at which Catholic Church and UN representatives spoke to ELN leaders. The OAS mission in Colombia (MAPP-OEA) also took part in some of the meetings.
A few top ELN leaders remain in Cuba after a January 2019 bombing at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá brought an end to an earlier peace process. Though protocols for the end of those talks called for their low-profile return to Colombia, the Duque government refused to allow that and demanded their extradition. In the meantime, the ELN ex-negotiators remain in Cuba and available for exploratory talks.
The first Cuba “good offices” trip took place in February 2020, when Father Darío Echeverri, who for years has played an important go-between role in peace efforts, traveled to Havana in representation of the Vatican. Echeverri was accompanied by Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. Subsequent meetings in Cuba took place in September and November 2020 and March 2021.
At the time, the Duque government, with Ceballos playing the most vocal role, was ramping up diplomatic pressure on Cuba to extradite the ELN leaders stranded on the island. This week Pablo Beltrán, a top ELN leader and former negotiator who is among those still in Havana, toldEl Tiempo that Colombia’s government has been a reluctant participant in the exploratory talks, giving most credit to the Church and the international community.
FARC dissidents still fighting Venezuelan forces, and each other, in Apure, Venezuela
Venezuelan officials say that 16 soldiers and at least 9 FARC dissident fighters have been killed since fighting broke out March 21 across the border from Arauca, Colombia, in the Venezuelan state of Apure. Sporadic fighting continues on Venezuelan soil between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group, which announced this week that it is holding about eight Venezuelan soldiers captive. Though information is spotty, an NGO reports that fighting is also now occurring in Venezuela between the two FARC dissident groups active in the zone.
The panorama in Apure is confusing. In addition to the ELN guerrillas, which are very present but appear uninvolved in the current combat, are “dissidents” led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the FARC peace process. Their rank-and-file includes many new recruits with no FARC background.
The dissidents are affiliated with two national networks. The first, the 10th Front, is part of the “1st Front” structure headed by alias Gentil Duarte, a mid-level FARC leader who rejected the 2016 peace accord and never demobilized. The Gentil Duarte network is the largest FARC dissident organization in the country. The second is the “Segunda Marquetalia” (Marquetalia is the site of the 1964 army attack that led to the FARC’s origin), headed by alias Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana and destined for a Senate seat. Márquez rearmed, along with several other hardline FARC members, in 2019.
Numerous analysts cited in past updates have alleged that the Venezuelan regime is targeting the 10th Front—for unclear reasons—and favoring the Segunda Marquetalia.
The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported on May 8 that 10 Venezuelan soldiers had gone missing in Apure following combat with the 10th Front. On May 11 the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that it had received a communication from the 10th Front indicating that it was holding eight Venezuelan soldiers who had been captured during fighting on April 23, and was looking for a way to hand them over. Tarazona posted this letter to his Twitter account, as well as proof-of-life video of some of the captives.
“In addition to a military defeat on April 23, the government today has [suffered] a communications defeat due to its determination to manage the situation in Apure without transparency before the families of the military and the country,” tweeted Marino Alvarado of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea. “Maduro, [Minister of Defense Gen.] Vladimir Padrino, and Adm. Remigio Ceballos [strategic operational commander of the armed forces] owe the country an explanation. A serious minister in the face of such a military and communications disaster would resign.”
FundaRedes also reported that 10th Front and Segunda Marquetalia fighters engaged in combat on May 12 in the town of Bruzual, more than 100 miles inside Venezuelan territory in northwestern Apure. Fundaredes claims that the fighting killed four and wounded several others. Combat between the 10th Front and Segunda Marquetalia has been rare in both Colombia and Venezuela, but appears to be growing more frequent.
Citing a failure to provide prior advance consultation, a court in Nariño suspended all forced coca eradication in Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities’ lands in Tumaco and nine other municipalities along Nariño’s Pacific coast. (Tumaco was sixth among Colombia’s largest coca-producing municipalities in 2019.) The ruling prohibits the on-the-ground manual forced eradication that security forces and eradicators have been carrying out. Colombia’s Constitutional Court will soon rule on two other legal challenges (tutelas) to the Duque government’s imminent restart of glyphosate fumigation from aircraft. Those challenges, too, argue insufficient consultation with ethnic communities.
On May 11 the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution adding to the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. The Mission is now charged also with verifying the sentences handed down by the transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP). These sentences, up to eight years in duration, are likely to be “restrictions of rights and liberties” and/or “works and tasks with restorative and restorative content,” referred by the Spanish acronym TOAR. The Security Council resolution came several days after seven top FARC leaders took the historic step of pleading guilty to the JEP’s charges of masterminding thousands of kidnappings.
In testimony before the JEP, retired Army captain Adolfo Guevara told how he collaborated with the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network’s Northern Bloc while serving in active duty in 2002. “He not only narrated how he executed people to ‘legalize’ them as ‘positives’ in the Gaula [anti-kidnapping unit in] Magdalena in 2002,” El Tiemporeports, “but also assured that his actions were known and required by other military units.” Guevara alleged that Gen. Mario Montoya, who went on to head Colombia’s army in the mid-2000s, collaborated with the paramilitaries.
Colombia’s navy reported seizing nine semi-submersible drug trafficking vessels along its coasts and waters so far this year.
I recorded a very good conversation with my colleague Gimena Sánchez, who I don’t think has slept since Colombia’s protests—and the government’s crackdown—began on April 28. She does a masterful job explaining what’s going on. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.
Protests that began April 28 in Colombia are maintaining momentum and a broad base of support, despite a heavy-handed government response. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes, sees a movement coalescing—and a need for a more decisive U.S. approach.
This conversation, recorded on May 13, explains the different factors contributing to the crisis at the country enters its third week of protests and the number of dead or missing—almost entirely protestors—continues to increase. It also touches on the larger context of protests that were already taking place in Colombia’s more rural/indigenous area, paramilitary responses to the protestors, and contextualizes indigenous frustration in Colombia. The discussion ends with the prospect for change in Colombia, and how the Biden administration has responded so far.
Like many of you, I’m saddened and worried to see what Colombia is going through: only four years ago, the FARC were laying down their weapons and it felt much more like a time of possibility. The present crisis offers renewed possibility through real dialogue. The U.S. government can help by isolating some very powerful people in the country who oppose that, especially in the governing party. Read my just-published column at nytimes.com.
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00pm on April 30, 13 alleged homicides committed by police, 655 arbitrary arrests, 18 uses of police firearms, and 68 victims of police violence including 8 people with eye injuries.
After two days of somewhat less participation in protest marches, Saturday May 1—Labor Day in Colombia—sees a much larger turnout on the streets of hundreds of cities and towns around the country. During daylight hours, protests are mostly peaceful, though looting occurs on the margins in Bogotá. After dark, acts of vandalism and confrontations with security forces proliferate. The National Police announces that 330 of its agents were wounded, and 249 people were arrested for alleged acts of vandalism.
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 11:00pm on May 1, 21 alleged homicides committed by police, 672 arbitrary arrests, 30 uses of police firearms, 92 victims of police violence including 12 people with eye injuries, and 4 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 9:30pm on May 1, 5 people allegedly killed by security forces, 111 detained, 6 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 56 people wounded, and 9 assaults on human rights defenders.
Confrontations with security forces also occur in Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Manizales, Pasto, and Pereira.
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts 851 cases of violence committed by police in the context of protests between April 28 and April 30, including 13 homicides, 655 arbitrary detentions, 18 cases of use of firearms, 8 cases of eye damage, and 4 cases of sexual violence.
The crackdown on protesters appears to be most intense in Cali. The Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network, a Cali-based non-governmental organization, says it has received reports that police have killed 14 people in the city since the protests began, of which it has verified 7. The National Police acknowledge that 10 people in Cali have been killed by unspecified causes.
Videos show Bogotá police firing their weapons at protesters in the Kennedy and Cedritos neighborhoods.
Brayan Fernando Niño, a 24-year-old employee of a local HomeCenter store, is killed in Madrid, Cundinamarca. An ESMAD tear gas canister fired from an armored personnel carrier hits Niño in the eye.
During the evening of May 1 Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, warns protesters to go home or find a place to take refuge. “The human rights situation is critical and there are no guarantees for life, integrity or the free exercise of social protest.”
Under a legal framework called “military assistance,” President Iván Duque announces that the armed forces will help the police control public order in major cities. “Military assistance will be maintained until the serious disturbance of public order ceases. Our military forces are supporting the work of the National Police,” Duque says. The mayors of Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín, and Cali , and the governor of Magdalenasay that the military does not need to be deployed. Some cite the risk of escalating the protests.
Acceding to one of the protesters’ main demands, President Iván Duque withdrawscontroversial tax increase legislation, which was opposed both by the left (because it increased regressive sales taxes) and by the business sector (because it raised taxes somewhat on corporations). Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigns. Protests continue. The government still faces a budget deficit equal to 8 percent of GDP.
Social media videos from the weekend of May 1-2 “showed police firing at protesters sometimes from close range, ramming crowds with motorcycles, and bashing demonstrators with their shields,” the Guardianreports.
“11 of the officially confirmed protest deaths occurred in Cali, with deaths also reported in the cities of Bogotá, Ibagué, Madrid, Medellín, Neiva, Pereira, Soacha, and Yumbo,” the BBC reports. “Most of the dead and injured are young people.”
Social media video captures the death of Nicolás Guerrero, a 22-year-old artist, from a bullet fired by ESMAD riot police in Cali.
Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) documents 33 aggressions against members of the press in the context of the protests between April 28 and May 1. The majority were carried out by government security forces.
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) reports that 278 people have been arrested for involvement in “acts of vandalism, crime, and terrorism.” The Fiscalía counts 167 buses and 22 small police posts (CAI) vandalized, 269 roads blocked, and 399 wounded police.
The Global Network Against Police Violence, a group of non-governmental organizations from nine Latin American countries plus Spain, issues a communiqué condemning “repression” of the protests in Colombia.
One of Colombia’s most-read columnists, Daniel Coronell, devotes an essay to the case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old participant in November 2019 protests who was killed by an ESMAD agent’s “non-lethal” projectile gun in downtown Bogotá. The case against the agent, Capt. Manuel Cubillos, is being heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) sent a report on the incident to the military judge. This report seeks to exonerate Capt. Cubillos and to portray Cruz as a troubled youth with a history of drug use. “Colombia’s Fiscalía is specializing in justifying perpetrators and prosecuting victims,” Coronell writes.
The police response to protesters and some vandals claims many victims in Cali. “Police began confronting protesters at 8 p.m., opening fire in an attempt to disperse the crowd,” the Washington Postreports. “’They were even firing shots from helicopters,’ said Stiven Soñador, a 27-year-old human rights lawyer who took part in the protests. ‘Police started to fire shots and people ran to their neighborhoods, but inside the neighborhoods, there were more [police] waiting.’” At least five people die the evening of May 3.
