This is from my weekly e-mail newsletter, in which I vent about how worried I am about COVID-19’s potential to kill a lot of people stuck in ICE’s network of immigrant detention centers.
People are going to die. It is going to be bad. And it’s totally preventable: alternatives to detention programs have good records of keeping people on the outside from slipping through the cracks.
WOLA and other organizations are making a lot of noise. Members of Congress—though no Republicans I’m aware of—are making a lot of noise too. But the top levels at ICE, DHS, and the White House are immovable.
I can’t stop wondering what’s going through the minds of the people directly managing these detention centers right now. Most of them are employees of private corporations like CoreCivic and Geo Group. They’ve got to know what’s about to happen. Many of them were raised to value human life—in their churches, in their upbringings, in their educations.
What are they doing now? If detention centers get hit by a wave of COVID-19 deaths, what will the record show that they were doing—right now, this week—to prevent it? Are they frantically making phone calls, sending e-mails, leaking to reporters, making their CEOs and boards miserable, contacting their local mayors, governors, and congressional representatives?
Here’s a great conversation with Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences who, as she notes, was my intern at the Center for International Policy way back in the fall of 2000. (Deep in the archives are 3 memos she co-authored during her internship: here, here, and here.)
Today, Abbey is a professor at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, a scholar of violence and politics who has done most of her work in Colombia. She is the author of Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War (2017, Cornell University Press).
In this episode, she discusses her work in Apartadó, in Colombia’s Urabá region, which saw forced displacement by paramilitary groups intensify after Colombia began direct local elections and leftist parties performed well. She calls what happened “political cleansing” or “collective targeting”: the paramilitaries targeted entire communities for displacement based on election results.
She explains this and other findings, particularly how communities have organized to resist the onslaught. She has a sharp analysis of the challenges that continue for the displaced—and for communities and social leaders at risk of political cleansing—today, in post-peace-accord Colombia.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s an analysis we posted yesterday in response to the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to “inessential” travel. As noted in yesterday’s podcast, such travelers apparently include threatened people seeking asylum or protection in the United States, who are being turned away.
The result is a potential death sentence, once COVID-19 really hits, for people confined in crowded shelters, encampments, and substandard housing in Mexican border towns. This could get really ugly.
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.
[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.
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.
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
Coca and Eradication
Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
FARC Political Future
Protection of Ex-Combatants
Stabilization and Rural Governance
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.
As of December 30, 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had verified303 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 counted115 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 counts51 social leaders murdered between January 1 and February 18, 2020.
INDEPAZ counted23 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, 59participants in coca crop substitution programs had been killed, according to the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (COCCAM).
The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, known over the years for excellent investigative reporting, came under fire in May for sitting on a story about the new high command’s demand that military officers produce higher “body counts,” which the New York Times instead picked up as a front-page bombshell. Since then, Semana has come roaring back with a series of alarming revelations—most of them based on information leaked from military officers themselves—about corruption within the armed forces, evasion of accountability for human rights abuse, and a general pullback from promising post-conflict reforms.
Semana’s latest revelation about out-of-control behavior in the Colombian military is a shocker. Part two of a two-part series, published October 27, details the military’s April 22 killing of Dimar Torres, a farmer and former FARC militia member, in the conflictive and strategic Catatumbo region, near the Venezuela border. About 167 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the November 2016 peace accord’s signing, but Torres is the only demobilized fighter known to have been killed by the armed forces.
The killing of Torres, a father-to-be who cared for his elderly parents, was big news in Colombia at the time. Word of the military’s responsibility got out because residents of his village, in the municipality of Convención about 10 minutes from a 40-man army post, had seen soldiers searching a worried-looking Torres at a checkpoint, and later heard shots fired. A contingent of villagers found soldiers digging a large hole near the grounds of the base. Then they found his body on the ground, shot four times. The community members took videos of their search and of their confrontation with the soldiers, which were widely shared on social media. (Thank heaven for smartphones.)
