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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ELN Peace Talks

New explainer on the ELN

When I launched the “Explainers” section of WOLA’s renovated colombiapeace.org website, I wrote that I “plan to add approximately one per week between now and June.”

That was on March 25—18 days ago. I’m pleased to say that finally, I’ve posted a fourth one.

This one took longer for a reason, though. It’s a huge topic: an overview of the National Liberation Army, ELN, Colombia’s largest existing guerrilla group. The Explainer whirls you through the ELN’s unfortunate history, its command structure and way of operating, its geography, its revenue streams, its awful human rights record, and its experience with peace talks. All in a concise 5,400 words—but with lots of photos and maps.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of September 23-29)

Presidents Duque and Trump Meet in New York

Seven weeks into his presidency, Colombian President Iván Duque had his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, outside the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. “It was a great meeting,” Duque later told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth. “We are going to strengthen our relationship with the U.S.—not only the military cooperation, but also trade and development assistance. We also talked about Venezuela and got the president’s strong support for the refugee situation we’re facing due to the [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro regime.”

The leaders had an 18-minute exchange with reporters. Trump stressed the U.S. desire that Duque address Colombia’s recent increase in coca and cocaine production.

What I want — what I want and what we’ve discussed, and one of the reasons I was so happy to see the President’s victory — that was a great victory and there was a very worldwide, world-renowned victory because of his strong stance on drugs.

Now, if he comes through, we think he’s the greatest. If he doesn’t come through, he’s just another President of Colombia. (Laughter.) But I think he’s going to come through. I really do.

Semana reported that Duque has set a goal of reducing the number of hectares of coca grown in Colombia by 70 percent during his four years in office. This is a very ambitious goal. Even eradicating 70 percent of the coca that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime detected in Colombia in 2017 would mean 120,000 eradicated hectares per year (much of which would quickly be replanted); Colombia eradicated 18,000 in 2016 and about 60,000 in 2017. Getting to 120,000 would probably only be possible through a vast expansion in forced eradication through aerial herbicide spraying, and an intense series of confrontations with organized coca cultivators. Duque says he favors herbicide fumigation but has not yet announced a plan.

Asked about Colombia’s peace process, Trump appeared startled and unprepared.

Q Are you going to talk about FARC and ELN, the peace process?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Are you asking me that question? We’re going to be talking about everything.

Much of the presidents’ conversation surrounded the crisis in neighboring Venezuela. President Trump resisted commenting on a “military option” for dealing with Venezuela, though he did state that the Venezuelan military could easily overthrow President Nicolás Maduro if they so chose.

“It was known” that in their bilateral meeting, Trump “had discarded the idea of a military solution” for Venezuela, El Colombiano reported. The U.S. president supported his Colombian colleague’s plan for a concerted campaign of diplomatic pressure and sanctions to remove Maduro, including a six-country petition to the International Criminal Court alleging the Venezuelan government’s commission of crimes against humanity.

Duque criticized Venezuela in his Washington Post interview, calling the Caracas government “a narco-trafficking state. It is a human rights violator. They have been sponsoring and helping and providing safe haven to Colombian terrorists in their territory.” He concluded, though, that “I don’t think that a military solution is the solution, because that’s what Maduro wants. Maduro wants to create a demon so that he can exacerbate patriotism and remain in office.”

The Venezuelan armed forces meanwhile announced a deployment of troops to the Colombia-Venezuela border, in the state of Táchira across from Norte de Santander department. The commander of the Venezuelan military’s Strategic Operational Command said that the deployment’s purpose was to combat narcotrafficking and illegal groups’ cross-border activity. During the UN sessions, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence seized on this news to offer Colombia an explicit security guarantee.

News reports today are that the Maduro regime has moved military troops to the border of Colombia, as they have done in the past. An obvious effort at intimidation. Let me be clear: the United States of America will always stand with our allies for their security. The Maduro regime would do well not to test the resolve of the president of the United States or the American people in this regard.

Back in Bogotá, the leader of President Duque’s party, former president Álvaro Uribe, called on Venezuela’s military “not to aim at the sister country of Colombia, but to aim at the Miraflores [Presidential] Palace to kick out the dictatorship.”

Some FARC Leaders Reappear, Voice Discontent and Security Concerns

Some questions were answered in the crisis of at least nine top former FARC leaders who have gone missing in recent months. Some have “clandestinized” themselves citing security concerns, some have voiced fear of trumped-up judicial charges against them, and some, it is feared, may be inclining toward re-armed dissident groups.

In addition to Henry Castellanos alias “Romana”—an eastern-bloc chieftain responsible for numerous kidnappings who penned a letter ratifying his continued participation in the peace process—top Southern Bloc leader Fabián Ramírez also surfaced. Ramírez sent a letter to the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP) complaining about the inadequacy of the vehicle-and-bodyguard scheme that the Unit had assigned to him.

“I request for the third time that you resolve for me, quickly, the reinstatement of two missing bodyguards and a conventional car, which are part of my security scheme that the UNP, through its approved risk study, had given me for my protection since the beginning of this year,” Ramirez wrote. He added that he has never abandoned the peace process, although he left the demobilization site where he had been staying. Ramirez says he is now assembling a group of ex-guerrillas in the southern departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Huila to pursue income-generating projects. Ramírez writes that he seeks this reinforced security scheme because this work requires him to “be moving through zones where there are armed dissident-group personnel.”

For their part, three unnamed former FARC commanders have sought precautionary protection measures from the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, citing personal insecurity. The formal request went through lawyers, and the FARC leaders asked that their names be held in reserve. El Tiempo reported, though, that one of the three is among nine ex-FARC leaders whose wheareabouts are currently unknown.

The FARC submitted a 10-page report to the Peace Committee of Colombia’s Congress alleging that only 87 of the guerrillas’ 14,000 ex-members have received government funds to carry out productive income-generating projects, as laid out in the peace accord. Seventeen such projects are so far under consideration or nearing approval, covering about eight percent of the FARC’s membership, but only two have yet been approved and begun to receive funds. The report claims that on a less-formal basis, former FARC fighters have started 259 income-generating projects on their own, two-thirds of them with their own funds and 12 percent of them with international support.

Displacement is Up Sharply

The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a human rights group that has closely tracked forced displacement trends for over 20 years, issued a report counting 38,490 Colombians displaced by violence during the first eight months of 2018. This represents an increase over 2017.

CODHES counts 126 events of mass displacement. Of the victims, 8,376 were members of Afro-Colombian communities and 7,808 were indigenous. The majority of displacements happened in three departments; Norte de Santander, Antioquia, and Nariño. Fighting for territorial control between illegal armed groups, principally the ELN, EPL, post-paramilitary groups, and guerrilla dissidents, was the main cause.

Rightist Parties Advance Plan to Try Military Human Rights Cases Separately

Legislators from the governing Democratic Center party, together with the center-right Radical Change party, introduced legislation that would create a new chamber in the new transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to judge current and former military personnel accused of war crimes.

A procedural law for the JEP, passed in June and awaiting Constitutional Court review, freezes human rights cases against military personnel while the Congress designs a new chamber to judge them separately from former guerrillas. The bill introduced this week would do that—though the Constitutional Court could invalidate the whole effort if, when it completes its review, it strikes this provision from the June procedural law.

The law calls for the new chamber’s judges to be experts in international humanitarian law with prior knowledge of how the armed forces function. It would allow military personnel who recognize their crimes, tell truth, and give reparations to victims to serve their sentences in special military facilities. After five years, they could be released on probation.

By contrast, former guerrillas who fulfill their truth and reparations duties would be held in “restricted liberty”—a term that the judge in each case will need to define, though it can’t be prison—for up to eight years.

The chief of the Democratic Center bloc in the Senate, former president Álvaro Uribe, introduced the bill, arguing that “the Armed Forces of a democratic country can not be equalized, put on the same level as those who have committed terrorist acts.”

ELN Talks Remain Stalemated; Venezuela Removed from Guarantor Countries

The Duque government, which pulled back its negotiating team last week, continues to suspend talks in Havana with the ELN guerrillas until the group releases all individuals it has kidnapped and agrees to cease hostilities. The ELN this week put out a statement claiming that, if the Duque government changes the rules and agenda agreed with the prior government of Juan Manuel Santos, then it is showing that “the Colombian state is unable to keep its word” from one government to the next. The guerrilla delegation in Cuba tweeted a picture of its negotiators sitting across a table from a row of empty chairs with the caption “We’re ready here. The counterpart is missing.”

President Duque, in New York, insisted on his terms: “I have every wish to be able to establish a dialogue with the ELN, but you have heard me say it: I hope that the basis of the construction of a dialogue will be the liberation of all the kidnapped and an end to criminal activities.”

Duque also announced that Venezuela was no longer welcome to be one of the ELN talks’ “guarantor” countries, a list that also includes Norway, Brazil, and Chile. Duque blamed Venezuela’s harboring of ELN fighters on its soil, which made the neighboring government less than an honest broker. “A country that has sponsored the ELN in its territory, that has protected it, that has allowed criminal acts against the Colombian people to be formed from its territory, is far from being a guarantor, it is a dictatorship that has been an accomplice of many criminal activities, I’m not saying that for the first time.”

“Most of the ELN kingpins are in Venezuela,” Duque told the Washington Post. “It’s impossible to come to consider a ceasefire when part of their troops or of their membership is in another country,” said High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos. The ELN’s chief negotiator, Pablo Beltrán, dismissed allegations of guerrilla presence in Venezuela as “a myth that has been invented in Washington,” adding, “I don’t see any association between a ceasefire and where the ELN’s leaders are.”

Semana cites a recent opinion column by Carlos Velandia, a former ELN leader who went by the name “Felipe Torres” and is now a go-between for peace talks, voicing the belief that in the event of a conflict involving Venezuela, the ELN might take Venezuela’s side on Venezuelan soil.

Semana notes that Venezuela had played a big role in getting the ELN talks started during the Santos government, “the dialogues’ public phase—which opened in 2017—was even achieved and announced from Venezuela.” The magazine sees no other country stepping up to fill the vacuum.

Which country can join the group? Among the guarantors who were there when the table opened is also Cuba, but that idea doesn’t convince the government at all.

Norway, Brazil and Chile are also in the group of guarantor countries. But each has its own problems to serve even as a place to relaunch the table. Brazil is in a presidential campaign and is quite divided about it. Norway has its attention placed on the [FARC] post-conflict and the chances of it serving as the venue for negotiations are very low. Chile has had a better disposition, it even offered itself as headquarters when Ecuador withdrew as a guarantor country following a wave of “terrorist attacks” on the border.

In-Depth Reading

The Past Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of September 9-15)

ELN Talks Remain Suspended

In his August 7 inaugural speech, President Iván Duque said that he would take 30 days to decide whether to continue peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. That period has expired, and Duque did not end the talks—but he has suspended them pending the ELN’s renunciation of kidnapping and release of all captives.

ELN fighters freed nine captives over two releases in September. On the 7th, guerrillas in Arauca released three soldiers whom they had taken on August 8. On September 11 in Chocó, they released three policemen, a soldier, and two civilians taken on August 3 from a boat on an Atrato River tributary. The Duque government did not negotiate these releases’ protocols; the ELN performed them unilaterally in coordination with the Catholic Church, the government’s independent Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría), and the International Committee of the Red Cross. “This did not imply any negotiation with the national government,” insisted the Duque government’s peace commissioner, Miguel Ceballos.

While Ceballos and President Duque recognized this gesture, they said there is more to do: they count 10 more individuals who remain in ELN custody. “There were 20 on the list,” Ceballos said, “later there was one liberation in Arauca, and later three more. If we take away the three in Chocó, 10 remain.” Of the ten, one has been a hostage since April 2002; two were taken in 2011, and one in 2012. The ELN has offered no responses about these captives, if they are even still alive.

“The door is not necessarily closed” to peace talks with the ELN, Ceballos told El Tiempo. But Duque’s demands for changed ELN behavior, including a cessation of kidnapping and all other hostilities, may be more than what some ELN commanders might agree to. “I want to be clear,” President Duque said this week. “If we want to build a peace with this organized armed group, they must start with the clearest show of goodwill, which is the suspension of all criminal activities.”

Still, Ceballos told El Espectador the ELN may be flexible. “I think the ELN is understanding things, because if not, this process of liberation of kidnapped people would not have begun. I believe that in these 30 days a space of understanding has been achieved beyond the need for the formal structure of a [negotiating] table. These have been 30 days in which no armed actions have been presented. There’s a dynamic here.”

The Peace Commissioner added that, should talks re-start, the Duque government may seek to alter the negotiating agenda agreed with the Santos government, which has been criticized for imprecise language that has made it difficult to implement. “President Duque said it in a very clear way in Amagá (Antioquia), last Saturday,” he said. “Any future scenario would need a credible agenda and specific timeframes; that necessarily implies the consideration of adjustments.”

Gen. Montoya, Former Army Chief, Appears Before the JEP

Gen. Mario Montoya, who headed Colombia’s army from 2006 to 2008, appeared before the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), the transitional justice system set up by the peace accord. The retired general denied any guilt for human rights crimes. Montoya is the highest-ranking officer to appear before the JEP so far, though another retired general, Henry Torres Escalante, has already appeared in relation to a case of extrajudicial executions.

Montoya resigned in November 2008, amid revelations that members of the Army had killed thousands of civilians, then presented them falsely as combat kills in a criminal effort to boost body counts and earn rewards for battlefield performance. Montoya allegedly pressured subordinates to rack up body counts and produce “rivers of blood” in counter-guerrilla operations, thus creating an environment that rewarded extrajudicial executions, making him emblematic of what Colombians call the “false positives” scandal.

Montoya decided in July to submit to the JEP rather than the regular criminal justice system, where some cases against him had been stalled since 2016. The highly decorated, U.S.-trained general denies any wrongdoing, lawbreaking, or knowledge of his subordinates’ criminal behavior. Though most defendants enter the JEP to confess crimes in return for reduced non-prison sentences, Montoya intends to challenge any charges against him. Should the JEP find him guilty anyway, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in regular prison.

During his initial hearing in the JEP’s Definition of Legal Situations Chamber, Montoya and his lawyers heard a listing of accusations and investigations against him that had been filed in the regular justice system. Cases included a few dozen “false positives” victims, as well as the “Operation Orion” military offensive in Medellín’s western slums, in October 2002 when Montoya headed the local army brigade, which killed several civilians and benefited from open support of paramilitary groups. Relatives of “false positives” victims attended the hearing.

Montoya’s defense lawyer argued that the general cannot be held responsible for the “false positive” crimes committed when he headed the Army, since the murders took place in units several levels below his command. In the end, Montoya’s hearing had a disappointing outcome: as defense lawyers challenged the standing of some of the victims involved, Magistrate Pedro Díaz suspended the session and put it off for a later date.

FARC Party Holds Conference Marked By No-Shows

News coverage took stock of a “National Council of the Commons,” a meeting of the new FARC political party’s leadership, in Bogotá the week earlier. The “Council” sought to bring together 111 delegates whom the ex-guerrilla membership had elected a year ago, to make decisions about the party’s future.

