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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Human Rights Defenders

A story of what’s at stake in social movement struggle that goes well beyond Honduras

A review of Who Killed Berta Caceres by Nina Lakhani (Verso, 2020). Listen to my WOLA podcast with the author.

Why did 1 in every 37 citizens of Honduras end up detained at the US-Mexico border in 2019, after fleeing all the way across Mexico? Why did 30,000 more Hondurans petition for asylum in Mexico that same year?

During the 2010s, as a correspondent for The Guardian, Nina Lakhani covered the brutal drivers of this migration out of Central America. Her reporting was essential reading. Now she has published a book, Who Killed Berta Caceres, that digs into the pathology of Honduras: a nation that, while never prosperous nor just, has suffered accelerated rot during the 21st century, under the dominion of a kleptocratic and organized crime-tied—but stolidly U.S.-supported—regime.

Berta Cáceres was a prominent indigenous and environmental leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. She was murdered in March 2016, in her home in the town of La Esperanza. Her death poignantly anchors Lakhani’s story of a country badly out of control. Though she only talked to her once—an hourlong interview in 2013—Lakhani puts together a vivid biographical portrait of the co-founder of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Cáceres was a rarely dynamic individual with great energy and creativity, a natural leader. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes clear how much Honduras’s vibrant but beleaguered social movements lost upon her death.

In telling Cáceres’s life story, Lakhani is also telling the story of how activism in defense of marginalized people has changed, in Honduras and elsewhere, since the Cold War. The old narrative of class conflict, with radicals opting for violent struggle while elites’ enforcers massacre thousands in the name of “anti-communism,” has faded. Now, social movement work is non-violent, in countries that mostly maintain at least a facade of democracy. People organize around identity—as indigenous communities, as women—more than they do around socioeconomic class, though there is strong overlap. Ethnic and environmental struggles are now paramount, particularly opposition to outside elites’ “projects,” like roads, dams, agribusiness, and mines, that threaten to dispossess people, destroy natural wealth, and shatter longstanding ways of life.

In telling Berta Cáceres’ story, Lakhani explores the strategies to which a group like COPINH recurs in this 21st century context, the extent to which these “work”, and how the organizing and media landscape have changed. Lakhani’s account also places in sharp relief what the threats from those in power have come to look like, and how social leaders are kept off balance by relentless intimidation, attacks, and manipulation of the legal system.

Lakhani cogently discusses the challenges Cáceres faced as a woman leading a Latin American social movement. She faced opprobrium for perceptions of neglecting her children. Meetings were tense. “It was uncomfortable. At times, men stormed out, others insulted her, but this motivated her to do more.”

Everything got worse in Honduras, the book forcefully argues, after Honduras’s 2009 coup, in which business elites and the military deposed a left-leaning elected president. Not enough analysts and policymakers realize what a turning point this was not just for Honduras, but for Latin America. Elected leftists have since been had their terms cut short, with tacit military support, in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia (the latter amid allegations of electoral fraud). After Honduras’s coup came a deluge of land grabs, an acceleration of infrastructure projects like the Agua Zarca dam that Berta Cáceres lost her life trying to oppose. Had the coup and the subsequent orgy of corruption and repression not happened, it’s possible that the flow of migrants from Honduras would be far smaller today.

Lakhani is sharply critical of the United States’ role. The Obama administration, then in its first year, initially opposed the 2009 coup, but quickly lost its resolve. Lakhani puts much of the blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoting passages from Clinton’s later book. The blame, of course, is more widely spread: the coup plotters spent lavishly on a lobbying campaign that convinced far-right senators to hold up key diplomatic nominations, a form of pressure that proved effective. U.S. NGOs, unable or unwilling to drop everything else on their agendas, couldn’t match that lobbying effort’s energy. While Clinton is clearly a main character for so quickly acquiescing to the coup, neither her book nor Lakhani’s explores the role of Lanny Davis, the Clinton family friend (he was Bill Clinton’s special counsel during his presidency) whom the coup government hired to lead its Washington lobby campaign.

We meet a lot of dreadful characters in Lakhani’s story, most of them men with past military experience who serve as enforcers for DESA, the company seeking the build the dam that would destroy an entire indigenous community’s way of life. Some of them are defendants when Cáceres’s murder finally goes to court. We also meet paramilitary figures in the Bajo Aguán region near the Caribbean coast, doing the dirty work for large estate owners making land grabs to plant oil palms for biodiesel projects. These men are rough, cruel, and corrupt. They are employed by Honduras’s elite, but they aren’t of the elite. They’re on the make, and have found a rare path to social mobility in Honduras, beyond gang membership and drug trafficking.