An account from several Colombian human rights groups details what happened in Cali on March 3 to a delegation of human rights defenders. The delegation included members of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Colombia. “The police officers surrounded them [part of the delegation] and shouted at them to leave the place, so the defenders accelerated their pace to leave amid threats that they were going to kill them. At that moment, police officers fired their firearms at the humanitarian mission, then ESMAD arrived and threw a stun grenade at them. The Mission was rescued by street inhabitants who acted as human shields and a police officer who arrived on the scene, interposed himself between the Mission and his companions and helped them run out of the area and meet again with officials from the OHCHR and the Attorney General’s Office.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano seeks to blame acts of vandalism on Colombia’s remaining armed groups: “Colombia faces a terrorist threat, criminal organizations are behind the violent acts that tarnish peaceful protest. These are premeditated acts, organized and financed by FARC and ELN dissident groups. Thanks to the work of the Special Group against Vandalism and Related Crimes we have identified some of these criminal organizations: JM19 movement, Luis Otero Cifuentes group, Gentil Duarte’s Bolivarian Movement of FARC dissidents, the Blue Shields, the Black Shields, ELN urban cells, June 8 and 9: ELN camilistas.” Molano provides no proof.
“There have been 19 deaths so far in Valle del Cauca, Bogotá, Neiva, Cali, Soacha, Yumbo, Ibagué, Madrid (Cundinamarca), Medellín, and Pereira,” notes the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría), adding that it “is evaluating and classifying 140 complaints that include information on deaths, missing persons, police abuse and injuries, among others.”
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 3, 26 alleged homicides committed by police, 761 arbitrary arrests, 56 uses of police firearms, 142 victims of police violence including 17 people with eye injuries, and 9 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and May 3, 18 people allegedly killed by security forces, 988 detained, 11 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 305 people wounded including 23 with eye damage, and 47 assaults on human rights defenders.
In a statement, Defense Minister Diego Molano shares statistics, omitting reference to civilians killed or injured by security forces. “540 policemen injured and one killed during the protests and 306 civilians injured. Also, 20 public transport buses have been burned, 59 commercial establishments looted, 21 CAI [police posts] destroyed and 43 vandalized. 94 banks, 254 stores, 14 toll booths, 4 statues, 23 institutional vehicles, 69 transport stations, 36 ATMs, 2 governors’ offices and 29 traffic ticket cameras have been vandalized.”
In Cali, a mob burns the first floor of a hotel where some police were staying. Others blockade the road between the city and its airport, causing cancellations of flights. Other road blockades start causing food shortages.
WOLA calls on the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress “to condemn police excesses, distance the United States from officials’ inflammatory rhetoric, and insist that the Colombian government reform the ESMAD and hold accountable those who violated human rights since the protests began.” WOLA calls for a cutoff of assistance to ESMAD and its members, if any exists, and for a suspension of all sales of crowd and riot control equipment to Colombia.
The European Union condemns acts of violence in Colombia’s protests, which target “legitimate rights to demonstrate, freedom of assembly and expression,” European External Action Service spokesman Peter Stano said.
“I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend,” tweets U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). “U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”
More than 10,000 academics sign a letter to President Iván Duque urging him to order the security forces to respect human rights, and to avoid deploying the military in response to protests.
Eight international NGOs including WOLA call on Colombia to respect and guarantee human rights in the context of citizen mobilizations.
An analysis by the daily El Espectador notes that two independent branches of government meant to provide oversight and control, the Inspector-General’s Office and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría and Defensoría), have been “conspicuous in their absence.” Both bodies had new leaders named in 2020, and both are considered close to President Iván Duque or his political party.
In response to accusations that his office has been largely absent during the protests, Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) Carlos Camargo tellsW Radio, “I have been dedicated 24/7 with my officials, in permanent contact [and] attending to all the situations of what is happening in Cali, it is of the utmost importance to us.”
National Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas says that 26 investigations have been opened into police misconduct in the context of the protests.
Ex-president Álvaro Uribe, the leader of President Iván Duque’s political party, tweets recommending “Strengthening the armed forces, which are weakened by being held equal to terrorists by Havana [the peace accord] and the JEP,” as well as to “recognize that terrorism is larger than imagined.” In a curious recommendation, Uribe calls to “Resist the Dissipated Molecular Revolution,” apparently a reference to a Nazi-sympathizing Chilean theorist’s notion that dissent is the work of an internal enemy bent on overturning the system and dispersed throughout the population.
Accompanied by Defense Minister Diego Molano, Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro records a video calling the ESMAD riot police (whom he doesn’t command) “heroes in black” and urges them to stay the course.
Police “have developed some strategies to avoid any responsibility,” according to a Verdad Abiertaanalysis contending that the aggressiveness of police behavior during protests has worsened markedly since 2019. “They hide their last names and internal identification numbers; they cover their faces with balaclavas; they are incapable of pausing to talk to the victim and to verify the data they believe to be rigorous, like name and ID number; and they shoot indiscriminately at the mob, protected by their own companions.”
Nighttime violence erupts in Bogotá, mainly in poorer neighborhoods, as mobs vandalize 25 Immediate Attention Center (CAI) police posts, destroying 3 completely. 104 public buses are damaged, four of them burned. One of the CAI is set on fire with 14 police agents inside. “The level of destruction, of violence, of attack against citizens, against our public property, against our police, is truly unheard of,” says Mayor Claudia López. “What happened to our uniformed officers is unacceptable.”
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 8:00am on May 4, 31 alleged homicides committed by police, 814 arbitrary arrests, 77 uses of police firearms, 216 victims of police violence including 21 people with eye injuries, and 10 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
A communiqué from the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voices strong concern about police attacks on civilians in Cali on May 3, when police shot at non-governmental human rights workers participating in a mission that included employees of the UN Human Rights office. “We are deeply alarmed by the events in the city of Cali in Colombia last night, when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against the tax reform, killing and injuring several people, according to information received.” The statement recalls that “to date, the majority of the protests have been peaceful.”
“Since April 28, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received reports of at least 14 deaths in the context of protests in different parts of Colombia, including that of at least one police officer”, reports the UN Human Rights office.
The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) publishes a list of 87 people who have disappeared amid the protests between April 28 and May 3. On May 5, the National Police claim that 45 of the 87 have been located; La Silla Vacíaargues on May 6 that the list “lacks rigor” and 52 have been located. Defense Minister Diego Molano says he knows nothing about that number. The National Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord, calls on the government to avoid repeating the experience of the armed conflict, when tens of thousands of people disappeared. The Unit notes that a human rights NGO, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, has a list of 107 missing people.
“I want to announce that we will set up a space to listen to citizens and build solutions,” President Duque says in a televised address. He calls for a dialogue “with all institutions, political parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and civil society leaders, motivated by service to the citizenry.”
The “Coalition of Hope,” a grouping of centrist and center-left politicians who say they are open to dialogue with the government, rejects a meeting with President Duque, citing widespread evidence of police violence.
“I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable,” tweets Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It is imperative that U.S. Leahy Law is fully implemented as we make clear that the United States will not support security forces involved in severe human rights violations.”
“I’m greatly concerned about the situation in Colombia and extend my sympathies to the families of those killed and injured,” tweets Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas). “Excessive force by police against protestors is unacceptable and authorities have a responsibility to uphold human rights.”
The U.S. State Department issues a statement. “All over the world,” it reads, “citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights. We continue to support the Colombian government’s efforts to address the current situation through political dialogue.”
Juan González, the White House National Security Council’s director for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweets: “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” On May 6 González tellsThe Hill, “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”
Citing “reports of grossly excessive use of police force from several Colombian cities,” a statement from WOLA calls on the U.S. government to urge Colombia to return to internationally recognized use-of-force standards, to suspend all sales of crowd-control equipment, and to encourage dialogue efforts.
A letter from more than 900 organizations and thousands of individuals denounces police brutality and government stigmatization and calls for guarantees for peaceful social protest. It notes that the tax reform is one of several reasons why people are protesting: other causes include health care reform, pension reform, stopping murders of social leaders and demobilized ex-combatants, stopping coca fumigation, implementing the 2016 peace accord, and guaranteeing a basic income for the poorest.
In a statement, the Colombian legal/human rights NGO DeJusticia “urge[s] police authorities to reaffirm their role as guarantors of the life, honor and property of citizens; the Ombudsman’s and Inspector General’s Offices to wake up from their slumber and fulfill their role in this crisis, and Iván Duque’s government to create mechanisms for dialogue and citizen consultation.”
A statement from the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) “condemns and expresses its deep concern for the disproportionate use of public force in the context of the social demonstrations and protests.” The mission “joins the voices of repudiation against threats and violence faced by the Multisectoral Verification Commission members headed by the Attorney General’s Office and OHCHR during the night of May 3rd in Cali, Colombia.”
In response to international criticism of the use of force in response to protests, Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Relations “strongly reaffirms” in a statement “that Colombia is a State governed by the rule of law with solid democratic institutions that guarantee citizens’ rights.” The Ministry announces that it will convene a meeting on May 5 with ambassadors to discuss the government’s response. Presidential human rights advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez says she will monitor disciplinary investigations against police. In a passage that raises eyebrows, Gutiérrez adds, “human rights only exist if all citizens observe the duties we all have to be part of society.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano insists that, despite much video evidence to the contrary, the National Police have been operating within the confines of the law. Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas says that “criminals” have been shooting at police in Cali, and that cases of police using firearms will be investigated.
Defense Minister Diego Molano says that 47 police Immediate Attention Center (CAI) posts have been “affected” and 21 have been destroyed.
Defense Minister Diego Molano reports that 579 police have been wounded, and 515 people have been arrested, within the framework of the protests since April 28.
“Protest must be peaceful and the institutional response to sporadic acts of violence by some demonstrators must be within the framework of the Constitution and international human rights law,” reads a statement from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice system created by the 2016 peace accord. The JEP notes that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 88 people disappeared amid the protests, while NGO reports claim more than 170.
Amnesty International calls on Colombian authorities “to investigate quickly, independently, and impartially all complaints of excessive and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators.”
A cyberattack from the “Anonymous” hacker group takes down the website of Colombia’s army. The group publishes the e-mail addresses and passwords of 168 members of the military.
The organization NetBlocks registers disruptions in internet connectivity in Cali on the afternoon and evening of May 4.
Campesinos and coca growers in Norte de Santander add a rural dimension to protests, blocking roads between Cúcuta, the department’s capital, and other cities like Tibu and Ocaña. One of their main demands is a rejection of plans to re-start the eradication of coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft, a program that was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns.
Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), Francisco Barbosa, tweets “It has been determined that the disturbances and vandalism that have occurred in Cali in the last few days are related to drug trafficking structures, the ELN and FARC dissidents operating in Cauca.” Barbosa provides no proof.
In one of the protests’ largest turnouts, tens of thousands march through Bogotá on May 5.
Police confront protesters, many of them throwing rocks, in the Plaza de Bolívar that sits between the Congress and the Supreme Court buildings in Central Bogotá. At one point some protesters charge the steps of the Congress; police quickly repel them with tear gas but the legislative chambers are evacuated. Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, tweets to U.S. Democrats that the incident was “like the 6 of january” raid on the U.S. Capitol.
