Adam Isacson

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

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Elections

Some pleasant surprises in Colombia’s local elections

Colombians voted for governors, mayors, town councils, and local legislatures on October 27, and—unlike so many places in the world lately—left and right radicals and populists had a lousy day. Voters especially rejected the ruling rightist party of President Iván Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, who has lost his luster.

In most cities, voters also rejected powerful political machines. Independent candidates with anti-corruption messages—many with ties to social movements—enjoyed unprecedented success. Elsewhere, however, especially in the countryside, it was business as usual: supported by rivers of questionable campaign money, local bosses and candidates of long-reigning, corrupt political clans won easily.

Some highlights:

Bogotá’s new mayor will be Claudia López, the first woman, and the first LGBT person, to lead this city of more than 8 million people. This is a remarkable victory because Claudia comes from our sector: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her since the mid-2000s, when she was an investigator at a Colombian think-tank, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. There, she helped blow the lid off of a major political scandal, known as “para-politics,” that saw about a third of the Congress elected in 2006, plus mayors, governors, and other officials, investigated, tried, or jailed for supporting murderous, drug-funded paramilitary groups. A bold and clear public speaker, López became a frequent commentator and columnist in Colombian media, emphatically denouncing examples of corruption. She won a Senate seat in 2014, and led a 2018 effort to pass a series of anti-corruption reforms through a referendum, which failed after voter participation narrowly fell short. She is often described as “center-left,” as a member of Colombia’s Green Party; while socially liberal and a supporter of the 2016 peace accord, López may be tough on common crime, and is unlikely to spend lavishly on social programs, other than for education.

Bogotá mayor-elect Claudia López, third from left, speaks at WOLA’s annual Colombia conference in October 2018.

The surprise victor in Medellín was 39-year-old Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate from the center-left. Polls had been showing a likely victory for Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of President Iván Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático party. This is a devastating defeat for the Centro Democrático, as Medellín is the home city of the party’s founder, populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. (Uribe was briefly mayor of Medellín in 1982.) Even in his home region, the ex-president’s coattails were not enough to elect Ramos, who lost by a margin of 303,000 to 235,000 votes.

Many Colombians fondly remember Uribe’s 2002-2010 presidency for his personalistic style and tough policies that reduced several measures of insecurity and weakened leftist guerrilla groups. His star has fallen, though. The ex-president has since become quite extreme, even Trumpian, in his political messaging, leading efforts to sink Colombia’s peace accord and using his Twitter account to attack and intimidate opponents. Uribe is also in legal trouble; Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating credible allegations that he sought to bribe or coerce jailed former paramilitary fighters into testifying falsely against a political opponent.

During his presidency, the bimonthly Gallup poll of Colombian public opinion routinely had Uribe’s favorability rating above 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent; by August 2019, this rating had fallen to 34 percent, with 61 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him. (President Duque’s approval rating was only 29 percent, with 64 percent disapproving.) The Centro Democrático had a bad day nationwide, failing to win major population centers nearly everywhere. Its candidate in Bogotá, Miguel Uribe (no relation), finished fourth, the last of the major candidates.

Álvaro Uribe’s grim poll numbers.

Cali also elected a progressive candidate as its mayor: Green Party candidate Jorge Iván Ospina, a former mayor and son of a founder of the old M-19 guerrilla group, will return to the job.

In Cartagena, William Dau, a candidate who ran without a party, was the victor over a long-running political machine. The city’s corruption-riven government has gone through 12 mayors in the past 6 years.

In Buenaventura, the impoverished Pacific city that is Colombia’s busiest port, voters elected Víctor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the Paro Cívico (Civic Strike), a social movement that led weeks of protests against corruption and poor government services in 2017. This was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the elite in a city where local government corruption is epic in proportion.

In the Venezuela border city of Cúcuta, normally one of the most conservative corners of Colombia, voters chose Jairo Yáñez, a businessman running on the Green Party ticket with an anti-corruption message, claiming his campaign spent only about US$25,000. His victory is an unexpected blow to Ramiro Suarez, a former mayor, imprisoned for para-politics, who remains a major power broker in the city.

In Magdalena, Will Freeman writes at NACLA, a political movement called Fuerza Ciudadana swept the governorship and the mayor’s race in the capital, Santa Marta. This is remarkable since this coastal zone, the home department of author Gabriel García Márquez, has been notorious as a stronghold of paramilitary groups and corrupt “para-politicians.”

In the Caribbean department of Sucre, one of Colombia’s poorest, the gubernatorial candidate of para-politician Álvaro “El Gordo” Garcia’s longstanding political clan, Yahir Acuña, suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of the Liberal Party candidate.

In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, the powerful and para-political Sánchez Montes de Oca clan failed to elect its candidates for governor and mayor of Quibdó, the capital. The winning candidates, however, may not be paragons of integrity.

In Cauca Elías Larrahondo, running in a coalition of centrist parties, has become the department’s first-ever Afro-Colombian governor.

While I haven’t looked at all town council elections, the FARC political party, descended from the guerrilla group that negotiated peace in 2016, did not win mayorships, and only ran candidates for just over a dozen. The FARC ran 308 candidates, mostly for councils and departmental legislatures, and got well under 1 percent of the total vote. One former FARC member, Guillermo Torres alias Julián Conrado—known previously as a guerrilla folksinger—was elected mayor of the Cartagena suburb of Turbaco, Bolívar. Torres, however, did not run as a candidate of the FARC party; he showed up on the ballot under the logos of two other left parties.

On the other end of the populist political spectrum, candidates aligned with leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and number-two presidential candidate in 2018, failed to meet expectations. Petro’s “Colombia Humana” candidates suffered defeat in Bogotá, Medellín, Atlántico, Cesar, Nariño, Santander, and Valle del Cauca, though a few candidates (like Torres, the ex-FARC singer in Turbaco) were elected elsewhere in coalition with other parties.

In much of the rest of Colombia, allegations of vote-buying, dirty campaign money, and candidates with organized crime ties were rife. These areas remain what Bogotá’s Fundación Paz y Reconciliación think tank, referencing the work of Northwestern University scholar Edward L. Gibson, calls “local authoritarianisms,” where candidates independent of traditional political bosses don’t stand a chance. Cities and departments where voters still went out and backed the “machines” include Barranquilla, Bolívar (except Cartagena, the capital), Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, and Valle del Cauca (except Cali, the capital).

The End of One-Party Rule is the End of Trump’s Border Wall

Sorry, but no.

Even before the Democratic Party won majority control of the House of Representatives, it wasn’t clear how Donald Trump was going to be able to get his border wall through Congress, which must approve the funding for it. Senate rules make it possible to block big budget outlays—like $25 billion for a wall—if 60 senators don’t first allow a vote to proceed. The Senate’s Republicans were (and still are) well short of that “filibuster-proof majority,” and Trump had been threatening to shut down the government to try to break the inevitable logjam of opposition.

His bargaining position just got far weaker. With the result of Tuesday’s midterm elections, Trump’s border wall has hit a wall of its own. With a Democratic majority, there is no way that a piece of legislation with border-wall money can pass the House of Representatives. Full stop.

Democrats will now write the first draft of all funding legislation. The Homeland Security appropriations bill will be drafted by a subcommittee headed by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, who strongly opposes Trump’s wall. “I am acutely aware of America’s security funding priorities,” she said in January. “We will not address our security needs by building this wall.” In July 2017, when the appropriations subcommittee that she will now preside met to approve the 2018 Homeland Security budget bill, Rep. Roybal-Allard introduced an amendment that would have cut Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Assets and Infrastructure funding by $1,571,239,000—the exact cost of the border wall—and to use it for other purposes. The amendment failed by a party-line vote of 22 to 30.

Democrats will also decide ahead of time which bills and amendments may be considered on the floor of the House of Representatives. Because there are so many representatives, the House has a Rules Committee that acts as a gatekeeper. It meets before any major legislation comes to the House floor, to decide which bills and amendments will be “in order”—that is, permitted to be considered—during the next day’s debate. Republicans have used the Rules Committee to prevent much legislation and amendments from coming to the floor, ruling it “out of order.” As of January, though, this powerful committee will be chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Latin America.

It is very hard to imagine a scenario in which President Trump gets his border wall through this House of Representatives. And if it doesn’t get through the House, it doesn’t get through Congress, and it doesn’t get funded.

Unless: if the president really wants his border wall, Democrats might be open to a deal if it includes big concessions to their agenda. President Trump would have to give the Democratic Party something very big to win their approval for his wall. That “something” would probably have to do with immigration policy.

In 2017, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) reportedly offered not to filibuster a package of border-wall money if the White House and Senate Republicans supported legislation allowing “Dreamers” to stay in the United States. That deal fell through, and now that judicial decisions have preserved Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for now, the Democrats would probably demand much more for border-wall funding. Their demands would probably extend to preserving access to asylum, strict limits on family detention and separation, non-deportation of migrants with Temporary Protected Status, reforms to CBP and ICE, and probably other demands that strike at the heart of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s anti-immigrant crusade.

If the White House isn’t willing to concede a lot on immigration—and after the over-the-top campaign rhetoric we’ve just heard, it probably isn’t—then Trump’s border wall is dead and done with. We are now “beyond the wall.”

Live updates of my House vote spreadsheet

I’ll keep updating this all night. Keep refreshing this page, or better yet, the Google Sheets page is here.

My pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) House spreadsheet

I hesitate to share this because it reveals how unhinged the midterm elections have made me. But here’s a spreadsheet of 70 House districts that could conceivably go either way in tomorrow’s vote.

To win a majority of the House of Representatives, Democrats will have to carry 33 of these 70. Nearly half. That is, they need to hold the ten Democrat-held districts listed here, and take 23 more.