Peripheral characters in this book are gangs and narcotraffickers, the “badguys” that get the most focus from U.S. policymakers, think tanks, and Pentagon strategists when they make plans for Honduras. In Who Killed Berta Cáceres, the gangs appear mainly as a symptom of the country’s misrule, and the narcotraffickers overlap so completely with the state and the “legitimate” economy that it’s hard to tell them apart.

In one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, Lakhani presents the elite in a nuanced way. Unlike its Central American neighbors, Honduras didn’t inherit its most powerful families from the colonial period or the 19th century coffee boom. The lack of a singularly murderous elite explains in part why human rights abuses in the country during the Cold War, though shocking, were comparatively modest. Those who run Honduras today arose more recently; many are the descendants of emigrants from Christian Palestine. With some key exceptions, they don’t profit from large-scale agricultural landholdings as much as from capital-intensive projects, collusion with organized crime, and corruption. They tend to have a super-capitalist, almost libertarian mindset—the construction of autonomous Ayn Randian “model cities” keeps getting proposed—which endears them to many U.S. policymakers despite their symbiotic relationship with criminality.

This elite functions in close collaboration with Honduras’s U.S.-backed military. Lakhani profiles some of the specialized units that get deployed in social conflicts like COPINH’s struggle. Her portrait of an institution entirely given over to the country’s elites, at the expense of a vast population with few options other than to migrate, shows how infuriatingly little progress Honduran civil-military relations have made since the 1980s transition to formal democracy. It is particularly galling when one sees U.S. diplomatic and military officials heap praise on top Honduran military leaders.

Who Killed Berta Cáceres especially shines in its discussion of the investigation and trial of Cáceres’s murder. Though the reader may need a “dramatis personae” list to keep track of the various middlemen and thugs involved in the murder plot, Lakhani’s narrative is an unflinching look at how impunity works, in Honduras and in much of Latin America. The process drags on. Key witnesses don’t get called. Evidence pointing to higher-ups goes unexplored. Lakhani has difficulty accessing supposedly public documents.

Lakhani meets nearly all of the crime’s material authors in prison, and concludes that they, for the most part, are just trigger-pullers, mid-level planners, or scapegoats. Most of these individuals get sentenced. But who actually ordered Cáceres’s killing, and who were they benefiting? We still don’t know.

“The judges curtailed evidence which threatened to expose a wider conspiracy and criminal network,” Lakhani writes. In the end, even when an internationally renowned social leader is killed, the crime’s masterminds or “intellectual authors” remain, at least for now, out of reach.

“They tried but couldn’t jail her, so they killed her,” Cáceres’s daughter says. “We know it was [the dam-building company] DESA but the question is, who in DESA? It’s going to be down to us to find out.”

Today, in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is a paragon of elite impunity. He won re-election in 2017, which used to be unconstitutional: the president’s consideration of the mere possibility of re-election was a pretext behind the 2009 coup. The 2017 election results occurred under very credible allegations of fraud: the OAS couldn’t certify the result. Hernández’s military, including a newly created military police branch, has systematically put down dissent; Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist, a human rights defender, or an environmental activist. The president’s brother, an ex-congressman, is in U.S. prison for narcotrafficking. Even as U.S. Justice Department documents in the case name President Hernández as a co-conspirator, the Trump administration lavishes praise on him as a partner against migration. The State Department said hardly a word when Honduras ejected an OAS anti-corruption mission last year. Meanwhile, the movement of which Berta Cáceres was a key part remains very active, but is under constant threat and is arguably weaker than it was in 2016.

Who Killed Berta Cáceres tells an old story, but updates it for a 21st century context. It’s the story of a leader who makes the ultimate sacrifice after being branded an “internal enemy” for struggling, nonviolently, to defend her people. “If Berta had been killed in the 1980s,” Lakhani writes, “it would have been considered a political murder mandated by state policy. Today, security forces are still deployed to protect foreign and national business interests, but belligerent community leaders are tarnished as anti-development criminals and terrorists, rather than as leftist guerillas.”