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 12:00pm on May 5, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 831 arbitrary arrests, 110 uses of police firearms, 222 victims of police violence including 22 people with eye injuries, and 10 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 11:50am on May 5, 24 people allegedly killed by security forces, 1,180 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 381 people wounded including 31 with eye damage, and 58 assaults on human rights defenders.
“We have received reports of 31 deaths in Colombia,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
Colombia’s Congress names a special committee that might serve a mediating role between the government and protest leaders.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) agree to form an “inter-institutional table” to provide clearer information about homicides, disappearances, and other crimes committed amid protests. Both institutions maintain numbers of such crimes that are well below what non-governmental organizations like Temblores, Indepaz, and the Campaña Defender la Libertad are counting. Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa cites 24 killings as of May 5, for instance, while Indepaz counts 31.
Rumors swirl that President Duque is about to sign a decree declaring a state of siege (Estado de Conmoción Interior), which would limit some civil liberties and increase presidential powers for 90 days, including the power to temporarily suspend laws and detain people on suspicion of committing crimes. The government insists that the rumors are false, and no decree is yet forthcoming.
El Espectador reports that Colombia’s Police has sent to Cali members of its elite Special Security Task Forces (Grupos Operativos Especiales de Seguridad or GOES), a unit usually employed for commando operations like takedowns of narcotraffickers.
Widely shared videos continue to show police surrounding and beating people in Bogotá neighborhoods on the evening of May 6.
Videos show a disturbing incident in Cali in which police dressed in plainclothes fire weapons at civilians. Their vehicle is identified as belonging to the National Police. The police commander in Cali says the institution will investigate.
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 6, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 934 arbitrary arrests, 98 uses of police firearms, 234 victims of police violence including 26 people with eye injuries, and 11 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 3:00pm on May 6, 27 people allegedly killed by security forces, 165 presumed disappeared, 1,251 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 426 people wounded including 32 with eye damage, and 66 assaults on human rights defenders.
“We have corroborated the use of tanks with multiple projectile launchers aimed at demonstrators. It is a dangerous and indiscriminate weapon,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
“We have received reports of 36 deaths in Colombia,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
The Unit for the Search for the Disappeared announces that, using information provide by 26 social organizations, it counts 379 people who have disappeared amid the protests.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) tweets, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”
Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas tellsEl Espectador that, since the protests began, one police agent has been killed and 601 injured. He offers the paper a thorough accounting of vehicles, banks, ATMs, stores, and historical monuments vandalized, destroyed, or looted. Gen. Vargas insists that the ELN and both main networks of FARC dissident groups are involved in acts of violence in Cali: “As director of the Police, I can certify that there are elements that link organized armed groups, the Eln, the dissidents of the FARc with criminals such as ‘Ivan Mordisco’ [of the “1st Front” network] and ‘El Paisa’ [of the ’Nueva Marquetalia’ network]. Likewise, there is evidence about the participation of common organized crime groups.“ Gen. Vargas does not provide proof. “This is not the first time that the government of Iván Duque has pointed to FARC dissidents or the ELN as responsible for serious disturbances of public order,” El Espectador had reported a day earlier.
After meeting at the Presidential Palace with leaders of business associations, President Duque calls for “open and excellent” dialogue.
About 6,000 indigenous activists and unarmed guards, most of them from Cauca, have arrived in Cali for a Minga (a “coming together”) to demand an end to violence.
Wilson Arias, a senator from the left-opposition Polo Democrático party, reports that the Colombian government recently began a purchase of US$3.7 million worth of crowd and riot control equipment and munitions.
A statement from the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) hails movement toward “necessary and urgent” dialogue, while calling on “all actors to always guarantee the right to peaceful protest free of disorder and violence, and to facilitate humanitarian corridors.”
The “Coalition of Hope,” a group of centrist and center-left opposition politicians, meets with President Duque. Some show up at the presidential palace wearing t-shirts with the names of people killed during the protests. The group includes, among other well-known politicians, Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the FARC peace process; Juan Fernando Cristo, who was President Juan Manuel Santos’s interior minister; and Sergio Fajardo, a former Medellín mayor, Antioquia governor, and presidential candidate. De la Calle says their agenda includes basic income for the poorest, urgent human rights measures, access to public college education, and a more progressive tax package. They also urged Duque to meet with the actual protest leaders—which may happen on May 10. After the meeting, Duque sounded a more positive note than did the “Coalition” members. La Silla Vacía pessimistically notes that “the agenda was imposed from the Palace and all meetings are held in Bogotá.”
The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 4:50pm on May 7, 32 people allegedly killed by security forces, at least 216 and up to 471 presumed disappeared, 1,291 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 451 people wounded including 32 with eye damage, and 67 assaults on human rights defenders.
Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 7, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 936 arbitrary arrests, 105 uses of police firearms, 275 victims of police violence including 28 people with eye injuries, and 11 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
A statement from the UN system in Colombia calls on the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly and protest, among other basic human rights, citing the 2016 peace accord as a point of reference. It calls on protesters to abstain from violence and to avoid blockading basic food supplies, medical and humanitarian missions.
The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression issue a statement voicing “the deepest concern” for human rights violations caused by excessive use of force during protests. The Commission also condemns vandalism and violence that has wounded at least 676 police.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) tweets video from her district of a vigil in solidarity with Colombian protesters.
650 Colombian and international non-governmental organizations call on the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to visit Colombia “to verify the seriousness of the human rights violations” and to “establish an independent mechanism on the ground to collaborate with national authorities in the investigations.”
El Espectadortalks to 15 protesters released from police custody, who say they were beaten, tortured, and teargassed at close quarters within police installations.
The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), which has the power to fire or suspend but not to convict, announces it is carrying out 32 disciplinary investigations of police misconduct during the protests.
26 U.S. NGOs call for respect for the right to peaceful protest, pulling the military out of crowd control, more vigorous work from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and Inspector-General’s Office, a “respectful and meaningful dialogue” with civil society, a visit from the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and for the U.S. government to demand an end to Colombian security forces’ human rights violations.
Colombia expelled Omar Rafael García Lazo, the first secretary of Cuba’s embassy in Bogotá. The Foreign Ministry accused García of violating the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. It provided no further detail on García’s alleged offense, or whether it was related to the ongoing protests.
Retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, one of very few generals ever to be convicted of human rights crimes, appeared before the JEP on May 5. While he said he was willing to cooperate with reparations to victims, he denied arming or aiding paramilitary groups that carried out large-scale human rights violations when Gen. del Río commanded the Army’s 17th Brigade in northwest Colombia’s Urabá region in the mid-1990s.
About five people may have been killed in combat between Venezuelan forces and likely ELN or FARC dissident members on May 2 near a clandestine airstrip in Venezuela’s border state of Zulia.
With numerous examples from around the country, conflict analysts Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, Kyle Johnson, Ángela Olaya, and Juanita Vélez discuss in Razón Pública the confusingly fragmented nature of the FARC dissident networks active around the country nearly four years after the group’s demobilization. “Colombia is going through a new, more fragmented and diffuse cycle of war, limited to local or subregional areas—especially along the country’s borders.”
A May 5 speech by Álvaro Uribe at New York University generates controversy because of the former president’s human rights record and his provocative messages during the ongoing protests. Uribe is scheduled to talk about environmental sustainability.
Proposed tax hike spurs a new round of street protests
This is a developing story. We had to cut off information-gathering and start writing after Friday, so the next update will cover events from May 1 onward.
Tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of dozens of cities starting on April 28, in the third round of major protests the country has seen since November 2019. This time, the triggering factor of the “Paro Nacional” was a tax increase President Iván Duque had proposed to close a growing budget gap. The tax proposal proved to be a “last straw” sending people into the streets, with a long list of grievances, despite a record peak of coronavirus cases.
Colombia needs to raise funds to reduce its deficit (perhaps 8.6 percent of GDP this year) and guarantee basic income for the absolute poorest. However, the tax reform bill handed down by Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla is so unpopular that even Duque’s political patron, former president Álvaro Uribe, abandoned it and submitted an alternative bill.
Though it would raise marginal income tax rates on the wealthiest to as much as 41 percent—perhaps 25 percent of total income—it included surprisingly regressive elements, given sharp pandemic-related collapses in households’ buying power. Not only would it have applied income taxes for the first time to workers making as little as 2.5 million pesos (US$670) per week, it would have raised value-added (sales) taxes on public utilities, fuel, and other basic goods that even the poorest need to purchase. “There are tax measures that would only aggravate the conditions of the least favored people, but increase their number,” warned the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference.
The “strike committee,” heavily composed of union leaders, said that while the tax legislation left them no choice but to protest, they were also demanding an end to systematic killings of social leaders and the lack of guaranteed basic income. La Silla Vacía talked to a few dozen participants, who mentioned social leaders, corruption, lack of implementation of the peace accord, the likelihood that aerial herbicide fumigation could restart in coca-growing areas, and a generalized frustration with Colombia’s “traditional political class.”
The protests happened despite an April 27 order from a court in Cundinamarca, which has jurisdiction over Bogotá, ordering that any protest permits be suspended for public health reasons. Colombia is in the midst of its third and deadliest wave of COVID-19 cases, with over 450 deaths per day as the P.1 “Brazilian variant” of the virus sweeps through the country. There were no protest permits to revoke, however, as the “strike committee” didn’t seek any. Despite the restrictions, protest turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations, with marches in about 300 towns and cities around the country.
While the overwhelming majority of participants were peaceful, some individuals took advantage of the situation to commit acts of vandalism and looting, especially in Bogotá and Cali, and especially after dark. In Cali, reportsVoice of America, “public buses were burnt, and across the country windows were shattered, with reports saying rioters had broken into into stores and banks. In Bogotá, local officials reported that vandalism left 11% of the city’s transport system affected or in disrepair.” The National Police health director told press that violence had wounded 87 police agents around the country. “We regret the isolated acts of vandalism that occurred in two or three cities and reject the strange looting that occurred in Cali in which the demonstrators were not involved,” said Francisco Maltés, president of Colombia’s largest union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT).
Authorities committed many acts of violence as well, starting with the use of tear gas and stun grenades to clear a peaceful gathering in the central Plaza de Bolívar on the afternoon of the 28th. On that day Temblores, an NGO that keeps a database of police violence, counted “35 victims of physical violence by the police; three victims of homicidal violence by the police; one person killed during the mobilization; 22 arbitrary arrests of demonstrators; 27 violent interventions by the security forces; and five raids on demonstrators.” Several protesters suffered eye damage: as in Chile, some police appear to be directing their “non-lethal” crowd control weapons at eyes. In Cali, according to NGO reports, police went on a rampage the evening of April 30, killing at least seven people, probably more.
