Adam Isacson

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

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Colombia

Delaying Tactics Threaten Justice in March 2022 Colombian Military Massacre Case

In March 2022, Colombia’s Army staged an early-morning attack on a large, hung-over gathering of participants in a “community bazaar”—including a few armed-group members, who fired back—in a rural zone of Putumayo, in the country’s south. The soldiers killed several civilians, including a pregnant woman and an Indigenous community leader.

Top defense officials in the government of President Iván Duque insisted that the troops did nothing wrong and that no human rights or international humanitarian law violations took place. Colombian journalistic investigations found otherwise.

Colombia’s civilian Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) looked into the case, and agreed with the journalists. The Colombian magazine Cambio reported on August 20:

the Prosecutor’s Office deployed an interdisciplinary team that included ballistics experts, forensic doctors, topographers and prosecutors from its Human Rights Unit. The material collected, as CAMBIO was able to verify, reveals that the indigenous governor Pablo Paduro died as a result of a rifle shot by one of the uniformed officers and that the weapon found near his body was never fired or manipulated by him, but was planted on him with the intention of diverting the investigation. In addition, there is incontestable evidence: the dead were 11 and the weapons found were 5, so at least 6 of them did not have the means to shoot at the Army.

The prosecutors, though, are being held up by delaying tactics. Defense attorneys for the accused military personnel made a last-minute appeal to have the case heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The military system is meant for disciplinary infractions (“acts of service”), not human rights abuses; when it does get jurisdiction over a crime against civilians, it almost never convicts. For such cases, it is an impunity factory.

Cambio explained the legal machinations:

The indictment hearing was scheduled for the first days of August, but in an unexpected decision, the 106th judge of Military Criminal Instruction of Puerto Leguízamo [Putumayo] accepted the request of the soldiers’ lawyers and sent the process to the Constitutional Court to resolve a jurisdictional conflict. The judge’s decision has been criticized because a month after the operation, in May 2022, the same Military Criminal Court sent the process to the Prosecutor’s Office, arguing that the possible human rights violations could not be considered acts of service.

The Constitutional Court has yet to decide whether the Alto Remanso massacre case will go to the military justice system, where justice is unlikely, or the civilian system, where prosecutors and investigators have done thorough work and are ready to go. Colleagues at Human Rights Watch just sent an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court asking it to slap down the military attorneys’ gambit, and move the case back to the civilian justice system.

The military attorneys may be happy just to run out the clock. Cambio warns, “For now, the legal process is suspended and waiting for the Constitutional Court to define the conflict of competences. The clock is ticking, and the ghost of the statute of limitations’ expiration is haunting the investigators’ work.”

The Constitutional Court must act quickly.

The Darién Gap Underscores Just How Lousy Governments’ Options Are For Managing In-Transit Migration

One of many reasons—but a big one—why U.S.-bound migration has hit record levels, and may break records again this fall, is that the Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama is no longer an impenetrable barrier.

In fact, the Darién Gap has been crossed over 330,000 times so far this year, including 82,000 crossings in August, according to the latest in a very good series of reports from New York Times correspondent Julie Turkewitz and photographer Federico Ríos.

Federico Ríos photo from the September 14, 2023 New York Times. Caption: “The journey into the jungle begins, led by a guide from the New Light Darién Foundation.”

It’s not really clear what Colombia and Panama can do about it. The options are really lousy:

  • Try to block migrants? Good luck with that. The Darién Gap is dense, roadless jungle (at least for now). If security forces focus on one pathway, another will open up. And what if Colombia and Panama somehow succeed in blocking migrants? What do they then do with hundreds of thousands of stranded people from all over the world? Fly them back to China, India, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and dozens of other destinations, at huge expense and at huge risk to the returnees? Bus them back to threats and penury in Venezuela and Ecuador?
  • Create a safe movement corridor? Channeling migrants through a route that is government-controlled territory—or, better yet, avoids the environmentally fragile forest entirely—would cut organized crime out of the picture. It would reduce many of the alarming security risks that migrants now face. Governments would have biometric records and other data about everyone attempting to pass through. By registering most migrants and permitting them to transit their territory on buses, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras are already doing this. But the political obstacles to “safe passage” approaches are beyond daunting: the U.S. government (or at least, key officials and members of Congress) would condemn and seek to punish Colombia and Panama for waving everyone northward. U.S. officials would fear that the promise of safe passage would attract still more migrants.
  • ”Soft blocking” of migrants? That more or less describes the situation today in the Darién region (and Mexico, Guatemala, and some South American countries). The official position is that migration is an administrative offense, and migrant smuggling is illegal. A handful get detained or deported, and some (usually very low-level) smugglers get arrested. But either security forces view their checkpoints and patrols as opportunities to shake migrants down for bribes, or organized crime takes over routes. Usually both. Migrants get assaulted, robbed, or worse. Some may spend time in state detention. But if they can run that gauntlet and remain alive—and most do, obviously—very few end up discouraged from proceeding northward.