It’s not called counter-insurgency anymore—at least not in Honduras—but it’s the same fight, only the battlefield has shifted. Those who fight nonviolently are the heroes here, and that’s why getting at the masterminds of Berta’s killing is so important. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes apparent that, if one pulls hard enough on that particular thread of the “intellectual authors,” one might just unravel the entire political-criminal apparatus that has overtaken Honduras.

Until that happens, though, the United States, Mexico, and other countries can expect more waves of Honduran migrants. They’ll be fleeing a country that has become unlivable for all who aren’t part of that apparatus.

WOLA Podcast: “If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody”: Nina Lakhani on the Danger to Social Leaders

I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her two weeks ago, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).

The book is out today. Pick up a copy, listen above or by downloading the .mp3 file, and read my review.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast website:

Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a human rights defender. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres – a much-admired environmental and indigenous leader from Honduras – was assassinated. Cáceres was a courageous leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for her efforts to stop dam construction on a river sacred to her Lenca people. But the assassinations of leaders like Berta are rarely investigated or prosecuted all the way to the masterminds. Government, criminal, and economic interests work to silence activists like her.

In this edition of Latin America Today, Nina Lakhani joins Adam Isacson for a discussion on her new book out on June 2, Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso). Lakhani is a veteran journalist whose work has brought to light corruption, state-sponsored violence, and impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. She is currently the Environmental Justice correspondent for The Guardian U.S.

Here, Lakhani talks about why she chose to write about Berta and her lifelong activism, helps us understand the multifaceted Honduran context and why social leaders like Berta are targeted, and provides in-depth analysis of her investigations into Berta’s assassination. The conversation ends with Lakhani’s outlook on how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections may affect accountability on what she calls “impunity on every level.”

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

It’s not every day you get to record a podcast with a member of Congress. I enjoyed sitting down virtually this morning with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Colombia. He was fired up about the outrageous recent scandal involving U.S.-aided army intelligence units spying on Colombian reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, and others.

He calls here for a suspension of U.S. military aid and a much clearer U.S. commitment to implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accords and protecting its threatened social leaders.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file. The text from WOLA’s website is after the photo (from 2017 in Cauca).

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: “These moments of social resistance are never moments. They have long histories.”

Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.

Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Protecting Civilians from Harm

Here’s a podcast that I recorded last Wednesday and am pleased to post now.

How to minimize harm to civilians during armed conflict is a challenge WOLA faces frequently. That has especially been the case in Colombia, the only formally defined armed conflict in the Americas in recent years. But many Latin American countries are places where civilians are falling victim to violence in devastating numbers right now—even if the situation of insecurity doesn’t meet the international law definition of “armed conflict.”

How do we minimize harm to social leaders, human rights defenders, and all other non-combatants in these situations of violence? The Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC, is dedicated to this question. Founded in 2003 to advocate for civilian victims of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, CIVIC engages with armed actors and with communities to minimize harm. Virtually all of its work so far has taken place outside of the Western Hemisphere, but that may soon change.

To talk about what minimizing civilian harm could look like in Latin America’s not-quite-armed-conflict contexts, the Podcast talks to Protection Innovation Fellow Annie Shiel, who was a founding member of the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of Security and Human Rights; and with Mike Lettieri of the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, who is working with CIVIC to develop approaches to work in Latin America.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Communities, and Human Rights in Colombia

(Photo from Colombia Army Twitter account)

As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.

This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”

In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

WOLA Podcast: Searching for Mexico’s Disappeared

With two very good guests in two parts of Mexico, I’m really glad the technology held up on this one. It was well worth the high-wire act.

Here’s the text of the summary at wola.org. Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

More than 60,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. As a March 23 WOLA commentary by Maureen Meyer and Gina Hinojosa notes, the current government is taking some initial steps to address the crisis. A great deal, however, remains to be done, and victims’ groups trying to locate the disappeared continue to work very much on their own.

To discuss the crisis and Mexico’s incipient efforts to address it, Meyer and Hinojosa are joined by two guests from the frontlines of Mexico’s fight to locate and identify the disappeared. Mariano Machain is the international advocacy coordinator at SERAPAZ Mexico, a non-governmental organization working for peace and positive transformation of social conflicts. Lucy Díaz (seen in a December 2019 ABC News Nightline feature) is a leader of Colectivo Solecito, a group of mothers searching for the disappeared in Veracruz state; her son Luis disappeared in 2013.