At the time, the Colombian defense sector’s response was contradictory: both hopeful and worrisome. Civilian authorities began investigating Corporal Daniel Eduardo Gómez Robledo, the alleged killer. General Diego Luis Villegas, the commander of the “Vulcan Task Force” charged with securing Catatumbo, went to Torres’s home village and said the right thing. “Not just any civilian was killed, a member of the community was killed, members of the armed forces killed him. That’s why the commander should come and show his face. I regret it in my soul. In the name of the 4,000 men I have the honor to command, I ask your forgiveness.”
(Gen. Villegas, by the way, is a complicated individual. He faces a currently suspended arrest warrant for commanding a unit that committed a “false positive” extrajudicial killing of a mentally disabled man in 2008, which makes it odd that he would have been put in charge of military operations in a high-stakes territory like Catatumbo, which has a strong presence of the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the EPL, a local splinter guerrilla group. In August, Semanarevealed that in a January meeting Gen. Villegas had said, “The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”)
The apology and the prosecutorial moves were good. But other responses were not. Colombia’s independent Noticias Uno network revealed an audio in which a fellow general insulted Villegas for asking forgiveness: “If you’re so upset, then retire and go join the guerrillas, so the military forces can have the honor of chasing you down and getting you out of there.”
Worse, Colombia’s maximum security authority after the president, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero—who has come under much criticism for irresponsible statements in the past—upheld the story offered by Corporal Gómez, the alleged killer of Dimar Torres. “This corporal affirms that he found this person [Torres] and that this person tried to take his gun away.” “I don’t see the motive in causing a homicide of a person whom the corporal doesn’t know, whom he surely hadn’t seen in his life.” “If there was a homicide, then there must have been some motive for it.”
And now this week Semana has reported, with extensive proof from prosecutorial investigations, that this was not a case of a rogue corporal. It goes up to the lieutenant colonel in charge of his entire battalion. And Defense Minister Botero is on the wrong side of the truth.
The armed forces’ Vulcan Task Force, commanded by Gen. Villegas and responsible for security operations in Catatumbo, was established in early 2018. It has eight battalions with about 500 personnel in each. One of these eight, the 11th Land Operations Battalion, was commanded earlier this year by Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita.
At the beginning of April, three weeks before Dimar Torres’s murder, troops in the 11th Battalion were carrying out an operation to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, a frequent target of guerrilla bombings. During this operation, near Torres’s home village, a soldier stepped on a landmine or hidden explosive device, which killed him.
Semana reports that the soldier’s death enraged Lt. Col. Pérez, the battalion commander. The senior officer ordered his subordinates to get revenge, even if it means breaking the law. “I don’t need to report anything. What I need is to get revenge for the death of the soldier, we have to kill,” he allegedly said, based on soldiers’ testimonies to Colombia’s prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía).
Corporal Gómez, the accused killer, told the Lieutenant-Colonel that he believed Dimar Torres was responsible for the landmine. Without any evidence, he reported that Torres, the farmer and demobilized guerrilla, was an explosives expert with the ELN guerrillas.
Lt. Col. Pérez, Corporal Gómez, and other soldiers formed a WhatsApp group called “Dimar Torres” to coordinate their surveillance of the ex-guerrilla and their plans to execute him extrajudicially. “We don’t have to capture this man, we have to kill him so he doesn’t get fat in jail,” Lt. Col. Pérez wrote to this WhatsApp group, whose texts are now in prosecutors’ possession. The group shows that the soldiers were closely tracking Dimar Torres’s movements and routines, posting photos, over the last three weeks of his life. “All this without a judicial order,” Semana notes.
On the afternoon of April 22, Corporal Gómez told 2nd Lieutenant John Javier Blanco, the commander of the small military post near Torres’s village, “I’m going to kill Dimar.” Within hours, he and perhaps others had intercepted Torres’s motorcycle and shot him to death.