None of these options is promising: some violate the most basic human rights, some assist organized crime, some are simply impossible, and the least-bad choice would hit a political brick wall.

Faced with these very poor choices, it’s not surprising that leaders like Colombia’s Gustavo Petro are reluctant to make in-transit migration a priority. According to the Times:

Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, acknowledged in an interview that the national government had little control over the region, but added that it was not his goal to stop migration through the Darién anyway — despite the agreement his government signed with the United States.

After all, he argued, the roots of this migration were “the product of poorly taken measures against Latin American peoples,” particularly by the United States, pointing to Washington’s sanctions against Venezuela.

He said he had no intention of sending “horses and whips” to the border to solve a problem that wasn’t of his country’s making.

That last bit is a veiled reference to a September 2021 incident in Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horseback were caught on camera charging at Haitian migrants on the bank of the Rio Grande. The Times continues:

just like the people running the migration business, he [President Petro] presented his hands-off approach to migration as a humanitarian one.

The answer to this crisis, he said, was not to go “chasing migrants” at the border or to force them into “concentration camps” that blocked them from trying to reach the United States.

“I would say yes, I’ll help, but not like you think,” Mr. Petro said of the agreement with the Biden administration, which was big on ambition but thin on details. He said any solution to the issue had to focus on “solving migrants’ social problems, which do not come from Colombia.”

He expects half a million people to cross the Darién this year, he said, and then a million next year.

He may be right.

UNODC: 230,000 hectares of coca in Colombia last year

According to the Colombian daily El Espectador, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime detected 230,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2022. That amount—which extends the dark blue line in the chart below to 2022—would be the most coca that the UN agency has detected in any year since it began issuing estimates in 1999.

Chart: Coca Cultivation in Colombia

Hectares	US Estimate	UN Estimate
1994	44.7	
1995	50.9	
1996	67.2	
1997	79.5	
1998	101.8	
1999	122.5	160.1
2000	136.2	163.3
2001	169.8	144.8
2002	144.4	102
2003	113.9	86
2004	114.1	80
2005	144	86
2006	157	78
2007	167	99
2008	119	81
2009	116	73
2010	100	62
2011	83	64
2012	78	48
2013	81	48
2014	112	69
2015	159	96
2016	188	146
2017	209	171
2018	208	169
2019	212	154
2020	245	143
2021	234	204
2022		230

Colombia was governed for just over the first seven months of 2022 by Iván Duque, and for the remaining less than five months by Gustavo Petro.

Petro was still putting together his government by the time 2022 ended. His drug policy team only published their counter-drug strategy this past weekend. While that is a notably slow pace, it was not the cause for 2022’s result.

Petro has sought to de-emphasize forced eradication of small-scale coca farmers’ crops, which places the government in an adversarial relationship with poor people in historically abandoned territories. Through July, forced eradication is down 79 percent over the same period in 2022. Instead, the new strategy document promotes interdiction, targeting cocaine production and related finances, and other strategies.

Still, critics of the Petro government’s choices will use the 230,000 figure to oppose them. It’s possible, though, that the 2023 coca acreage figure could be reduced, because a historic drop in prices may be making the crop less attractive to many growers.

At wola.org: Crisis and Opportunity: Unraveling Colombia’s Collapsing Coca Markets

Here’s an analysis I’ve been working on, bit by bit, for the past several weeks.

The market in Colombia for coca, the plant whose leaves can be used to produce cocaine, is in a state of historic collapse, bringing with it an acute humanitarian crisis in already impoverished rural territories. The unusually sharp and prolonged drop in coca prices has several causes. WOLA has identified 12 possible explanations, some more compelling than others.

Regardless of the reason, the crisis is sure to be temporary as world cocaine demand remains robust. The Colombian government, and partner and donor governments including the United States, should take maximum advantage of this window of opportunity before it closes. The humanitarian crisis offers a chance for Colombia to fill vacuums of civilian government presence in territories where insecurity, armed groups, and now hunger are all too common.