As during past protests—a November 2019 Paro Nacional and a September 2020 response to a brutal police killing caught on video—figures on Colombia’s political right sought to tie violent protesters to national armed groups, and called for more use of force. Former president Uribe called for the Army to be sent into the streets. Defense Minister Diego Molano said that “the violent events in Cali were premeditated, planned and sponsored by criminal organizations,” naming FARC dissident groups among them, and pledged to deploy 2,500 more security force members in that city.
“Those who organize to violate the citizenry and create anxiety and chaos in the residents of each city are terrorists,” said Chief Prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, who claimed that a “clandestine brigade” was behind acts of vandalism in these and earlier protests. “What they have done today is a crime against life, health and citizenship rights of all Colombians.”
Protesters vowed to remain on the streets through the May 1 Labor Day holiday, pushing the Duque government to withdraw or reconsider its tax hike package.
Demobilized guerrillas suffer a wave of killings
“The week of April 14-21, 2021 was one of the deadliest for ex-combatants since the signing of the Final Peace Agreement,” reads a statement from the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). “According to the period analyzed, there were 7 murders, on average one every 24 hours, and 1 attempted homicide against reincorporated combatants in five departments.”
The list of demobilized FARC members killed since April 14 now totals eight, in seven departments of Colombia. All victims were men in rural areas:
Fayber Camilo Cufiño, killed April 14 in La Macarena, Meta.
Jhon Sebastián Ávila Romero, killed April 17 in a rural zone of Villavicencio, Meta.
Yeison Ayala, killed April 18 in Puerto Cachicamo, San José del Guaviare, Guaviare.
Luis Fernando Córdoba Hurtado, killed April 20 en a rural zone of Quibdó, Chocó.
Mayiber Tapias Monsalve, killed on April 21 in an unspecified municipality of Antioquia.
Adolfo Rodríguez, killed on April 21 in Fortul, Arauca.
Wilmer Enrique Álvarez Medina, killed on April 22 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
Hernando Guerrero Torres, killed April 25 in Dolores, Tolima.
INDEPAZ, a human rights group that maintains a database of killed ex-combatants, counts 22 murders so far in 2021. Figures from the JEP cited in El Tiempo are even higher: 24 murders of FARC ex-combatants so far this year—1.5 per week, a higher rate than the 1.3 in 2020—and 289 overall killings of ex-combatants since the FARC started demobilizing at the end of 2016. The count maintained by the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, is actually smaller: 271 as of April 26.
The JEP found “critical” levels of danger in 10 municipalities covering 7 departments, 4 of them in Cauca. It noted that about 20 percent of murdered combatants “were leaders in political issues, associated with productive projects, representatives of cooperatives, or leading illicit crop substitution processes.”
In a communiqué sounding alarms about the situation of ex-combatants and social leaders around the country, the UN Verification mission reiterated “Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to advance recovery efforts in the country in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic,” and called for stronger measures to protect people.
Emilio Archila, who as presidential counselor for stabilization and consolidation is the government official with most authority over peace accord implementation, insisted that the Duque administration is working to protect excombatants. “We have an absolutely dynamic way of working,” he toldEl Tiempo, contending that ex-combatant killings dropped 10 percent from 2019 to 2020 and that 2021 so far has seen fewer killings than 2020. “Of all the entities that participate in this prevention, the technical directors meet once every two weeks, analyze and adapt the measures depending on the conclusions they draw from the increase or decrease of these murders. In addition, the heads meet once a month to make this type of analysis, and the intelligence bubble of the Ministry of Defense follows up on a daily basis to adapt actions according to the situation.”
El Espectadornoted, though, that the Duque government has not been using the tools that the 2016 peace accord created to protect ex-combatants. “In 38 months of President Iván Duque’s administration,” the paper reported, “the National Commission for Security Guarantees—a body created by the Peace Accord to dismantle the groups that are heirs to paramilitarism and which should meet once a month—has only met on six occasions. And, according to members of civil society and human rights platforms in that Commission, none of those meetings has taken up the public policy for dismantling of those groups, which is in fact its objective.”
Renewed fighting on Venezuelan side of the border
Starting about April 5, our April 17 update had reported, there appeared to be a lull in fighting that first flared up on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and FARC dissident groups in Apure, Venezuela, just across the border from Arauca, Colombia. That lull ended on April 23, with a renewed series of skirmishes and aerial bombings in the rural zone of the border town of La Victoria, Apure.
According to sketchy reports, members of the “10th Front,” a group headed by ex-FARC members who refused to demobilize, ambushed Venezuelan troops carrying out operations. Combat stretched well into the April 24-25 weekend. Juan Francisco García of FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO, told El Espectador that the dissidents brought 10 bodies to a local church and that another 9 cadavers were reportedly in a nearby hospital. “There are unconfirmed reports that FARC dissidents have seized a large quantity of weapons,” he added.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on April 26 that the armed forces had suffered casualties during the prior 72 hours, though he did not specify how many. Eight Venezuelan personnel had been killed in the earlier March-April round of fighting.
While this is all at the level of rumor, conflict analyst Naryi Vargas toldEl Espectador that the fighting’s lull and resurgence may owe to back-channel negotiation attempts and personnel changes:
After the first change of the commander in charge of the operation, a context of tense calm had been generated in which the local and national government were inviting Apureños to return to the area. This happened approximately 12 days before this past weekend.
It is believed that the government may have been holding a confidential negotiation with the dissidents to try to reach an agreement. And indeed, although tensions existed, there were no military actions; no explosions or machine gun fire were heard again. However, at the end of last week there was a change of the person in charge of the operation and since Friday there were again bursts of gunfire in the rural area.
The initial fighting had displaced about 5,888 people from Venezuela into Colombia, according to Colombian authorities. A new report by Human Rights Watch observed that the number may be larger: “in late March, when official numbers indicated that 4,500 people had fled,” local officials in Colombia’s Arauquita municipality told HRW that “approximately 3,000 more were staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas.” During the period of calm, some of the displaced had been abandoning temporary shelters and attempt to return: as many as 30 to 40 percent, according to Colombian border management director Lucas Gómez.
Human Rights Watch and Venezuelan NGOs blame much of the displacement on “egregious abuses against local residents” committed by Venezuelan security forces carrying out operations against the 10th Front. Venezuelan units identified in HRW’s report include the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB), “the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the National Anti-Extortion and Anti-Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS).” Among the worst confirmed abuses in the report was the March 25 massacre of a family in La Victoria, which had been the subject of many prior unconfirmed reports.
Colombian armed groups operate freely in Apure and other parts of Venezuela, in part filling a vacuum of collapsed state presence, as a New York Times feature, focused mainly on another part of the border, reported on April 26. In Apure, there are three such groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, who have been in the zone since the 1980s; the 10th Front FARC dissidents, which are affiliated with the largest dissident network, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte”; and the “Nueva Marquetalia,” the FARC dissident group formed by top guerrilla peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other high-profile leaders who rejected the peace process in 2019. The latter group appears to have a much smaller physical presence in the area.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano continues to argue that the Venezuelan regime is favoring the “Nueva Marquetalia,” seeking to ease its entry into Apure, forcing the 10th Front to negotiate with it. Molano, the Venezuelan opposition-aligned daily Tal Cualreported, “put forward a second theory that Miraflores [the Venezuelan presidency] was seeking to test the government of U.S. President Joe Biden in order to improve relations with Washington.”
In a good analysis of Colombian armed group activity deep within Venezuelan territory, International Crisis Group analyst Bram Ebus noted that although what is happening in Apure is much more intense than usual, “even if things sometimes boil over, the Maduro government’s wrath with [Colombian] guerrilla groups does not seem to last long.”
Along the Orinoco, as at other parts of the border, links among armed groups, state officials and residents are brittle relationships rooted in self-interest. The ELN and FARC dissidents run similar illicit businesses, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, and both work alongside local Venezuelan authorities and security forces, but each guerrilla faction manages its trafficking routes and contraband shipments separately. Alliances appear to depend more on profit than ideology or geopolitical position.
Ebus added that in other parts of the border, like Táchira, Venezuelan forces have cast aside any ideological claim by colluding with groups descended from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups. He recalled that collusion with armed groups occurs on the Colombian side of the border as well, citing examples in Vichada department:
Within the Puerto Carreño municipality, there is a Colombian army battalion, a national police unit and a naval brigade patrolling the rivers. But clashes between Bogotá’s military and armed groups are infrequent. Some sources, including local officials, allege that corrupt elements in the military are collaborating with non-state actors, but most say the two sides have no more than a tacit understanding aimed at preventing violence. “Here, they [non-state armed groups] learned to behave well with public forces”, an official explained, arguing that more brazen violence results in a larger troop presence – which is bad for business.
As Venezuelan Defense Minister Padrino vowed to “continue and intensify military operations” in the zone, Ebus lamented the lack of a communication channel between the Colombian government and Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Caracas. Without it, the border region is missing a key brake that could prevent escalation to an inter-state conflict.
Without a means for the two governments to communicate even as they accuse each other of sponsoring armed proxies, any military build-up close to the border, outbreak of violence or guerrilla offensive could be misinterpreted as a plot hatched by the neighbor. Incommunicado deadlock is beginning to look more dangerous with each day.
Seven top FARC leaders have taken the important judicial step of pleading guilty to charges of kidnapping. The JEP had issued the charges in January. It took the FARC leadership a few months, including asking for an extension, to come around to admitting their responsibility for at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Families representing seven Valle del Cauca departmental legislators whom the FARC kidnapped in 2002 and killed in 2007 demanded that the accused be removed from seats in Congress and confined in conditions of restricted liberty.
Despite the victim’s family’s efforts, Colombia’s military justice system will hear the case of Dilan Cruz, the 18-year-old protester killed in November 2019 by a riot policeman (ESMAD) using a putatively non-lethal weapon. A new Supreme Court ruling finds that Cruz’s killing was an “act of service” and need not go to the civilian criminal justice system, where the probability of a guilty verdict would be higher.
Colombia’s national statistics agency (DANE) published new data showing a huge pandemic-caused economic reversal. 3.5 million Colombians fell into poverty in 2020. 42.5 percent are now below the official poverty line of 331,688 pesos (US$89) per person per month (higher in cities), and 15 percent (7.4 million people, a 59 percent increase over 2019) are in extreme poverty, unable even to pay for sufficient food.
The latest annual report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found Colombia, with Latin America’s third-largest population, in second place behind Brazil among the region’s defense budgets. SIPRI reported that Colombia spent US$9.2 billion on its military in 2020, 26th in the world. Thirty-three members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter asking that a trillion pesos (US$268 million) be transferred from Defense to pandemic-related public health needs.
The commander of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command took a team of “security assistance experts”—people who handle arms sales, basically—to Colombia for a several-day, in-person visit.
By a 553-77 vote, the European Parliament passed a resolution praising the 2016 peace accord, condemning recent violence against ex-combatants and social leaders, calling on existing armed groups to cease attacks on civilians and commit to peace, and calling on EU bodies to continue assistance to peace accord implementation.