In the end, 29 of the 111 did not appear. Five have resigned their posts. Seven offered excuses for being unable to attend. Another 17, though, gave no reason for their absence. That number includes:

  • Luciano Marín alias Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator during the Havana peace talks. Márquez left Bogotá and abandoned the Senate seat that awaited him in April 2018, after the arrest of Jesús Santrich, a close Márquez associate and fellow negotiator. Santrich is wanted in extradition by a U.S. federal court in New York on charges of conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. Until June or July, Márquez—a hardliner on the FARC’s left flank who was the top vote-getter when the membership chose delegates last year—abandoned the demobilization site where he had been staying in the southern department of Caquetá. He blamed nearby “military operations” and concerns for his security. His whereabouts are now unknown. It is not clear at the moment whether he intends to continue participating in the peace process.
  • Hernán Darío Velásquez alias El Paisa, the former head of the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero mobile column, disappeared around the same time as Márquez; he was managing the Caquetá demobilization site where Márquez had been staying.
  • Henry Castellanos alias Romaña, who led FARC units that kidnapped hundreds in a region just south of Bogotá, had been managing a demobilization site in Nariño but has also gone clandestine.
  • Fabián Ramírez, a former top leader of the FARC’s Southern Bloc.
  • Zarco Aldinever” and “Enrique Marulanda,” who managed the demobilization site in Mesetas, Meta.
  • Iván Alí,” who ran a site in Guaviare. (Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos said that he met with “Alí” days before his disappearance, and that the FARC leader had told him “he was going to [the remote eastern department of] Vichada and that communication would be difficult.”)
  • Albeiro Córdoba,” who ran another site in Guaviare.
  • Manuel Político,” who ran a site in Putumayo.

Most of the missing 17, points out La Silla Vacía, come from the former guerrilla group’s Eastern and Southern blocs, where were its strongest militarily at the time the peace accord was signed.

Most members of the Colombian Congress’s Peace Committee visited Caquetá September 10 to seek information about the missing leaders. Sen. Iván Cepeda, a close supporter of the FARC peace process, said that people “very close” to Márquez and “El Paisa” told them that the two men remain committed to the peace process, and in fact are still in Caquetá. Both, however, fear being extradited capriciously, Cepeda said, adding that both had heard spurious rumors about pending arrest warrants. The Colombian government, Cepeda said, needs to find a way to keep “extradition from becoming a sort of detonator for the end of the peace process.”

Some of the missing leaders sent messages insisting that they remain in the peace process. A letter from “Romaña” appeared in which he reiterated his will to honor his demobilization commitments. Fabián Ramírez also sent a letter affirming his continued participation, though he expressed deep mistrust as a result of Santrich’s arrest. Ramírez said that, along with 100 other ex-guerrillas, he was seeking to set up a new, safer demobilization space with the goal of preventing their defection to dissident groups.

The disappearances are a sign of deepening internal divisions within the FARC. These were laid bare in a strongly worded letter from former Southern Bloc leader Joaquín Gómez and high-ranking ex-commander Bertulfo Álvarez. It accuses maximum leader Timoleón Jiménez and other Bogotá-based FARC bosses—most of whom have turned out to be political moderates—of “spiteful and vengeful lack of leadership.” The letter accused Jiménez of “dedicating himself to defending the bourgeois order with surprising and unexpected zeal.” The letter’s authors, who run the demobilization site in La Guajira, cited health reasons for their absence from the Bogotá meeting.

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino blamed security concerns for many of the no-shows, and denied that the FARC is dividing.

“No, there is a debate. Many people make criticisms within the party, but none will make criticisms like ‘oh no, let’s go back to guns, let’s create another party.’ No. There are internal political debates, but those debates aren’t about separating. There are some comrades who are critical of [accord] implementation, but I guarantee that in these debates none, absolutely nobody, has expressed the idea that the way out of here is to return to arms. No one.”

In the end, the FARC “Council of the Commons” agreed to set up an executive committee to prepare for October 2019 local elections, with regional representatives including Joaquín Gómez. They decided that going clandestine for security concerns was acceptable behavior, but established procedures to kick out renegade members.

U.S. Officials Visit, Speculation Over a Return to Coca Fumigation Increases

On September 11 the White House issued an annual memo to the State Department identifying major illicit drug producing and transit countries, and highlighting which of these are “decertified”—subject to aid cuts and other penalties—for failing to cooperate with U.S. counter-drug strategies. As in past years, Venezuela and Bolivia were decertified.

Last years’s memo included controversial language stating that President Trump “seriously considered” adding Colombia to the decertified blacklist because of sharply increased coca and cocaine production. This year’s document did not repeat that threat, but called out Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan for “falling behind in the fight to eradicate illicit crops and reduce drug production and trafficking.” The U.S. government estimated that Colombia’s coca crop increased 11 percent in 2017, to a record 209,000 hectares.

The certification memo’s release coincided with a visit to Bogota from the deputy director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, James Carroll, and the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Karl Schultz. According to El Tiempo, in a meeting that lasted over an hour, the two officials told President Duque that, under normal circumstances, the White House would have decertified Colombia:

“During the meeting the White House’s envoys told Duque that the amount of coca planted in Colombia, more than 200,000 hectares, was enough for the country to be decertified.

“However, they clarified that they understand that this is an ‘inherited’ problem [for the recently inaugurated president], which comes from previous years. In that sense, they expressed the Washington government’s confidence in the policies that Colombia is going to implement to eradicate crops and counteract the cartels who carry the drug to their nation.”

Duque told the U.S. officials he plans to respond with a mix of strategies, referring to “a principle of integrality” (comprehensiveness), rather than putting all focus on forced coca eradication. That mix, however, may include a return to eradication through aircraft-based spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, reviving a U.S.-backed program that Colombia carried out on a massive scale between 1994 and 2015. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended aircraft-based spraying in 2015 after some studies pointed to a possible link between glyphosate and cancer; officials also argued that spraying had proved to be ineffective.

Duque, however, may bring it back. “Fumigation can happen if some protocols are complied with,” he said. “In the comprehensive policy that we want in the fight against illicit crops, these protocols should be reflected in such a way that any action is upheld by the Court’s guidelines.”

The president refers here to 2015 and 2017 decisions by Colombia’s Constitution Court, its highest judicial review authority, which placed significant restrictions on coca eradication via aerial glyphosate spraying. Any future fumigation must avoid nature reserves, indigenous reservations, and campesino reserve zones—sites that host a significant portion of current cultivation. Spraying can only proceed after an “objective and conclusive” scientific study showing a lack of health and environmental damage. Colombia’s National Drug Council (CNE), a decision-making body incorporating several ministries and agencies, must agree on a set of regulations to govern future spraying, in a process that includes ethnic communities’ participation, and these regulations must be passed as a law. An ethnic representative must be added to the CNE. Colombia must undergo prior consultation with ethnic communities in areas where it plans to spray, although the Court allows spraying in the absence of consent if the CNE issues a finding.

Duque’s government includes some aggressively enthusiastic backers of renewed glyphosate fumigation. “I don’t see any alternative to using herbicides,” Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said in August. “You have to use it because the world is not going to accept us swimming in coca. …Glyphosate is used in Colombia since time immemorial.” Added Francisco Santos, the new ambassador to the United States: “Fumigation is essential. The Constitutional Court must understand that it must return, because we are facing a social, economic and national security emergency. It has to come back, understanding the restrictions.”

Dissident Leader “David” Killed in Nariño

The Defense Ministry announced that a military-police operation killed Víctor David Segura Palacios, alias “David,” the chief of one of the two main FARC dissident groups operating in Nariño, Colombia’s largest coca and cocaine-producing department. Soldiers arrived at 2:00AM on September 8 at a house where “David” was staying; he and his sister, who allegedly handled his group’s finances, were killed in an ensuing shootout.

A former member of the FARC’s Nariño-based Daniel Aldana mobile column, David refused to demobilize, along with his brother Yeison Segura, alias “Don Y.” The dissident group they formed, the “United Guerrillas of the Pacific” (GUP), recruited former FARC militias along Nariño’s coast and took over cocaine trafficking routes. After “Don Y” was killed in a November 2016 firefight with former FARC comrades, “David” assumed command.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero told reporters that the GUP had grown to control 4 percent of Colombia’s cocaine exports. The Nariño governor’s office said that the group has control or influence in at least 10 of the department’s 64 municipalities (counties).

For the past year, David had been the main rival of Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Front (FOS), a Nariño-based FARC dissident structure that gained region-wide notoriety after it kidnapped and killed three Ecuadorian journalists in early 2018. David blamed Guacho for his brother’s death, and the two groups had been battling for control of cocaine routes, and of urban neighborhoods in Tumaco, all year.

“According to various reports,” notes InsightCrime, the rival GUP and FOS are both “associated with Mexican drug trafficking organizations, who will have an interest in maintaining the steady passage of cocaine out of the country.” La Silla Vacía reports that, “According to the Police, during recent months David already had contacts with the [Mexican] Jalisco New Generation cartel (while Guacho, according to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, is one of the links of the Sinaloa cartel), and had an Interpol Blue Notice.”

David’s death is the largest battlefield result against guerrilla dissidents or organized crime so far in President Iván Duque’s 6-week-old government, but it is unlikely to reduce violence in Nariño. Citing sources in Colombia’s Navy and the Tumaco ombudsman’s office, La Silla counts 12 other major armed or criminal groups active in “post-conflict” Nariño besides the GUP, “like Guacho’s dissident group, the Gulf Clan [paramilitary successor group], the ELN which has tried to enter the south of Nariño, and other groups of lesser national impact like La Oficina [paramilitary successor], La Gente del Orden [ex-FARC militias], Los de Sábalo, and, more recently, the so-called ‘Stiven González’ front.”

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(This covers the week of August 26-September 1; as I was traveling in Colombia during the week of September 2-8, there will be no update for that week.)

Peace Commissioner Lays Out Four “Adjustments” to FARC Accord

In an August 27 interview with El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, President Iván Duque’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, laid out four modifications that Duque’s government will seek to make to the FARC peace accord. As WOLA noted on its Colombia Peace site, the four proposals “either barely affect the FARC accord, are already in the accord, or will only become law with difficulty.”

The modifications the Duque government will pursue are:

  1. In future peace processes, kidnapping and drug trafficking to finance insurgents’ war effort may no longer be amnestied.
  2. Those who continue to commit crimes after the peace accord lose their right to amnesty for past political crimes, reduced sentences for past war crimes, or protection from extradition to other countries.
  3. Those who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity cannot hold political office.
  4. While the Duque government will respect commitments to coca-growers who signed crop-substitution agreements, eradication will be mandatory from now on.

These adjustments, an analysis in La Silla Vacía contends, “are more symbolic than real.” Indeed, they may change little about the FARC process.

The first change, eliminating drug trafficking without personal gain as an amnesty-able “political” crime, cannot be done retroactively, so it will not impact demobilized FARC members. If implemented, however, it could be a stumbling block for a future accord with the ELN. And the FARC accord already doesn’t amnesty kidnapping: those who held civilians captive must make full confessions to the accords’ transitional justice system (Special Peace Jurisdiction or JEP), make reparations to victims, and serve reduced sentences of “restricted liberty.”

The second change simply repeats the existing terms of the peace accord. Any demobilized combatant guilty of committing crimes in the post-accord period already loses his or her benefits. “This doesn’t touch the accord even minimally,” La Silla Vacía notes.

If Duque gets enough votes in Congress to restrict ex-guerrilla war criminals from holding office—which is far from guaranteed and would involve a bitter fight—it could cause some former FARC leaders to abandon the process. The guerrillas’ leadership commanded a war effort that, over the course of decades, involved numerous crimes against humanity. Despite this, they demobilized with the expectation of practicing peaceful politics while paying the agreed-upon penalties. If their ability to serve as legislators or local officials is barred, some may drop out.

The decision to stop signing up coca-cultivating families for voluntary eradication is unfortunate, as many municipalities where the program hasn’t started up yet may be subjected to an “all stick and no carrot” approach of eradication without assistance, which has failed in the past. WOLA’s earlier post argues, “If by ‘mandatory eradication’ Ceballos means eradication without any governance or assistance, then as in the past, we can expect Colombia’s coca problem to remain severe and unsolved.”

Duque Meets With All Parties, Including FARC, To Discuss Anti-Corruption Measures

On August 26 Colombians voted in a referendum on seven anti-corruption measures, the result of an initiative launched by citizen groups and the opposition Green Party. It came closer to passing than any analysts predicted: 11.7 million Colombian voters participated, less than half a million fewer than the one-third voter participation threshold the measure needed to make it binding. Though it failed, the “Anti-Corruption Consultation” got about 3 million more votes than Iván Duque received in the June presidential elections.

President Duque showed up early on the 26th to cast a vote, marking distance from his political party’s de facto leader, Senator and former president Álvaro Uribe, who had taken to social media to attack the initiative.

Going still further, Duque held a meeting in the presidential palace the evening of the 29th with the Consultation’s organizers and the leaderships of all political parties represented in the Congress. Most notably, “all political parties” included the FARC, which as a result of the peace accord holds an automatic five seats in the Senate and five in the House until 2026. The meeting was only the second time that FARC party leader Rodrigo Londoño had ever been inside the Nariño Palace, and the first time for most other FARC legislators. Semana magazine described the scene:

When he arrived, they greeted him and a “welcome to Democracy” was heard. There was an ex-president, César Gaviria, congressmen from all political parties, including Gustavo Petro, the only senator who has no party. The promoters of the anti-corruption consultation. Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez, Internal Affairs Chief [Procurador] Fernando Carrillo, and outgoing Comptroller-General Edgardo Maya Villazón were already seated.

President Duque congratulated Timochenko for having laid down his arms. The president of the FARC party thanked him for taking them into account and opening the doors to reconciliation. The atmosphere was cordial, although when Timo spoke, some congressmen from the Democratic Center [Uribe and Duque’s party] preferred to listen to him with their heads down.

FARC Conference Marked By No-Shows

At the end of the week, the FARC was to hold its first party-wide meeting in a year, its “National Council of the Commons” gathering 111 members of its political directorate. It did so amid speculation over whether all leaders of the increasingly divided group would actually attend.

They did not. The two most prominent missing leaders were Iván Márquez and Óscar Montero alias “El Paisa.” None of the guerrilla leaders in attendance, in fact, could say with certainty where either of them are currently located. Márquez, the guerrillas’ chief negotiator during the Havana peace talks, a hardliner who represents the party’s radical wing, was the number-one vote-getter when the party chose its 111 leaders. Montero had headed the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero Column, a unit that carried out some of its most spectacular attacks on civilian targets during the conflict.

Márquez left Bogotá and abandoned his automatic Senate seat in April, when his close associate, FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich, was arrested pending extradition after a U.S. grand jury charged him with conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. He retreated to a FARC demobilization site in Caquetá, south-central Colombia, where Montero was already located. Sometime in June or July, both Márquez and Montero abandoned that site and have since been incomunicado.