After an unhealthily obsessive study of polls and coverage, I’ve given each of the 70 districts a score.

  • If it looks like a likely Democratic pickup, it gets a 1.
  • If it’s too close to call but I think it’s a plausible Democratic win, it gets a 0.5. That way, every two “plausible” districts equals one Democratic pickup.
  • If it’s a longshot, it gets a 0.
  • If it’s close but there’s a plausible chance that a Democratic seat could flip Republican, it’s a -0.5.
  • If the Democrat is likely to lose, it’s a -1 (that’s Radinovich’s seat in Minnesota, and a result of court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania-14).

I’ll update this through election night. But as of 5:00PM on Monday the 6th, I see the Democratic Party just barely squeaking by with a net gain of 23 seats, giving them a bare 218-217 majority:

You may score these districts more optimistically than I do. But I’ve been burned before, and by my reckoning, the Democrats will just barely make it.

Most analysts seem to be expecting the Democrats to pick up about 35 seats. (I’m closer to the RealClearPolitics map, which predicts a 26.5 seat Democratic pickup, for a 221.5-213.5 majority.) Sorry, but I just don’t see 35 seats.

There’s no wiggle room. This spreadsheet explains why I’m feeling pretty anxious about the Trump administration being subjected to any meaningful oversight and accountability over the next two years.

If I’m wrong and it’s a blowout, I’ll be delighted to admit how cracked my crystal ball is on Wednesday.

The new Brazil

From Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept:

Last week, one candidate from Bolsonaro’s party, Rodrigo Amorim, shocked and disgusted even some far-right supporters. Wearing a t-shirt with a pistol pointed forward, he took, destroyed, and then on social media proudly displayed an unofficial street sign made to commemorate the life of Marielle Franco, the black, LGBT human rights activist from the favelas who, as a leftist City Councilwoman, was assassinated in March, with her police-linked killers still apprehended. …The last line of his social media post – now deleted – read: “Get ready left-wingers: your days are numbered if we’re in charge.”

Last night, Amorim not only was elected to the State House in Rio, but was the most-voted candidate in the state. The other Bolsonaro-aligned candidate promoted there, Daniel Silveira, an officer with Brazil’s military police, was elected to the Federal Congress.

President No

The votes are counted in Colombia. Today’s elections were not a “second referendum” on the 2016 peace accord with the FARC: issues like corruption, a semi-collapsed healthcare system, and Venezuela’s crisis came to the fore.

Nonetheless, the coalition that criticized negotiations to end Colombia’s conflict with the FARC, and narrowly won an October 2016 plebiscite to reject the accord, is now in power.

In May of last year a prominent voice in the plebiscite’s “No” coalition, Fernando Londoño—who served as Álvaro Uribe’s first minister of interior and justice, and is now a right-wing radio host—said that “the first challenge” of Iván Duque’s and Uribe’s political party, the “Democratic Center,” is “to rip to shreds this damned paper that they call the final accord with the FARC.” Londoño had also argued that Duque was insufficiently rightist to be the Democratic Center’s standard-bearer, though—so what he says doesn’t tell us what Duque will do.

With Duque and his party now in power, Colombia will not be going back to war with the FARC. President Duque will bend the peace accord, both by seeking modifications and failing to act, but he won’t break it in a way that causes thousands of demobilized guerrillas to take up arms again. But neither will Duque’s government carry out the parts of the accord that aren’t about the FARC, but instead about guaranteeing non-repetition of armed conflict in Colombia.

Duque has promised to make changes to the accord’s transitional justice mechanism—still in its infancy—which intends to hold accountable people on both sides, guerrilla and government, who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It took the government and guerrillas 19 months to negotiate this system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). It is deeply unpopular with the No coalition, and with most Colombians, because it offers weak punishments to murderers and kidnappers in exchange for confessions and reparations to victims. Duque calls it a “monument to impunity.”

Duque wants to strengthen the penalties handed out to ex-guerrillas, to make them look more like prison, or at least like life in an agricultural penal colony. He is unlikely to be able to do this, as Colombia’s highest courts have already approved the structure agreed in the accords. Should he succeed, though, the demobilized guerrillas will surely reject a punishment that resembles that normally meted out to combatants defeated on the battlefield, which the FARC were not.

7,100 ex-guerrillas have registered with the JEP; with the promise of real jail time, many if not most would melt away into the jungle. Duque doesn’t want this, so he probably won’t pursue a tightening of penalties.

Duque has also proposed a constitutional amendment to ban amnesties for narcotrafficking. The peace accord considers former FARC members’ drug trafficking on a case-by-case basis: if the JEP finds evidence that a former fighter gained personally from trafficking, he or she must pay the regular criminal penalty. If all the proceeds went into the FARC’s war effort, though, the trafficking would be amnestied as a “political crime.” (Any trafficking after November 2016, when the peace accord went into effect, cannot be amnestied and is a regular crime.) Duque would do away with that amnesty—but almost definitely cannot do so retroactively. Any constitutional change would apply to future peace processes, and wouldn’t apply to the ex-FARC.

Duque also strongly opposes the accords’ allowing ex-FARC members to hold political office—including five automatic seats in each of Colombia’s two houses of Congress until 2026—before they’ve paid their penalties for war crimes. This part of the accord does raise the absurd likelihood of former guerrilla leaders starting and ending their days in “restricted liberty,” but serving in Congress, or perhaps mayors’ offices, in between. Altering it, though, might cause some of the FARC’s most prominent leaders to abandon the process, bringing many of their followers with them. The number of dissidents this would create would be lower, though, than those created by an attempt to toss ex-FARC members into regular prison.

Despite the red-meat rhetoric of the more vociferous No coalition leaders, then, Duque is most likely to walk a fine line on the peace accord’s transitional justice measures. He will seek some retroactive changes that look tough, but will avoid taking steps that send thousands of humiliated ex-guerrillas back into combat.

Instead of striking dramatic blows against the accord, it’s more likely that Duque and his coalition will kill it through neglect. Casting the accord adrift, failing to take action and failing to spend money, will bring much the same end result as dramatically tearing it to shreds.

The peace accord envisions a 15-year implementation period. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has made clear that it is the law of the land and that the country’s next three presidents must implement it. But the accord can be slow-walked to death.

The accord’s chapter on rural reform and development would take up 85 percent of the foreseen cost of implementation. It promises measures to benefit smallholding farmers, ranging from a national mapping of landholdings, to building roads and irrigation systems, to offering credit, healthcare, and food security in the countryside. Duque’s coalition, though, is made up of large landholders who benefit from the current rural status quo, and urban-dwellers who would rather see resources go to urgent needs in cities, where 77 percent of Colombians live. They are unlikely to devote billions of dollars to the countryside just because the FARC-Santos accord says they must.

President Santos’s government drew up an ambitious plan for increased state presence and basic government services in 170 municipalities (or counties—Colombia has 1,100) where armed conflict and coca cultivation have been most intense. The “Development Plans with a Territorial Focus” (PDETs) have been the subject of thousands of meetings between Bogotá officials and rural communities, raising expectations in long-abandoned zones even while only the most incipient investments have begun to arrive.

But Santos never got around to introducing the legislation necessary to implement most of the rural accord. It’s most unlikely that this will be part of Duque’s agenda, nor is it likely that the PDETs will be generously funded, if they’re continued at all. Hopes are dim for a greater state presence in Colombia’s conflictive and neglected countryside, other than perhaps a presence of more soldiers and police.

The same goes for the peace accord’s provisions (chapter 4) promising a new approach to coca cultivation. Smallholding peasants who grow coca are the weakest and least profitable link in the cocaine production chain, but get-tough policies have tended to target them because coca bushes are a lot easier to find than cocaine shipments or financial flows. Following the accord’s principle of attacking the root causes for coca cultivation, the Santos government sought to sign agreements with more than 100,000 coca-growing families around the country, promising two years of assistance in moving to legal crops in exchange for voluntary eradication of their coca. This program has already been struggling, and Duque is unlikely to continue it: he promises a large-scale campaign of forced eradication, perhaps to include (if courts allow it) a resumption of aerial herbicide fumigation, whether by aircraft or small drones.

Breaking the Santos government’s promises to coca-growing households, and ramping up forced eradication, will make Washington happy; policymakers in both the Obama and Trump administrations have been alarmed by record levels of coca and cocaine production in Colombia’s ungoverned rural zones. But we can also expect a sharp rise in violent confrontations in those zones, as growers’ associations that were working on slow-moving solutions with one government suddenly find themselves facing eradicators and herbicides from the next government.

It’s well-documented that the outgoing government of Juan Manuel Santos was not implementing the FARC accord with great energy. But now, hopes of full implementation are all but dashed. Most of the accord’s 310 pages may end up as unkept paper promises.

If that indeed happens, this will be a tragic squandering of a historic opportunity. What the No coalition misses is that the FARC accord wasn’t a gift to the FARC. The ex-guerrillas got little—no land reform, no constitutional amendments, no amnesty, not even land for ex-combatants—and they have since suffered utter defeat at the ballot box, their 74 congressional candidates winning a combined 0.3 percent of the vote in March.

Instead, the FARC accord, especially its chapters on rural development, coca, victims, and political participation, offered an opportunity to make Colombia a modern, prosperous country. It offered—still offers—a blueprint for replacing feudalism with rules-based market capitalism in a countryside that has been the source of ills ranging from coca to armed violence to deforestation.

For a moment in time, the accord buys time for government to “enter” rural Colombia without having to shoot its way in, and to provide the rule of law and other public goods that all states are supposed to supply. That moment in time is fleeting—rising violence data make that clear—but can be prolonged by having the state be present, keep promises, and punish corrupt or abusive behavior.