The Defense Ministry announced that seven people had been arrested in connection with the April 17 disappearance of an off-duty Army lieutenant colonel, Pedro Enrique Pérez, in the conflictive town of Saravena, Arauca. Lt. Col. Pérez, last seen leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman, is believed to be captive of the 10th Front FARC dissident group, possibly being held across the border from Saravena in Venezuela. Meanwhile, a likely ELN ambush in Arauquita, which neighbors Saravena, killed a sergeant and wounded four other soldiers.
27,435 people were forcibly displaced by violence during the first 3 months of 2021, a 96 percent increase over the first quarter of 2020, according to the Human Rights Ombusdman’s Office (Defensoría).
At La Silla Vacía, Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group published a fieldwork-based overview of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Putumayo. Fighting between FARC dissidents and a hybrid “Frankenstein” group called Comandos de la Frontera has placed social leaders in the middle, while the coca economy booms and peace accord implementation flags.
Diana Bernal Ibáñez of the Colectivo Sociojurídico Orlando Fals Borda, which legally represents ethnic communities demanding prior consultation before aerial herbicide fumigation begins in coca-growing zones, wrote in El Espectador, “There are many factors that push populations to flee their territories, but none is as effective in forcibly displacing them as the arrival of glyphosate.” Thirty-five members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter to Colombia’s Constitutional Court demanding that the spray program’s environmental approval be suspended because communities in remote areas could not participate meaningfully during the pandemic. Twenty-one Colombian and international NGOs, including WOLA, asked the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to hold a hearing to review the fumigation program, which may be revived by June after a 2015 suspension due to public health concerns. During his April 25 mass, the maximum Catholic Church authority in Colombia, Bogotá Archbishop Luis José Rueda, warned, “The campesinado is dying, because this wolf of drug trafficking has come to destroy them in their abandonment and oblivion. The solution is not glyphosate.”
10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Sociologist Francisco Leal Buitrago, who has written often about civil-military relations during his long career, proposed nine strategic reforms in El Espectador, ranging from taking the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, to hiring more qualified defense ministers, to increasing the role of Congress and high courts in approving senior military promotions.
The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a statement “expressing its concern about violence in Cauca, especially the forced displacement of the population and the assassination of social leaders.”
Three children aged 11, 12, and 17 working as trash recyclers were murdered with machete blows in a marginal neighborhood of Quibdó, Chocó; authorities and civil society leaders believe they crossed an “invisible boundary” between neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs. One of the accused of massacring five minors in Cali’s majority Afro-descendant Llano Verde neighborhood says the August 2020 crime was a case of “social cleansing.”
Attacks on indigenous communities intensify in Cauca
It was another bitter week in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, the most dangerous of Colombia’s 32 departments to be a social leader. Cauca is enticing to drug traffickers and armed groups because the Pan-American highway traverses it, it has an extensive Pacific coast, and the Colombian government is absent from most rural areas. Cauca has the largest indigenous population of all departments. The rural population—which is the majority of the department’s 1.5 million people, much of them Afro-descendant and indigenous—is both caught in the crossfire and more organized than counterparts in most regions of Colombia.
Many areas that had been under FARC influence before the 2016 peace accord are disputed between some of three or four FARC dissident groups, the ELN, and neo-paramilitary and organized crime bands. Violence has flared up in 2021. Just in the past week:
On April 17 the Army killed 14 members of the “Carlos Patiño Front” dissident group in the rural part of Argelia municipality, in southern Cauca. One soldier died. Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro said that a column of troops was attacked. Fighting between this dissident group and the ELN has terrorized Argelia’s rural population all year, causing thousands to displace. The Carlos Patiño is aligned with the largest network of FARC dissidents, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte.” It inexplicably still has an active Facebook page.
On April 20, in the northern part of Cauca, assailants shot and killedSandra Liliana Peña Chocue, the 34-year-old governor of the La Laguna Sibera indigenous reserve in Caldono municipality. Peña, a member of the Nasa nation who had led local efforts to eradicate coca plants, was killed as she rode her motorcycle in rural Caldono.
Indigenous communities in northern Cauca, mainly within the framework of the Cauca National Indigenous Council (CRIC), quickly mobilized to demand respect for their territory and organizations, joining in a coca eradication effort to carry on Sandra Liliana Peña’s work. This, too, was attacked on April 22, as several assailants opened fire on the eradicators and members of the Indigenous Guard, an unarmed but very disciplined security force, in rural Caldono. The attack injured about 31 Indigenous people. The Indigenous Guard captured seven of the attackers and one of their vehicles. According to the CRIC, the eradication effort continued after the attack.
While the attackers were almost certainly FARC dissidents, the CRIC’s statement evidenced the community’s intense distrust of the national government and its armed forces:
Today we were outraged to hear in a TV newscast, General Marco Mayorga Niño, commander of the III Army Division, assuring that “it has been agreed to coordinate with the authorities the eradication of coca found in the area,” and “to dialogue with the Indigenous Guard about coordinating security activities in the reserves’ territories.“ None of this corresponds to the truth.
On March 26, the nearby municipality of Corinto had been rocked by a car bomb that went off just outside the mayor’s office in the center of town. (An earlier update covers this incident.) Like this week’s attacks in Caldono, the car bombing was probably carried out by the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, the most powerful FARC dissident group in this part of Cauca. Like the Carlos Patiño Front further south, the Dagoberto Ramos is linked to the Gentil Duarte network. A third dissident group, the Jaime Martínez (also active on Facebook), operates nearby and also appears to be part of the Gentil Duarte structure.
“After the peace agreement, there were several months of very significant calm, but after that it’s been changing and there has developed a much more complicated situation than before the accord,” Dionisio Rodriguez Paz of the Cococauca organization said during the presentation of a CINEP human rights report this week.
A report from several local human rights groups cited by El Espectador recalls that Cauca, with about 3 percent of Colombia’s population, concentrates 28 percent of its murders of social leaders, which increased by 40 percent in the department from 2019 to 2020. Of 271 leaders killed in Cauca since the peace accord’s 2016 signing, 50.9 percent were Indigenous leaders.
Foreign Minister’s comment at UN meeting generates outrage
Concerns about social leaders were a frequent topic of discussion among international diplomats at the UN Security Council’s quarterly meeting to review aspects of peace accord implementation, held virtually on April 21.
Ambassadors praised some aspects of implementation, like the enrollment of 50 percent of demobilized guerrillas in collective and individual productive projects, and several welcomed the government’s proposal to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission to include compliance with the post-conflict transitional justice system’s (JEP’s) sentences. But they echoed concerns about rising violence, especially in areas of former FARC influence. “It is urgent that the policies and measures taken by the State—including the recent Strategic Security Plan—translate into better results, especially in the 25 municipalities that concentrate most of this violence,” read the statement from the UN Verification Mission’s director, Carlos Ruiz Massieu.
A big point was the continued slaughter of demobilized FARC members. The JEP’s president, Eduardo Cifuentes, said on April 19 that at least 276 former guerrillas had been killed since the peace accord went into effect. The latest was Ever Castro, a former FARC medic shot to death in Meta department on April 18. Castro’s killing happened only four days after another former FARC member, Fayber Camilo Cufiño, was killed in the same zone. “Much of the country was committed to the peace process until they noticed that we’d surrendered our weapons; after we turned in our guns, they left us on our own,” lamented to El Espectador Alexa Rochi, a fellow ex-combatant and close friend of Castro.
The figure of 276 murders represents more than 1 out of every 50 of the 13,185 guerrillas who passed through the peace accords’ demobilization process. Colombia’s Constitutional Court is reportedly studying legal petitions (tutelas) seeking to declare that the government’s insufficient protection of ex-combatants has reached an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” a term in Colombian law that would require the executive branch to take emergency measures.
In this context, part of the Colombian government’s remarks before the Security Council, as read by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum, were especially disconcerting. “The existence of FARC dissident groups,” she told the UN body, “should be considered as an example of non-compliance, precisely, of the former guerrillas who are now converted into a political party.”
Dissident groups are led by ex-guerrillas who rejected the accord or who abandoned the demobilization process and rearmed—a common outcome in peace processes. Perhaps 10 percent of former FARC members have chosen this path. Many if not most of the new groups’ members are new recruits with no prior FARC membership.
That the former FARC political party is somehow coordinating with the dissidents, perhaps using them as a “Plan B,” is an occasional talking point on Colombia’s right. (A few years ago, WOLA staff were surprised to hear it from a Trump administration official.) Blum appeared to be reinforcing this unfounded theory, further endangering the large majority of ex-guerrillas who have given up arms—a population already facing serious threat.
The “Plan B” theory is especially bizarre when one recalls that the dissidents are among the most frequent killers of their former comrades who demobilized. Estimates ranging from about 44 to 49 percent of ex-FARC killings were carried out by dissident groups. How then, could the demobilized guerrillas be responsible—using the Foreign Minister’s logic—for the existence of the same groups that are killing them?
La Silla Vacíapointed out another serious misstatement in Blum’s comments before the UN. “So far in 2021,” she said, “the total number of victimizations has fallen 51 percent compared to the same period of last year.” The online investigative site recalled that killings dropped by only 10 percent, from 20 during the first 3 months of 2020 to 18 during the first 3 months of 2021.
Expressions of disagreement with Blum’s comments came quickly.
“For the United Nations it is very clear first to distinguish between the dissidents who have never been part of the process, those who were part of the process and unjustifiably left it, and the 90 percent who remain in the process and have been fulfilling their obligations,” said UN mission chief Ruiz Massieu. “For us this distinction is very clear.”
“I reject the statements made by Foreign Minister Blum,” tweeted the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño. “Her speech is untrue and puts a target on the heads of the thousands of signatories of the Peace Accord who are committed to the fulfillment of what was agreed, despite the permanent non-compliance of this government.” Londoño went on to call for Blum’s resignation.
“That the government would say this makes those who are killing us feel authorized to attack us,” said ex-FARC senator Julián Gallo.
“I protest the statements made by the Foreign Minister,” tweeted Humberto de la Calle, who was the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the 2012-16 FARC talks. “She puts at risk the lives of former combatants who laid down their arms. It is the negation of the accord. It is a provocation. I demand retraction.”
In an April 22 tweet, the Colombian Presidency official most in charge of peace accord implementation, Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, raised eyebrows with a tweet thread that appeared to contradict the Foreign Minister’s UN comments. The dissidents “are the ones who have to answer individually, and this is not a responsibility that belongs to the Comunes party,” he wrote, tagging Londoño. Later that day, Archila’s office and the Foreign Ministry issued a joint statement that at least partially walked back Blum’s much-derided words at the UN:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Counselor’s Office emphasize that Colombia’s [UN] statement emphatically recognizes and reiterates the National Government’s support for the reincorporation process of the former combatants committed to the process, in its multiple political, economic, and social dimensions, and its commitment to their security and protection, and those of the members of the political party that emerged from it.