“The Retreat of Peace is the Retreat of Truth and Memory”

Gonzalo Sánchez is a Colombian sociologist and philosopher who, during the entire Santos government, directed the country’s National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH). This Center was first created by the 2005 “Justice and Peace” law that governed the AUC paramilitaries’ demobilization, then strengthened by the 2011 Victims’ Law that President Juan Manuel Santos promoted after taking office. It had academic autonomy from the government, and its team of scholars published dozens of studies of what happened in the conflict, basing them heavily on victims’ accounts. The CNMH’s crowning achievement was a 2013 report, Basta Ya! Memorias de guerra y dignidad, which as its title indicates, sought to recount Colombia’s conflict from a perspective of victims’ memories while upholding their dignity. (Disclosure: I was on the CNMH International Consultative Committee during the “Basta Ya” period.)

Gonzalo Sánchez left the CNMH directorship when Colombia changed presidential administrations. The government of Iván Duque eventually replaced him in February 2019 with Darío Acevedo, a hard-right historian who, in at least one prior media interview, had questioned whether what happened in Colombia should even be considered an armed conflict. Acevedo has been busy attacking his predecessors at the Center and signing an agreement with Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation—many of whose members are victims of the FARC, but many of whom were also some of the principal sponsors of paramilitary groups. Victims’ and human rights groups have begun withdrawing the documents they had entrusted to the Center’s archives, and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a global network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives, expelled the CNMH on February 3.

As he has a new book out, Gonzalo Sánchez is doing rounds of media interviews. He has mostly avoided commenting on the downfall of the National Center for Historical Memory, other than to express sadness, not to respond to his successor’s personal attacks.

He gave a March 10 interview with Armando Neira of El Tiempo, though, that was so good I’ve read through it twice. In this translated excerpt, Neira asks Sánchez about the government’s attitude toward the killings of Colombian social leaders. The recently named interior minister, Alicia Arango, had just questioned why advocates purportedly care more about social leaders’ murders than about people who are murdered during thefts of their mobile phones.

[Armando Neira, El Tiempo:] Everyone has their own reading of reality; for example, that of the Interior Minister, Alicia Arango, who compares victims of political violence with those of cellphone thefts. How does this seem to you?

[Gonzalo Sánchez:] As that expression was used in the context of the controversy over the United Nations’ report on the human rights situation in the country, I felt insulted as a citizen, I could not contain myself and I posted a very visceral tweet: “Maybe the UN should protest stolen cell phones and not murders of social leaders!”

[Neira:] Do you think she was being intentional or was it a misstatement?

[Sánchez:] One doesn’t know whether it is clumsiness, lack of sensitivity, cynicism, or provocation. It would seem that these false starts are more than that, rather they are part of a structure of thought of the “No” [the side that opposed Colombia’s peace process and narrowly defeated an October 2, 2016 plebiscite to approve the final peace accord]. This has been taking shape and tends visibly to trivialize great issues and great tragedies.

[Neira:] Like what?

[Sánchez:] Between peace and glyphosate, they choose glyphosate; between the murder of social leaders and the theft of cell phones, they prefer to inflate the dimensions of the latter to trivialize the others; between the feeling of regret or grievance toward the protector of the murdered leader, they choose insults: “the bodyguard was not a social leader“; between improving things and destroying them they prefer to “rip them to shreds”.

[Neira:] Why did this statement appear calculated to you?

[Sánchez:] What I want to tell you is that this is not about verbal accidents, but about a way of thinking and a very calculatedly challenging use of language. There is an aggressive discourse at high levels of government that is generating an individual and collective tension whose effects they themselves aren’t calculating.

[Neira:] Why?

[Sánchez:] The fundamental problem in my opinion is this: in the plebiscite, one sector of society did not lose to another. The country lost.

[Neira:] Why do you claim that?

[Sánchez:] The “No” will weigh on us in the future, not as the victory of one sector over others, but as the defeat of the nation. And this government has charged itself with deepening the defeat. Colombia is being ruled like a defeated country. They impose humiliating roles on it, inside and outside the country. The “No” was the denial of the conflict, the denial of the peace accord, the denial of a future different from that of everyday death.

[Neira:] The present violence is marked by the murder of social leaders. What is your assessment of this situation?

[Sánchez:] All human life must be protected, all life has immeasurable value. But when a social leader, a human rights defender, a spiritual leader from an indigenous community, a land claimant is killed, years of accumulated organization, culture, and democracy are undone, which take many more years to rebuild.

[Neira:] And what do you think of the series of murders of women and men from the FARC who signed the peace agreement?