Slow-walking that plan, or defunding it, blows this opportunity to solve generations-old security and governance challenges in rural Colombia. The moment will end. In fact, the door into Colombia’s ungoverned territories is already closing as new criminal groups and guerrilla dissidences add to their numbers. Duque’s No coalition risks slamming the door shut, with results that Colombia would feel for a generation.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of May 27 – June 2)

First-Round Election Results: Petro vs. Duque

As polls predicted, no single candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in Colombia’s May 27 first-round presidential election. The candidates who will go on to a second round runoff on June 17 are rightist Senator Iván Duque and leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro. Duque got 39 percent of the vote, Petro 25 percent. Duque is broadly viewed as likely to win that runoff and ascend to the presidency on August 7—but most analysts caution that a Petro win, while improbable, is not impossible.

Some facts about the vote:

  • At 53 percent, voter turnout was the highest in a presidential election since 1998, and the highest in a first-round vote since 1974. Improved post-accord security conditions get some of the credit.
  • Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín leading a center-left coalition, outperformed poll predictions by winning 24 percent of the vote, nearly overtaking Petro. Pollsters’ head-to-head matchups had generally given Fajardo a higher probability than Petro of defeating Duque in a second round.
  • Former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras was expected to perform better than the 7 percent he received, as he worked assiduously to court local political bosses—some of them rather corrupt—throughout the country. This shady get-out-the-vote “machinery,” which has contributed enormously to past elections, failed Vargas Lleras this time.
  • Humberto de la Calle, a former vice president who led the government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana, won the Liberal Party’s nomination but took in only 2 percent of the vote.
  • Candidates in favor of the FARC peace accord won a combined 51 percent of the vote, or 58 percent if one counts Vargas Lleras, who has flip-flopped a bit on whether he supports the accord or not (he most recently decided that he does).
  • Petro and Duque were in a virtual tie, far ahead of the other candidates, in zones most affected by the conflict.
  • Petro won, 35 percent to Duque’s 31 percent, in municipalities that voted “yes” in the October 2016 plebiscite on the FARC peace accord. Duque carried “no” municipalities with 42 percent, over 23 for Fajardo and 12 for Petro.

Third-place finisher Fajardo, who like Petro supports the FARC peace accord, is not throwing his support behind either of the two second-round candidates. He announced that he will turn in a blank ballot on June 17, and said his 4.6 million voters are free to vote as they wish. This was a blow to Petro, whose only hope of winning is to have a large majority of Fajardo’s voters go to him. “To vote blank is to vote for Uribe,” Petro said, invoking hardliner Álvaro Uribe, Senator Duque’s patron and party chief, a former president (2002-2010) and current senator. (A blank ballot can be strategic under some circumstances: under Colombian law, if “blank ballot” gets more votes than other candidates in a first-round vote, a new election with different candidates must be held. This doesn’t apply to second-round voting, in which voting blank is only symbolic.)

Candidates’ Positions on Peace

Iván Duque actively supported the “no” vote in the October 2016 plebiscite on the FARC accord. He was the main plaintiff in the case that led Colombia’s Constitutional Court, in May 2017, to strip out much of the legislative “fast track” authority needed to pass laws to implement the accord—a key reason so many accord commitments haven’t become law. The same Court ruled last October that Colombian governments during the next three presidential terms are required to implement the peace accord and cannot change it. But since he is a leading opponent, a President Duque would be unlikely to implement it with vigor.

The ideal of Duque, and of ex-president Uribe and his supporters, is an accord that is generous with individual ex-combatants who demobilize and aren’t accused of serious war crimes, but offers no political reforms in exchange for that demobilization: just surrender terms. It is possible, then, that a Duque presidency might implement reintegration programs for former FARC fighters more energetically than has the Juan Manuel Santos government. But the accord’s other chapters—rural development, political participation, crop substitution, victims and transitional justice—could get short shrift, or Duque could even seek legislation to change them.

Duque has described as a “monument to impunity” the transitional justice system set up by the accord, the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), which hands out punishments for war criminals that he and his party view as too lenient. Duque has proposed pursuing at least four big changes to transitional justice:

  • Tightening penalties for those found guilty of war crimes. These are currently foreseen as a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison—for those who make full confessions and reparations to victims.
  • Eliminating amnesty for the crime of narcotrafficking, even if the perpetrator did not benefit personally from the trafficking activity.
  • Getting government personnel who perpetrated war crimes out of the JEP and into the jurisdiction of Colombia’s Supreme Court.
  • Prohibiting guerrillas accused of war crimes from holding office until they’ve paid a penalty.

All of these are very hard to change, not least because it took 19 months to negotiate these provisions and altering the deal could cause many guerrillas to prefer to take up arms again. As an analysis from La Silla Vacía points out, the transitional justice provisions have been made into law and approved by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.

Even if Duque manages to get a law passed that sends guerrilla war criminals to a proper prison, La Silla argues, the “favorability principle” in Colombian law states that when two laws contradict, the accused pays the lighter penalty—the “restricted liberty” foreseen in the JEP. Any change to amnesty for non-personal-gain narcotrafficking could not be retroactive, it could only apply to crimes committed after the peace accord, or to future peace processes. It would not affect demobilized FARC who have behaved.

La Silla foresees some possibility that Duque could push through a constitutional change prohibiting un-punished guerrillas from holding office, which could force changes in who holds the ten congressional seats granted to the FARC between 2018 and 2026. This, the site contends, “could cause mid-level commanders to leave the demobilization zones with some of their fighters and join the dissidences or start new groups.”

Duque would be likely to abandon the slow-moving peace talks taking place between the government and the ELN guerrilla leadership in Havana, out of a desire to negotiate only the guerrillas’ surrender and submission to justice and nothing else. Duque has said, according to El Espectador, that he would only continue the ELN talks under four conditions:

[The ELN’s] prior concentration in some part of the country with international supervision, suspension of all criminal activities, a defined timeframe for the conversations, and negotiations limited to a substantial reduction of sentences, but not an absence of penalties.

The ELN, which remains quite rooted in three or four parts of the country, is very unlikely to accept these terms. The group wants to continue talks, though. “If Duque wins, well, he’ll find us here, at the table,” chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán said this week.

Duque has no enthusiasm for the coca crop-substitution scheme being implemented (slowly) under Chapter 4 of the peace accord, which he calls a “disastrous chapter.” He favors to a return of massive forced eradication, including through aerial herbicide spraying.

While the Constitutional Court prevents Duque from doing away with the accord—and he insists that he doesn’t want to do away with it, just modify it—the rightist candidate can certainly “slow-walk” its implementation, carrying it out at a bare minimum. The choice between Petro and Duque, the La Silla analysis puts it, is about “whether the peace accord will serve as a roadmap for Colombia’s future, or whether it will be a marginal policy to guarantee that the demobilized don’t take up arms again.”

It explains that Duque can marginalize the accord, without killing it, by underfunding the agencies and programs set up to implement it, including the JEP and the Territorial Renovation Agency (ART) that is supposed to build state presence and rural development in the countryside. He can also “name second-tier functionaries,” with little political pull, to head such agencies, if he doesn’t abolish them entirely.

Gustavo Petro takes the opposite view. Although it doesn’t go into great detail, his campaign rhetoric mentions not only preserving the FARC peace accord, but improving the level of victims’ participation in it. He says he would increase civil-society’s direct role in accord implementation, particularly in the struggling coca-substitution programs, for which he proposes a greater role for coca-growers in “design, execution, and evaluation.” Petro would change the overall FARC accord, he says, only in ways that would make it possible for the Congress to pass the remaining laws needed to implement it fully. Petro also proposes levying a tax on unproductive large landholdings and directing the proceeds to programs that benefit conflict victims.

On a tour of Europe, President Santos told an audience in Brussels that “it’s impossible, legally and politically, to tear the peace accords to shreds.” He added, “Those of us who last Sunday saw the leader of the FARC, Timochenko, casting his vote within democracy—are we going to give him a rifle again so that he might return to the jungle? That’s irrational.”

Increase in European Union Assistance

During President Santos’s visit to Brussels, the European Union announced its approval of an additional €15 million of assistance “in support of the consolidation and implementation of the peace process in the country.” The aid, El Espectador reported with little additional detail, “will increase concrete measures, such as new programs to encourage economic activity and to contribute to rebuilding the social fabric in conflict-affected areas and the reinsertion of hundreds of FARC ex-combatants.” The aid is in addition to an EU trust fund announced in December 2016, which has provided €96.4 million to support accord implementation, especially in rural conflict zones.

73 U.S. House Members Call for Improved Protection of Social Leaders

Seventy-three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all of them Democrats, signed and sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging more U.S. government action to help Colombia’s government protect human rights defenders and social leaders. “A Colombian social leader is murdered every two and a half days,” the letter warns.

“In the past,” it continues, “Colombian authorities have shown that when it is important to them to lower the number of such killings, they are capable of doing so. And, while physical protection is important for those facing the highest known level of risks, it is expensive and impractical to provide it for every individual under threat.”

The letter makes five concrete recommendations:

For these reasons, protection mechanisms must be combined with other decisive action. First and most importantly is to swiftly bring to justice those who plan and orchestrate these murders, and not just the “triggermen” who execute the killings. Second, is for Colombian authorities at all levels to send clear, public and consistent messages that perpetrators, collaborators and beneficiaries of these crimes will face consequences. Third, is to dismantle illegal and violent armed actors that continue to murder and attack social leaders and the economic structures that support them. Fourth, is for the Colombian authorities to establish security and functioning state resources and presence in regions vacated by the FARC guerrillas, as required by the peace accords. And fifth, is for Colombia to achieve a complete peace by advancing the peace process in Havana with the ELN.