Read on—in English or Spanish, HTML or PDF—at WOLA’s website.

In Colombia, attacks on human rights defenders, social leaders, and ex-combatants are gradually declining

Two sources point to a welcome, though still woefully insufficient, decline in the number of human rights defenders and social leaders being killed in Colombia.

During the first half of 2023:

  • According to Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), 92 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed between January and June 2023. That is down 19 percent from the 114 killings that the Defensoría counted between January and June 2022.
  • According to the count kept by the independent journalism site La Silla Vacía, 77 social leaders were murdered in the first six months of 2023. That is down 25 percent from the first half of 2022.

The United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, which produces quarterly reports on implementation of aspects of the 2016 peace accord, also found a downward trend in murders of demobilized former members of the FARC guerrilla group. In its latest report, the Mission counts 18 ex-combatants killed between January 1 and June 26, 2023, roughly 30 percent behind the pace of 2022, and the trend has been declining since 2020.

From UN document: Since the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Mission has verified:

375 KILLINGS
11 Women
54 Afro-Colombians
35 Indigenous

129 ATTEMPTED HOMICIDES (10 Women)

32 DISAPPEARANCES (All Men)

Twelve former combatants (all men) were killed during this period in Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Putumayo and Valle del Cauca.

2017: 33
2018: 65
2019: 78
2020: 75
2021: 55
2022: 50
2023: 18

This is all good news, though Colombia is still far from zero.

Why is it happening? Some credit may go to the nearly year-old government of Gustavo Petro, which has extended many of the country’s armed groups an opportunity to negotiate peace or demobilization, which gives them an incentive to improve their behavior toward non-combatants.

In the case of attacks on former FARC combatants, the demobilization process happened six years ago now, so “people just getting on with their lives” is something of a factor. Still, the UN warns that “persisting violence continues to jeopardize the process.” Indeed, imminent threats from FARC “dissidents” is forcing the relocation of sites for demobilized guerrillas in Vistahermosa and Mesetas, Meta, a few hours’ drive south of Bogotá.

Colombia in the 2024 Foreign Aid Bill

As of yesterday, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have completed work on the 2024 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill—more colloquially, the “foreign aid bill.” The Republican-majority House appropriators approved their bill on July 12, and Senate appropriators approved theirs on July 20.

Here’s a very top-level overview of Colombia provisions in the 2023 foreign aid budget, what the Biden administration requested of Congress in March, and the House and Senate bills as they’ve emerged from committee.

U.S. Assistance to Colombia in the State/Foreign Operations Appropriation

2023 lawBiden Administration RequestHouse Appropriations Committee (bill / report)Senate Appropriations Committee (bill / report)
Total amount
(Omits Venezuela migrant aid, Defense Department aid, some smaller accounts)
$496 million$444.025 million“Deferred”$487.375 million
USAID Economic Support Funds$153 million$122 million Unspecified, except $25 million for “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Communities” and $15 million for “Human rights”
USAID Development Assistance$95 million$103 million Unspecified, except $15 million for “Colombia biodiversity”
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement$175 million$160 million  
Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs$21 million$10 million  
Foreign Military Financing$38.5 million$38 million $28.025 million
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights$3 million  $3 million
Human rights conditions on military and some police aid20% of FMF; 5% of INCLE for Colombia’s National PoliceNoneNone20% of FMF; 5% of INCLE for Colombia’s National Police

The next steps after this:

  • Both houses must approve their bills (changes to Colombia provisions are unlikely).
  • A “conference committee” must resolve differences.
  • Once that revised and combined bill is approved, it gets sent to the President for signature, often combined with several other budget bills into a single “omnibus” bill.

New Invamer poll in Colombia

Chart of Invamer's time series of presidential approval/disapproval ratings, going back to 1994. Shows Petro now at 40% approval and 51% disapproval.

It’s been rare over the past 10 years for Colombia’s Invamer poll to show a president with a higher approval than disapproval rating. One such moment, the first months of Gustavo Petro’s presidency, has ended for now.

Colombia’s Blu Radio has the entire 112-page PDF of the poll’s results, with long time series. Also interesting:

Colombia’s National Police remain underwater.

Time series shows Colombia's police first being more unfavorable than favorable circa 2016, then decidedly so after mid-2020. Latest is 42% favorable, 50% unfavorable.