FARC Senator Carlos Antonio Lozada told La Silla Vacía that the party’s leadership has tried and failed to locate Márquez, even after sending Senator Pablo Catatumbo to Caquetá. Both Márquez and Montero are awaiting war-crimes trials before the JEP; under the terms of the peace accord, neither may leave Colombia without permission. If it is revealed that they have crossed a border—into Venezuela, for instance—they could lose their benefits under the peace accord.

The situation reveals growing divisions within the FARC party. The main split appears be between the leadership in Bogotá and the rank-and-file, most of which remains in the countryside, at the former demobilization sites and dozens of unofficial gathering points around the country. The Bogotá contingent, represented most visibly by the ex-guerrillas’ ten legislators, who appear to be following a more moderate political line than the middle and lower ranks. The latter are angry about the slow pace of peace accord implementation, worried about facing the same fate as Jesús Santrich, concerned about the election of a president who opposed the accord, and feeling unrepresented by top leadership. Some are contemplating following the path of Iván Márquez and “El Paisa.”

La Silla Vacía reported an illustrative example:

A week ago, La Silla spoke with Iván Merchán, a mid-level commander from La Macarena and a member of the political leadership, who told us that his plan was to disappear.

“It’s not about joining the ‘dissidences,’ like everyone says. It’s about going to a small town, where one has friends, where there are no signs or ways to be located. So one is calmer and less afraid of falling victim to a setup like Santrich,” he told us.

When we tried to communicate with Merchán again for this story, he no longer received calls or messages. According to him, other middle managers in Meta department had already “clandestinized,” as he told us to refer to what Márquez did.

“They (the ex-combatants) feel that those in the FARC Secretariat are happy wearing a tie in Congress, while they continue to have a bad time due to money and security,” a source in Santander told La Silla.

Spain Offers To Accompany ELN Peace Talks

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, paid a visit to Colombia as part of a tour of the region. Meeting with President Duque, Sánchez offered Spain’s assistance to push forward the flagging peace talks with the ELN guerrillas. “Anything Colombia needs from Spain to consolidate and advance peace we will say yes to. We will be with our Colombian brothers so that this will be a reality sooner rather than later,” said Sánchez, a member of Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party.

President Duque, who announced at his August 7 inauguration that he was taking 30 days to review whether to continue the ELN talks, was circumspect. Duque is demanding that the 2,000-member guerrilla group cease all hostilities, including kidnapping and extortion, as a pre-condition for resuming talks that began officially in February 2017. “If there’s a suspension of criminal activities, a will for peace, we very much welcome the offer that has been made by our good friend President Pedro Sánchez,” the President said at a joint press conference with Sánchez.

Interviewed by El Tiempo, Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos reiterated the demand that the ELN state clearly that it will respect humanitarian standards and cease kidnapping, “which would be excellent news for Colombians and would facilitate the [peace] table’s continuity.” Ceballos said that he had opened up a confidential line of communication with chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán, who is in Havana, but “unfortunately, this confidentiality wasn’t maintained, as several ELN spokespeople have made public my telephone contracts with Beltrán.”

JEP Takes on a “False Positive” Case

The transitional justice system (JEP) called 11 members of Colombia’s army to appear for the so-called “false positive” killings of 13 people in Casanare department in 2006 and 2007. The term “false positive” refers to soldiers’ grim practice of killing civilians and then presenting the bodies, falsely, as those of armed-group members killed in combat, in order to reap rewards for battlefield results. At least 3,000 Colombians may have fallen victim to such killings at the hands of the military between 2002 and 2008.

Major Gustavo Soto Bracamonte, former head of the Army’s GAULA anti-kidnapping unit in Casanare, appeared before the JEP’s Definition of Legal Situations Chamber, the first step for a case in the new system, with ten former subordinates, to answer for the killings they allegedly committed and falsified. All said they are prepared to contribute to clarifying the truth of what happened and to make reparations to their victims. In a dramatic moment, María Isabel Riascos, the mother of victim Darwin Esnin Riascos, demanded to know why the soldiers killed her son.

To date, 1,944 current and former security-force members have requested to have their human rights cases tried in the JEP. Of those, about 90 percent are false-positive cases. The inclusion of “false positive” cases in the transitional-justice system—where perpetrators can receive vastly reduced sentences—remains controversial. Some human rights organizations contend that they were criminal activities—murders for rewards—that had no relationship to the conflict. For now, the killings’ entry into the JEP is being determined on a case-by-case basis under unclear criteria.

The same is true for civilian officials who participated in human rights crimes by aiding paramilitary groups. In April, the JEP had refused to take the cases of Álvaro Ashton and David Char, two former congressmen from the Caribbean coast who had been convicted in the “para-politics” scandal for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups. The Definition of Legal Situations Chamber determined that the former legislators had aided the paramilitaries for political gain, making their crime irrelevant to the armed conflict. Ashton and Char appealed their case, and the JEP’s Appeals Section overturned the earlier decision, making them the first “para-politicians” to enter the transitional justice system.

Military Presents Report to Truth Commission

On August 27 Colombia’s armed forces presented a 50-volume, 18,380-page document to the new Truth Commission, detailing international humanitarian law and human rights violations committed by the FARC over the course of the conflict. Armed Forces commander Gen. Alberto Mejía said that the volumes resulted from an “inter-disciplinary study” involving the Prosecutor-General’s Office and intelligence services. “This isn’t meant to be a smokescreen, it doesn’t seek to hide the errors committed by soldiers in this war,” he added.

Father Francisco de Roux, the president of the Truth Commission, thanked the armed forces. “When you come to us with 50 volumes, this places in evidence what the FARC war was; this shows the meaning of the peace process.”

Asked about the report, FARC Senator Julian Gallo alias Carlos Antonio Lozada said:

We appreciate that all bodies want to contribute to the truth, and we invite not only the Armed Forces, but also businessmen, political parties, the church, the entire Colombian society to go to these bodies and contribute their version of what they consider conflict to have been, so that Colombia might have a complete version of what happened in the conflict and not just a biased version like the one that was told during the confrontation.

Gen. Mejía added a troubling bit of news: the new Duque government is “reviewing” the agreement that the prior administration of Juan Manuel Santos had signed with the Truth Commission regarding the handover of classified information in military policy and manuals. This, along with legislation introduced by members of Duque’s party in Congress, may throw up obstacles to the Truth Commission’s ability to access information in the military’s files that, unlike this week’s 50-volume submission, portrays the armed forces’ behavior in a less flattering light.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of August 19-25)

ELN Still Hasn’t Released Captives and Hostages

The ELN’s release of four soldiers, three police, and two civilians in its custody, believed imminent, still hasn’t happened yet. Guerrilla fronts in Chocó and Arauca captured the nine on August 3rd and 8th, and President Iván Duque (who was inaugurated August 7th) has demanded their unconditional release before deciding whether to continue peace talks begun by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

A week ago, Colombia’s Defense Ministry stated that it had agreed with the ELN on a protocol for freeing the captives, with the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In Havana, chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán told The New York Times that “the nine captives would be released ‘within the next week.’ But two days later, a recording from the ELN’s Western War Front, its hard-line bloc, which has released pictures of some of the hostages, said no agreement had been reached.”

The situation remains unclear. The Defense Ministry has refused to recognize the liberation as part of the peace negotiation, which the Duque government still hasn’t committed to continuing. The ELN has meanwhile reportedly sent members of its negotiating team to Colombia to work out handover details, but it is not known whether they have yet been in touch with the government.

“Uriel,” the commander of the ELN’s Western War Front, “complained about military pressure in the zone,” according to El Tiempo, which in his judgment is reducing the kidnap victims’ [security] guarantees.”

Interviewed by The New York Times, negotiator Beltrán insisted that the ELN wants to continue dialogue with the new Duque government, and promised reasonable terms. “‘We’re not asking for socialism, he said, adding that his rebels are mainly looking for basic protections for peasants and a way that the rebels can lay down arms.” Beltrán noted that guerrillas he has spoken with, after viewing the sluggish implementation of the FARC peace accord, are concerned that the government won’t honor an agreement. “We have an example that has us scared,” he told the Times, referring to the FARC process.

Murders of Social Leaders Are Not Slowing

On August 23 President Duque, accompanied by the internal-affairs chief (Procurador), human rights ombudsman (Defensor), the U.S. ambassador, the ministers of Defense and Interior, and other officials, presided over an event to lay out a policy for protecting threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. The “Second Table for the Protection of Life” took place in Apartadó, in the troubled Urabá region of northwest Colombia, a zone of drug transshipment, much stolen landholding, and frequent attacks on social leaders. About 90 social organizations were in attendance.

Those present signed a “pact for life and protection of social leaders and human rights defenders,” which El Nuevo Siglo described as “an immediate roadmap to ‘rebuild trust in justice and to judge the material and intellectual authors of this criminal phenomenon.’”

The phenomenon remains intense. Ombudsman Carlos Negret announced that the August 22 murder of Luis Henry Verá Gamboa, a 51-year-old Community Action Board leader in Cesar department, was the 343rd killing of a social leader in Colombia since January 2016: one every 2.8 days. At least 123 killings—two every three days—took place during the first six months of 2018, The Guardian reported.

Deputy Chief Prosecutor (Vicefiscal) María Paulina Riveros, who attended the Apartadó event, said that her office has arrested 150 people and identified 200 suspects tied to the killings of social leaders; she did not say how many are suspected trigger-pullers versus those believed to have planned or ordered killings. In Urabá and northern Antioquia department, she added, businesses and landowners who resist restitution of stolen landholdings are heavily involved in killings of land claimants.

Procurador Fernando Carrillo said that his office will pressure mayors and governors to take more actions against killings of human rights defenders, adding that 30 officials are currently under investigation for failing to prevent the murders.

“If we want to guarantee the life and integrity of our social leaders, we have to dismantle the structures of organized crime that are attacking them,” Duque said. He added, “What we want is to seek an integral response of preventive actions and investigative speed to guarantee freedom of expression to all the people who are exercising the defense of human rights.”

Some social leaders, while glad to see a high-profile commitment, voiced concern about follow-through. “It’s not enough to draw up a lot of norms and mechanisms, if they don’t end up being effective instruments in their application, if they’re handed down from above but get lost on their way to the regions,” said Marino Córdoba of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians.

New Peace Commissioner Meets Senior FARC Leader

The Duque government’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, toured some of the sites (“Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation”) where many demobilized FARC members are still living. Accompanied by UN Verification Mission chief Jean Arnault at the site in Pondores, La Guajira, Ceballos met with former FARC Secretariat member Joaquín Gómez of the former Southern Bloc. Ceballos’s message was that the new government intends to respect the Santos government’s commitments for the reintegration of demobilized guerrillas.

Two of the most prominent demobilized FARC leaders, however, are still unaccounted for. Former Secretariat member Iván Márquez, a hardliner who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana, has not been heard from in about a month. The same is true of Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias El Paisa, the former head of the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero Column. Both Márquez and Velásquez had been staying at a demobilization site in Caquetá; Márquez moved there in April, after renouncing his assigned Senate seat in the wake of the arrest, on narcotrafficking charges, of his close associate and fellow FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich.

FARC Senator Carlos Antonio Lozada told Colombian media that he doesn’t know where Márquez and Velásquez are and hasn’t heard from them. He said he hoped to see Márquez at a late August meeting of FARC political party leaders. Ariel Ávila, an analyst at the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told El Colombiano, “there are many rumors about what they could be doing, that they’re in Venezuela, that they’re in hiding, that they’ve joined the dissident groups.”

FARC Dissidents Expanding in Catatumbo Region

Catatumbo, a poorly governed region of smallholding farmers in Norte de Santander department near the Venezuelan border, has already been suffering a wave of violence between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small guerrilla group that is almost exclusively active there. Now, reports La Silla Vacía, the largest FARC dissident group has arrived in Catatumbo, especially in areas that had previously been the dominion of the FARC’s disbanded 33rd Front.

Basing itself mainly on military intelligence sources, La Silla claims that dissidents from the FARC’s 7th Front, active in south-central Colombia, are branching out. 7th Front leader “Gentil Duarte” has sent one of his most notorious deputies, “John 40”—a FARC leader with a long history in the cocaine trade—to Catatumbo to build up recruitment and recover control of trafficking routes.

According to Army Intelligence information, his appearance in the area occurred between four and five months ago, when it was already known in the region that several ex-FARC members had decided to return to arms, and those who were not organizing on their own in small groups were dividing themselves between the ranks of the ELN and the EPL. What is clear is that John 40 came to organize them to prevent the new reorganizations from being dispersed or ending up simply strengthening the other two guerrilla groups, at a time when the coca market in Catatumbo is skyrocketing.

Wilfredo Cañizares of the Fundación Progresar think-tank in nearby Cúcuta told La Silla that Catatumbo may now have as many as 30,000 hectares of coca, at least 6,000 more than were measured in 2016.

Duarte and John 40 both abandoned the FARC in 2016, objecting to the peace accord the guerrillas were signing with the government. They are now part of the largest dissident group in the country, beginning to coordinate well beyond their center of operations in Meta and Guaviare departments. While La Silla’s military intelligence source said that the group has only about 33 men in the Catatumbo region, “seven sources we talked to in Catatumbo, among them local authorities and social leaders, said that the number could be between four and seven times larger.”

The 7th Front has avoided drawing attention to itself in Catatumbo, even as ELN-EPL fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. However, some of La Silla’s sources say the dissidents may have been behind a massacre three weeks ago in the central Catatumbo municipality of El Tarra.

Two sources in El Tarra told us that with the passing of days, the hypothesis that has grown strongest is that it was a dispute between dissidences. “Everything points to the dissidence of John 40 being the one that ordered the massacre, because the dissidents who died did not want to align with him and the model he came to put together,” one of those sources told La Silla.

Citing a human rights defender, an Army source, a social leader, and two local authorities, the report adds that the presence in Catatumbo of middlemen from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is adding fuel to the fire. Three sources told La Silla Vacía that, while Sinaloa’s representatives aren’t behaving like an armed group in the region, they have a great deal of money, and as a result are under the protection of both guerrillas and corrupt members of the Army and Police.

Displacement Has Already Surpassed 2017 Levels

Speaking at a Cali event organized by El Espectador’s Colombia 2020 program, Jozef Merkx, the Colombia country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, drew attention with a grim piece of data: “in August 2018 Colombia has surpassed the number of internally displaced people that was measured in all of 2017.” That makes more than 20,000 Colombians forced from their homes by violence so far this year.

Merkx added that displacement is most severe along the Pacific Coast, in Catatumbo, and in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region. Mass displacements have also occurred in Meta, Arauca, and Córdoba departments. All of these zones have seen intense fighting this year between still-existing guerrillas like the ELN and EPL, armed organized crime groups like the Urabeños, or FARC dissidents.

The UNHCR official noted that 60 percent of the displaced have settled in 29 cities, where they often continue face severe security challenges. The same neighborhoods are also seeing a large flow of Venezuelans, a migration emergency that is much larger in number and has been getting much more attention. A UN Secretary-General spokesman said in mid-August that 2.3 million Venezuelans—7 percent of the neighboring country’s population—had abandoned the country as of June. Of those, 1.3 million were “suffering from malnourishment.”