Fumigation edges closer to approval
In August 2018, Iván Duque assumed Colombia’s presidency vowing to restart a U.S.-backed program to eradicate coca by spraying a controversial herbicide, glyphosate, from aircraft. Thirty-two months later, this “fumigation” program is very close to restarting. “It seems like the return of illicit crop fumigation using glyphosate is imminent,” noted Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group at Razón Pública. “There is a high probability that in 2021 we will see the planes take off for the coca-growing areas,” wrote Juan Carlos Garzón and Ana María Rueda of the Ideas for Peace Foundation. As we noted in last week’s update, sources in Colombia’s presidency predicted to La Silla Vacía that aerial spraying could restart in June.
Following a World Health Organization study determining that glyphosate could be carcinogenic, Colombia suspended fumigation in 2015, after 21 years in which police and U.S. contractor-piloted planes sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) in an effort to kill coca. In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out several criteria that would have to be met before any eventual restart of the spray program. (Those are laid out in last week’s update.) With a decree, an environmental finding, and a health study, Colombia’s government claims to have met these criteria.
The only step that remains is for the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government, to meet and ratify the program’s restart. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen with few obstacles. “The most likely scenario,” write Garzón and Rueda, “is that in 2021 spraying will begin in a dozen municipalities—in one of the six ‘nuclei’ for which the Anla [Colombia’s National Environmental Licensing Agency] has already given authorization.”
The main remaining potential obstacle to a renewed fumigation program is a Constitutional Court review of a legal complaint (tutela) filed by several Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Court has indicated it will hand down a decision in about a month.
The communities argue that they were not given an opportunity to participate in prior informed consultation on one of the Court’s required steps, the determination of environmental risk. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government sought to hold these consultations virtually over the internet. But most of the affected ethnic communities are in remote areas without broadband signal, if any.
As it weighs the evidence, the Constitutional Court has sent lists of tough questions to the Anla and the National Police. If the Court decides that barely accessible virtual meetings fail to meet its criteria, then the fumigation program’s restart will be substantially delayed. If the Court gives the program a green light, the “June” timetable mentioned above is likely.
If that happens, Garzón and Rueda predict that protests will quickly follow (though a recent La Silla Vacíareport contended that coca-growers’ organizations are much weakened):
The photo of the [first] plane spraying will cause tensions and mobilizations that have already been anticipated. Beyond the discussion of whether the communities’ resistance is organic, spontaneous, or pressured by armed groups, this will be a difficult situation for the government to handle in a context of high social discontent that has been accumulating throughout the pandemic. This could be the spark that triggers and coheres protests and blockades.
Opposition to fumigation, on public health, environmental, and “bad drug policy” grounds, continues to mount. 39 NGOs sent a letter to the Constitutional Court asking the justices to rule in favor of the Indigenous and Afro-descendant complainants and suspend the spray program. A petition on change.org, meanwhile, is nearing 35,000 signatures.
WOLA’s “Con Líderes Hay Paz” campaign hosted an event featuring stirring testimonies from prominent social leaders from Chocó, Buenaventura, Cali, and Córdoba.
Colombian Army Colonel Pedro Pérez has gone missing in Saravena, Arauca, a town along the Venezuelan border with a long history of ELN influence. He was last seen, off duty, leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman on April 17. In another strange story, Semanarevealed that another member of the Army, Sergeant Antonio Misse, may have been taken by Venezuelan forces while off duty on the Colombian side of the border near Cúcuta in December, and remains in Venezuelan custody.
About 5,877 Venezuelans displaced by fighting between Venezuelan forces and a FARC dissident group remain in 58 “informal reception points” in Arauca as of April 15, UNHCR reports. Though fighting has died down, very few have felt safe to return. A La Silla Vacíaanalysis contends that the ELN, which has strong influence over this zone of Arauca and Apure, Venezuela but has stayed to the margins of the latest fighting, is emerging as “the big winner.”
The Jesuit think tank CINEP released a flurry of publications this week. The 62nd edition of Noche y Niebla, a publication synthesizing results of the group’s extensive conflict database, counts 846 victims of “social-political violence” in 2020, with 300 of them in Cauca. CINEP also published the latest edition of its long-running Cien Días political analysis magazine, and a five–partseries in El Espectadorabout the ELN, drawn from a recently published book.
Two police officers were shot and killed, probably by FARC dissidents, in the town center of Puerto Rico, Caquetá.
The Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP), charged with providing security for prominent ex-guerrillas, is limiting their domestic travel. Comunes (ex-FARC) party Senator Julián Gallo had to go to court to get the UNP to provide security, as agreed in the peace accord, so he could carry out party business outside Bogotá. The judge who considered his case determined that the UNP had “placed in danger” the former FARC leader. On April 20 former FARC members of the Commission to Search for People Believed to be Disappeared, a body created by the peace accord, denounced that they are unable to do their work because the UNP is refusing to send bodyguards to accompany them on many of their missions.
A bill seeking to legalize and regulate production, processing, and distribution of coca leaf passed its first step, gaining approval of a Colombian Senate committee. Members of the governing Centro Democrático party boycotted the 12-0 vote. By an 8-5 vote, a different Senate committee rejected a bill that would have prohibited aerial fumigation of coca with glyphosate.
Journalist Jeremy McDermott of the investigative website InsightCrime is being sued for libel—a criminal charge in Colombia, potentially involving prison and steep fines—for a meticulously documented 2020 series showing that a Colombian businessman living in Spain is, in fact, a paramilitary-tied narcotrafficker. McDermott made a strong case that Guillermo Acevedo is a shadowy criminal warlord known as “Memo Fantasma”; Acevedo is pressing charges.
VICE has produced a seven-episode podcast about the case of Drummond Coal, an Alabama-based mining company with large investments in Colombia, whose managers in Cesar stand accused of working with paramilitary groups to put down a unionization effort 20 years ago.
Basing his 150-page analysis on 50 interviews with specialists and advocates, Mariano Aguirre unpacks the many causes of Colombia’s massive late-2019 social protests, and offers insight into how donor nations should shift their priorities. Lots of insight here into Colombia’s current challenges.
An investigation by La Silla Vacíatakes down the Chief Prosecutor’s Office’s (Fiscalía’s) tendency to rely on the term “clarifications” (esclarecimientos) when reporting its results, especially results for its efforts to bring to justice the killers of social leaders and ex-combatants. The term, which indicates that prosecutors have at least identified suspects, “adds up so many categories of judicial events—including several that do not provide the truth about who committed the crimes—that, in the end, it clarifies little about the progress of justice.”
Decree, issued the day of high-level U.S. visit, signals imminent restart of aerial herbicide fumigation
On April 11 and 12 Colombia received its highest-level in-person visit to date from Biden administration officials. Special Assistant to the President and Senior National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung were in Bogotá, where they met for two hours with President Iván Duque and other high government officials. It was the first stop on a South America trip that took González and Chung later to Argentina and Uruguay.
According to a pre-trip White House statement, the officials were to “discuss economic recovery, security and rural development, the Venezuelan migrant crisis, and Colombia’s regional climate leadership.” Colombian media reported that issues covered included security, “the fight against drug trafficking and transnational crime,” progress in peace accord implementation, economic recovery, and Venezuelan migration.
While perhaps unrelated, hours after the U.S. officials’ visit the Duque government issued a long-expected decree laying out how it will carry out a revived aerial fumigation program. The term refers to spraying herbicides from aircraft over populated areas where farmers grow coca, the crop used to make cocaine. The U.S. government heavily supported a fumigation program between 1994 and 2015, which sprayed 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of Colombian territory.
Herbicide fumigation was a key component of the strategy known as “Plan Colombia,” and it was controversial because it rarely came with assistance to smallholding farmers, and because communities denounced environmental and health harms. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the program in 2015, after a World Health Organization study determined that the active chemical, glyphosate, could be carcinogenic.
In 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of conditions that a future government would have to fulfill before ever restarting a fumigation program, and in 2018, newly elected President Duque made clear his intention to do that. Sources in the Presidency tell La Silla Vacía that they may meet these conditions, and the spray planes could start working, as early as June.
The required steps—summarized here in a way that omits some nuance—are:
✔️ By decree, set up a system for evaluating health and environmental impacts that is independent of the Counternarcotics Police, which carries out fumigation. The April 12 decree establishes this system, requiring the Counternarcotics Police to report monthly to environmental and other agencies.
✔️ By decree, set up an independent process for receiving and processing claims from individuals who say they were wrongly sprayed. The April 12 decree establishes this process.
✔️ Gain the environmental licensing authority’s (ANLA’s) approval for the spray program’s environmental management plan. The ANLA issued its approval two days after the Presidency’s decree, on April 14. The plan prohibits the planes from spraying from an altitude greater than 30 meters (98 feet), or in conditions when wind might cause more than 10 meters of spray drift.
The 507-page document also notes that spraying may occur in 104 of Colombia’s 1,122 municipalities, in the departments of Antioquía, Bolívar, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Chocó, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Vichada. Planes may use bases in San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; Cumaribo, Vichada; Villagarzón, Putumayo; Larandia, Caquetá; Tumaco, Nariño; Guapi, Cauca; Barrancabermeja, Santander; Caucasia, Antioquia; Cúcuta and Tibú, Norte de Santander; Condoto, Chocó; and Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz said that Norte de Santander and its conflictive Catatumbo region will come first. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s crop monitoring report covering 2019, Catatumbo has the country’s largest concentration of coca crops.
✔️ Have the National Health Institute (INS, sort of like the United States’ Centers for Disease Control) perform a study finding that the planned spraying poses a low health risk. While this study, commissioned to the University of Córdoba, won’t be made public until the entire process is complete, it is all but finished.
🔲 Gain the approval of the National Narcotics Council (CNE), a body made up of relevant ministers and heads of some other branches of government. The CNE has the authority to undo the spray program’s 2015 suspension. As the Council’s current members are all considered close to the government, this step may happen quickly.
Among the CNE’s members, though, is Health Minister Fernando Ruiz who, when serving as a vice-minister during Juan Manuel Santos’s government in 2015, defended the fumigation program’s suspension on public health grounds. “The main cancer attributed to glyphosate is Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer in the lymphatic organ that can develop 15 to 20 years after exposure,” Ruiz told an interviewer. This puts the Minister in an awkward position. He is seeking to have an alternate take his place in the CNE proceedings as an “ad hoc” minister who might approve the fumigation.
With this week’s decree and environmental approval, and with a decree last week (reported in our last update) seeking to divert challenges to fumigation away from the courts, the fight over fumigation “seems to have tipped in favor of the government,”El Espectadorreported.
Critics like María Alejandra Vélez of the Universidad de los Andes Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED) contend that the April 12 decree is flawed. It “is focused on reaction and not on prevention, as it explains how complaints of possible damages will be handled, but not how to prevent them,” she toldEl Espectador. Isabel Pereira of DeJusticia worries that the ANLA and other agencies charged with oversight have almost no presence in remote areas where spraying will occur. Ana María Rueda of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz recalls that the program’s design appears to violate the peace accord: “The spirit of the Accord… was that first, crop substitution should be tried with communities and, if it did not work, then spraying would operate. That was what the [Constitutional] Court asked for, but we do not see it anywhere in the decree.”