The Prosecutor-General’s office continues to enjoy little trust under Francisco Barbosa’s leadership.

Fiscalía General:

Current approval: 26&
Current disapproval: 61%

Support for granting TPS to Venezuelan refugees remains low, but is higher than ever.

Support: 41%, Oppose: 56%

A 19-point margin of support for the ELN peace talks—but it was a 41-point margin in August.

February: 56% agree with the government having restarted ELN talks, 37% disagree. In August it was 69-28.

Sad to say, this would be a break with the past

“One of the principles” of the Bogotá-Washington relationship, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States says, “is to attack drug trafficking head-on ‘but not the communities that need greater opportunities.’

Sadly, that principle has hardly been observed in the past, as the U.S. government contributed a rough average of half a billion dollars per year into Colombia’s drug war so far this century. It’s been observed partially at best.

Colombia’s new coca policy: “the devil is in the details,” which aren’t clear yet

This translated fragment of a January 31 column in the Colombian daily El Espectador, from María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED), is a succinct, accurate 2-minute overview of where coca eradication policy stands in Colombia right now, six months into Gustavo Petro’s administration.

Consistent with his campaign discourse, his first announcements, which lack details, aim at not persecuting growers, which includes lowering the tempo of forced eradication and considering a territorial transformation program, which includes gradual substitution once other economies generate income that allows a dignified life for coca growers. He reserved eradication for 20,000 hectares of “industrial” growers, who, as in any market, have already vertically integrated into the market: they cultivate in large tracts, process and market. It remains to be seen if we can identify who they are and where they are.

To stop persecuting small coca growers, 52.7% of whose households live in multidimensional poverty, according to the baseline of households that enrolled in the PNIS, seems obvious to me. Waiting for voluntary eradication to happen when they are already producing and generating income in other economies, too.

Now, the devil is in the details and these are what we should be concerned to know. For example, is there enough funding to attend to the territorial transformation of 200,000 or more families? Will there be a census and registration of small growers according to the size and number of plots? What happens with growers who have several plots? Where will the interventions be focused? For what period of time will the households that stop growing coca be accompanied? How will they be protected from the violence to which armed groups and criminal organizations subject them? How are they going to regain the trust of leaders and their communities to become involved in the policy after decades of non-compliance? What are the plans to prevent the expansion of crops and, in particular, their expansion in environmentally important areas? What types of economies other than coca are viable in ethnic and environmentally strategic territories? How does this whole narrative tie in with Total Peace? Do we have the international leadership necessary to stop chasing coca and talk about a regulatory path for cocaine? How will we measure the success of the new drug policy? Will we be able to convince the Biden administration and other U.S. institutions of the need to focus on solving rural development problems instead of eradication?

That last question is critical for our work here in Washington. Will the Biden administration go along with a counter-drug strategy that relies far less on forced eradication of small farmers’ coca plants?

My sense is that yes, they might. But only if they can be reassured that the Petro government is following a detailed, funded, well-thought-out plan. One that can answer many of the questions in Vélez’s final paragraph here.

Unfortunately, as she notes, the Petro government’s plans so far “lack details.” And that could start complicating the bilateral relationship.

“It would be better for the government to respond, quickly”: interview in Colombia’s El Espectador

On Wednesday, appearing before reporters in Washington after meeting with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Colombia’s chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa strongly criticized President Gustavo Petro’s intention to lift arrest warrants for organized crime leaders entering into demobilization negotiations. Barbosa, who heads a separate branch of government and is close to Petro’s conservative predecessor Iván Duque, said that Petro’s planned talks with criminal groups were tantamount to declaring a ceasefire with Pablo Escobar.

At the Colombian daily El Espectador, journalist Cecilia Orozco asked me several questions about the episode. The interview text appears in today’s edition.

Image of El Espectador page with my interview, at https://www.elespectador.com/politica/la-declaracion-del-fiscal-barbosa-fue-rimbombante-y-politica-adam-isacson/

Here is an English translation.

“Prosecutor Barbosa’s statement was bombastic and political”: Adam Isacson

The Director for Defense Oversight of the influential organization WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) analyzes the impact and “political” direction of Francisco Barbosa’s strong statements against Petro’s “total peace” strategy, during his recent visit to U.S. government officials. He believes that they caused serious damage and that the attorney general “did not think about the consequences of his position.”