WSJ Report Reveals New Details About Drone Coca Eradication Plan

An August 19 Wall Street Journal report gave some new information about Colombia’s plan to start eradicating the country’s still-increasing coca crop by spraying herbicides from low-flying drones. The herbicide would continue to be glyphosate, which Colombia stopped spraying from higher-flying aircraft in 2015, after a World Health Organization study pointed to some probability that the commonly used herbicide is carcinogenic.

Colombian police, along with a company called Fumi Drone, have been testing the new method using 10 drones in Nariño, the department with Colombia’s highest concentration of coca. Fully loaded with herbicide, each drone weighs 50 pounds and must be recharged after about a dozen minutes. “The small, remotely guided aircraft destroyed hundreds of acres of coca in a first round of tests,” police and Fumi Drone told the Journal.

The United States backed an aircraft-based glyphosate spraying program for more than 20 years. It proved capable of achieving short-term reductions in coca cultivation, in specific areas—but in an on-the-ground context of absent government and no basic services, growers tended to replant quickly. Because spraying from dozens or hundreds of feet in the air is very imprecise, farmers also alleged health and environmental damage—which U.S. officials denied—and the destruction of legal food crops.

Since 2015, Colombia’s forcible coca eradication has mainly involved individual eradicators either pulling the plants out of the ground or directly applying glyphosate. This is dangerous work, and hundreds of eradicators or security-force accompaniers have been killed or wounded since the mid-2000s by ambushes, snipers, landmines, and booby traps.

Critics warn that, while drones are safer for eradicators and less likely to spray people and legal crops, they do not solve the fundamental problem: coca-growing areas are abandoned by the government, and those who live there have shaky property rights, no farm-to-market roads, and few economic options. Spraying from the air and leaving no presence on the ground, then, virtually guarantees that coca cultivation will recur. “It’s a short-term solution,” Richard Lapper of the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank told the BBC. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of international demand for cocaine.”

U.S. government officials told the Wall Street Journal that they’re not completely sold on the drone idea. “[T]hey are open to using drones but need to learn more about their capabilities once Colombia’s police complete tests, which could run until January.” As he has in the past, Ambassador Kevin Whitaker made clear that the door remains open to using spray aircraft.

Seven or eight of the crop dusters that had worked the coca fields here remain in Colombia. [There were 14.] In a few months, U.S. officials say, they could become operational again. “I told embassy personnel and the Colombians the same thing: We need to be ready for a restart,” said the U.S. ambassador, Mr. Whitaker.

Meanwhile, participants in the voluntary crop substitution program begun under Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord remain uncertain about whether Iván Duque’s government will continue the effort, known as the National Integral Illicit-Use Crop Substitution Plan (PNIS). Defense Minister Guillermo Botero raised concerns when he announced: “Voluntary eradication is over, and it will become obligatory… the fumigations will surely have to take place… we’re going to dedicate ourselves tenaciously to the eradication of illicit crops.”

Ten social and coca-grower organizations that have served as intermediaries for the PNIS program responded with a letter to President Duque asking him to keep the program in place. As laid out in the accord, the Santos Presidency’s crop substitution program has already promised two years of financial and technical assistance to 124,745 coca-growing households, signing individual accords with 77,659 of them. About 47,910 have eradicated about 22,000 hectares of coca in exchange for promised support, which has been arriving slowly.

In other bad drug-trade news, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant, Daniel Gould, was arrested after DEA agents found 90 pounds of cocaine inside two backpacks aboard a military transport plane in Colombia. The plane was bound for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A Defense Department spokesman confirmed the allegations, which were revealed by NBC News, but did not elaborate, citing “the integrity of the investigation and the rights of the individual.”

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of August 12-18)

Constitutional Court Upholds, Modifies Law Governing Transitional Justice System

Colombia’s maximum judicial review body, the Constitutional Court, completed an 8½-month review of the law governing the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which is the body that the peace accords set up to put on trial, and punish, those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the armed conflict. In Colombia’s system, the Court has the power to make alterations to laws, and it addressed some provisions that Colombia’s Congress had controversially added to the JEP Statutory Law’s text last November.

According to press coverage of the 800-page judicial decision, the Court’s changes include:

Allowing those accused of, or guilty of, war crimes to hold political office—as long as they are participating fully in the JEP. This largely upholds what the peace accord and the statutory law allow. War criminals may hold office as long as they have submitted to the JEP, are recognizing and confessing the full truth of their crimes, and are making reparations to victims. Those who do this serve sentences of “restricted liberty,” but not prison, lasting up to eight years. It is not yet clear whether these sentences—which are up to the judge in each case—might interfere with an individual’s ability to hold office.

The Court specifies, though, that those found to be withholding information from their confessions, or those who refuse to recognize crimes and are found guilty, may not hold political office. The accord and law dictate that people in this category must go to regular prison.

The JEP can look at the evidence when it makes extradition decisions. When an ex-combatant is wanted in another country for a crime, the JEP must certify whether the crime happened during the conflict or after it (that is, after December 2016, when the peace accord was ratified). If the crime occurred during the conflict and is covered by the JEP—including the crime of narcotrafficking, if it wasn’t for personal enrichment—Colombia will not extradite the individual.

In April, U.S. prosecutors began the process of asking Colombia to extradite top FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich on charges of conspiring to transship cocaine to the United States in 2017-18. The ensuing process raised confusion about whether the JEP’s role is simply to sign off on the date of the alleged crime, or whether it is able to consider the evidence backing up the allegation. In June, when it passed a law laying out the JEP’s internal procedures, Colombia’s Congress limited the JEP to certifying the date only. The Constitutional Court just reversed that: the JEP may now consider the proof underlying the extradition request.

Judges who’ve worked in human rights during the previous 5 years may remain. The Congress had added a provision to the statutory law banning the JEP from including any judges who, in the past five years, had brought cases against the government, participated in peace negotiations, or taken part in any case related to the armed conflict. This would have disqualified at least 15 of the JEP’s 53 already-chosen judges and alternates. As most observers expected, the Constitutional Court threw this provision out.

Sexual crimes against minors remain under JEP jurisdiction. In the statutory law, the Congress had excluded sexual crimes against minors from JEP jurisdiction, demanding that those accused of such heinous crimes be punished with prison sentences in the regular criminal-justice system. The Constitutional Court stripped out this exclusion.

Some legal and victims’ groups had argued that even though the penalties for child violators would be harsher in the regular justice system, trying such crimes through the JEP will allow victims to hear the truth and receive reparations much more quickly. “If the perpetrators know that they will receive high prison sentences instead of those contemplated in the peace agreement, it is very likely that they would have no reason to recognize sexual crimes against girls, with would force the state to go about proving the allegation, and the victims would have to wait a long time to obtain truth, justice and reparation,” read a statement from Dejusticia, Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, Women‘s Link WorldWide and Red de Mujeres Víctimas y Profesionales.

Third parties’ participation in the JEP remains voluntary, not obligatory. But prosecutors in the regular criminal justice system must prioritize their cases. The Congress—in an apparent move to protect landowners, narcotraffickers, local officials, and other politically influential individuals who sponsored armed groups or planned killings—had added language to the statutory law preventing the JEP from compelling private citizens to participate. The concern is that such powerful individuals have little to fear from an overburdened, institutionally deficient “regular” justice system that is unlikely to take up old cases. The Constitutional Court maintained the “voluntary” participation standard, but, as El Espectador puts it, “emphasized that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has the obligation to prioritize, in the criminal justice system, investigations against third parties and non-combatant government agencies who have not voluntarily submitted to the JEP.”

Though there might be language about these items in the very long text of the Constitutional Court’s opinion, it appears to have left untouched the following concerns about the JEP:

  • It remains up to the judges in individual cases how austere the conditions of “restricted liberty” will be for those who give full confessions and reparations.
  • A watered-down definition of “command responsibility” for war crimes committed by the military, which may exonerate commanders who should have known what their subordinates were doing, remains in place. This could set Colombia on a collision course with the International Criminal Court, whose founding statute uses a “should have known” standard to determine command responsibility.
  • It remains unclear under which circumstances “false positive” killings may or may not be tried within the JEP. It appears that most of these thousands of extrajudicial killings were committed by soldiers for personal gain, and thus unrelated to the armed conflict. It will be up to judges to decide on a case-by-case basis. Of 2,159 current or former security-force members participating in the JEP, at least 1,824 are accused of committing extrajudicial executions, most of them probably “false positives.”

Top FARC Leaders Have Gone Off the Grid

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino confirmed to reporters that two top FARC leaders have left the demobilization site where they had been staying, and that their current whereabouts are unknown. They are Iván Márquez, a former FARC Secretariat member who was the guerrilla group’s lead negotiator during the Havana peace talks, and Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias El Paisa, who headed the guerrillas’ Teófilo Forero Column, a notoriously lethal unit once active in southern Colombia.

Both had been in the Miravalle “reincorporation zone” in Caquetá department. Márquez had relocated there in April when his close associate, former negotiator Jesús Santrich, was arrested pending possible extradition to the United States for narcotrafficking. While they are not required to remain at the site, that their whereabouts have been unknown for about two weeks raises concerns that the two leaders, both considered hardliners, might have abandoned the peace process.

Sandino, the FARC senator, told Colombia’s Blu Radio that Márquez and Velásquez left the Miravalle site after “a situation that happened about a month ago, where there were several operations [nearby] with some pretty complicated aspects, in which people wearing face masks came to the dwelling where Iván Márquez was present. They left beforehand. At this moment, they’re not there, and in my personal case I don’t know where they are.”

In July, the two leaders had sent a letter to the chief of the UN verification mission, Jean Arnault, claiming that “since Friday, July 6, special Army counter-guerrilla troops, belonging to the 22nd and High Mountain Battalions, have deployed a land operation around the El Pato region, which we have no doubt aims to sabotage the progress of hope for peace.” Luis Carlos Villegas, the defense minister at the time, denied that military operations were occurring. He said that drone overflights that the leaders may have observed, which are not prohibited, were actually those of oil companies carrying out seismic explorations.

Sen. Sandino said that she has had no contact with Márquez and Velásquez, as there is no phone service where they are. Asked whether the two could be in Venezuela, according to El Espectador, “the senator said that is only speculation, and that they remain active members of the [FARC] political party.”

Personnel Changes

Newly inaugurated President Iván Duque has named the two officials who will be most responsible for implementing the FARC peace accord and for carrying out negotiations with the ELN, should they continue.

Miguel Ceballos will be the Presidency’s next high commissioner for peace, directing negotiations and some aspects of accord implementation. He replaces Rodrigo Rivera, who in 2017 replaced Sergio Jaramillo, a chief architect of the FARC accord and of the Santos government’s post-conflict territorial implementation strategy. The nomination of Ceballos, a former vice-minister of justice who taught at Georgetown University and Bogotá’s Conservative Party-tied Sergio Arboleda University, was well-received. Though he was a key advisor to the Conservative Party wing that supported a “no” vote in the October 2016 plebiscite on the peace accords, Ceballos is viewed as a pragmatist who would not seek to “tear up” the accords, as some in President Duque’s coalition have urged. He takes over the process of deciding whether to continue the Santos government’s peace talks in Havana with the ELN; in his inaugural speech, President Duque called for a 30-day review period to make this decision.

Emilio José Archila replaces Rafael Pardo as high counselor for the post-conflict, a position within the Presidency that manages implementation of the peace accord. Archila, too, is identified with the Conservative Party. A lawyer focused on economic issues, he served in the past as head legal officer in the Commerce and Industry Ministry. He will oversee the struggling coca crop-substitution program set up by the peace accord’s fourth chapter, and the ambitious Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDET) program foreseen in the first chapter, which seeks to build state presence and provide basic services in sixteen conflictive regions.

Ceballos and Archila will sit on the Committee for Follow-up, Stimulus, and Verification of Peace Accord Implementation (CSIVI), the main oversight mechanism to guarantee that accord implementation is on track, along with representatives of the FARC and the accord’s guarantor countries.

Ariel Ávila, an analyst at Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, voiced concern about possible name changes for both officials’ agencies: the High Commissioner for Peace might become the High Commissioner for Legality, and the High Counselor for the Post-Conflict might become the High Counselor for Stabilization. “All state institutions must act under legality, there’s no need to create an office for that,” Ávila noted, adding that “stabilization” is just the first phase of a post-conflict period—it should be followed by “normalization,” which he defines as “the building of a new society, long-term reforms, and reconciliation.”

Meanwhile historian Gonzalo Sánchez, the longtime head of the government’s autonomous Center for Historical Memory, resigned this week. The Center has produced dozens of highly regarded reports and an extensive public archive documenting some of the most severe violations of human rights, committed by all sides, during the long conflict. El Tiempo reports that the two most likely candidates to head the Center are Eduardo Pizarro, who headed the Center’s precursor, the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation, during the government of Álvaro Uribe, and Alfredo Rangel, a onetime academic conflict analyst who later became a hardline senator in Uribe’s party.

ELN May Release Captives and Kidnap Victims

Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that protocols have been activated for the release of nine people—seven security-force personnel and two civilians—whom the ELN had captured or kidnapped in Arauca and Chocó departments. The Ministry said it is awaiting the ELN’s provision of geographic coordinates for the handovers.

Pablo Beltrán, the guerrilla group’s chief negotiator in Havana, said on August 14 that the liberation should happen in eight days, although a guerrilla communiqué stated that nearby security-force operations could complicate logistics and put the victims’ lives “at high risk.” The guerrillas also provided a proof-of-life recording of three policemen and one soldier whom they had taken from a boat on a tributary of the Atrato River in Quibdó municipality, Chocó.

In his August 7 inauguration speech, President Iván Duque said that he would spend 30 days reviewing whether to continue peace talks with the ELN. Duque said that an end to ELN kidnappings, and the freeing of all guerrilla captives, is a precondition for any resumption of negotiations.

Meanwhile, after the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) denounced that the ELN has recruited 24 minors so far this year, the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued arrest warrants for sixteen ELN leaders, including all five members of the group’s Central Command. Chief negotiator Beltrán, speaking from Havana, denied that the ELN had committed a war crime: “Here, nobody is recruited or kept against their will. Those who want to enter, enter; those who want to leave, leave.” Tacitly admitting that minors are recruited, Beltran said that the group does not recruit anyone under 15 years old. (The ELN’s maximum leader, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista alias “Gabino,” joined the group in 1964 at age 14.)

The ELN negotiator said the group remains willing to engage in a bilateral ceasefire, like the one in place during a 100-day period that ended in January. President Duque was not warm to the idea: “I haven’t agreed with those who now seek to intimidate the country seeking bilateral ceasefires while they commit acts that are deplorable and despicable in the light of any eye.” Speaking before a military audience, he continued, “What we want is that anyone who wants to demobilize, disarm and reinsert does so on the basis of the immediate suspension of all criminal activities.”