Later, Corporal Gómez radioed Lt. Col. Pérez to tell him he had killed Dimar Torres. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered him not to say such things on the radio, but to use WhatsApp instead. “What did the son of a bitch say?” Lt. Col. Pérez asked the group. He went on to order the corporal to keep a close eye on the other members of Dimar Torres’s community, who had confronted the soldiers and found the body: “Check up on them, because they’re next,” he wrote menacingly.
The Lieutenant-Colonel also instructed Corporal Gómez to use radio communications to give a false story about what happened. This false narrative, in which Torres supposedly tried to wrest Corporal Gómez’s weapon from him, was amplified and repeated by Defense Minister Botero’s statements before the press.
Today, Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita stands accused by civilian prosecutors for the crime of homicide of a protected person. But the case is moving slowly: his lawyers’ delaying tactics are working.
Lt. Col. Pérez’s lawyers filed a motion to move his case to the military justice system, which is only supposed to judge “acts of service” and has a terrible record of failing to punish human rights violations. While the civilian and military courts work out their jurisdictional dispute, Lt. Col. Pérez and other soldiers accused of killing Dimar Pérez are at large, out of preventive detention.
Semana’s revelations about the Dimar Torres case could hardly be more alarming, for at least three reasons. First, they show a military that had been making important human rights progress reverting, brutally, to old behaviors. Second, this plan to victimize a former guerrilla will give pause to thousands of other guerrillas who willingly disarmed, many of whom may abandon the peace process if they feel vulnerable to attack from the very armed forces that are supposed to protect them. Third, this episode happened in Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s most violent, ungoverned, and strategic regions, where winning a deeply distrustful population’s confidence should be the government’s number-one mission. Overcoming distrust is why Gen. Villegas’s visit to Torres’s community, where he publicly recognized responsibility for the killing, was so crucially important.
That something as monstrous as the plot against Dimar Torres could take place and remain covered up demands accountability from Colombia’s highest defense authorities. Nonetheless, as Semana reports, “Minister [of Defense] Guillermo Botero remains in his post, and his declarations about Dimar’s case weren’t the object of any disciplinary measure.… The Defense chief hasn’t retracted his statements, nor has he apologized to Dimar’s family for his declarations.” In June, opposition legislators sought to censure Botero for these and other statements, but lacked the votes to do so.
“This isn’t the moment to speak of Minister Botero’s renunciation,” President Iván Duque said after Semana published these revelations. So Colombia’s defense sector, badly adrift at the moment, continues to be led by Guillermo Botero, an archconservative who has called for crackdowns on peaceful protest, downplayed the seriousness of a wave of social leader killings, and absurdly blamed the post-conflict transitional justice system for a failure to arrest recidivist guerrilla leaders.
This week, Botero remains under fire for events in the tumultuous department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. First, community members in Corinto municipality alleged that the Army tortured and killed local campesino leader Flower Jair Trompeta; Botero caused outrage by claiming, before an investigation could take place, that Trompeta died in “a military operation.”
Then, on October 29 in Tacueyó municipality, assailants—probably FARC dissidents—massacred an indigenous leader and her unarmed guards. This incident shone a light on the Defense Ministry’s failure to consult with Cauca’s indigenous communities about their protection. Botero and others in the Duque government have insisted that the military be given free rein to patrol indigenous reserves, but these communities have strong memories of soldiers being accompanied by paramilitaries and want another arrangement. Instead of consulting, Botero’s Defense Ministry has left these communities badly unprotected in a zone where several armed and criminal groups operate.
How can a defense minister hang on for so long after presiding over so many backward steps for Colombia’s armed forces? Guillermo Botero survives, the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacíacontends, because he is “a chess piece” for former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the founder and most prominent member of President Iván Duque’s political party. As long as he has the hard-right former president’s favor, Guillermo Botero appears safe in his office regardless of questions of competence, and apparently President Duque can’t do much about it.