The signers include 14 ranking Democratic members of House committees. All would rise to these committees’ powerful chairmanships if, as some polls indicate might happen, the Democrats win majority control of the House in mid-term elections.

Local Officials Meet ELN in Havana To De-Escalate Catatumbo Violence

Since mid-March, a wave of fighting between the ELN and a smaller, locally influential guerrilla group, the EPL, has brought violence back up to conflict-era levels in Catatumbo, a poorly governed coca-producing region near the Venezuelan border in Norte de Santander department. In an effort to stop it, officials from the Norte de Santander departmental government gained permission to visit Havana to speak with ELN leaders participating in the peace talks with the national government. It is not clear what concrete gains the commission, led by departmental victims’ office director Luis Fernando Niño, achieved after meeting with the guerrilla leaders. However, the intensity of ELN-EPL fighting, which had displaced thousands, appears to have ebbed in the past few weeks.

Handoff of Cases To Transitional Justice System

The transitional justice system (JEP) is beginning to operate, even though it is still awaiting a Constitutional Court decision on the basic law governing its structure, and Congressional approval of another law governing its procedures. On May 30, the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) handed over to the JEP three of eighteen expected reports on crimes committed during the conflict by guerrillas and government agents. The documents register 223,282 cases involving 280,471 suspects and 196,768 victims of serious human rights abuses. According to Semana’s coverage:

  • 52,220 of the Fiscalía’s cases correspond to the FARC;
  • 13,934 cases correspond to the security forces;
  • 10,164 cases correspond to the ELN;
  • 55,768 cases correspond to the former AUC paramilitaries;
  • 3,324 cases correspond to other guerrilla groups; and
  • 87,872 cases do not identify a responsible group.

For the notorious extermination of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-tied political party, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Fiscalía’s records include 863 cases covering 1,620 victims and 277 perpetrators who were government forces.

The JEP will use this information to choose emblematic cases to pursue, and as evidence in trials of the nearly 8,000 ex-guerrillas, security-force personnel, and government civilians who have agreed to cooperate with the JEP in exchange for lighter sentences.

Visit from International Criminal Court Prosecutorial Official

The deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague paid a visit to Colombia this week. At an event about transitional justice, James Stewart reiterated the Court’s concerns about aspects of the peace accord’s provisions for judging war crimes.

Stewart praised the accord and the JEP as “an innovative, complex, and ambitious system, designed to assure accountability as part of the peace accord’s implementation.” However, Stewart—reiterating what chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has said in the past—recalled that the Court has its eye on how Colombia handles the following issues:

  • Cases of sexual or gender-based violence.
  • Extrajudicial executions or “false positive” killings, for which Stewart contended, Colombia’s “legal processes…don’t seem to have centered on the people who might bear the greatest responsibility within the military hierarchy.”
  • The responsibility of military commanders for crimes committed by their subordinates. At particular issue is whether the JEP will hold commanders accountable for crimes they “should have known” about (the Rome Statute standard), or just crimes that it can be proved that they knew about (the peace accord standard).

The ICC can only intervene in cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity if it determines that Colombia’s own system is not meeting the accountability standards laid out in the 2002 Rome Statute, to which Colombia is a signatory.

Three More Former FARC Combatants Killed

The FARC political party denounced the killings of three more of its members, all demobilized combatants, between May 22 and May 26 in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca. Cristian Bellaizac, Jhon Jairo Ruiz Pillimue, and Wilinton Bravo Angulo were murdered in the respective municipalities of Jamundí, Valle; Suárez, Cauca; and Buenos Aires, Cauca. The FARC communiqué cited 24 murders of ex-combatants so far this year, and alleged that “paramilitary successor criminal groups” are threatening and harassing its members in Bogotá. A day earlier, President Santos said that 40 reintegrating ex-guerrillas had been killed since the accord was signed in November 2016. The FARC says the number is now near 60. In early April, the UN Secretary General cited 44 murdered ex-combatants and 18 relatives of ex-combatants.

In-Depth Reading

This is a striking graphic

Although the peace accord was reportedly a low priority among Colombian voters, this graphic of Sunday’s first-round presidential vote shows a sharp divergence between the half of the country that voted “yes” for the FARC peace accord on October 2, 2016, and the half of the country that voted “no.”

Who won where yesterday in Colombia

Many thanks to GitHub user “infrahumano” for posting all municipal data about yesterday’s presidential election in Colombia. Crunching those numbers yields interesting results:

  • Poorer and historically conflictive parts of Colombia went for former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro.
  • Wealthier parts of Colombia went for former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo.
  • Parts of Colombia that are neither too poor nor overly wealthy went for Iván Duque, the candidate of ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s party.
  • Duque underperformed, and Fajardo overperformed, in big cities.
  • Duque ruled the countryside.

(Update 5:30PM: showing my work—here’s the Excel file I used to add up all of the below items. Also, a Google Sheet combining municipal data about this and past elections, among other data, from @infrahumano and La Silla Vacía.)

Overall result for the entire country:

  • Duque (right, “no” to FARC peace accord) 39%
  • Petro (left, “yes”) 25%
  • Fajardo (center-left, soft “yes”) 24%
  • Vargas Lleras (center-right, soft “yes”) 7%
  • De la Calle (center, “yes”) 2%

Historically conflictive territories went for Petro.

170 historically conflictive municipalities (those participating in the peace accords’ Development Programs with a Territorial Focus PDET, 10% of all voters):

  • Petro 40%
  • Duque 37%
  • Fajardo 10%
  • Vargas Lleras 9%
  • De la Calle 2%

Municipalities that voted “no” in the October 2016 plebiscite voted overwhelmingly for Duque.

544 municipalities, 46% of voters:

  • Duque 48%
  • Fajardo 26%
  • Petro 16%
  • Vargas Lleras 7%
  • De la Calle 2%

(Added 7:30PM, using dataset from La Silla Vacía.)

Municipalities that voted “yes” in the October 2016 plebiscite went for Petro.

576 municipalities, 54% of voters:

  • Petro 34%
  • Duque 32%
  • Fajardo 22%
  • Vargas Lleras 8%
  • De la Calle 2%

Places that are not too poor, but not too wealthy, went heavily for Duque.

13 departments with 60-80% of their populations’ minimum basic economic needs met (44% of all voters)

  • Duque 46%
  • Fajardo 24%
  • Petro 21%
  • Vargas Lleras 7%
  • De la Calle 2%

Duque underperformed in the poorest and wealthiest places.

19 departments, plus Bogotá and overseas consulates, with less than 60% or more than 80% of populations’ minimum basic needs met (56% of all voters)

  • Duque 35%
  • Petro 29%
  • Fajardo 24%
  • Vargas Lleras 8%
  • De la Calle 2%

Petro won the poorest places.

10 departments with less than 55% of populations’ minimum basic needs met (15% of all voters)

  • Petro 42%
  • Duque 36%
  • Vargas Lleras 12%
  • Fajardo 7%
  • De la Calle 2%

Fajardo won the wealthiest places.

4 departments, plus Bogotá and overseas consulates, with 80% or more of populations’ minimum basic needs met (35% of all voters)

  • Fajardo 33%
  • Duque 32%
  • Petro 26%
  • Vargas Lleras 6%
  • De la Calle 2%

Duque underperformed, and Fajardo overperformed, in the biggest cities.

46 municipalities and one overseas consulate with at least 50,000 who voted for candidates (60% of all voters)

  • Duque 36%
  • Fajardo 30%
  • Petro 25%
  • Vargas Lleras 6%
  • De la Calle 2%

Duque overperformed in the countryside.

1,076 municipalities and 68 overseas consulates with fewer than 50,000 who voted for candidates (40% of all voters)

  • Duque 46%
  • Petro 26%
  • Fajardo 16%
  • Vargas Lleras 10%
  • De la Calle 2%

Talking Colombian elections on WBEZ Worldview

Here’s an 11-minute interview from yesterday with Jerome McDonnell, the veteran and deeply knowledgeable host of Worldview on WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. We look at Colombia’s upcoming elections and the state of peace accord implementation.

These interviews, especially live ones like this, are nerve-wracking, even when it’s a topic I follow closely. Time is very limited, but you have to break things down for a general audience, which takes time. A voice in your head screams “hurry up you only have 10 minutes” while the rest of your brain wants to explain the complicated context. I end up talking too fast, and I honestly have no idea which facts/arguments audiences will find most compelling or boring. People who do this well are in high demand, because it’s hard to do well.

The Post-Election Surge in Honduran Migrants

As even a Google search of the word “caravan” will tell you, the Trump administration is freaked out about a jump in migration from Central America since March. Children and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are once again crossing the border and seeking out U.S. authorities to petition for asylum or other protected status.

A few days ago I posted a chart showing that what we’re seeing is a normal seasonal increase in migration—this is the time of year when the desert neither freezes you at night nor bakes you during the day—and that numbers had in fact flattened out in April.

But look more closely at the Central America numbers, and something interesting emerges: Honduras is the only country whose increase is more than seasonal.

In April, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 87 percent more Honduran children and family-unit members than it did in December. Guatemalans and Salvadorans are down from December. After a 169 percent increase from December to March, Mexican authorities are now apprehending more people from Honduras then from neighboring Guatemala.

Two years ago, when El Salvador’s homicide rate was over 100 per 100,000 inhabitants, Border Patrol was apprehending more Salvadorans than citizens of the other two Northern Triangle countries, while Honduras was in third place. Now, it’s switched around. Honduras, though still behind Guatemala, is the fastest-growing. Most members of this year’s migrant caravan through Mexico were Honduran, as much reporting noted.