[Sánchez:] When they kill a demobilized person, a message of high symbolic content is also sent: agreements were signed, but “the war is not over.” Intimidating, isn’t it?

[Neira:] But, from the other side, there’s enormous anger among the victims of the FARC because it has not told the whole truth before the JEP …

[Sánchez:] Commitment to truth, rather than alternative penalties, is at the core of the agreements. To avoid the complete truth, the assumption of responsibilities, is to break the agreements. And this is also valid for third parties [appearing before the JEP], as well as for agents of the State.

[Neira:] What effects does this attitude have?

[Sánchez] Transitional institutions will have no legitimacy if society cannot feel certain that the contributions to the truth are real. The insurgents committed to that not only with the Colombian government and state, but with all of society. And today’s informed society does not compromise with lies, with euphemisms, or with half-truths.

[Neira:] Does it impact peace?

[Sánchez:] We must recognize something else that weighs heavily at the moment: a fragile peace does not produce strong truths. In other words, the retreat of peace is the retreat of truth and memory.

Notes on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Annual Report

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.

The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”

This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.

Here are some highlights from the report:

On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders

In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.

The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.

Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.

Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.

OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.

On the government’s response to these attacks

OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.

The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.

The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.

The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.

OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.

On the military and human rights

OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.

OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.

On blurring the lines between military and police

OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.

On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.

In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.

On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories

Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.

The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.

In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).

[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.

On illicit crop eradication and substitution

Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.

OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.

“Important Numbers”: a New Section at the Revived colombiapeace.org Site

When trying to understand peace accord implementation, security threats, and human rights in Colombia, we have to rely heavily on numbers to explain what’s happening. Whether you’re explaining reintegration of ex-combatants, pointing to coca cultivation trends, or advocating for more prosecutions of those masterminding social leaders’ murders, you often need numerical data. And the most current numbers can be hard to find.

In response to that need, a new section of our “colombiapeace.org” site—which I’ve been updating and improving over the past two weeks—just went live: a compendium of current numbers and statistics about peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. Each number has a link to the source document where we found it; the links are color-coded to indicate whether the source is an official document.

Right now, the page includes 85 individual bits of data, covering the following topics:

  • Attacks on Social Leaders
  • Child Combatants
  • Coca and Eradication
  • Crop Substitution
  • Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
  • Displacement
  • Dissident Groups
  • ELN
  • FARC Political Future
  • Protection of Ex-Combatants
  • Public Security
  • Stabilization and Rural Governance
  • Transitional Justice

This page will never be “done.” It’ll need constant updating. It will also receive additions: there are some basic bits of public information still missing, and some topics will get added to the list above. But at this point, the “numbers” page is good enough to share.

Here, for instance, is what the page’s “Attacks on Social Leaders” section looks like right now. Visit the page to view all topics.

  • As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified 303 murders of human rights defenders and social leaders between the signing of the FARC peace accord and the end of 2019.
  • The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) counts a higher number: 555 social leaders killed between January 1, 2016 and October 31, 2019. That is 133 cases in 2016, 126 cases in 2017, 178 cases in 2018, and 118 cases in 2019.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counted up to 120 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in 2019: as of January 14, 2020, 107 cases were verified and 13 more were undergoing verification.
  • Of these 107, 98% happened “in municipalities with illicit economies where criminal groups or armed groups operate.” 86% occurred “in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.”
  • In 2018, the UN High Commissioner’s office counted 115 killings.
  • More than half of 2019 social-leader killings occurred in 4 departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca, and Caquetá, though UN High Commissioner counted murders in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
  • “The single most targeted group,” the UN High Commissioner reports, “was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50% in 2019 compared to 2018.”
  • The UN High Commissioner’s office counted at least 10 killings during the first 13 days of January.
  • The NGO INDEPAZ counts 51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
  • INDEPAZ counted 23 murders of social leaders in the month of December 2019.
  • On December 17, 2019, the Colombian Presidency’s human rights advisor, Francisco Barbosa (who is now Colombia’s Prosecutor-General) said that 84 social leaders were murdered in 2019, which he said was a 25% reduction from 2018.
  • As of January 2020, 59 participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).

A brazen attack recalls Colombia’s worst years

A social leader is killed nearly every other day in Colombia. Notably, nearly all of the victims have been very local leaders or activists, with no national profile. This has spread terror among social leaders, sending the message that you’re not safe no matter how unknown you are.