Cecilia Orozco Tascón

Q: The statements made by prosecutor Francisco Barbosa in the United States evidence his drastic change of behavior: from being criticized for his closeness to the Duque government, whose president nominated him for the position, to being confrontational, in a high volume, with the Petro government. How do you analyze this situation, which confronts the president of the Republic with the head of the investigative body?

A: One thing I admire about the Colombian political system is that it made the attorney general a separate branch of the government. That is usually a good thing. In the United States, the prosecutor is part of the executive branch and answers to the President. Donald Trump seems to have broken the law on many occasions, but he had very little to fear of his hand-picked prosecutors, Jeff Sessions—whom he fired—and William Barr, investigating. The only thing that prevents a U.S. president from using prosecutors as instruments to attack his political adversaries, in reality, are norms and customs, not the Constitution.

Q: In the Colombian case, the method of electing the prosecutor (by the Supreme Court, but from a shortlist chosen by the president) vitiates his independence, as has been demonstrated when their terms coincide. Not as in the current case, when the nominating president leaves and a different one arrives….

A: As I said, having an attorney general truly independent of the president is good, because it is a check on presidential power. But it can be bad for governance: the more power is divided, the greater the likelihood of gridlock and paralysis. That seems to be happening in an issue central to the security of Colombians: the government’s peace negotiations. When Juan Manuel Santos started the talks with the FARC, he had already appointed a prosecutor, Eduardo Montealegre, favorable to the Peace Agreement. It seems that Gustavo Petro will not have, for the time being, one that supports him in this crucial matter.

Q: Upon exiting his visits to the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney, Barbosa told the media one of the most aggressive phrases ever made by a prosecutor with respect to the incumbent government: “Never before has a bilateral ceasefire been made with drug trafficking organizations. It is like making a bilateral ceasefire with Pablo Escobar or the Cali cartel”. What do you think of this statement?

A: Barbosa’s statement is concerning, because it is the clearest indication we have seen that he intends to use the Attorney General’s Office to oppose the government’s peace strategy. It seems to leave no room for negotiation. He also seems to have said it for media purposes, perhaps without thinking about the consequences of his position. I do not know if President Petro and the prosecutor have talked about the legal aspects of the peace policy. My perception is that they have not had a substantive discussion. So I also don’t know, for sure, whether Barbosa is expressing frustration after difficult talks or shooting arrows in public before those talks get underway.

Q: The two are supposed to meet tomorrow, Monday; but it is not unlikely that the overtly unfriendly tone and content of the prosecutor’s statement may prevent the appointment from taking place.

A: In addition to that consequence (should it happen), Barbosa’s statement is inaccurate: Cesar Gaviria’s government made a deal with Pablo Escobar that gave him a luxurious “house arrest”, in the so-called Catedral one-man prison. There, he was “guarded” by his own people and lived under his own rules. That really looked like a form of bilateral ceasefire.

Q: Do the Attorney General’s inflammatory statements impact the Colombian Government’s relations with the U.S. Government?

A: Absolutely. They have a big impact on U.S.-Colombia relations. The Biden administration generally supports the idea of negotiating peace with armed groups, but that support is not unconditional. One of the most skeptical agencies in Washington is the Justice Department, where prosecutors fear losing the ability to extradite major criminals. With his public statement, Barbosa has just fueled that skepticism in a big way.

Q: I suppose the impact will be greater because his statements were made in the framework of an official visit to Prosecutor Garland and the Justice Department. Is that so?

A: Yes. Barbosa and Merrick Garland have already met several times and have developed a cooperative relationship. The Colombian prosecutor may be taking advantage of that relationship to scare the Biden administration about a Petro government policy that is still in formation. While it is true that the Prosecutor’s Office is an autonomous entity, this does not mean that it can carry out a separate foreign policy. Barbosa can certainly express his concerns to his counterparts, particularly on how to advance a line of cooperation if some extraditions are put on hold. But airing differences over some aspects of domestic foreign policy, using vague and deliberately provocative words, suggests that Colombia has two contradictory foreign policies.

Q: Should the Colombian government counter the damage done by Barbosa now or wait for the waters to calm down before sending its Minister of Justice, Minister of Foreign Affairs or activating its ambassador to give its own version?

A: It would be better for the government to respond, quickly, by sending its own messages and officials to Washington to counter the prosecutor’s narrative before it grows stronger.

Q: On the other hand, since Barbosa’s statements were delivered immediately after his appointment with Garland, could it be inferred that the Colombian official is repeating the opinion of the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department regarding Petro’s total peace policy?