A week before the end of Juan Manuel Santos’s administration, government and ELN negotiators closed a sixth round of talks in Havana without an agreement on either a ceasefire or a mechanism for involving civil society in the talks, as the ELN demands. Citing “two sources who have access to privileged information about the negotiations,” Ana León of La Silla Vacía noted that the ELN is now willing to consider a halt to kidnappings and extortion during a ceasefire. But she cited three issues on which the ELN talks are stuck:

  1. How to monitor and verify a ceasefire. While the ELN would keep in place the mechanisms employed during the late-2017 ceasefire, the government wants more specificity. During the earlier ceasefire, a source told León, “There was no clear definition of what a hostility was, what a ceasefire violation was, and so the UN was not going to commit to verification.” That source said the ELN is unwilling to ease monitoring by providing more detail about its zones of geographic control, since many of these are in dispute with other illegal armed groups.
  2. The ELN’s demand that the government commit to halting murders of social leaders. While virtually all analysts agree that the government should be doing more to protect social leaders, the government does not have the power to stop the killings completely, especially those that result from local dynamics.
  3. The definition of “civil society participation” in the negotiations, a longtime ELN demand that is included, but poorly defined, in the talks’ agreed agenda.

Anticorruption bill, with a clause preventing ex-guerrillas in politics, is withdrawn

The new Duque government introduced a bill to fight corruption, but abruptly withdrew it after it was found to include language that would prevent former guerrillas from holding political office. Juanita Goebertus, a former government peace negotiator recently elected to Congress as a Green Party representative, denounced the presence of text deep within the bill stating, “those who have been convicted at any time for crimes related to membership, promotion, or financing of illegal armed groups, crimes against humanity, or drug trafficking cannot be registered as candidates for popular election.”

Colombian politics has a term for a snippet of unrelated and probably unpopular legislative language stuck into a larger bill: a “mico” or “monkey.” Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez withdrew the anti-corruption bill and pledged to re-submit it without the mico. (In Colombia, the Interior Minister manages the Presidency’s legislative agenda.)

Minister Gutiérrez also pulled back the nomination of Claudia Ortiz to head the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit (UNP), which provides bulletproof vests, bodyguards, vehicles, and other protection to threatened individuals, from politicians to opposition figures to ex-guerrillas to social leaders. An outcry followed the revelation of tweets from Ortiz, a longtime supporter of ex-president Álvaro Uribe, attacking opposition figures. The tweets’ vicious language called into question Ortiz’s will to protect those who disagree with and criticize the government. No new nominee to head the UNP has been named.

Visit from Defense Secretary Mattis

The U.S. secretary of defense, James Mattis, paid a brief visit to Colombia on August 17, the last stop of a South America tour that took him to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Mattis met with President Duque and with Defense Minister Guillermo Botero.

We know little about the subject matter of Mattis’s discussions. “The leaders discussed a broad range of defense issues, and the secretary thanked the minister for their country’s regional leadership role as a security exporter” was how a Pentagon spokesman vaguely put it. Mattis also thanked Duque for Colombia’s regional diplomacy to “denounce undemocratic actions” in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Earlier on his trip, Mattis criticized Venezuela’s authoritarian government, but made clear that the crisis in Venezuela is “not a military matter.” In Bogotá, he discussed the heavy flow of Venezuelan migrants into Colombia. “A subject [that] came up in both of my meetings this morning … was on what we’re working on in terms of the Venezuelan refugees and their destabilizing impact they have,” Mattis said.

He announced that sometime this fall, the Defense Department would dispatch the USNS Comfort, a giant Navy hospital ship, to Colombia’s Caribbean coast to attend to Venezuelans in Colombia. The Secretary added that President Duque and Colombian defense officials “not only agreed in principle” to the Comfort deployment, “they gave details on how we might best craft the cruise through the region,” Mattis said. The State Department and USAID have otherwise committed US$46 million in assistance to Colombia to help attend to Venezuelan refugees.

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry has announced that it will ask the United Nations to name a special envoy to coordinate humanitarian aid for Venezuelans in Colombia and elsewhere in the region.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of May 13-19)

Transitional Justice System Suspends Santrich Extradition

The case of FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, arrested on April 9 with the possibility of extradition to the United States for narcotrafficking, grew more complicated this week. The Review Chamber of the new Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP, the transitional justice system set up by the peace accord) ordered his extradition suspended. Other entities within Colombia’s government contended that the Chamber doesn’t have the right to do that.

Santrich, a hardliner who represented the FARC at the negotiating table during the entire Havana process, is currently confined at a Bogotá facility run by the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference. His health is precarious, as he has been on a hunger strike since his arrest. Santrich is charged by a grand jury in the Southern District of New York with conspiring to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

As he allegedly committed the crime after the peace accord went into effect, Santrich’s case could go to Colombia’s regular justice system, where he would face long prison terms or extradition. First, though, the JEP must determine that the crime did indeed take place after the peace accord’s December 1, 2016 ratification.

That is the task of the JEP’s Review Chamber, which must fulfill it within 120 days. This chamber contended, by a unanimous vote, that fulfilling its duty required a temporary suspension of Santrich’s extradition. The Chamber asked for more evidence of the allegations against the FARC leader, and instructed the “regular” justice system’s Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) to provide, within five days, information about the extradition process.

Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez responded with a strongly worded 16-page letter alleging that the JEP has no authority to freeze an extradition process, adding that the newly formed body’s action “has left democratic institutionally threatened.” And in fact, the director of another body of the JEP, its Investigations and Accusations Unit, tweeted “I separate myself from the extradition suspension decision.”

The Colombian government’s Justice and Interior Ministries responded with a communiqué arguing that the JEP could not suspend Santrich’s extradition because the United States had not formally requested it yet. Colombian law gives countries requesting a citizen’s extradition 60 days to issue a formal request after that citizen has been detained. That would give the U.S. government until June 8 to issue the request. It has not done so, perhaps out of a desire not to appear to be influencing the May 27 presidential election campaign.

The JEP Chamber, however, stated that in its view, “the extradition process has already begun, because a detention for extradition purposes has been requested.”

There is no sense of when the Chamber may issue its determination of when Santrich committed a crime, or whether the Chamber may seek to determine whether there is even enough evidence that a crime took place. “Still, the political effect of the decision is immediate,” wrote Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.

Above all when the JEP issues it a few days before elections in which the candidate with the best chances of making it to a second round and reaching the Presidency [Iván Duque of the right-wing Centro Democrático party] proposes to make “adjustments” to the JEP that, in practice, would do away with it.

Debate over whether to extradite Santrich continues. Rodrigo Uprimny, founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, believes Santrich should be tried in Colombia so that he may answer to his victims. An analysis in Semana magazine worries about the effect on ex-guerrillas’ desertion:

In the end, the consequences won’t be those of an ideal transition to peace or a return to the open war of the last decades. The scenario in play is intermediate, and has to do instead with the size of the dissidences that may return to the jungle. In other words, if Santrich’s possible extradition creates uncertainty among guerrillas that increases the number of dissidents, it may be best to allow him to serve his sentence inside the country.

An El Tiempo editorial contends that “rules are rules,” despite Santrich’s victims’ right to learn the truth from him.

It could be proposed that, without leaving aside at any moment the importance of the truth, the precept must come first that whoever doesn’t comply with the agreed rules must pay for it.

This, the editorial clarifies, only applies if the evidence against Santrich “leaves no doubt about his criminal conduct.” If so, “there would be no reason to insist that this [his extradition] poses an insurmountable obstacle to the implementation of what was agreed in Havana.”

Government Will Miss Its Coca Substitution Target

The Colombian government recognized on May 15 that it will not meet its target, set for this month, of 50,000 hectares of coca eradicated by growers voluntarily destroying their crops in exchange for economic assistance. That was the one-year goal the Presidency had set for its implementation of chapter 4 of the Havana peace accord, which establishes a national crop substitution program.

In fact, the program fell significantly short. Eduardo Díaz, the director of the crop substitution program, announced that families participating in the program had eradicated 36,000 hectares, of which 11,700 have actually been verified by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares in Colombia in 2016, and media have reported that the U.S. estimate for 2017 could be as high as 230,000. (UNODC’s 2016 estimate was 146,000, and media reports point to 180,000 in 2017.) The government forcibly eradicated 53,000 hectares in 2017.

Díaz blamed security conditions for the shortfall. He told CNN en Español, “In different zones where there are crops, narcotraffickers’ networks have advanced, have killed communities, have killed leaders, have threatened government officials and UN officials.”

Independent analysts place more blame on the slow performance of the Colombian bureaucracy. The idea of the government’s National Comprehensive Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS, the main focus of the accord’s chapter 4) was to provide small-scale coca-growing households with two years’ worth of payments and help with productive projects in exchange for eradicating their coca. The economic benefits for each household would total about US$12,000 over two years. This week, the Ideas for Peace Foundation released a detailed report and dataset (Excel file) laying out the progress of the PNIS program as of March 31. In sum:

  • 123,225 families had signed collective framework community accords agreeing in principle to substitute crops.
  • 62,181 families (50.4 percent of above) had signed specific accords committing to a timetable of voluntary eradication and receipt of benefits.
  • 32,010 families (51.4 percent of above) had received at least one monthly payment.
  • 7,009 families (11 percent of the 62,181) had received any technical assistance to pursue an alternative productive project.
  • UNODC had found (in 2106) 22,025 hectares of coca in the municipalities (counties) where families had begun receiving payments.
  • UNODC had verified and certified the eradication of 6,381 hectares of coca (28.9 percent of above). (This is far fewer than the 11.700 hectare figure that the government substitution program’s Eduardo Díaz had given CNN.)

The report concludes,

The greatest advances of PNIS are found in the signing up of campesinos and the disbursement of payments, while it is falling most behind in technical assistance and in the supply of goods and services. Under those conditions, three months before the end of President Santos’s government, it will be difficult for the program to meet the goal of 50,000 voluntarily eradicated hectares.

The Ideas for Peace report notes that while homicides across Colombia have increased by a troubling 8 percent over this time last year, they are up by a very alarming 57 percent in the municipalities with crop substitution programs.

The Verdad Abierta website visited Briceño, Antioquia, where the PNIS began as a pilot project in 2015. In the coming weeks, the national government is to announce that the municipality’s residents will have eradicated all of their coca, about 567 hectares.

However, Briceño’s farmers told the site that “the campesinos complied, but the government has not.” While monthly payments have come on time, assistance for productive projects has hardly begun. “They did give us the payments, but in the agreement it said that as the payments arrived, then the productive projects to implement them would also arrive, so that we wouldn’t end up the way we are now: with our arms crossed and worried because the money has run out,” said a Community Action Board president.

“The state has a great responsibility with respect to the families who expressed their will to abandon the coca crops and who took part in the substitution process,” the Ideas for Peace report reads. “In the zones where the PNIS began to be developed, the link between populations and the state has been re-established. However, the lack of compliance with what was agreed not only has implications for institutions’ trust and credibility, it generates a risk of re-planting and a possible increase in hectares of coca.”

ELN to Cease Fire During Presidential Voting

The ELN announced that it will cease military activities for five days, from May 25-29, “to contribute to favorable conditions that might permit Colombian society to express itself in the elections” that will take place on May 27.

This raised hopes for a more permanent bilateral cessation of hostilities between government and guerrillas. However, the ELN’s chief negotiator in Havana, Pablo Beltrán, intimated that the group would be unlikely to agree to a ceasefire as long as social leaders continue to be killed at a rapid pace around the country: “We are fully disposed to do a cessation, but what about all the others? It’s not just a call on the military forces, but on paramilitarism, on all these attacks that different popular sectors are receiving.”

Asked about President Juan Manuel Santos’s hope that the ELN talks will leave behind a framework agreement—which, for the next president, would increase the cost of pulling the plug on the talks—Beltrán said that the ELN wants “to leave the accords at such a point of consolidation that any incoming government would have to respect them.” Any advancement, Beltrán added, would have to include more civil society participation; he did not specify what that might look like.

Timoleón Jiménez to Uribe: Let’s Go To the Truth Commission Together

Maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez alias Timochenko published a lengthy communiqué about the status of the peace process on the eve of Colombia’s presidential election. “The peace accord is shielded,” it reads.

That’s what the Constitutional Court understood when it upheld Legislative Act 02 of 2017. The UN Security Council recognizes it. The community of nations accepts it and applauds it. We’re not going to force absolutely anything, the issue is simply to honor what was agreed when the Colombian state and our former insurgency gave our word. The beautiful dream of peace could be an irreversible reality if you [President Santos] decide to act.

Timochenko’s tone contrasts with that of the FARC’s de facto number-two leader, Iván Márquez, who said that if his close collaborator Jesús Santrich dies of a hunger strike while awaiting a possible extradition, his death “would also be the death of the peace process.”

In his statement, Timochenko asked forgiveness of Ingrid Betancourt, Clara Rojas, Sigifredo López, and other civilians whom the FARC held hostage for years. He called on former President Álvaro Uribe to join him in appearing together before the newly established Truth Commission to show the country “what the search for truth and the clarification of the truth look like.” Uribe led an intense military offensive against the FARC during his 2002-2010 presidency, and enjoyed the political support of many backers of right-wing paramilitary groups.

The presidential candidate of Uribe’s party, poll frontrunner Iván Duque, rejected the FARC leader’s invitation. “He can’t come here like a shameless person trying to appear as the equal of a good citizen. Instead, they should give reparations to their victims, tell all the truth, and pay their penalties.”

Military Operations Against FARC Dissidents

A joint Colombian Army-Air Force-Police operation killed 11 members of the FARC’s 7th Front dissident group in Putumayo. Among the dead was a commander named alias “Cachorro,” reportedly a close collaborator of Edgar Salgado, alias “Rodrigo Cadete,” who commanded the FARC’s 27th Front and abruptly abandoned the demobilization process last September. The 7th Front dissidents are a recent presence in Putumayo; they have been most active in Meta and Caquetá.

In Bello, just north of Medellín in Antioquia, an operation carried out by the Army and the Fiscalía captured Henry Arturo Gil Ramírez alias “el Feo” (the Ugly One), a top commander of the 36th Front dissident group.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of May 6-12)

ELN Talks Restart in Havana

Government and ELN negotiators relaunched peace talks in Havana, Cuba on May 10, continuing a fifth round of negotiations that had begun in Quito, Ecuador on March 15. The process was interrupted on April 18 when Ecuador’s President, Lenin Moreno, suspended the country’s hosting of the negotiations. Moreno’s decision reflected a darkened national mood in Ecuador toward Colombian armed groups, after a FARC dissident group kidnapped and killed two journalists and their driver in March near the Colombia-Ecuador border.

This round of talks is covering three issues: the terms of a new bilateral cessation of hostilities, measures to shield communities in areas of combat between the ELN and other illegal armed groups, and a model for civil society participation in future rounds of talks, as envisioned in the negotiating agenda. “In the immediate term, this cycle will dedicate itself to agreeing on a new bilateral, temporary, and national ceasefire that is better than the last one,” said ELN chief negotiator Pablo Beltrán, referring to a 100-day bilateral ceasefire that was not renewed after it expired on January 9.

Negotiators are under pressure to come up with tangible results. In three months, Colombia will inaugurate a new president after electing a new one on May 27 (and probably after a runoff vote on June 17); most candidates have said they are unwilling to continue the peace talks in their current form. President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian Congress’s Peace Commission have both cited the need for a “framework accord” to lock in the talks before the next president takes office. While he realizes that he will not be the one to sign an accord with the ELN, Santos said his goal is to hand off to his successor “something that is on the right track.”