In my view, the strongest variable explaining the jump in Honduran out-migration is the aftermath of the probably fraudulent vote that re-elected President Juan Orlando Hernández on November 26, 2017. Since then, the country has witnessed frequent protests, including a violent May 1, and a brutal crackdown. This may contribute to a general sense of disorder spurring more Hondurans to leave. More specifically, pulling military police out of high-crime neighborhoods to go after protesters and activists may have left a vacuum of authority that criminal gangs are competing to fill.

While we need more data to be sure, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that the current jump in Honduran migrants is a “Juan Orlando Hernández re-election surge.”

(As indicated in the charts, the sources used to make them are U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s monthly updates on Southwest Border Migration, which we collect here, and the monthly statistics compiled by the Mexican Interior Secretariat’s Migration Policy Unit.)

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 18-24.)

Duque Pulls Ahead in Presidential Polls

After handily winning a primary of right-wing candidates that accompanied March 11 legislative elections, Bogotá Senator Iván Duque has rapidly emerged as the frontrunner for the May 27 presidential elections. Duque, the candidate of far-right former president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, now holds a comfortable double-digit lead and is in striking distance of the 50 percent threshold he would have to hit to avoid a second-round runoff in June.

An Invamer poll commissioned by three large Colombian media outlets found Duque with 45.9 percent of voters’ preference. He is followed by:

  • 26.7% for leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, who won his own “primary” ballot on March 11;
  • 10.7% for center-left former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo;
  • 6.3% for center-right former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras;
  • 5.0% for former vice-president and former government peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle;
  • 2.5% for socially conservative former chief prosecutor Viviane Morales; and
  • 0.6% for leftist former senator Piedad Córdoba.

The same polling company found Duque with only 8.4 percent support in December and 9.2 percent in January.

Though he is President Uribe’s standard-bearer (and has to keep denying that he is Uribe’s “puppet”), Duque presents himself as a more moderate candidate than his party’s firebrand leader. He did so on a brief visit to Washington this week, when he called his governing platform “center-centrist” and said that “left and right” is a thing of the past. Duque met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and spoke at an Inter-American Dialogue event.

Political moderation aside, Duque called for adjustments to the FARC peace accord that could be fatal to the process, such as demanding that no ex-guerrillas hold office without first being judged by a transitional justice tribunal. He also proposed a constitutional change to make narcotrafficking a “non-amnistiable” offense. If applied retroactively to ex-guerrillas who did not enrich themselves through the drug trade, this reform would send many to jail for a long time, a prospect that would probably cause them to take up arms again.

Duque also called for a reactivation of the U.S.-backed program of aerially fumigating coca fields with herbicides, which Colombia suspended in 2015. This time, Duque proposed using a chemical other than glyphosate, which a 2015 WHO study found to be potentially carcinogenic.

U.S. Congress Extends the “Peace Colombia” Aid Package Into 2018

Back in May, the Trump White House proposed a 36 percent across-the-board cut, from 2016 levels, in U.S. assistance to Colombia. The cut would have more than undone the 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package, proposed by then-president Barack Obama a year earlier, that intended to help Colombia implement aspects of the FARC peace accord. Colombia was not being singled out: Trump’s “America First” priorities called for similar cuts to Latin America and most of the world.

The Republican-majority U.S. congress un-did those proposed cuts completely, repeating the “Peace Colombia” numbers exactly for 2018. Colombia will receive $391 million in mostly non-military assistance this year from the State Department and Foreign Operations appropriation. In addition, it would get an as-yet undetermined amount of military and police aid (in 2016 it was $78.8 million) through the Department of Defense’s counter-drug budget.

Undaunted, the Trump administration has requested a similar cut to Colombia aid for 2019.

This week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would transfer $2.5 million from other accounts to Colombia to “provide emergency food and health assistance for vulnerable Venezuelans and the Colombian communities who are hosting them.”

Also this week, the State Department published its latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, an annual document looking at the state of worldwide illicit drug production and trafficking, and U.S. efforts to stop them. This year’s report noted that “Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production exceeded all-time record levels during 2016,” but that “Colombia continues to take steps to combat the drug trade.”

An editorial in the Colombian daily El Espectador was critical. “Since Donald Trump arrived in the Presidency, the United States has been a diffuse ally with regard to narcotrafficking. We went from understanding that the peace accord would bring an increase in violence and illicit crops while new measures began to be implemented, to being constantly reminded that they’re watching us and that not enough is being done.” It concludes, “the situation is not good, but the seeds for solving the problem are in the accord. We must persist.”

ELN Talks Develop “Roadmap”

The round of negotiations with the ELN guerrillas that began March 15 is slowly progressing. Negotiators agreed on a timeline for discussions to be held in Quito, Ecuador between now and May 18.

For now, they are considering proposals for how to incorporate civil-society participation in future dialogues. On April 2, they will begin discussing a future cessation of hostilities, based on the experience of a 100-day bilateral ceasefire that the government and guerrillas failed to renew on January 9. Meanwhile, on April 5 they will develop a response to a civil-society proposal that they agree to, and observe, a humanitarian accord in the northwestern department of Chocó, where fighting between the ELN and the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group has displaced thousands.

“We have reasonable expectations of advancing quickly in the building of a new ceasefire with the ELN, based on experiences collected by the oversight and verification mechanism of the prior ceasefire,” said chief government negotiator Gustavo Bell. That mechanism was made up of staff from the UN mission verifying security for the FARC peace process, and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference.

ELN-EPL Fighting Continues in Catatumbo

Aggression continues between the ELN and the EPL, a small but locally powerful guerrilla group, in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing areas. The two groups got along for years, but are now confronting each other as they compete to fill spaces vacated by the FARC, and as the EPL undergoes leadership changes. The population of Catatumbo is caught in between.

A week after a meeting between local leaders ended with six dead and three wounded, several Catatumbo municipalities have seen businesses and schools shuttered for fear of further violence. The EPL has blockaded roads, leaving parts of the region cut off. The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) says that at least 1,350 people have been displaced.

The ELN put out a statement saying “the EPL have publicly declared war on us.” An EPL statement insists, “We have never declared war on the ELN,” and demands dialogue between the two groups.

Slain Afro-Colombian Leader’s Children Are Murdered

Last June, many Colombians were horrified by the murder of Afro-Colombian leader Bernardo Cuero. A leader of the National Association of Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in the Pacific port city of Tumaco, Cuero was killed by an assassin in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla.

This week in Tumaco, two motorcycle-mounted hitmen shot and killed two of Cuero’s children, Silvio Duban Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero. Denouncing the crime, AFRODES pointed out that the double murder took place twelve days after the first hearing in Bernardo Cuero’s case.

Crop-Substitution Leader Killed in Bajo Cauca

Colombian army personnel found the body of José Herrera in Valdivia, Antioquia, not far from the town of El Aro, Ituango (the site of a notorious 1997 paramilitary massacre). A local Community Action Board leader, Herrera was a founder of the Bajo Cauca Campesino Association and a member of the Marcha Patriótica, a left-leaning nationwide campesino network. He was also one of his community’s leading participants in a coca-substitution program that the government is carrying out within the framework of the FARC peace accord.

Herrera’s home region of Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, a few hours’ drive northwest of Medellín, has been one of Colombia’s most violent in 2018. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 2,192 people displaced there between January 18 and March 9.

Nationwide, participants in peace-accord crop substitution programs are being increasingly targeted. At least twelve were killed in 2017, and nine so far in 2018. El Colombiano cites a recent report from INDEPAZ blaming most of these killings on the Urabeños and the EPL. Eduardo Álvarez of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank (FIP) also cites “tensions between small-scale coca cultivators and large-scale farmers who don’t view substitution as any kind of incentive.” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas adds that four members of the security forces were killed during forced eradication operations in 2017, and another thirty-one, plus nine civilians, were wounded.

Dissident Groups Attack at the Colombia-Ecuador Border

A group of un-demobilized ex-FARC fighters active in the coca-growing countryside of Tumaco in far southwestern Colombia, set off a roadside bomb across the border in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers.

The group believed responsible is headed by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” a native of Esmeraldas, Ecuador who spent time in the FARC. His group, El Colombiano reports, “wants to recover for Mexican ‘narcos,’ according to military intelligence sources, a strategic corridor allowing him to take coca paste into the country.” FIP’s Eduardo Alvarez says, “‘Guacho’s’ people are sponsored by Colombian narcos, and intermediaries of Mexican cartels, who help with logistics, resources, and arms.” Alvarez told El Colombiano that Guacho’s group has perhaps 400 to 450 members (a very high estimate), many of whom belonged to FARC structures.

Tumaco and adjoining northwest Ecuador appear to be the busiest coastal jumping-off point for cocaine shipments headed to Mexico and Central America.

New Military Estimate of FARC Dissidents

The government’s estimate of the nationwide membership of these FARC “dissident” groups leapt to 1,200, amid rapid desertion of the accord implementation process and recruitment. Armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía’s February 2017 estimate of dissidents was 300 members. “Initially there was a jump from 500 to 750, to 1,000… and now the figure is approximately 1,200,” Mejia told reporters. This coincides with a February review of the situation by the FIP, which estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 members of at least a dozen groups operating most often in 6 departments.

Gen. Mejía added that the government has captured, killed, or accepted the desertions of 248 FARC dissidents since the middle of 2017.

Bill Would Change Law for Small-Scale Illicit Crop Cultivators

Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero introduced legislation in Colombia’s Congress to change how the government deals with some criminal aspects of drug policy. If passed into law, the bill would fulfill a commitment the government made in the Havana peace accord.

It would offer lighter penalties to small-scale coca cultivators. The government reduced that definition of small-scale cultivator from an initial proposal of 3.8 hectares (9.5 acres) or less of coca, to 1.7 hectares (4.25 acres) or less. The FARC political party complained about this reduction, arguing that it leaves out many cultivators who should be considered small-scale.