A: It is likely that Barbosa has heard Justice Department officials, including perhaps Garland, express strong objections to the suspension of extraditions of organized crime members. But I doubt very much that Merrick Garland, who is known for his restraint and moderation, would encourage Barbosa to express those concerns using the provocative language he did.

Q: Barbosa also stated that the decrees issued after the approval of the total peace law should be reviewed, but he says this after Congress approved, two months ago, a law authorizing the president to “carry out all acts tending to engage in rapprochement with organized armed criminal structures.” However, when the law was debated, the prosecutor was not present. It seems an inconsistency.

A: I do not know why the attorney general did not play a more active role at the time the law was being discussed. In this case, however, he can probably defend himself by saying that he and Petro disagree in their interpretations of that law and the powers that it grants to the president.

Q: The strongest controversy arises over the government’s request to suspend, temporarily, arrest warrants for members of criminal gangs. It makes sense, but the Congress also approved a paragraph which reads that “once a dialogue process is initiated (…) the corresponding judicial authorities will suspend the arrest warrants (…) against the members (…) of the armed structures that show willingness.” According to your experience, is this legislative decision unacceptable abroad?

A: A temporary suspension of arrest warrants is not synonymous with impunity. It is a practical and logistical measure to allow negotiations to take place. It is clear that these negotiations must not lead to an agreement that grants impunity for war crimes or crimes against humanity, or that dishonors these individuals’ countless victims. They have an obligation to confess their role in fostering criminality through drug trafficking, the undermining of institutions and the rule of law, the damage they have done to the environment, and their violation of the rights of Indigenous communities, women, and other historically marginalized groups. But, I repeat, a temporary suspension of detentions should not be interpreted as an impunity agreement. And extradition to the United States, which only punishes their drug trafficking activity, delays accountability to their victims in Colombia.

Q: Precisely, and referring to the extradition issue, some of those who have been announced as spokesmen for the criminal groups are requested for extradition. Does the simultaneous request for suspension of arrest and extradition disturb the U.S. government?

A: This is a transcendental issue for the U.S. government. Its prosecutors and diplomats place great importance on the extradition agreement with Colombia. Alvaro Uribe and former prosecutor Mario Iguarán received many messages of serious concern from their counterparts in the United States during the Justice and Peace negotiations with paramilitary groups. And Uribe ended up extraditing many of the AUC leaders. Juan Manuel Santos was also made aware of U.S. concerns when negotiating with the FARC, as demonstrated by the 2018 Jesús Santrich episode. Concern about suspending extradition is probably the biggest obstacle to the U.S. government’s more decisive support for peace negotiations. Moreover, if prosecutors, military and police representing the security sector in Colombia do not agree with full peace, they themselves will communicate their displeasure to their counterparts in the United States. That will raise red flags in Washington. But this phenomenon is not new.

Q: In your analysis of the Colombian situation, were the prosecutor’s statements made in a legal sense or, rather, in a political context, taking into account that his term ends this year and that he is a close friend of Duque, a pro-Uribe enemy of both the Santos Peace Accord and this government?

A: Being so vague, bombastic and based on the interpretation of a strategy that is still under discussion, Barbosa’s statement was a political act. It was not a technical legal analysis, but a statement of opposition to the Petro government’s negotiation framework and an alignment with its political opponents. Incidentally, Barbosa, Duque and other conservative Colombians have an advantage over the Petro government in Washington: many of them studied or worked in the United States and maintain old relationships with local elites. They maintain much easier and more fluid communication with U.S. leaders. When they want to make a political statement here, they will be heard, as just happened with Barbosa.

Q: So it would be pragmatic for the Petro government to move by sending more officials well connected to the Biden administration. Or is it not strategic to do so at this time in light of the blow that Barbosa dealt him?

A: Given the impact that the United States can have on the development of the overall peace policy, it would be important for the Petro administration to be present in Washington and engage in early dialogue with U.S. officials who have an impact on Colombia policy. At the moment there is, in my opinion, an asymmetry of information in the United States between the messages of Petro’s opponents and those of his government.

Q: In another part of his statements, Barbosa pointed out that “there is a concern about the cessation of hostilities with drug traffickers because it is an unprecedented figure”. President Lopez Obrador desisted from pursuing the shadowy Sinaloa cartel for not facing dangers for the civilian population of the city of Culiacán, he said. Did the U.S. veto Mexico for that?