A major objection has to do with the Constitutional Court’s requirement that the environmental approval process include informed consultation with communities, especially Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. The Court has agreed to take up several communities’ complaint that, from remote areas with poor internet service, they haven’t been able to participate meaningfully in “virtual” consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court’s action on the consultation question could be a “roadblock” that prevents fumigation from restarting in June, according to an El Espectadoranalysis.
If fumigation does restart in coming weeks or months, we can expect a wave of protest across rural Colombia, as happened in 1996 (with heavy FARC encouragement) when the program first got started. The protests might not be massive, though, notes a La Silla Vacíaanalysis based on interviews with coca growers’ organization leaders in six zones. The investigation finds these organizations weakened by the worsening security situation as new armed groups proliferate, the difficulty of doing organizing work in a climate of constant threats and killings of social leaders, and a social base demotivated by the government’s poor compliance with the peace accord’s crop substitution commitments. “The communities saw fumigation as something off in the distance,” said Pedro Arenas of Viso Mutop.
After the decree’s release, Colombia’s pugnaciously hardline defense minister, Diego Molano, said, “the only ones worried here about precise aerial spraying against coca, which we are about to start, must be the criminals who profit from this criminal business and want to subject our peasant population to a new slavery.”
Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, a much-cited scholar of rural Colombia, offered a sharply different view in an El Espectadorcolumn:
Prioritizing fumigation over substitution is a brutal violation of everything the peace accord stood for. It has two notorious consequences. On the one hand, it affects the core of the agreement (which sought to build a new form of relationship between the central state and the territories). On the other, it carries high legitimacy costs…
What will this country reap if its government persists in sowing poison? These air strikes are perceived—correctly, in my opinion—as an aggression from distant forces that have no regard for the population’s interests. The Duque government responds to territories that have demanded for decades a greater state presence with the “magic formula” of presence through spraying.
Fighting appears reduced, but situation is very tense, in Venezuela border zone
“From Arauquita, Arauca, no explosions have been heard for a week on the other side of the river, on the Venezuelan side,” La Silla Vacíareported on April 12. There has been a notable lull in the combat that began on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and the “10th Front” FARC dissident group—one of three guerrilla or rearmed guerrilla groups active in Venezuela’s border state of Apure. The official toll of dead and injured has not increased since last week’s update. Security analyst Andrei Serbín (interviewed in this week’s WOLA Venezuela podcast) toldTal Cual there has been a “considerable reduction” in fighting in recent days, but that “doesn’t mean that the threat has been eliminated. The FARC has this ability to lower its profile, avoid confrontation and attack elsewhere.”
The halt in fighting may owe, too, to the steady arrival of more Venezuelan forces into the zone. In addition to regular military units and the feared FAES police shock force, the Maduro regime announced that it would be sending 1,000 members of the citizen militia. This part-time force, which reports directly to the president, is hardly combat-ready—many of its members are middle-aged or older, or more oriented toward political work than fighting—but it may provide logistical and other backup to the Venezuelan forces arrayed near the Colombian border.
Most of the civilian population, meanwhile, appears to have vacated the zone. Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum said that her government had counted5,737 Venezuelan citizens displaced into Arauca. Though fighting may have slowed, La Silla Vacíareports, “fear of the excesses that their own country’s authorities may commit is the main reason why the displaced still cannot conceive of returning to their homes.” These include “in addition to fleeing the crossfire… detentions, assaults, looting, and even the murder of a family.” Though they have taken a toll on the civilian population, Serbín points out that the Venezuelan military “hasn’t shown a great capacity. It hasn’t demonstrated results.”
On April 10 the 10th Front FARC dissident group’s putative leader, Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez alias “Arturo,” put out an audio message insisting that his group “doesn’t seek problems” with the Venezuelan armed forces, which have singled out the 10th Front for attack even as the ELN and a second dissident group, the “Segunda Marquetalia,” operate in the same region.
The 10th Front is part of the largest network of former FARC guerrillas to rearm, the so-called “1st Front” structure headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. The other main network of dissidents, the Segunda Marquetalia, is headed by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator in Havana but rearmed in 2019. Most of both groups’ rank-and-file membership is new recruits with no past membership in the old FARC.
In his message Arturo, a former FARC front leader who deserted in 2004 and spent time in prison, acknowledged that the 10th Front has differences with the Segunda Marquetalia, and called on the Venezuelan Army to stop collaborating with the rival group. He said he is willing to dialogue.
For his part Iván Márquez, whose group is less visible in the zone but purportedly has closer ties to the Maduro regime, released a video on April 13 insisting that the Segunda Marquetalia does not consider neighboring countries’ forces to be “military targets” or “collect taxes” from—that is, extort—their citizens.
On his television program, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer and legislator who is perhaps the second most powerful figure in Nicolás Maduro’s regime, appeared to issue a warning to all Colombian armed groups inside Venezuela, including the Segunda Marquetalia. “Venezuelan territory is impregnable. This applies to any group, no matter who the leader is, no matter what his name is. If they want to wage war against the Colombian government, they should do it in their territory, don’t do it in ours.”
The border-zone situation continues to highlight the very poor state of relations between Colombia and Venezuela. Blum, Colombia’s foreign minister, said on April 14 that she had communicated to the United Nations about the “serious situation” resulting from “the support given by the illegitimate Venezuelan regime to armed narco-terrorist groups.” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza issued a tweet calling Blum “Doña”—a misogynistic putdown—and demanding that Colombia guard its borders and keep Colombian armed groups out of Venezuelan territory.
Decrees make changes to military justice system
A series of three presidential decrees, made public on April 14, aim to increase the autonomy and performance of Colombia’s military justice system, which is charged with trying and punishing military and police personnel who violate their services’ codes of conduct.
While years of Colombian jurisprudence appear to make clear that violations of civilians’ human rights should be tried in the civilian criminal justice system, many cases still do end up in the military system. Once there, guilty verdicts and punishments are exceedingly rare.
“It’s no secret that citizens have a problem of trust” with the military system, an El Espectador questioner pointed out in an interview this week with the system’s current director, adding that “for most Colombians it is equivalent to impunity.” Shockingly, the system is so untransparent and sluggish—tracking cases with Excel spreadsheets and a written method dating back to the 1960s—that its director cannot say how many cases of “false positive” killings its judges have yet to decide (or to transfer to the civilian system).
The new decrees set regulations to implement reform laws passed in 2010 and 2015. They will move the military justice system out of the Defense Ministry’s purview, creating a new Specialized Administrative Unit within the executive branch. The current head of the military justice system, Fabio Espitia, who served for a time as Colombia’s acting chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), will head this new unit. The unit will have its own prosecutor’s office, investigators, tribunals, and judges. It is to use an oral, accusatory trial system instead of the military system’s current slow, opaque system. This should make it easier to see where cases stand, and what has happened. The president of the civilian Supreme Court will have a seat on its board of directors.
While this is a big step toward autonomy for a justice system that had been within the military chain of command, it is not quite autonomous. While out of the Defense Ministry, the system will still be in the government’s executive branch, under the President, and not the judicial branch. All, or nearly all, of its judges will continue to be active-duty or retired military officers. Espitia defended this to El Espectador, insisting that “in military and police operations there is something called operational law, and this is known to those who are part of the forces. It is only natural that it cannot be known by a civilian.”
The separate justice system, too, still applies to police—which remain part of Colombia’s Defense Ministry—even though police are charged with protecting and serving the population, not confronting enemies in battle. Espitia defended this, too, arguing that Colombia is not a typical country: “the police must be in joint operations with the military to disrupt organized crime groups.”
The unfortunate consequence, though, is that police who abuse human rights may see their cases go to the historically more lenient military justice system even when “organized crime groups” have nothing to do with what happened. An egregious recent case placed before the military system is that of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed in downtown Bogotá in November 2019 by a policeman who clearly appeared to be misusing a nonlethal crowd control weapon.
Another major case of police human rights abuse is the rampage of indiscriminate force against protesters that followed the September 9, 2020 police killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez. Over two nights, police killed 13 people in the streets of Bogotá. So far, three policemen have been charged, and their lawyers failed to transfer their cases to the military justice system. There was further good news this week, as the civilian Fiscalía decided to transfer the entire September 2020 Bogotá police riot investigation to its human rights unit. That greatly increases the likelihood of a prosecution that takes the entire context into account, rather than treating the cases like individual, unrelated murders.
Fr. Fernán González offers a summary of a new book about the ELN published by the Jesuit think tank CINEP. It argues that while the guerrilla group maintains its decentralized, “federated” structure, its center of gravity is shifting toward the front dominated in the eastern department of Arauca, which is the most “successful.” Meanwhile, local organizations that form the ELN’s “social base” are becoming increasingly independent.
La Silla Vacíasounds alarms about rapidly increasing violence in rural zones of Valle del Cauca department, whose principal cities, Cali and Buenaventura, get most attention. Actors “include armed groups seeking routes from Cauca and Chocó, criminal micro-trafficking groups, silent narcos, returned extradited persons, and a homegrown [ex-FARC] dissidence in Colombia’s third richest department.”
Just to the south, in the department of Cauca, the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación offers an overview of which armed groups are active in which sub-regions.
Colombia’s Inspector-General’s office (Procuraduría) called off a longstanding investigation against former chief of police Rodolfo Palomino. Since 2016, Palomino was being investigated for scandals that occurred during his 2013-2016 tenure: revelations of a male prostitution ring using police cadets, wiretaps of journalists, and an irregular land purchase.
On April 14 in La Macarena, Meta, Fayber Camilo Cufiño Mondragón became the 264th former FARC combatant killed since the 2016 peace accord.
Irregular road-building is feeding a sharp rise in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin, Reuters reports. “According to the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, more than 280 km [174 miles] of unplanned roads were opened in key areas during the first 100 days of last year. It expects more roads were built in 2020 than in any other year, driven by rising land speculation.”
The post-accord transitional justice tribunal (JEP) is calling two senior active-duty generals to testify in May. Gen. Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez and Gen. Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo commanded units alleged to have committed large numbers of “false positive” killings. Today, Rodríguez commands the Army’s Education and Doctrine Command, while Pinto commands the Army’s Second Division in northeastern Colombia.
FARC dissidents in the Orinoco and Amazon basin departments of Guainía and Vaupés are enriching themselves from illicit mining of the mineral coltan, a source of the elements niobium and tantalum used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronics, El Espectadorreports.
The elements of Colombia’s transitional justice system—the JEP, the Truth Commission, and the Commission to Search for the Disappeared—pledged to assist civil society groups in the search for more than 841 residents of the port city of Buenaventura who disappeared during the conflict. At PRI’s The World, Steven Grattan reports on Buenaventura’s ongoing public security crisis and its impact on social leaders.
At Anthropology News, Gwen Burnyeat, a junior research fellow at Oxford, looks at how the Santos government’s rational, unemotional, technocratic “peace pedagogy” efforts got steamrolled by accord opponents’ disinformation campaigns in the runup to the failed October 2016 plebiscite.