While the most prominent national human rights and social leaders get constant death threats, they’ve seen few actual attacks lately. That’s why the May 4 attack on the Black Communities’ Process (PCN) leadership in northern Cauca is an alarming milestone.

Those who narrowly escaped a 15-minute barrage of rifle fire and grenades were top national leaders of the country’s Afro-Colombian movement, gathered for a strategy meeting. People widely known in Colombia like Francia Marquez, winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize, Carlos Rosero, Víctor Moreno, and Clemencia Carabalí.

They were part of a group of 25 people, including children and international accompanies, gathered in a meeting space in the rural zone of Santander de Quilichao municipality, about an hour south of Cali. At 5:30 on Saturday—broad daylight—four unknown men showed up. Carlos Rosero told El Espectador that the leaders were in the rear of their building when they heard “a shootout,” and all threw themselves to the floor. Three of the unknown men began firing and throwing at least one grenade. Two of the leaders’ government-provided bodyguards were wounded.

Afterward, two assailants left by motorcycle, and two on foot, on the only road leading back to Santander de Quilichao’s town center. A PCN communiqué notes that there are three police or military road checkpoints nearby, one about 10 kilometers (6-miles) away.

President Iván Duque called the attack a “terrorist act” in a tweet, and promised to activate his government’s “Opportune Action Plan” for protecting social leaders. Still, the attack heightens a growing sense that Colombia’s post-peace accord security gains are eroding.

Assassinations of nationally prominent social leaders were brutally frequent in the 1990s and early 2000s, the darkest period of Colombia’s conflict. Government-aligned, landowner and drug trafficker-supported paramilitary groups and hitmen took the lives of human rights lawyers like Hector Abad Gómez, Jesús Maria Valle, and Josué Giraldo; researchers like Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado; academics like Jesús Bejarano and Alfredo Correa de Andreis; and satirists like Jaime Garzón, among dozens of others. But this hasn’t happened to nationally prominent activists in a while.

The May 4 attack may be a sign of trouble to come. The ELN, guerrilla dissidents, neo-paramilitary groups, and organized crime structures are all growing, as documented in a report issued last week by the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation. And according to 57 observers around the country interviewed by Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative journalism site, “there are more allegations of abuses by the security forces, including extrajudicial executions,” since Iván Duque took office last August.

How can Colombia stop the deterioration? The recommendation is not a new one: find out who ordered, planned, and paid for attacks like Saturday’s vicious assault in Cauca, and bring them swiftly to justice while respecting due process. As long as there’s little probability of that happening, brazen acts like this one may proliferate—and Colombians’ repeated claims that “this is a much different country than it was 20 years ago” will ring hollow.

“They’re Killing Us”: Short Video on Social Leaders in Post-Accord Colombia

Filmmakers Tom Laffay, Emily Wright, and Daniel Bustos were in town this evening to screen their 20-minute documentary, “They’re Killing Us,” with lots of footage from Cauca, Colombia in the months after the FARC guerrillas disarmed. The film debuted on the website of The Atlantic at the end of May.

The video states that one social leader is being killed every four days in post-conflict Colombia. In the last few months, though, it’s more like one every day and a half to two days.

I’m pleased, at least, that the film drew a capacity crowd in the Busboys and Poets restaurant’s event space, in Washington’s U Street neighborhood, on a rainy Wednesday night. They had to turn people away for lack of space.

Day 7 in Colombia

Good morning from Bogotá. It’s day seven of our visit, and we’ve finished the field-work portion of the trip. Nothing left but two days of meetings here with experts, activists, government and UN personnel.

This 90-100 mile boat journey, out in to the ocean and then up the Naya River, appears to have killed the trackpad on my laptop. It was really painful just now trying to draw that arrow using an app that (sort of) makes my phone act like a mouse.

 

We spent Saturday through Tuesday in Colombia’s Pacific coast region, in the city of Buenaventura and then way up the Naya River, which serves as the border between Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments. This is a huge corridor for drug trafficking. The FARC’s exit from these areas has led to a proliferation of armed groups and organized crime. They are not fighting each other very frequently right now—something seems to be maintaining the peace—and many measures of violence are down for the moment.

There is absolutely no peace, however, if you are a community leader. If you’re active in your local Community Action Board, Afro-Colombian Community Council, coca substitution program, indigenous reserve, labor union, or other structure, you have seen a sharp increase in death threats. The national wave of social-leader murders has not spared this area. Four leaders along the Naya river were disappeared by an unidentified armed group in April and May.