I recorded this Tuesday morning with Julio Martínez of Nicaragua’s Articulación de Movimientos Sociales. Julio was an active participant in the 2018 protest movement against the Ortega regime; he got out and is now doing graduate work in New York. Here, we talk about civil society’s fight to stop human rights abuses and restore democracy in Nicaragua, the importance of international pressure, and the alarming spread of authoritarianism throughout Central America. (Download the mp3)
This is the form that Colombia’s army chief required officers to fill out in January, asking them how many members of each armed group the officer planned to take out in the coming year. From El Tiempo.
A May 18 New York Times article revealed an alarming shift in how Colombia’s army, under leadership that took over last December, is measuring “success” in its operations.
The article got a lot of attention because of the human rights angle, especially the possibility of a return to “false positive” extrajudicial killings. And indeed, in the runup to the Times piece, Colombian media outlets had begun relayingreports of military personnel being more aggressive with civilians.
But the danger, and the counterproductivity, of this new policy go beyond human rights. The changes at the top indicate a return to “body counts” as the Colombian military’s main measure of success.
That’s a failed and discredited approach, which most of us thought had long been buried. But the right-wing government of President Iván Duque has dug it up. With a new cohort of commanders who rose during the “false positives” period, the old ways have come roaring back. Times reporter Nick Casey relayed what he heard from military officers who came forward to voice concern:
[A] major shift took place, they say, when [Army Commander] General [Nicacio] Martínez called a meeting of his top officers in January, a month after assuming command of the army.
… After a break, the commanders returned to tables where they found a form waiting for each one of them, the officers said. The form had the title “Goal Setting 2019” at the top and a place for each commander to sign at the bottom.
The form asked commanders to list the “arithmetic sum of surrenders, captures and deaths” of various armed groups for the previous year in one column, and then provide a goal for the following year.
Some of the commanders seemed confused — until they were instructed to double their numbers this year, the officers said.
In the post-peace accord period, Colombia’s military has identified several internal enemies as national security threats: the ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, the “Gulf Clan” paramilitary network, and smaller, regional groups. Together, they total over 10,000 fighters, plus support networks.
But when Colombia’s forces take out a leader, kill several fighters in combat, or convince some to demobilize, nothing really happens. The territories where these groups operate continue to be ungoverned.
Roads are scarce, and paved roads are unheard of. So are land titles. There is probably no connection to the electrical grid. Post-primary schools are distant. Residents report going months or years without seeing a non-uniformed representative of national or local government. The idea of going to the judicial system to resolve a dispute is beyond laughable: many municipalities (counties) have neither judges nor prosecutors.
In that environment, a military unit that comes in seeking high body counts comes away with two results. First, a terrorized population whose distrust of government is greater than before. And second, new armed groups—or other elements of the same armed groups—filling in the vacuum and taking over the territory’s illicit economy. Within weeks, a new commander, a new group or groups, or several warring factions are profiting the same as before from drug production and transshipment, illegal mining, fuel trafficking, extortion, and other income streams. A high “body count” changes little on the ground.
Militaries have known this for a while. For situations like rural Colombia’s, they’ve discarded “body counts” some time ago, and developed a whole field called “stability operations.” Here’s what the U.S. Army’s Stability Operations manual says about how security forces should measure “success”:
Throughout U.S. history, the Army has learned that military force alone cannot secure sustainable peace. A comprehensive approach is required, as well as in-depth understanding of an operational environment. Stability ultimately aims to establish conditions the local populace regards as legitimate, acceptable, and predictable. Stabilization is a process in which personnel identify and mitigate underlying sources of instability to establish the conditions for long-term stability. Therefore, stability tasks focus on identifying and targeting the root causes of instability and building the capacity of local institutions.
Instead of asking “how many enemies did we take out,” then, the question is more like “can the government do what a government is supposed to do in the territory, and does the population feel that this is a good thing that is making their lives better?”