Fighting continued this week on the Venezuelan side of the common border in Apure, across from Colombia’s department of Arauca, between Venezuelan forces and a Colombian guerrilla dissident group. While confirmed information remains scarce, the intensity of combat and number of casualties appeared to be less than in the prior two weeks, since Venezuela’s initial March 21 attack on dissident targets. The combativeness of Colombian and Venezuelan officials’ statements, however, has intensified.
“We’re witnessing the escalation of tensions between the two countries, which is extremely dangerous,” observed defense analyst Rocío San Miguel of the Venezuelan think tank Control Ciudadano, adding, “I don’t remember, in terms of duration, a similar situation in the last 30 years.”
Indeed, Venezuelan forces likely did not anticipate that the 10th Front dissident group—whose leaders, and some of whose members, spent years as FARC guerrillas—would fight back with such ferocity. On April 5 Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino reported that eight Army personnel had been killed since March 21, including four officers. A mortar misfire on April 3 killed three members of an artillery unit, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel, and wounded nine others. Gen. Padrino added that a total of 34 troops had been injured, and that Venezuelan forces had killed 9 rearmed guerrillas and captured 33.
Despite the continued fighting, Venezuelan officials insisted that they are consolidating control of the Apure border zone. Measures include deployment of a temporary military command, an Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) for the region. (Reuters reports that “Venezuela’s military maintains standing ZODI units for each of its 23 states and the capital Caracas.”) In the zone, military personnel are restricting the population’s movements. Units from elsewhere are being reassigned to Apure and equipped with Russian-made Orlan-10 surveillance drones.
Venezuela continues to face charges that it is focusing its efforts on only one of three Colombian guerrilla, or post-guerrilla, groups active in Apure. Rocío San Miguel, according to Tal Cual, “pointed out that the Armed Forces’ actions do not seem to be similar with respect to all the armed groups present in the area, and that there seems to be a pattern of neutrality with respect to the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN).”
Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, alleged that Venezuela is deliberately favoring a third group, the “Nueva Marquetalia” FARC dissidents headed by Iván Márquez, who was the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in the 2012-2016 peace talks but rearmed in 2019. “The objective of the operations there is not protection of the border, it’s protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.
Security expert Jorge Mantilla told the BBC that something must have happened to cause a breakdown in “arrangements, sometimes tacit, for the distribution of rents and territorial control” between Venezuelan forces and the three Colombian groups, causing Caracas to target the 10th Front.
Venezuelan officials haven’t addressed charges of armed-group favoritism, instead claiming that they are dealing with the effects of Colombia’s failure to govern its side of the border. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Colombia a “failed state” and a “narco-state” lacking control of its territory. “I’d say it’s Colombia’s ineptitude, but sometimes I think this is in their interest,” added Gen. Padrino.
The humanitarian toll of the fighting continues to be grave. At least 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Arauca, Colombian officials say. Venezuelan officials claim the number is lower, insisting the border municipality of La Victoria had a total population of about 3,500. They also deny displaced people’s claims that Venezuelan forces extrajudicially executed civilians during the operation.
Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes said that some residents of the region have remained there amid continuing combat, mainly out of fear of losing their livestock or other property, or having their houses burned or sacked. Tarazona also alleged that elements from the 28th Front FARC dissidents—part of the same “First Front” dissident network as the 10th—were arriving in the region to reinforce the 10th Front in Apure.
Tarazona and FundaRedes don’t have a 100 percent accuracy record, though. The Venezuelan NGO director also alleged that Rodrigo Londoño, the maximum leader of the demobilized FARC’s legal political party, Comunes, had been holding quarterly coordination meetings with leaders of both main dissident networks. This made little sense to observers within Colombia, where Londoño has been a strong advocate of the peace accord and outspoken critic of the dissidents. It’s also hard to imagine the party leader, who is 62 and has had health problems, shaking his police guard for days to meet with dissident leaders in the jungle. “There is absolutely nothing that identifies me with them, and I am not an a**hole,” Londoño said in a video.
Amid concerns about the remote—but not zero—possibility of the border situation escalating into conflict with Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza said that his regime would submit a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres asking the UN to mediate or provide good offices, “establishing a direct and permanent communication channel” between the two neighboring countries, whose de facto governments maintain no diplomatic relations, “to resolve all issues related to the border.” This runs along somewhat similar lines to a civil society proposal, issued a week earlier, calling on the UN to name a special envoy to the border crisis.
At the same time, other Venezuelan officials issued more bellicose rhetoric. “The incursions into Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque,” said Gen. Padrino, the defense minister. Diosdado Cabello, a politician often considered the second most-powerful individual in the Maduro regime, was characteristically even more blunt. “Colombia has declared, internally, that it is going to try to set the table for U.S. imperialism to attack Venezuela. They will be making a mistake because if we have a war…with Colombia, we are going to do it in their territory.”
A decree makes it harder to challenge the president, and fumigation, through legal means
With a new decree changing how citizens can seek redress before the presidency, “the government of Iván Duque made an unprecedented display of power,” in the words of the news website La Silla Vacía. While it raises strong concerns about democratic checks and balances and will certainly face constitutional challenges, the decree could open the door to a much faster restart of a controversial U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where farmers grow coca.
The change affects the “tutela,” a figure in Colombian law that gives citizens the right to seek a quick response from courts when government is infringing their rights. Supporters view the tutela as a major victory won in the drafting of Colombia’s progressively worded 1991 Constitution. It has been unpopular on Colombia’s political right, which views it as an obstacle, since it gives minority interests and activists the ability to block policies’ implementation.
Decree 333 of 2021, which Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz issued on April 6, states that from now on (and possibly retroactively—it’s not clear), all tutelas filed against the President, or considered important for national security—like those having to do with coca eradication—will no longer go to courts of law. They are to be considered by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), a Bogotá-based high court that makes administrative rulings.
Going to the Council of State will make it harder for communities to challenge a re-start of the aerial fumigation program. This program, active since 1994, was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns about spraying the chemical glyphosate over residential coca-growing zones. In response to a tutela, in 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of health, environmental, and consultative requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the spraying, as Iván Duque has pledged to do. In 2020, as the pandemic made it difficult for communities to participate in consultations about renewed spraying, another tutelaresulted in regional court rulings that paused the controversial program’s restart.
The decree may put fumigation on a fast track to re-starting. First, it appears to offer a way around regional courts that have ruled on the side of affected communities. Second, filing complaints with the Bogotá-based State Council is more challenging for people in the very remote areas where coca is cultivated and spraying may happen. “There is a direct violation of the right to equality,” explained Diana Bernal of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which has represented communities subject to fumigation. “The decisions will fall to judges who lack regional context, and who will not have the same ability to go deeper because the plaintiffs will be in remote areas.”
Either way, if the decree stands, fumigation could restart in as little as a couple of months, once the government determines that it has met the Constitutional Court’s requirements. “The Government believes that the current actions will favor it, and that is why announcements have been made that spraying will begin in a short time,” an unnamed Justice Ministry source toldLa Silla Vacía.
Beyond coca fumigation, the new decree raises concerns about democratic checks and balances. It presumes that the Presidency can “choose its own judge” on a constitutional issue, cutting out courts that have proved more likely to issue rulings unfavorable to it. “The proposed reform is subtle and may go unnoticed by the general public,” wrote EAFIT University constitutional law professor Estaban Hoyos. “The Duque government is issuing decrees for its own interest, intending to evade judges’ oversight of its actions or omissions that disregard fundamental rights. This is profoundly undemocratic.” Hoyos recalled to El Espectador that President Duque is further weakening checks and balances at a time when he has already named political allies to the leadership of oversight bodies like the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
It’s not at all clear that such a change can happen by decree, bypassing the legislature. Law professors and opposition legislators, probably together with legal NGOs, are preparing a legal challenge to the decree. It is not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.
The peace accord’s special congressional seats for victims suffer a new setback
The 2016 peace accord had sought to “place victims at its center,” according to its negotiators. As part of that commitment, it promised to create special congressional districts that would represent 16 regions of Colombia hardest-hit by the conflict. For two congressional terms (eight years), residents of those zones would elect to Colombia’s House of Representatives candidates chosen by victims’ organizations, not political parties.
This never happened, and while Colombia’s Constitutional Court considers whether to make it happen, the special congressional districts plan suffered another setback this week with an unfavorable recommendation from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).
The long story begins in 2017, as Colombia’s Congress was passing a series of laws to make peace accord commitments official. Among those was a bill creating the special districts for victims. The measure passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November 2017.
That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption. Still, that argument has not prospered in lower court challenges.
In December 2019 Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case of the special electoral zones and the 2017 Senate vote. This week the Procuraduría issued its recommendation to the Constitutional Court, which dealt another blow to the plan to create the special districts for victims. The agency—now headed by a political ally of President Duque, whose party opposes the seats—called for the Court to strike down the measure because it lacks sufficient “immediacy and subsidiarity.”
The Constitutional Court could still decide that the special congressional zones are valid, ignoring the Procuraduría opinion and making this peace accord commitment to victims a reality. It is not clear how the Court might rule, or whether it would issue a decision with enough lead time before Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections.
The UN Verification Mission issued its latest quarterly report, which counted 14 murders of former FARC combatants and 24 killings of social leaders during the previous 3 months. 262 former FARC members of about 13,000 who demobilized, or 2 percent, have been killed since the group demobilized in 2017. The report also noted that “several actors… continue to question the Government’s view of the development programs with a territorial focus [PDETs], claiming that its approach is not in line with the Comprehensive Rural Reform as envisioned in the Final Agreement.”
WOLA published its latest monthly alert on Colombia’s nationwide human rights and humanitarian situation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed a phone call to Colombian President Iván Duque on April 5. They discussed “ways to renew our focus on issues including climate change, the protection of human rights, and the regional economic recovery from the pandemic,” as well as “the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela and Colombia’s efforts to promote democracy throughout the region.”
The Colombian government’s State Legal Agency (ANDJE) asked the Constitutional Court to review a Supreme Court order calling on the National Police to curb rights abuses during social protests. It argued that the right to protest should be regulated because “the public will take advantage of it, ‘discrediting the police’s authority,’” El Espectadorreported.
The ELN carried out 58 percent fewer offensive actions (27), was involved in 30 percent fewer combat incidents (14), and was responsible for 9 percent fewer deaths (19) during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think tank.
A Bogotá court met on Tuesday and Friday to consider the Prosecutor-General’s (Fiscalía’s) controversial request to drop witness-tampering charges against former president Álvaro Uribe.
Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed an 898 million peso (US$245,000) no-bid contract with a public relations firm that Minister Diego Molano “knows very well,” El Espectadorreported. The contract seeks “to improve ‘public perception’ and ‘protect the collective imagination’” about the Defense Ministry.
As the former FARC leadership decides whether to accept the JEP’s charges of ordering and overseeing tens of thousands of kidnappings of civilians, its members are worried about their historical legacy, reportsLa Silla Vacía. “They fear they will go down in history as a criminal gang that committed crimes against humanity if they accept the charges against their leaders.”