A: U.S. officials did communicate their displeasure, forcefully and privately, to the Mexican government. But, with respect to the point you make, there is a better parallel in the informal contacts that U.S. agents have with organized crime figures about the terms of their eventual surrender: it is not uncommon for offers of reduced sentences to be made in exchange for providing useful information. Plea bargaining can begin before an arrest is made. The difference is that it is less formal and without suspension of arrest warrants.

Q: You have been a student of the Colombian conflict for several years. So, how do you analyze the situation of political tension felt in the country since the left-wing opposition won the elections and became the incumbent government?

A: It is not new to see a Latin American democracy, in a historically unequal country, elect a leftist political movement after generations of control by conservative elites, and then see other conservative state powers seeking to block that leftist leader. Sometimes (as happened with Salvador Allende) the conservatives win the contest with tragic results. Sometimes (Hugo Chavez’s case) the leftist movement succeeds in eliminating all checks on its power, which also brings bad results. But at other times (Lula, Bachelet, Mujica), the leftist movement manages to govern in spite of its conservative opponents while strengthening democratic institutions. Colombia is in the first months of a similar dynamic. Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez seem to realize that they have to act quickly to make a noticeable change in people’s lives, otherwise Colombian voters will go back to supporting right-wing candidates in 2026.

Q: True: people are impatient and critics are very insistent…

A: The government often seems overwhelmed by all the items on its agenda. Some policies, such as “total peace,” seem improvised: there is not enough communication about the content of the plan, too much seems to be done through tweets, and official agencies are still hiring key personnel.

Q: From your point of view as a foreign analyst, what is the greatest success and the greatest failure of the “total peace” project?

A: We still don’t really know, as I said, what total peace is; at least not in detail. I can only speculate about its successes and failures: the greatest success, so far, is to have created the hope that Colombia’s historic cycles of violence can be broken without needing to do so on the battlefield. If the Petro government manages to demobilize most of the country’s armed groups without firing a shot, through persuasion, compromise, and negotiation, it would be transformative. The biggest failure, for the moment, is the lack of clarity about what would happen afterwards, if total peace were to succeed. If the vacuum of state presence in the territories continues as it did with Santos, the effort will not be worth it. Why eliminate a group of armed group leaders from the scene so that new ones can replace them because the state did not arrive?

[Sidebar:] Legal opinion of former Justice Minister Yesid Reyes on arrest warrants:

“In my opinion, Prosecutor Barbosa is wrong when he says that there is no legal framework that allows lifting the arrest warrants that exist against members of organized armed structures of high impact crime. Law 2272 of 2022 expressly establishes that possibility, on a temporary basis, referring only to the authorized spokespersons of such organizations and only to bring them to justice. On the other hand, I find legitimate his concern about the decrees that ordered the cessation of hostilities against these criminal structures to install, with them, dialogue tables aimed at seeking their submission: this cessation of hostilities prohibits offensive military operations and police operations against these groups, which means that their members can only be captured if the authorities encounter them by chance. In practice, this leads to a de facto suspension of the arrest warrants against all their members, not just their authorized spokespersons, and not only for the 15 days requested by the Government, but until June 30, 2023. And with the vague purpose of setting up dialogue tables”.

Q: Do you think it is possible that the current right-wing opposition in Colombia, which has been quite active and rude, will try to move from legitimate criticism of the Petro government, to conspiracies and revolts as happened in Peru?

A: There will always be a desire to limit Petro’s ability to govern, if not to remove him. When he was mayor of Bogota, one remembers what the Internal Affairs Chief Alejandro Ordonez intended to do. But, for now, I don’t think it is likely that they will try to topple the President. Petro has been more strategic than Pedro Castillo, who was hapless, unpopular, and disorganized. Setting aside the corruption allegations against him, Castillo was chaotic, passing through dozens of ministers; and he seemed unable to communicate a vision while the opposition dominated Congress. In contrast, Petro began by building a working majority in Congress and reached out to opponents, including Alvaro Uribe. He is also a much better communicator—despite some unfortunate uses of Twitter—and his approval rating remains close to 50 percent. As long as these trends continue, Petro need not worry about conspiracies.

34 members of Congress send a letter on Colombia

“We applaud the Biden Administration’s support for the historic 2016 Peace Accord, and we encourage the State Department and USAID to use the new government’s commitment to fully implement the accord as an opportunity to increase investment and reenergize areas of weak implementation.”

Read the full letter here.

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