At a May 9 session of the congressional Peace Commission, diplomatic representatives from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, and Cuba expressed support for the ELN dialogues’ continuation. Most called on both sides to make swift progress. The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, gave a statement of support and called on both sides to reach a ceasefire, “which would significantly improve the humanitarian situation in the areas most affected by the conflict.” At the congressional commission hearing, government negotiator José Noé Ríos declared a goal of May 25—two days before the presidential elections’ first round—for reaching agreement on a ceasefire.

In an apparent move to ease a ceasefire, President Santos signed a decree green-lighting a case-by-case review of people imprisoned on charges having to do with social protest. The idea is to identify individuals who could be amnestied, or have their sentences commuted. This would be a goodwill gesture responding to a longtime ELN demand that the government release people involved in protests.

In opening comments in Havana, ELN leader Beltrán said the government’s poor compliance with commitments in the FARC peace accord, along with an increase in killings of social leaders, have heightened the ELN’s distrust. He added the view, though, that “the only road for Colombia, for a political solution, is that this way of dialogue goes ahead.”

The Colombian government’s chief negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell, voiced hope that this round of talks would bring not just a bilateral ceasefire but an ELN commitment to cease all hostilities, like “kidnappings, extortions, child recruitment, or attacks on infrastructure.” Obstacles to a cessation of hostilities include which illegal activity would be included; how to verify it without cantonment of fighters; how the ELN would confront other illegal armed groups; and how to guarantee that all ELN leaders agree to observe it.

Negotiators are also talking to social organizations from areas hit by conflict between the ELN and other groups, which wouldn’t so clearly feel the impact of an ELN-government ceasefire, to discuss commitments to observe international humanitarian law. Ethnic, victims’, and women’s organizations in Chocó, where fighting has raged between the ELN and the Urabeños organized crime group, have called for respecting ethnic territories, de-mining, stopping recruitment of minors, halting killings of social leaders, ending displacement and confinement, and curbs on illicit crops and illegal mining. In Nariño, where many small armed groups operate, civil-society organziations have been calling for more action on de-mining. In Catatumbo, groups are calling on the ELN to keep the civilian population out of its worsening conflict with the EPL (Popular Liberation Army, a small but regionally strong guerrilla group), which has displaced almost 9,000 people since fighting worsened on March 14.

Jesús Santrich Case

FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich was moved from Bogotá’s El Tunal hospital to the Fundación Caminos de Libertad, a facility run by the Episcopal Conference of Colombia’s Catholic church. Santrich, one of the FARC’s main negotiators in Havana who expected to assume a seat in Colombia’s Congress in July, has been on a hunger strike since his April 9 arrest. He was indicted by a U.S. court for allegedly conspiring to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States in 2017, after the FARC peace accord was signed, and faces possible extradition.

Santrich’s health is flagging after a month of consuming only water and epilepsy medication. Still, he has turned down entreaties to abandon his hunger strike, including an open letter from longtime informal mediators Sen. Iván Cepeda and former mining minster Álvaro Leyva. The ex-guerrilla, a political hardliner, has said he would rather die than go to a U.S. prison.

Some voices have called for Santrich to be tried in Colombia, where he would face his victims, rather than be extradited. These include former government negotiator and current presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle, Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco, and Colombian jurist Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the DeJusticia think-tank. “To extradite FARC commanders before they are processed for their crimes could cause an irreparable harm to victims, to the extreme that they might evade responsibility for the atrocities they committed,” wrote Vivanco in an El Tiempo column. Both Vivanco and Uprimny, writing in El Espectador, cited the experience of 14 paramilitary leaders whom then-president Álvaro Uribe extradited en masse in May 2008. “The paramilitaries’ extraditions have made it almost impossible to know the truth about their crimes,” wrote Uprimny. “For these same reasons, I think Santrich should not be extradited.”

For their part, the two candidates leading polling for the May 27 presidential elections have both said that they would extradite. Rightist Iván Duque, the candidate of Uribe’s party, has said he would sign the extradition order immediately. Leftist Gustavo Petro, said that the transitional justice system agreed by the peace accord (Special Peace Jurisdiction, or JEP) should first consider all the evidence against Santrich. “If the JEP confirms the acts were committed after the accords’ signing and I am president,” Petro tweeted, “Mr. Santrich will be extradited.” Petro’s position is similar to that of President Santos.

Setback to Land Grants for Demobilized FARC Members

The Colombian government and the FARC have been casting about to find a way to reintegrate guerrilla ex-combatants by giving them land to cultivate. This, surprisingly, was not foreseen in the peace accord. The Santos administration had been close to issuing a decree allowing titling of lands for former fighters’ cooperative agricultural projects. The decree has run into trouble, though, over objections from the country’s principal federation of landholders.

A year ago, while demobilizing FARC fighters were concentrated in 26 village-sized disarmament sites around the country, Colombia’s National University surveyed them to gather information about their backgrounds and needs, as foreseen by the peace accords. It found that 66 percent of the 10,015 former FARC surveyed were from rural areas and another 15 were from rural/urban areas, such as towns within overwhelmingly rural municipalities. Sixty percent said they wanted to carry out collective reintegration through agricultural activities.

After meeting with his “peace cabinet” on April 30, President Santos said that “within the FARC there is a conflict: the leaders want everything to be collective, while the base, many of them, want it to be individual. As a result of this conflict, the FARC haven’t approved the individual reincorporation route, and resources for 5,000 ex-combatants’ productive projects are blocked by that dispute.” FARC leader Pastor Alape, a member of the National Reincorporation Council set up by the peace accord, responded, “Reincorporation is being slowed bye the lack of a public policy… and fundamentally, because there isn’t any land for the productive projects” that ex-guerrillas wish to pursue.

The Santos government’s draft decree sought to address this by making possible the delivery of some lands to ex-combatants. It had identified 11 plots of land in 9 departments, totaling about 492 hectares, that could be granted. The Center for Peace Studies (CESPAZ), which worked with the Presidency in drafting the accord, estimates that the amount of land needed to guarantee guerrillas’ reintegration would be 37,657 hectares, an amount smaller than many Colombian cattle ranches and industrial farms.

Nonetheless, the decree has been put on hold after the Society of Colombian Agricultural Producers (SAC), a national association of mostly large landowners, criticized it. “At no point does the accord mention giving land to the former members of this terrorist group,” said SAC President Jorge Enrique Bedoya, “and the draft decree that the government submitted for citizens’ consideration is giving prevalence to this specific group over landless farmers.”

The above information comes largely from a May 7 report from the investigative website Verdad Abierta. The site later posted this addendum to the report:

After this article’s publication, the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace (OACP) communicated with VerdadAbierta.com to inform that the national government decided to resolve the need to adjudicate lands to ex-combatants through the promulgation of Decree 756 of May 4, 2018. The document contains one article, which opens the door for the National Land Agency (ANT) to adjudicate lands directly to “associations or to cooperative organizations.”
The text does not correspond to the draft decree described in this story, nor does it align with the terms that the government and FARC negotiated in the National Reincorporation Council (CNR) to guarantee economic reincorporation. With regard to that, the OACP source who communicated with this site responded that the executive branch made this unilateral decision in response to the received critiques.

Truth Commission Formally Launches

May 8 was the official first day of operation for the Truth Commission established by the FARC peace accord. As of that date, the eleven commissioners have three years and six months in which to produce a report about what happened in the armed conflict, to promote recognition of victims, and to help generate conditions for “a culture of respect and tolerance.”

President Santos swore in the commissioners, led by Commission President Father Francisco De Roux, before a room full of high court officials and government ministers. De Roux and his colleagues had been working to lay the groundwork for the commission’s functioning, thanks to a UNDP grant, since they were chosen in November.

Over those months, the Commission held 22 workshops with victims and human rights defenders, as well as dozens of meetings with other stakeholders. It will now establish teams to cover 10 regions from 26 different offices. They hope to finish their report well before the deadline in order to spend the rest of their period educating about its content and promoting social reconciliation.

El Espectador asked De Roux, a Jesuit priest with a long record of heading human rights efforts, “What was the most serious thing that happened” in the conflict? He replied,

Human dignity was profoundly damaged by this conflict. Society’s silences, and lack of reaction, against the barbarity that we were living through. We just saw all of Ecuador stirred up by three journalists [killed by a FARC dissident group near the border]. We saw barbarity after barbarity happen, without doing anything, which is evidence of a very deep humanitarian crisis. Not just for the people who died, but for the lack of understanding, as a society, that the death of an indigenous person or an Afro-Colombian is the death of all of us. It is the undermining of our value as human beings and Colombian citizens. That’s where the wound is deep.

JEP Excludes “Para-Politicians”

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice system set up by the peace accord to judge war crimes, rejected the applications of two politicians currently serving sentences for aiding paramilitary groups. Senator Álvaro Ashton and ex-senator David Char, the JEP’s “Chamber for Definition of Legal Situations” determined, did not commit crimes that could be considered “grave conduct related to the conflict.” As a result, they are not entitled to the maximum sentence of five to eight years of “restricted liberty” that the JEP would hand out in exchange for full confessions and reparations to victims.

Ashton and Char are among several dozen political figures who ended up before courts and in prison during the 2000s for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups that killed tens of thousands of Colombians. The scandal was known as “para-politics.” The JEP chamber’s decision, which can be appealed, reads, “The majority of members of Congress investigated and sentenced for conspiracy (the basic charge of ‘para-politics’) associated themselves with paramilitary structures neither to support them nor to win the war, but as a means to pursue their personal political interests.”

The chamber’s magistrates made clear that, in order to get a chance at a lighter penalty within the JEP, each crime’s relationship to the armed conflict must be clearly demonstrated. “It is not enough to say that something happened in the general context of violence,” El Espectador reported.

The JEP at some point will have to consider a petition from Jorge Luis Alfonso López, a para-politician who is the son of Enilse López, a Bolívar-based paramilitary sponsor named “La Gata” who has run the lottery gambling business in much of Colombia’s coast. Her son says “he has been directly and indirectly involved in the armed conflict” and wants to give information about politicians his family has financed, as well as military and police officers who worked with paramilitaries.

Universal Periodic Review in Geneva

It was Colombia’s turn this week for regular consideration of its human rights record before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Colombia’s Interior Minister, Foreign Minister, and some human rights defenders were on hand for a Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which occurs about every five years.

Representatives of 95 governments offered comments about Colombia’s human rights situation. Nearly all of them said something about the rising number of social leaders and human rights defenders being killed in the country. The last time Colombia was subject to UPR, in 2013, the country’s human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) counted 35 such murders. Between 2016 and now, it has counted 261.

The U.S. representative’s message was helpful, expressing concern about low levels of accountability for these murders, and noting targeting of ethnic and labor leaders. Though recognizing that about half of these cases have seen some advance in investigations or prosecutions, the U.S. representative said that they needed to be brought fully to justice.

The Colombian government responded that many of the killings owe to criminal groups’ violent efforts to take control of territories so that they may dominate illegal businesses like drug trafficking, precious-metals mining, and extortion. Colombian officials told the Council that it was carrying out a protection plan, and that in some way this plan was covering 4,000 social leaders, 60 percent of them in rural areas.

Colombian human rights organizations presented a joint report in Geneva. While they praised the government for the FARC peace accord and for making commitments on human rights, they criticized its lack of follow-through. “The Colombian state ends up adopting the [human rights] norm, but later it doesn’t implement it, or doesn’t put up enough resources to put it into practice,” said Ana María Rodríguez of the Colombian Commission of Jurists. Organizations present noted that the Council’s deliberations paid little attention to the paramilitary phenomenon, the responsibility of some businesses for human rights abuses, and the violations of privacy committed by Colombian intelligence agencies.

Attacks on “Rios Vivos” Movement in Antioquia

Luis Alberto Torres was killed in rural Puerto Valdivia, Antioquia, while mining by a riverside on May 8. Just eight days earlier, in the same municipality, gunmen killed Hugo Albeiro George in a local shop. Both men were members of the “Ríos Vivos” movement, formed to protest HidroItuango, a massive hydroelectric dam project underway in northern Antioquia.

“We hope that, in response to these acts, the Antioquia Police do not focus on dismissing and ignoring the leadership and human rights and environmental defense work that all of us members of Rios Vivio carry out,” read a statement from the organization. “Instead, we expect decisive action.”

Meanwhile, the Hidroituango dam project is in crisis. Since April 28, one of the tunnels used to divert the Cauca river has been blocked, raising the river’s level and forcing families to evacuate.

Response to Killing of FARC Member in Arauca

Unknown assailants killed Juan Vicente Carvajal alias “Misael,” a former FARC leader in the conflictive department of Arauca, about 4 kilometers from the FARC demobilization site in the village of Filipinas, Arauquita. As of early April, 52 FARC members had been killed nationwide since 2017.

Carvajal was among FARC leaders whom the U.S. government wanted in extradition for past narcotrafficking, and he led a FARC column during a bloody 2008-2010 conflict that the FARC and ELN fought in Arauca. This makes the ELN, which remains dominant in much of rural Arauca, a prime suspect in the murder.

Carvajal had left the Filipinas demobilization site, and had used his own resources to start a farm and run a discotheque in Arauquita. The security forces stated that they did not believe he was involved in criminal activity. He was living at his farm when he was murdered.

In a missive to FARC members, the ex-guerrillas’ maximum leader, Rodrigo Londoño alias Timochenko, warned them about going off on their own, as Carvajal had. While the ex-guerrilla’s homicide was “truly alarming,” Londoño said that it doesn’t mean that all former combatants are “condemned to total extermination.” Leaving the other ex-combatants and living by himself put him “in a high risk situation. …Discipline was always necessary… for the war, and I don’t know why some think that they don’t need it during reincorporation.”

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Still catching up. This is the week of April 15-21.)

Ecuador Will No Longer Host the ELN Negotiations

The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, announced April 18 that his country will no longer host the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN. Government representatives and guerrilla leaders had held five rounds of talks in Quito since February 2017. Moreno’s announcement came days after the murder of two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver, whom a group of re-armed FARC guerrillas had abducted in late March on Ecuador’s side of the border with Colombia.

“I have asked the foreign minister of Ecuador to put the brakes on the conversations and put the brakes on our role as a guarantor of the peace process while the ELN does not commit to ending terrorist actions,” Moreno told Colombian cable news network NTN24.

“President Santos understands the reasons why President Moreno has decided to move away from his role as guarantor and host of these negotiations,” Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín responded, adding that Colombia will seek a new foreign country in which to hold the talks, which have made only very modest progress on their agenda. The candidate leading polls for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election, rightist Iván Duque, endorsed Ecuador’s move: “President Moreno was completely right to suspend the dialogues with the ELN. What President Santos did not do, the Ecuadorian government did well.”