The bill also hold the possibility of a 50 percent reduction in sentences for members of criminal groups who turn themselves in and give evidence about their group’s activities. While its language appears to be ambiguous about whether FARC dissidents count as members of such “criminal groups,” President Santos insisted that dissidents, who violated the terms of their demobilization, would not qualify.

Coca Eradication and CEO Expansion

Since 2017, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said, the Colombian government has forcibly eradicated 60,000 hectares of coca: 53,000 in 2017 and 6,500 so far this year.

These operations are supported by the U.S. government, most notably through the establishment of Strategic Operational Commands (CEOs) combining police and military activities in specific regions. Vice-President Oscar Naranjo said that a fourth CEO will be established next week in Norte de Santander department. The other three are based in Tumaco, Nariño; San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; and Caucasia, in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region.

The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2016. The White House released that estimate on March 14, 2017. It has been more than a year, but no estimate for 2017 has yet appeared.

New UN Human Rights Representative

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá is bidding farewell to Todd Howland, a U.S. citizen who held the post since 2012. Howland gained high marks for outspoken but well-researched advocacy for judicial accountability for past human rights abuses, protection of human rights defenders and ethnic groups, assistance in bringing a peaceful end to campesino protests, and technical support to the peace process.

Howland’s replacement, accredited by the Colombian government, is Alberto Brunori, an Italian citizen who had been heading UNHCHR’s Central America regional office. Before that, he headed the High Commissioner’s offices in Guatemala and Mexico, and helped to launch the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

In-Depth Reading

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 11-17.)

Congressional Elections

Colombians went to the polls on March 11, and elected a Congress that looks a lot like the one they elected in 2014. Right-of-center parties made hair-thin gains, mainly in the House of Representatives.

Parties that remain mostly supportive of the Havana peace accord with the FARC lost a bit of ground in the House and stayed about the same in the Senate. The pro-accord contingent gets a boost in each chamber from five automatic seats granted to the FARC, as stipulated in the peace accord. Accord proponents may lack, or barely have enough, votes to pass legislation necessary to implement what was agreed. Opponents may similarly find themselves lacking enough votes to roll back accord commitments.

Senate 2014 2018
Centro Democratico Right 20 19
Cambio Radical Center-right 9 16
Conservative Center-right 18 15
La U Center 21 14
Liberal Center 17 14
Green Center-left 5 10
Polo Democratico Left 5 5
List for Decency Left 0 4
MIRA Center (evangelical) 0 3
MAIS Center-left (indigenous) 1 1
AICO Center-left (indigenous) 0 1
Opción Ciudadana Center-right 5 0
ASI Center-left (indigenous) 1 0
FARC automatic seats Left 0 5
Total 102 107
Parties that mostly support the Havana accord 50 57

House 2014 2018
Liberal Center-left 39 35
Centro Democratico Right 19 35
Cambio Radical Center-right 16 30
La U Center 37 25
Conservative Center-right 27 21
Green Center-left 6 9
Others 7 2
Opción Ciudadana Center-right 6 2
Polo Democratico Left 3 2
MIRA Center (evangelical) 3 2
List for Decency Left 0 2
MAIS Center-left (indigenous) 0 1
AICO Center-left (indigenous) 2 0
ASI Center-left (indigenous) 1 0
FARC automatic seats Left 0 5
Total 166 171
Parties that mostly support the Havana accord 91 81

2014 source2018 source

The “Democratic Center” party of former president Álvaro Uribe, a rightist, had a good day. With about 16 percent of the vote in both houses, it became the party with the most representation.

It especially benefited from a primary vote held alongside the congressional balloting. Any voter who asked for a ballot could choose a unified right-wing candidate for the May 27 presidential elections from a list of three contenders. Of about 17.8 million voters who participated in the elections, more than 6.1 million voters requested the right-wing ballot. The winner, Iván Duque of the Democratic Center, got more than 4 million votes. The resulting momentum propelled Duque to the front-runner position for the May elections.

A left-wing primary between former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and a little-known candidate, former Santa Marta mayor Carlos Caicedo, gave a similar but smaller boost to Petro’s candidacy. 3.5 million voters asked for a ballot in this contest, 85 percent of whom chose Petro. The exercise of voting for either Duque or Petro, plus the publicity that the primaries received, helped both pull away from the pack of five major candidates.

The political tendency that opposed the 2016 accord with the FARC is now unified behind Duque, or behind former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras, who is polling in the single digits. Supporters of the peace accord remain divided between Petro and two more moderate candidates: former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo and the government’s former lead negotiator in Havana, Humberto de la Calle.

The electoral outcome was grim for the new FARC political party. The ex-guerrillas’ 74 candidates got a combined 0.34 percent of votes in the Senate, and 0.21 percent in the House. This historically rural group got more than half of its votes from capital cities, points out an excellent analysis from La Silla Vacía. The FARC party won more than 10 percent of the vote in only 6 of 170 historically FARC-influenced municipalities (counties) that the government has prioritized for post-conflict investments.

The FARC gets an automatic 10 seats in the new legislature, but the March 11 result was a hard landing, as it revealed the group to have no silent base of rural support. Analysts say that voters were repelled by the ex-guerrillas’ lack of expressed contrition for past crimes, their insistence on keeping their acronym and running feared former leaders as candidates, and these leaders’ desire to hold office without first passing through war crimes tribunals, which will happen later. “The key is that they had not passed through the special justice unit for peace and more importantly, they had never apologized publicly and rejected the impact of their violence – this is what cost them so dearly,” Jorge Restrepo of Bogotá’s CERAC think-tank told Al Jazeera.

Traditional political parties appear to have won seats through traditional, corrupt means like vote-buying. Alejandra Barrios, director of Colombia’s non-governmental Electoral Observer Mission (MOE) told El Tiempo, “We’ve received about 1,200 citizen reports, just this Sunday, about electoral anomalies and irregularities. An important number of them are related to the buying and selling of votes.” The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank contends that 42 of the 278 new legislators come from political groups that are notorious for corruption or links to organized crime.

ELN Talks Restart

The ELN guerrillas observed a five-day ceasefire around the elections. In response to this gesture, President Juan Manuel Santos sent his negotiating team back to Quito, Ecuador, to re-start peace talks with the ELN. These had been effectively suspended since January, when the guerrillas chose not to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire and carried out a series of attacks.

In this fifth round of talks, scheduled to go from March 15 until May 18, negotiators are to discuss how to include citizen participation in talks—an ELN priority—and how to move toward a new cessation of hostilities, a government priority. The last “truce brought concrete relief to communities, and we’ll never know how many lives were saved,” said the government’s chief negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell. “The task now is to build a more stable ceasefire that will allow us to advance in the development of other agenda points.”

Chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán said the guerrillas hope to leave the process in as advanced a state as possible so that the next president cannot simply discard it.

“They should bring the process to an irreversible point,” observed León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, who demobilized from the ELN in 1994. “So that the next president has to continue it. The vote that Duque obtained was not a good sign, since he has said he’d review the accords and has different demands for any conversations with the guerrillas.” The government view is that the best way to lock in the dialogues is to have a ceasefire in place, which the next president would be less likely to end unilaterally.

Transitional Justice System Starts Work

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the system of tribunals to judge war crimes set up by the Havana peace accord, opened its doors on March 15. As of that date, JEP President Patricia Linares explained, victims may collectively share their cases with the JEP. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) will also hand over 25 reports of cases.

The system is expected to take on the cases of 7,916 people accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. (Linares, the JEP president, cites a figure of 7,392 people.) Those who fully confess their actions will receive lighter sentences of up to eight years in “restricted liberty” that is not prison. Though the numbers don’t exactly add up to 7,916, El Espectador cites 6,094 former guerrillas, 1,792 current or former members of the security forces, and 24 (El Tiempo says 27) private citizens who have petitioned to be included in this justice system. The private citizens include a former interior minister, a former governor of Sucre department, and a former mayor of Cúcuta accused of collaborating with paramilitary groups.

The JEP will only be able to rule on a tiny fraction of the serious crimes committed during the conflict. “Transitional justice, by definition, is modest, because we already know we can’t do everything,” JEP Executive Secretary Nestor Raul Correa told Reuters. “If I were to give a random figure—of 200,000 crimes that have happened in these fifty years, we’ll investigate 1,000.”

The military has shown support for the JEP. On March 15, armed-forces commander Gen. Alberto Mejía met with tribunal judges, as Verdad Abierta put it, “to show support for the jurisdiction and to impart ‘a complete vision of military doctrine and especially operational law.’”

The Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) sent JEP President Linares a letter voicing concerns about the distribution of prosecutors assigned to the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit. Of 11 prosecutors, 7 are to investigate FARC crimes, 3 to investigate the security forces, and 1 to investigate civilians and other state agencies. The victims’ group asked that the JEP not consider “false positive” killings committed by security-force personnel, as they “were perpetrated with the objective of obtaining rewards, economic benefits, leave time, and other aspects, which by no means are related, directly or indirectly, to the armed conflict.”

In a process that began in January, 35 of 38 JEP judges have been sworn in. They will not start hearing cases until later this year. First, Colombia’s Constitutional Court must rule on the law, passed last November, governing the JEP’s operations. In its current form, that law would actually disqualify many of the current judges, as it prohibits the participation of anyone who has done human rights work within the past five years. The Court is expected to strike down this provision.

When they do start taking place, all of the JEP’s war-crimes hearings will be open to the public. The system will operate for 10 years, with an option for a 5-year extension.

Since January, the judges have been working on the regulations that will govern their work, and the text of a procedural law, which Congress must pass to guide how processes will function. “These procedural norms are almost ready,” Linares told Semana. The JEP is about to send its proposals to the Presidency, which must then send the bill to Congress.