We’ll turn this fieldwork into a full report within a few weeks. I already have a 30-page matrix roughed out based on most of my notes so far. (Sometime when things slow down, I’ll write a post about the method I’m using.) In the meantime, here are some photos from the past few days.

Our first stop was a meeting with a community of Wounaan indigenous people on the outskirts of Buenaventura, the largest city on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The community had been displaced several years ago by fighting between ELN guerrillas and paramilitaries near the San Juan River in Chocó department, to the north. For four years, dozens of people have been subsisting on about an acre of land.

 

Our boat leaves Buenaventura.

 

Puerto Merizalde, near the mouth of the Naya River, was the last place to have mobile phone signal as we went upriver.

 

Many of the 64 towns along the Naya River have, with the support of non-governmental organizations and social movements, declared themselves “refuge zones” open only to the civilian population. All armed groups are meant to stay out.

 

Though towns have declared themselves “refuge zones” open only to the civilian population, within the past year and a half the military (in this case, the Army) has begun setting up camp in some of them.

 

The Naya River gets shallow as you go upstream, and ceases to be navigable not far from Concepción, where we spent the night. A couple of times, our boat’s propeller hit the rocky bottom, and we had to get out and push, or walk along the bank until the boat got past the shallows.

 

The riverside community of Concepción, where we spent a night.

 

Low-quality selfie with Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Andes director, just before meeting with dozens of community members in Concepción, on the Naya River. We met in the evening in the schoolhouse, which was not wired for electricity, by the light of a single CFL bulb on a very long extension cord.

 

Going downriver with WOLA colleagues and several Naya River and Buenaventura community leaders.

 

Meeting with human rights defenders at the offices of NOMADESC in Cali.

Who are Colombia’s “Black Eagles?”

“The weeks following the [June 17] elections witnessed an upsurge in killings of social leaders,” reads last Friday’s UN Secretary-General report on Colombia. The killings have come alongside an even larger wave of death threats sent to political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and social leaders in just about every corner of the country.

Often, the threats come from an apparent paramilitary group calling itself the “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras). This name has been attached to death threats since shortly after 2006, when the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization dissolved.

Curiously, though, nobody ever actually sees Black Eagles anywhere in Colombia. Especially in the last several years, there is nowhere in the country where a group using that name actually controls territory. The Colombian think tank INDEPAZ found, for 2016:

The presence of this structure was detected in 41 municipalities [counties] in 19 departments, the highest since 2012. Its actions are concentrated on threatening social leaders, human rights defenders, social movements and collectives, and others. In recent years, its presence has been disarticulated, and hasn’t shown control over any zone in particular.… The increase in its presence coincides with the largest year [then, 2016] for killings of social leaders and human rights defenders.

INDEPAZ map shows counties where Black Eagles issued threats in 2016.

Who really are the Black Eagles, then? In at least some cases, they might be members of Colombia’s security forces.

In their 2016 book Los Retos del Posconflicto, León Valencia and Ariel Ávila of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation contend that the “Black Eagles” don’t really exist: they are a name that others use to threaten and intimidate social leaders and human rights defenders.

In particular, they add an allegation that I’ve heard in numerous conversations with Colombian human rights defenders, but haven’t seen in print elsewhere: that some of those making threats as “Black Eagles” are elements of military or police intelligence. On page 120:

The “Urabeños” sought to subordinate by force, or to establish alliances with, existing armed groups while allowing them to stay in place. In some zones where they established a presence, they even used other names to carry out their criminal activities. For example, to threaten social and political leaders, in some zones they used the name “Black Eagles,” a denomination that has also served intelligence sectors within the security forces to intimidate and to create confusion, especially during the last two years due to the advances of the peace process.

Video: Hearing on “Peace and Victims’ Rights in Colombia”

Here’s video, and here’s my written testimony, from this morning’s hearing about “Peace and Victims’ Rights in Colombia” in the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. It was a great hearing, featuring three social leaders working on the front lines of peace accord implementation and inclusion in Colombia.

My role was to talk about future directions for U.S. policy. I suggested five:

  • Keep the focus on rural areas, especially government presence.
  • Keep victims at the center of programming and diplomatic support.
  • Uphold the justice system, and help make it work better.
  • Be more flexible with the ban on “material support” for ex-FARC.
  • Coca and Venezuela are priorities, but don’t lose sight of the central role of accord implementation.

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