The talks’ remaining five guarantor countries are Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela. Analysts asked by Colombian media coincided in the view that Cuba or perhaps Chile is the best choice for a new venue: Brazil is about to have elections, Chile just inaugurated a new conservative government, Norway is too far away, and Venezuela is roiled by political and economic instability. Another option would be to continue the original vision of “itinerant” negotiations that move from country to country, which poses logistical challenges.

Moreno’s decision came after the journalists’ kidnapping-murder, another kidnapping of two Ecuadorians who remain in custody, and several attacks on Ecuador’s security forces in the border region, mainly in the Pacific province of Esmeraldas. All of these actions were perpetrated by the so-called Oliver Sinisterra Front, a grouping of ex-FARC members headed by Walter Arizara, an Ecuadorian-born former FARC member who goes by the alias “Guacho.” Though the ELN has nothing to do with Guacho’s group’s actions, the attacks on Ecuadorian soil have soured public opinion in the country toward Colombian armed groups in general.

The Colombian journalism website Verdad Abierta adds that Ecuador’s government was also probably miffed at the “lack of diplomatic tact” with which Colombia’s government handled the reporters’ kidnapping and murder.

For more than two years, annoyance has been incubating within the Ecuadorian Defense Ministry over their Colombian counterparts’ lack of commitment to the design of a joint border security strategy that would include contingency plans. Since that time, it was known that some FARC units wouldn’t accept the accords signed with the Colombian government.
… A researcher who has studied the armed conflict dynamic in that border region for several years, and who asked not to use his/her name, affirmed… “The Ecuadorian government has always felt undervalued by the Colombian government. The situation intensified with President Juan Manuel Santos’s response to the situation with the murdered journalists. This had several elements, for example that he did not go to Ecuador to meet with Moreno at a moment of intense pain for Ecuadorians. This was seen as an affront.”
That atmosphere became even tenser after President Santos’s clumsy statements saying that “Guacho” was Ecuadorian and that the reporters were killed in Ecuador. Those statements were interpreted by many Ecuadorian people, including by international bodies as saying “that’s Ecuador’s problem.”

On April 15, two days after President Moreno announced the reporters’ death, President Santos recognized that the reporters were killed on Colombian soil. The bodies remain there, unrecovered.

On April 19 someone—the Colombian military said the ELN—bombed a power pylon in Nariño, Colombia, shutting off electricity throughout the border region, including the troubled port city of Tumaco. The peace talks, meanwhile, continue to seek a new venue at which to resume their fifth round.

Aftermath of the Arrest of Jesús Santrich

Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, the FARC ideologist and negotiator arrested April 9 on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine, was transferred to southern Bogotá’s La Picota prison, where he will remain as Colombian judicial authorities determine whether he should be separated from the peace accords’ transitional justice process and extradited to the United States. Colombia’s Supreme Court denied a habeas corpus motion seeking his release; his lawyers contended, unsuccessfully, that the transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) should have executed the arrest order instead of the regular criminal justice system.

From his confinement, Santrich gave an interview to Colombia’s W Radio news station. He confirmed that he had spoken to Mexican traffickers —who were either undercover DEA agents, or had one or more DEA agents embedded in their group—but thought that they were potential investors in post-conflict agricultural projects. Santrich had been put into contact with the Mexicans by Marlon Marín, a lawyer who is the nephew of chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, a close associate of Santrich’s on the FARC party’s hardline wing.

Santrich said his relationship with Marín “is a working relationship about ideas for productive projects, specifically about farms growing native crops, to implement in zones where the accord on integral rural reform will be carried out.” He said that he did not know the name of Rafael Caro Quintero, the top Mexican drug trafficker whom his intermediaries claimed to be representing. “It’s very hard for me to keep in mind who could be a narco or not. Many people came to my house with the idea of contributing to moving the peace process forward, and all of the people who came were registered with the National Police.” Asked about the ink drawing he gave the Mexicans, dedicated to Caro Quintero, he said that he thought Caro was a potential investor, and that he had given similar drawings to Vice-President Óscar Naranjo and presidential post-conflict chief Rafael Pardo.

“You will never hear words like ‘cocaine, payment, five-kilogram packages’ come out of my mouth,” Santrich said. “This is like an Indiana Jones movie, everyone adding special effects and the setup is right around the corner.” He added, “It’s more likely that cocaine passed through the nose of the chief prosecutor of the nation than through my hands.” Recordings of Santrich’s conversations with the Mexicans, currently in U.S. authorities’ possession, may give a clearer idea of to what extent Santrich knowingly discussed a plan to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States, or how he reacted when Marlon Marín—who had urged Santrich to meet the Mexicans—discussed the plan in his presence.

Yezid Arteta, a former FARC member turned columnist for Semana magazine’s website, called Marín “the typical lizard that one finds in all political parties and institutions, who seems to be one of the planners of the trap laid for Santrich.” On April 16, Marlon Marín boarded a flight to New York, where he has agreed to testify against Jesús Santrich as a cooperating witness. Asked about his relationship with his nephew, FARC leader Iván Márquez only said he was a “gentleman” whose “conduct will have to be investigated.”

On April 19 Márquez, who is slated to take a seat in Colombia’s Senate on July 20, notified Colombia’s Police and National Protection Unit that he was leaving Bogotá, moving “temporarily to the territorial space [FARC demobilization site] in Miravalle,” in the southern department of Caquetá, “due to the situation and until there is greater clarity and certainty about what comes next.” Santrich, on a hunger strike in La Picota, said he would rather starve to death than be extradited.

Aftermath of Revelation of Peace Fund Irregularities

A week after Colombian media reported on letters from European ambassadors and from Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) voicing concerns about the management of special peace accord implementation funds, President Santos announced a “crash plan” to improve monitoring of resources and administrative steps to restructure management of resources from international donors.

The concerns center around the “Colombia in Peace Fund,” which concentrates a few hundred million dollars in resources for peace accord implementation projects, most of them from foreign donors. Though the fund is subject to close oversight and reporting, in order to speed delivery of aid it is largely exempt from often cumbersome procedures in regular Colombian law designed to prevent corruption in contracting.

The government found that 97 percent of the fund’s resources so far have gone to 40 contracts. “That’s why the denunciations and suspicions that persist about supposed poor management are so concerning,” reads an editorial in El Espectador. “In synthesis, it seems that the corrupt political bureaucracy that is so rooted in our country has also tried to stick its hand in the investments that should be consolidating the accord’s implementation.”

The concerns led to the dismissal of Carlos Fidel Simancas, a contractor of the International Organization for Migration who worked in the Presidency’s Post-Conflict Secretariat. “In that Secretariat,” El Tiempo reported, Simancas

was the manager of former Green Party congressional candidate Sonia Elvira Veloza Mogollón, who last Friday was called for questioning at the Fiscalía as part of the “group of people who played specific roles” in the presumed irregularities in the management of productive projects for demobilized FARC.
Another eight people—a list that does not include Simancas—were also called to the Fiscalía, and their offices and homes were searched on suspicion of being part of the network of Marlon Marín Marín, who according to the investigative body was a sort of articulator of a network that sought to enrich itself with peace contracts.
Marlon Marín first sought to obtain a cut of the contracts for basic healthcare at the demobilized combatants’ concentration sites.

This is the same Marlon Marín involved in the arrest of Jesús Santrich, the FARC leader’s nephew whom columnist Yezid Arteta referred to above as a “lizard.” Before discovering his efforts to strike a cocaine deal with Mexicans, Colombian authorities were already monitoring Marín because they suspected he was mishandling these health contracts.

Vice President Óscar Naranjo said that the government will seek “to accelerate the accords’ implementation, especially with relation to productive projects.” Treasury Vice-Minister Paula Acosta said that the government has contracted the accounting firm Ernst and Young to audit the contracts awarded so far.

Naranjo promised a detailed review of post-conflict productive projects. He said there are 214 such projects so far, in different states of development. Among them, 35, involving 1,533 ex-FARC members, are in the “formulation phase” and will cost about COP$22.764 billion (US$8.081 million).

“This is no reason, certainly, to slow implementation” of the peace accord, concluded El Espectador’s editorial. “The accord has already faltered too much for the government to keep delaying compliance with its promises. The money is there precisely to be spent as soon as possible and to put in motion everything that was promised. Can’t we do this with transparency?”

UN Secretary General Reports on Peace Process

The UN Security Council convened on September 19 to hear the Secretary General’s latest report on the peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission. The ambassadors in attendance gave supportive statements and celebrated the progress away from conflict that Colombia has made. Some, most notably Russia, voiced concerns about the pace of implementation.

“While it is obviously too early to take stock of a peace process that has set ambitious and long-term goals,” UN Mission Head Jean Arnault told the Council that there is reason for optimism.

[W]e have already observed that it has achieved a notable reduction of violence in the context of the congressional elections. Similarly, it has created a series of institutions dedicated to overcoming patterns of social, economic and political violence in the conflict areas. …Throughout the implementation phase of the Peace Agreement, circumstances have occasionally tested the commitment of the two parties to stay the course. They have stayed the course.

Nonetheless Arnault, and the Secretary-General’s report, warned of problems. “[T]he resurgence of violence in several of the areas most affected by the conflict and the persistent pattern of killings of community and social leaders are the main subjects of concern at present,” the report emphasized.

The report highlights the slowness with which Colombia is reintegrating former FARC combatants.

Socioeconomic reintegration is lagging behind. The transition from early reinsertion to sustainable reintegration has not yet been completed, and this uncertainty continues to undermine the confidence of former members of FARC-EP in their reintegration and in the peace process itself.

Lack of progress in this respect is in good part responsible for the movement of former FARC-EP members outside the territorial areas, hence the growing importance of access to land, the design, funding and implementation of viable productive projects linked to local development and the creation of cooperatives to implement them.

Remarkably, Colombia still does not have a plan in place for reintegrating ex-combatants, violating a cardinal precept of how a peace accord should be implemented.

I reiterate the need for the National Reintegration Council to adopt, as provided for in the Peace Agreement, its national reintegration plan linking reintegration to development.

The Secretary-General’s report also voices concern for the security of former FARC members located outside the former concentration zones, and of threatened social leaders throughout the country.

I am concerned that, by all accounts, the killing of community leaders and human rights defenders has continued unabated in the past three months, despite several measures to address the alarming number of killings registered in 2017. This trend and the proliferation of illegal armed actors associated with it should be brought under control as a matter of urgency, as has been acknowledged by the President and top officials of his Government.
Of particular concern are the attacks against persons working to implement government programmes related to coca substitution and land restitution. Members of local community boards, the governance mechanism established in rural districts, are among the main targets of violence.

A Supportive Statement From U.S.-UN

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, read a statement that was significantly more supportive of the peace effort than has been customary for the Trump administration. It calls for greater government presence in territories, reintegration of former combatants, and action on land tenure. The expected exhortation to “accelerate its counter-narcotics effort” doesn’t appear until the 11th of 15 paragraphs.

The agreement that ended five decades of war in Colombia has created the conditions for the just and lasting peace that Colombians deserve. It was a historic achievement. But peace in Colombia remains an unfinished project. All of us have a role in ensuring that it succeeds.
…We cannot allow formerly FARC-controlled areas to fall into the hands of criminals and illegal armed groups. That would undo much of the progress of the peace accord. We encourage the government to continue efforts to eliminate Colombia’s ungoverned spaces. The United States also urges the government to continue the full implementation of the comprehensive peace plan. This includes efforts to reintegrate former combatants into civilian life.
The peace accord provides an important opportunity to address historical land issues that have driven conflict and violence in Colombia. We welcome President Santos’ landmark decree meant to formalize land ownership for more than 2.5 million farmers. Improving access to land is essential in transforming rural livelihoods. Criminal groups and narco-traffickers have dominated rural areas of Colombia for decades. With secure land titles, the Colombian people can provide for their families without feeling beholden to these groups.

DEA Investigating Corruption Allegations Against Agent

A story by BuzzFeed reporter Aram Roston, later picked up by the New York Times, reveals that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating veteran agent José Irizarry, who had been stationed in the agency’s field office in Cartagena, Colombia. The nature of the now-resigned agent’s misconduct is not clear, but three anonymous sources told Roston “the scope of the case is believed to be unprecedented in the agency’s history.” One source said that Irizarry is also being investigated by the Justice Department’s Inspector-General and the FBI.

Proposal To Eradicate Coca With Drones

El Tiempo reported that the U.S. government’s estimate of the amount of coca planted in Colombia in 2017 reached a new record of between 220,000 and 230,000 hectares, up from 188,000 in 2016. The White House has not yet published its 2017 figure. Nor have Colombian authorities published their estimate, but the same article cites a Colombian estimate of 170,000-180,000 hectares, up from 146,000 in 2016. This apparent increase occurred even though Colombian government, police, and military eradicators uprooted, cut down, or directly applied herbicides to 53,000 hectares of coca bushes last year, and worked with farmers for the voluntary eradication of about 20,000 more.

As a result, the same El Tiempo article revealed, the Colombian National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DIRAN) is pursuing the possibility of employing drones to spray herbicides on the coca fields. Each would fly a meter or less over the bushes, spraying the herbicide glyphosate.

In 2015, Colombia suspended the U.S.-funded practice of spraying glyphosate from aircraft after the UN World Health Organization published a literature review finding that the chemical “is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate is still commonly used in Colombian (and U.S.) agriculture, and eradicators still kill coca with the more precise method of applying it from backpack-mounted dispensers, which presumably minimizes spray drift to populated areas and destruction of legal food crops. The drone proposal would enable similar close-proximity spraying without the risks that sharpshooters, ambushes, landmines, and booby traps have posed to human eradicators working in the fields.

On April 13, the DIRAN began testing drones from five companies. It is prepared in 2018 to spend COP$21 billion (US$7.5 million) on drones that meet a series of standards:

  • Ability to fly between 50 centimeters and one meter above the plants.
  • Ability to operate in temperatures ranging from -5 to 40 degrees Celsius.
  • Two GPS systems to guarantee precision of spraying.
  • An anti-collision sensor.
  • An automatic recording system that records the drone’s location at every second.

The DIRAN expects that each drone would be able to spray between 10 and 15 hectares per day, whereas a human eradicator can only destroy 3 to 5 hectares of coca per day. In an absence of government presence in coca-growing zones, though, it remains unclear what would prevent farmers with limited economic options from replanting the crop.

Fighting Between Armed Groups in Bajo Cauca and Catatumbo Has Displaced Thousands This Year

In addition to the Colombia-Ecuador border region, where the FARC dissident group commanded by alias “Guacho” has drawn much attention, two other regions saw intensified violence during the week between groups that remain active, and are growing, in post-accord Colombia.

The Bajo Cauca region in northeastern Antioquia, a coca production and cocaine transshipment zone a few hours’ drive from Medellín, is the scene of frequent combat between two organized crime groups. The Urabeños (also known as Gulf Clan, or Usuga Clan, or Gaitanistas), the largest organized armed group in the country, is battling a regional group called the “Caparrapos” (also known as the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Front). Both groups can trace their lineage back to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary network that terrorized much of Colombia, and enjoyed some support on the political right, in the 1990s and 2000s.