Another Visit From the ICC

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s office sent three investigators to Colombia this week to look at prosecutors’ efforts to bring to justice commanders of military units that committed large numbers of extrajudicial executions. Last September, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda visited Colombia to ask for information about the cases of 29 Army officers, some of them high-ranking.

“Diplomatic sources” told El Espectador that the purpose of this week’s ICC visit was “to open formal investigations against some of these questioned officers.” The ICC can call for the arrest of individuals in signatory countries whom it believes responsible for serious human rights violations, if it views that these individuals are not being seriously investigated or tried in that country’s justice system.

The ICC has requested access to Fiscalía archives on the cases of these military officers. It appears that the Court has not received the response it expected.

ELN and EPL are Fighting in Catatumbo

A meeting between local leaders of the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a tiny but locally powerful guerrilla group, ended in the deaths of six people, with three wounded, in the conflictive Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department. In a rural area of Teorama municipality, “they carried out a meeting to figure out how to get over their disagreements,” said armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía. “They didn’t come to any accord between the capos, and they decided to kill each other, firing on each other. This has generated great concern in the population.”

Catatumbo, Colombia’s second-densest coca-growing region, had a presence of FARC, ELN, and EPL guerrillas who mostly avoided confronting each other. With the FARC demobilized, the ELN and EPL have both been expanding. Once-friendly relations between the two groups have deteriorated, and this month have erupted in violence. Eduardo Álvarez of Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation told El Colombiano that the disagreements owe to “interests in the cocaine market, new routes and foreign sales, as well as the ‘EPL’s internal degradation due to rapid change of leaders, some more criminalized and less ideological.’”

Violence Worsening in Northern Antioquia and Southern Córdoba

In Antioquia department’s Bajo Cauca region, a few hours’ drive northeast from Medellín, and just over the departmental border in southern Córdoba, violence has flared up between two organized-crime groups with paramilitary heritage, the Urabeños (aka the Gaitanistas, or Clan del Golfo) and a local group called Los Caparrapos. The fighting displaced 1,500 people from Cáceres municipality in March, and 80 Zenú indigenous people from Caucasia this week.

The region has seen four killings of social leaders in 2017, and eleven attacks, including two homicides, so far in 2018.

In Tarazá, Valdivia, Anorí, and Ituango municipalities, El Espectador reports, the Urabeños “have even called on social and community leaders to demand copies of their meeting minutes, carried out censuses of the population, and required them to attend meetings to know ‘the new rules’ that they, and all residents, must follow.”

Trump Announces Colombia Visit

The White House announced that president Trump will pass through Colombia on his way back from attending the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. While in Colombia, he will meet with President Santos. Topics, according to spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, will include immigration, border security, and “fair and reciprocal trade.” Though Sanders didn’t mention cocaine production, that will likely be on the president’s mind as well.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia’s Peace Process

Congressional Elections Are This Sunday

Colombians go to the polls on March 11 to elect new members of a 108-person Senate and a 172-person House of Representatives. All will serve four-year terms. Regardless of the result, at least five from each house will be members of the political party formed by the former FARC guerrillas. The peace accord gives the FARC ten automatic congressional seats for the next two four-year terms, until 2026.

Polling indicates that rightist parties, and traditional political families, will do well. The “Democratic Center” party of former President Álvaro Uribe led in a Guarumo/EcoAnalitica poll with 20.1 percent of intended Senate votes. (Despite its name, this party is the farthest to the right politically.) Of the next five parties, four are big political machines with blurred, but mostly conservative-leaning, political views (the Liberals, Cambio Radical, the Conservatives, and the “U” or Unity party). The fifth, the Green Party, trends center-left.

Much coverage of the campaign’s last stage focuses on the continued power of local family dynasties, whose members keep getting re-elected despite allegations of corruption or collusion with organized crime and paramilitarism.

In the Wall Street Journal, John Otis profiles Sucre Department candidate Juliana Escalante García.

“[I]t hasn’t hurt Ms. Escalante that her uncle, former senator Álvaro García, is now serving a 40-year prison term for murder or that other politically active relatives have been convicted or investigated for graft and allying with death squads. What ensures loyalty from voters in this impoverished state of Sucre are the personal favors the candidates dispense.”

Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation tells Otis that “about a third of Colombia’s incoming 280-member Congress will be made up of politicians from 11 political clans.”

El Espectador mapped out the dominant political clans in Valle del Cauca (Toro), Santander (Aguilar), and the Atlantic (Char) and Pacific (Martínez Sinisterra) coastal regions. El Tiempo profiled 17 political families throughout the country. La Silla Vacía looked at how jailed politicians continue to manage their electoral machinery from their comfortable prison cells.

“Timochenko” Drops Out of Presidential Race

The former FARC are performing poorly in polls: the Guarumo/EcoAnalitica survey showed its 74 Senate and House candidates sharing the support of 0.6 percent of respondents. And the former guerrillas’ presidential campaign suffered a knockout blow this week as its candidate, former paramount FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko,” suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery.

The 59-year-old Timochenko has been plagued by health problems. Following this medical event, he pulled out of the campaign completely. The FARC will not run a presidential candidate in the May 27 elections.

Timochenko’s campaign had not been going well. Most polls had him in the 1 percent range. And some of his campaign appearances had been met with angry mobs throwing objects at him. “Nothing has gone well for the party,” León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation told the New York Times. “The implementation of the peace accords going ahead will depend on their presence and political influence in the country and this is in question.”

Former FARC members continue to face attacks and threats around the country. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo told Verdad Abierta that since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord, 56 people tied to the FARC have been murdered, among them 42 ex-combatants, some relatives, and “a very small number, two or three people, tied to the new FARC political party who weren’t ex-combatants or relatives.”

Presidential Candidate Petro Claims He Was Shot At

Leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who narrowly leads polls for May’s first-round presidential vote, visited Washington to consult with the OAS about an attack that took place in Cúcuta on March 2. As his motorcade drove through the city, it was hit with a projectile so hard that it cracked the thick glass of Petro’s armored car. Petro claims it was a bullet. The investigative arm of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (the CTI) said the damage did not result from a bullet, but did not suggest an alternative.

Petro blamed the attack on the machine that dominates local politics in Cúcuta. The city’s current mayor is a close associate of former mayor Ramiro Suárez, who is currently imprisoned in Bogotá for working with paramilitary groups.

U.S. Senate Holds Nomination Hearing for Next U.S. Ambassador

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met March 7 to hear testimony from four ambassadorial nominees, including Joseph MacManus, the State Department’s pick for Colombia.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) raised concerns with MacManus about whether human rights would be upheld in the FARC peace agreement, or would be sacrificed. MacManus replied that “the key word is accountability,” and human rights are a part of that. He added that while Colombia has made advances in protecting labor leaders and human rights defenders, there is a long way to go, and institutions need strengthening.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) called Colombia a “success story,” and endorsed the country’s bid to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). MacManus said that the OECD bid was helping Colombia to make progress on standards, but cited child labor as one of a few areas where Colombia still needs to do more.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) brought up what he characterized as “record supplies of cocaine,” along with a drop in prices and an increase in U.S. consumption. The timing of increased coca, Rubio said, “coincided with the peace deal,” which he says included a program “paying growers to stop growing coca,” which encouraged people to grow coca to qualify. Rubio said that MacManus would be ambassador at a time when cocaine may compete with opiates as the worst illegal drug plague in the United States. “I see it becoming a major irritant in the relationship.” MacManus replied, “That irritation is already there. It’s beyond an irritation,” citing President Trump’s September near-decertification of Colombia as a partner in the drug war. MacManus assured that the Colombian government is also concerned about coca: it interdicted about 500 tons in 2017, a record, and registered its highest numbers for manual and voluntary eradication in years. MacManus noted that the peace accords call for both rural reform and addressing illicit drugs. He recalled that, at an early March High Level Dialogue, Colombia committed to eradicating to 50 percent of the current area planted with coca within five years.

Sen. Rubio noted that the territorial space, and the role in the cocaine trade, that the FARC once occupied have been taken up by “cartels and the ELN.” He added that “It is indisputable that distribution of cocaine is assisted actively by elements in the Venezuelan government.” Rubio said that Venezuela is supportive of the ELN, and that aerial trafficking routes almost all begin in Venezuelan territory. MacManus did not dispute Rubio’s assessment.

Rubio concluded that between the unstable border and a flood of migrants, “Venezuela poses a national security threat to our strongest ally, Colombia.” McManus concurred that Venezuela is “a principal threat, a threat to Colombia” and “the principal problem of today, of right now,” in Latin America. He noted that Colombia is prepared to seek international assistance to attend to Venezuelan migrants, and that there have been discussions within U.S. agencies about how to provide that.

The Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on MacManus’s nomination. Conservative media outlets had attacked MacManus last year: though he is a career Foreign Service officer, they, and some far-right senators, perceive him as being too close to Hillary Clinton, on whose staff MacManus served when she was secretary of state. Sen. Rubio’s first line of questioning dealt with MacManus’s role in dealing with the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which U.S. conservatives contend that Clinton mishandled.

Crop Substitution Plan is Lagging

The National Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana (COCCAM) held a press conference to warn that the government’s crop substitution program, part of Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord, is not going well.

COCCAM members throughout the country have signed agreements with the Colombian government to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for a package of aid—mainly a stipend and help with productive projects and technical support—valued at about US$12,000 over two years. This National Integral Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), the growers warn, is on the brink of failure. Payments are arriving very late. Productive projects and technical support have not begun anywhere.