So far this year, fighting between the two groups has displaced at least 2,175 people in the Antioquia municipalities of Cáceres, Caucasia, Tarazá, and Ituango. Violence has also been intense across the departmental border in southern Córdoba. Fighting on April 13-15 killed five people and displaced 210. In the sports complex in Tarazá’s town center, 120 of the displaced are currently taking refuge.

Sergio Mesa Cárdenas of the Medellín NGO Corpades told El Colombiano that the warring groups are getting support from the Mexican cartels that buy their illicit product.

The “Caparrapos” gang, led by alias “Ratón,” has alliances with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Medellín’s “Los Triana” gang. Regarding the “Gulf Clan,” led by alias “Gonzalito,” the investigator says they have the support of the “Pachelly” gang from [the Medellín suburb of] Bello and the “Zetas” cartel.

The situation is arguably worse in Catatumbo, a poorly governed coca-growing region in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. This zone had a longtime presence of the FARC, the ELN, and the EPL. The latter group, the People’s Liberation Army, is descended from the dissident remnant of a larger group that demobilized in 1991. (The Colombian government often calls them “Los Pelusos.”) The EPL remained active in Catatumbo, profiting from the production and transshipment of drugs into Venezuela; today it has about 200 members and appears to be growing.

With the FARC’s exit from the scene—the 33rd Front concentrated in a demobilization zone in Tibú municipality over a year ago—the EPL and ELN began to compete for control of its previous territories of influence. A longstanding non-aggression arrangement broke down in mid-March, and combat has intensified ever since. “According to voices in the region who spoke to reporter Salud Hernández-Mora,” El Tiempo noted, “it is all because the ELN believes that the ‘Pelusos’ violated accords to share the business that the FARC left behind.”

After a month of tensions and sporadic combat, the situation worsened April 15 with the EPL’s declaration of an “armed stoppage”: a several-day prohibition on all road travel, and often a requirement that local businesses shut their doors. Residents of several Catatumbo municipalities received pamphlets informing them of the stoppage, and many of the region’s population centers became “ghost towns.” Schools closed all week, “affecting about 45,000 children and 2,000 teachers,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Norte de Santander Governor William Villamizar declared a state of humanitarian emergency in Catatumbo, and asked the national government to authorize a dialogue between ELN and EPL leaders at the ELN negotiating table. The commander of the Colombian Army’s “Vulcan” Task Force, stationed in the region, said that “a special deployment has been done.”

Civil society groups in Catatumbo, along with the Catholic church and local governments, have joined in calls on the armed groups to leave the civilian population out of the fighting. Business owners tried to open their establishments for half-day periods, but, according to El Colombiano, were met by armed people “who obligated them to close with the threat: ‘we’re the ones who have the weapons here.’”

The UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs says that 2,500 people have been displaced by Catatumbo’s violence since the situation deteriorated in mid-March. A government source told El Colombiano that the actual number is probably higher, as many displaced are fearful of registering and may be staying with relatives and friends. If the situation continues for another week, the source said, food could start running out in some communities.

In-Depth Reading

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 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

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

In third week after end of ELN ceasefire, violence intensifies

Talks in Ecuador between the government and the ELN made no progress more than two weeks after the non-renewal of a 100-day cessation of hostilities, which ended on January 9. Last week, events on the battlefield made the situation worse.

In the early morning hours of January 27, an explosive device killed five police and wounded forty-three more as they began their day at a post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city. A second bomb went off on January 28 near a police post in another Barranquilla neighborhood, wounding two police and three civilians. Also on January 27, a bomb in Santa Rosa del Sur, in the northern department of Bolívar, killed two police. The ELN retweeted a statement from an urban bloc (account since suspended, but it was here) claiming responsibility for the Barranquilla attacks. The government reported capturing a suspect: a man who, authorities allege, had a notebook with a map of one of the bombing sites.

The week also saw combat between Colombia’s army and the ELN in Valdivia, Northern Antioquia, while four ELN members died in an army-air force-police attack in Chitagá, Norte de Santander.

Following the Barranquilla attacks, rightwing candidates for Colombia’s May presidential elections called on President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend or end talks with the ELN. “The government can NOT restart negotiations with the ELN in these conditions, it must react with determination and authority,” tweeted Germán Vargas Lleras, who had served as Santos’s interior minister and vice president. The candidate of ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, Iván Duque, tweeted, “when terrorism is given advantages, it feels free to attack with cowardice.”

Former FARC launch campaign but are increasingly vulnerable to attack

The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party descended from the FARC guerrillas, launched its 2018 election campaign at a January 27 event in Ciudad Bolívar, a sprawling low-income neighborhood in southern Bogotá. (And one of a handful of Bogotá districts where a majority voted “no” against the FARC peace accord in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.) Led by maximum leader and presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño (previously known as “Timochenko”), the new political party introduced a political platform including a proposed guaranteed basic income for all Colombians.

The peace accords give the former guerrillas an automatic 5 seats in a 107-seat Senate and 5 in a 172-seat House of Representatives. The new party is running 23 candidates for Senate seats and 51 in the House. That places the FARC 12th among all Colombian parties in number of House candidates, and 13th in number of Senate candidates. “We’re very optimistic and confident that we will win more than 10 seats,” said top leader Carlos Antonio Lozada. That is far from certain: the ex-guerrillas’ past of human rights abuses, most of which remain unacknowledged for now, make them quite unpopular in mainstream Colombian opinion. The peace accord also holds out an awkward possibility of FARC officeholders standing trial for serious war crimes.

Meanwhile, threats and attacks against the FARC political organization are worsening. About 33 former guerrillas have been killed since the final peace accord was signed in November 2016. The past week saw armed men raid the FARC party headquarters in Quibdó, the capital of the northwestern department of Chocó. FARC party member Johana Poblador was beaten in Bogotá by armed men who threatened to kill FARC leaders. Two FARC members in Medellín received death threats from the “Gaitanistas” or “Urabeños” neo-paramilitary group, which has already threatened to attack FARC party offices around the country.

Violence and displacement around the country

Last week it became evident that, between only the 17th and 20th of January, violence forced more than 1,000 people to leave their home communities. The Urabeños, the ELN, and FARC dissident groups—all of them fighting to occupy vacuums left by the demobilized FARC—were involved in all cases. Violence continued, and perhaps worsened, this week.

  • About 172 people were displaced by fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents in the La Voz de los Negros Community Council of Magüi Payán, Nariño, southwestern Colombia.
  • In Cumbal, Nariño, fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents forced many to flee into neighboring Ecuador.
  • Just to the north, in Argelia, Cauca, at least 11 armed men opened fire on a festival, killing three people.
  • Further north, in Buenos Aires, Cauca, a roadside attack killed two members of a mining cooperative. “We’re feeling the fight for territorial control, with the exit of the FARC from municipalities that have to do with narcotrafficking. In addition are those affected by illegal mining,” said Cauca governor Óscar Campo.
  • An “unidentified armed group” forced 425 people to flee five hamlets and an indigenous reserve in San José de Uré, in the northwestern department of Córdoba. This area, the southern part of the department, sits along a key corridor for trafficking cocaine to the Caribbean coast. The government human rights ombudsman (Defensoría) reports that Urabeños have been increasing their presence, patrolling in camouflage-clad groups of 15 to 30 combatants in zones that used to be FARC-dominated.
  • Just to the south, in the coca and cocaine-producing Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, three armed men entered a bar on January 21 in the town of Yarumal, indiscriminately opened fire with Mini Uzis and killed seven people. A similar massacre took place in the same municipality in December.
  • Elsewhere in the Bajo Cauca region, in Cáceres and Caucasia municipalities, violence forced about 400 more people to flee. Here, the identity of the armed group isn’t clear: “It’s that we don’t know who they are, they don’t identify themselves, they don’t wear labels,” a local witness told Medellín’s daily El Colombiano. “We’ve only seen them several times around here, armed, wearing camouflage, it was about 30 men.” The zone has a presence of both ELN and Urabeños. (Also in Caucasia last week was U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, paying a visit to observe U.S.-supported coca eradication and substitution programs.)
  • Fighting between the security forces and the ELN displaced several families in Paya, Boyacá.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

I’d like to post these all year without missing a week. Travel plans may complicate that, but I’m going to try.

ELN ceasefire breaks off

For 102 days, while peace talks proceeded in Quito, the Colombian government and ELN guerrillas mostly honored a cessation of hostilities. That period saw 33 possible ceasefire violations committed by the ELN—of which 12 were verified—killing 26 noncombatants and involving the kidnapping of 13 people and forced recruitment of 14. Still, this was a much lower tempo of violence than normal. And there were zero incidents of combat between the ELN and Colombia’s security forces.

The cessation of hostilities ended on January 9, when the parties failed to agree to extend it. Overall analysis of the non-renewal placed most blame on the ELN, which appeared to lack internal consensus, or even unity of command, about whether to continue the truce.

The ELN’s standing in public opinion plummeted further as the group immediately launched a series of attacks on security forces and infrastructure, mostly in the northeast of the country. The week saw approximately 13 attacks, leading to the deaths of at least two police and at least three bombings of the 485-mile-long Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.

The Colombian government pulled its negotiating team from Quito, and appeared to suspend talks until the ELN agrees to a new ceasefire. This is a reversal of the 2012-16 FARC negotiations, when the guerrillas repeatedly demanded a bilateral ceasefire but the government preferred to keep fighting while talks proceeded.

France, the European Union, the “guarantor countries” of the ELN talks (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway, and Venezuela), and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño all called on the parties to return to the table and agree on a new cessation of hostilities. The UN noted that it cannot keep its monitoring and verification structure in place very long with no ceasefire to monitor.

The U.S. government issued a travel warning for four departments where the ELN is most active: Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, and Norte de Santander.

Other coverage: Washington Post, New York Times, El Tiempo

Visit of UN Secretary-General

The need to restart the ELN talks and ceasefire was a main message of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a January 13 visit to Colombia. Guterres visited Bogotá and Meta to get a sense of how implementation of the FARC accord is going, to give political support to the ELN process, and to support the work of the UN verification mission in Colombia.

That mission’s latest 90-day report to the Secretary-General, made public on January 5, voiced concern about the government’s implementation of the FARC accord: “Overall, the implementation of the peace-related legislative agenda has progressed unevenly, compounded by events relating to the presidential and parliamentary elections, to be held in the first semester of 2018.”

Military sets up giant task force in Nariño

Colombia’s Defense Ministry has set up a joint task force, “Hercules,” with about 9,800 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and police stationed in Nariño, on the Pacific coast in the southwestern corner of the country. Nariño is Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department and a heavily used corridor for cocaine shipments into the eastern Pacific. It has very active FARC ex-militia dissident groups and a growing presence of the ELN. Not all of the 9,800 personnel are new: many are already stationed in Nariño but now form part of this joint command structure.

“This plan has had a big media deployment in the region and in Bogotá,” writes Laura Soto in La Silla Vacía. “But four sources who know the zone (members of the Tumaco mayor’s office, two human rights defenders who have worked closely with Caritas, and a social leader) aren’t hopeful that the panorama will approve, at least not in the short term.”

Lowest homicide rate in 40 years

President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated that Colombia’s 2017 homicide rate reached the lowest point in 42 years: 24 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants (about the same as Washington DC). Security analyst Hugo Acero cast some doubt on the statistics, though the overall trend points to declining homicides.

Nastiness between Santos and Maduro

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro told his countrymen that “thousands of Colombian patients cross the border to get operated on here, to treat a flu, to clear up a cataract, to seek medicines in Venezuela” where the health system is “free.” (Venezuela in fact suffers from severe shortages of most medicines, while Colombia’s healthcare system is also theoretically free.) President Santos called this comment “cynical,” pointing out that the reverse phenomenon is happening with Venezuelans recurring to Colombia’s border-zone hospitals. “President Maduro, don’t try to use the Colombian people to hide the enormous shortcomings of your failed revolution,” he said. Maduro responded that Santos “has his country in chaos” and isn’t complying with the FARC peace accord.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald photo at WLRN. Caption: “A member of the FARC in Colombia’s Tolima province watches over guerrilla rifles turned over as part of the country’s peace agreement.”

  • By now, the UN mission in Colombia has inventoried more than 7,000 weapons that over 6,900 FARC members have brought to 26 disarmament sites around the country. The FARC is handing these arms over to the UN in phases.
  • FARC members concentrated at the disarmament site outside Puerto Asís, Putumayo, have offered to help with rescue and rebuilding efforts after mudslides and flooding destroyed much of the departmental capital, Mocoa, which is about two hours’ drive away.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, visited Colombia in their role as international representatives of a government-FARC commission to monitor compliance with the peace accords’ commitments.
  • The investigative journalism website Verdad Abierta finds some truth to FARC allegations that elements of Colombia’s military have been trying to coax guerrillas away from the sites where they are to disarm collectively, so that they might enter the Defense Ministry’s program for individual deserters.
  • The new administration in the United States has said almost nothing about future U.S. support for peace implementation in Colombia. So every statement that does come out is important, like this one from April 3:

“Right now as the United States works through its budget process both for the current budget here that we’re in right now, Fiscal Year 2017, as well as the next budget year, we are evaluating how our assistance funds can be best utilized to support the highest U.S. priorities. Supporting the peace process in Colombia has traditionally been a high priority for the United States. We look forward to working with the Colombian Government in order to make sure that our assistance dollars are utilized as effectively as possible.”

  • On the evening of March 28, Colombia’s Congress approved the transitional-justice system envisioned in the peace accords. This system, the “Special Peace Jurisdiction,” will try and punish war crimes that were ordered, planned, or committed by the FARC, the Colombian government, or private citizens. WOLA, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others have criticized some of the changes to the original accord that Colombia’s Congress added, and that we hope Colombia’s Constitutional Court will correct.
  • Two prominent generals imprisoned for their role in human rights crimes have signed up to have their cases considered by the new Special Peace Jurisdiction. This holds out the possibility of reducing their sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations. As many as 2,000 convicted or accused military personnel may choose the transitional justice route.
  • “The discourse rejecting indulgence for the eternal enemy—the FARC—helps avoid speaking of what is truly feared: that economic, military, and political elites’ ties to atrocities might be placed in evidence,” reads a tough analysis of transitional justice by human rights lawyer Michael Reed Hurtado at Razón Pública.
  • A coalition of Colombian human rights groups voiced strong concern that the country’s new transitional justice law does not give “high level entity status” to a new Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons in the attorney-general’s office, as envisioned in the peace accord.
  • As peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas continue to struggle, violence continues. An ELN ambush in the northeastern department of Arauca, where the guerrilla group is at its most activekilled two soldiers on March 27. A Colombian armed forces aerial bombardment killed 10 ELN guerrillas at an encampment in the Catatumbo region, also in northeastern Colombia, on April 1. Meanwhile the La Silla Vacía investigative journalism website denounced an intimidating message from one of the ELN’s most powerful leaders, and Jesuit peace activist Francisco de Roux, in his regular El Tiempo column, criticized arrests of civil-society leaders charged with ELN ties, and called for an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
  • A potentially fatal flaw in the FARC peace accords is their failure to address the “partial collapse” of Colombia’s state, argues the University of Chicago’s James Robinson in a speech at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes.
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