“The National government included 1 trillion pesos (about US$360 million) for the PNIS,” said COCCAM spokeswoman Luz Perly Córdoba. “If we count up how much it costs to attend to the 54,000 families signed up just for this year, the budget rises to 1.5 trillion pesos.”

Cristian Delgado, who manages human rights for COCCAM, counted 27 of its members killed since January 2017. Participants in crop-substitution efforts have been among a growing wave of social leaders killed in post-conflict Colombia.

10 ELN Killed in Bombing Raid

Colombia’s air force and army bombed a column of ELN fighters in Cáceres, in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, on March 6. The raid killed 10 ELN members, and troops captured 3 more. It was the deadliest military attack on the ELN since January 9, when the government and guerrillas failed to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.

Among the dead was alias “Cachaco,” whom Medellín’s El Colombiano called “the ELN’s second most important man in Antioquia and southern Bolívar.” The military was able to locate him because “Cachaco” was attending a meeting at the site of the bombing raid to discuss logistics for transporting him to Quito, Ecuador, where he was to join the ELN’s negotiating team for peace talks with the government.

These peace talks remain suspended. After the ceasefire ended and the ELN carried out a wave of attacks, including a bombing at a Barranquilla police station, President Santos pulled back the government’s negotiating team and demanded a signal of goodwill from the guerrillas. The ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire from March 9-13 to coincide with congressional elections.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia peace process

This post is several days overdue because of travel—it covers the week of January 28-February 3.

Wave of violence intensifies

Violence involving guerrillas, guerrilla dissidents, or organized crime forced 2,560 people to flee their homes in January, according to CODHES, an NGO that tracks forced displacement. Of the displaced, 230 were forced out in mass events, a big increase over the 100 such displacements measured in January 2017.

In addition:

  • The Antioquia Indigenous Organization (OIA) warned that 400 Senú people are in imminent risk of forced displacement because of nearby combat in in the Bajo Cauca region municipality of Caucasia.
  • Army troops killed Embera indigenous leader Eleazar Tequia Bitucay in Chocó on the night of January 26. The Army at first claimed that Tequia, a leader of the local Indigenous Guard, was killed while trying to disarm a soldier during a peaceful protest over delayed education funds. However, the community said he was shot for no reason. Five days later, the Army admitted responsibility and asked forgiveness of the community.
  • Elsewhere in Chocó, in the Chagpien Tordó indigenous reserve of Litoral de San Juan municipality, Colombian security forces wounded a minor while carrying out a bombing raid on suspected ELN targets. The Defense Ministry insisted that the joint military-police operation was planned and carried out within the framework of international humanitarian law.
  • Six Colombian employees of the UN Office on Drugs and crime were robbed, apparently by members of a FARC dissident group, in a rural area of Paujil municipality, in Caquetá. The UNODC is verifying that families participating in the crop substitution program mandated by the peace accord are truly eradicating their coca. Two truckloads of verifiers were stopped by armed men who took their vehicles, cell phones, and GPS devices. The assailants said they opposed the crop substitution program. The incident has suspended the ONDCP program in this area.
  • The human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) warned that a longstanding pact has broken down between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a geographically limited but locally strong guerrilla group. The office issued an “early warning” alert about probable violence in southeastern Cesar department and the western part of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region. The EPL appears to be expanding into this zone of increasing coca cultivation.

“Don Temis” and the plight of social leaders

On the evening of January 27, two armed men shot and killed Temístocles Machado outside his house in the Isla de Paz neighborhood of Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. The 58-year-old Machado, known widely as “Don Temis,” was a member of the Black Communities Process (PCN, a national Afro-Colombian rights association). He had been receiving threats for more than 10 years.

In Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port city, Machado had led efforts to save his neighborhood. Isla de Paz is under threat from business interests and aligned armed groups who would eject residents to make room for new cargo warehouses and truck lots for the expanding port. Machado was also at the forefront of efforts to petition the government to provide basic services to his neighborhood. In May 2017, he was among the most visible leaders of a 21-day peaceful protest that brought the city to a halt.

Juan Diego Restrepo, editor of Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative website, had sat down with Machado last October. “Through the civic stoppage” of last May, “Don Temis” told him, “we now have interlocution with the national government. But Buenaventura is a town without law, nothing works, the oversight and accountability entities don’t work.”

“Theft of land in Buenaventura,” he added, “is carried out by the very same public officials, starting with the national government, to the municipal, through its illegal armed groups.… Whenever there’s a ten or fifteen-year plan for a new economic project, the armed groups come first, generating terror, intimidation, fear, to displace the people and later grab the land and sell it. I don’t believe the armed groups come here alone. Without consent. It’s not a coincidence. They are armed apparatuses used by politicians, businessmen. Government authority doesn’t function here.”

Despite frequent threats to his life, Machado had not accepted protection from the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Program. An official of the program told La Silla Vacía, “He said only God protects him.” Berenice Celeyta, longtime head of the local human rights group NOMADESC, rejects that. “It’s not that he didn’t want protection, but that he wanted collective protection [for the neighborhood], more than just a bodyguard and bulletproof vest for one person.”

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) stated that Machado’s killing was likely related to his community work, and that it is prioritizing bringing his case to justice. Just days before his murder, Machado had met with the Office’s number-two official, Vice-Prosecutor General María Paulina Riveros, to discuss his security situation.

That same night of January 27, assailants on motorcycles in Villavicencio, Meta attacked and wounded María Cecilia Lozano, a victims’ leader and survivor of the 1998 paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, Meta.

Throughout Colombia, the Fiscalía has counted 101 homicides of human rights defenders, social leaders, political leaders, and community leaders between 2017 and so far in 2018. Counts vary so far for January 2018: the Somos Defensores organization denounced 12 murders, the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) counts 18 murders, and the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) has identified 21.

According to Somos Defensores, murders of social leaders in 2017 happened the most in Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, with notable increases in Chocó and Cesar. “We thought that after 2017 things would calm down,” Carlos Guevara of Somos Defensores told El Espectador, “but it seems like the closer we get to elections this is going to get even worse.”

An analysis by the DeJusticia think-tank of data from the ¡Pacifista! website found that 31% of social leaders killed in 2017 were leaders of local Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), 23% were leaders of peasant farmer organization; 14% were indigenous leaders; 12% were Afro-Colombian leaders; 6% were union leaders; and 3% were trying to reclaim stolen land.

ELN violent activity worsening

President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiating team not to go to Quito, Ecuador to start a fifth round of talks with the ELN. The President cited the guerrilla group’s lack of “coherence” after the January 28th bombing of a police post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city.

The guerrillas continued a wave of violent attacks that began after a 100-day bilateral ceasefire ended on January 9. The Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline (which the U.S. government provided $104 million in military assistance to protect in 2003) has been out of service for 23 days after 22 different attempted or actual attacks in Arauca, Boyacá, and Norte de Santander.

Arauca has been the hardest-hit department by ELN attacks since the ceasefire ended, concentrating 46 percent of attacks according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) think-tank. The ELN has been aggressively assuming control of parts of Arauca that had been under FARC dominion. This, FIP reports, has meant the ELN applying its “norms of social control and conduct” in former FARC areas and increased “pressure against social and political leaders who are either FARC-aligned or contrary to ELN policies.”

The ELN structure in Arauca, the Domingo Laín column, is the group’s largest. It’s leader, Gustavo Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito,” is viewed as the member of the group’s five-man Central Command who most opposes peace talks with the government. Other ELN fronts’ actions “have been reduced compared to those of the Domingo Laín,” FIP notes. That could indicate that “this structure may be showing its internal dissent with respect to the Quito dialogues an the slow implementation of the FARC accords.”

In response, the Colombian military’s “Vulcan” Task Force announced an increased deployment of troops from its Energy Operational Command, which consists of three battalions totaling 1,800 troops, to guard pipeline and oil infrastructure.

A communiqué from the FARC political party denounced on February 1 that the ELN kidnapped four of its members, killing three, in Santa Cruz de Guachavez, Nariño. According to the FARC’s count, as of January 23 ex-combatants and party activists had suffered 49 attacks, with 36 killed, since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord. Unknown assailants also killed a demobilized FARC militia member last week in Caquetá.

Armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía meanwhile alleged that in Chocó, Nariño, Arauca, and Catatumbo the ELN is recruiting not only children but impoverished Venezuelan migrants.

In a statement responding to President Santos’s freezing of peace talks, the ELN leadership pointed out that it never agreed to a permanent ceasefire with the government.

Polls for May presidential election

It’s very early and things may change. Also, polls don’t take into account shady get-out-the-vote machinery that may boost turnout for candidates who appear unpopular today. But right now, polling for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election is hinting at a leftward or anti-corruption direction.

Several top local media outlets sponsored an Invamer poll of 1,200 Colombians in 41 municipalities (out of 1,100) in 26 departments (out of 33). It found two left-of-center former mayors in the lead. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who had a stormy 2012-2015 tenure as mayor of Bogotá, leads a crowded field with an intended vote of 23-plus percent. Sergio Fajardo, a center-left former mayor of Medellín, is just behind with 20-22 percent depending on the likely matchups. Also high in the running are two right-of-center candidates, former defense minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras.

Taken together, candidates who support the FARC peace accord and its implementation total about 62 percent of voters’ intentions. The FARC candidate himself, Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko), is at the bottom with less than 2 percent.

The “Gran Encuesta” poll seems to show Fajardo besting Petro and all others in hypothetical second-round matchups. But either candidate would have to get there first. Despite his low showing in the poll, Vargas Lleras will be a hard candidate to beat. The former vice-president broke with President Santos after spending nearly seven years in his administration, and is now critical of the FARC peace accord. He has assiduously courted local power brokers around the country who are adroit at getting voters to show up and do what they’re told at the polls.

In-Depth Reading

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