For too long, Colombia’s military measured its success with body counts. This culminated, most tragically, in the “false positives” scandal that broke in 2008. It turned out that soldiers, seeking to earn rewards and be viewed as successful in a “body count” climate, ended up killing thousands of innocent civilians, at times buying the cadavers from paramilitaries and criminals.
The measures of success started changing in the late ‘00s, near the end of then-President Álvaro Uribe’s second term. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Vice-Minister Sergio Jaramillo, working with David Petraeus-era U.S. military officers who’d been burned by the failures of the Iraq war, moved toward the second way of measuring success. They developed “territorial consolidation” metrics based on violence indicators, government presence, and the population’s access to basic goods. “Consolidation of territorial control,” read a 2007 Defense Ministry document,
shall be understood as a scenario in which the security provided by the security forces guarantees that the state may make public order prevail, and allow all institutions to function freely and permanently, so that citizens may fully exercise their rights.
They didn’t quite succeed at that: after some notable initial gains, the “Consolidation” effort petered out by 2013 or so for lack of political support, and the civilian part of the government usually failed to show up behind the soldiers. Still, as president, Santos named armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía, who developed a new military doctrine putting many of these new success measures at its core, including in the Army’s 2017 “stabilization” manual:
The objective of stability is to reduce the level of violence; toward that goal the military forces carry out operations mainly characterized by supporting the functioning of government, economic, and social institutions, and general adherence to local law as, rules, and norms of behavior.
Then, together with Jaramillo as peace commissioner, Santos negotiated a peace accord committing the government, once again, to try to “enter” the countryside, often for the first time. This comes through most strongly in the 2016 FARC peace accords’ first chapter on “rural reform.”
[N]ational plans financed and promoted by the state must be set up with a view to achieving the comprehensive rural development that will provide public services and goods, such as for education, health, recreation, infrastructure, technical assistance, food and nutrition, inter alia, which promote well-being and a dignified way of life for the rural population – girls, boys, men and women.
A military commander seeking success metrics like these would be measuring miles of road paved, children able to attend school, hectares of land titled, and poll data showing perceptions that the government has become more responsive and accountable. The commander would NOT be asked to fill in forms indicating how many fighters the unit would kill or otherwise “neutralize” in the coming year.
It’s not at all clear why Colombia’s Defense Ministry would want to take such a big step backward. A partial explanation could be Colombia now having a right-populist government that, because it represents large landholders’ interests, doesn’t place a priority on reforming rural areas. Perhaps, too, the Colombian military’s Southern Command counterparts have stopped communicating the “stability operations” vision, as the U.S. Defense Department’s current strategy now emphasizes great-power conflict over “small wars.”
But that’s not enough to explain this misstep. It could be something much simpler. Maybe the new high command just lacks imagination, and wants to go back to doing what they know—whether it works or not.
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 toldEl 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.
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.
At least 128 former members of the FARC guerrillas have been killed since Colombia signed its peace accord in November 2016. That’s not even counting 7-month-old Samuel David Gonzalez Pushaina, killed in an April 15 attack on his parents, both demobilized FARC members, in La Guajira.
But the case of Dimar Torres, a former FARC militia member killed in the Catatumbo region of northeast Colombia, is even more serious because it involves the security forces. Colombia’s military is going on the offensive in Catatumbo, a region of smallholding farmers with lots of armed groups, coca, and proximity to Venezuela. Catatumbo has big security needs—but in the past, the armed forces have been complicit in serious human rights violations there. Those include aiding and abetting a paramilitary terror campaign, with multiple massacres, that was most intense there between 1999 and 2002.
So this account of what happened to Dimar Torres on April 22, recounted by Jineth Prieto in La Silla Vacía, is especially concerning:
His fellow campesinos from the village of Carrizal, in the district of Miraflores [in Convención municipality], noticed his absence after hearing shots. They went out to look for him when they realized that he was the only one not answering calls. They demanded that the Army [camped nearby] produce him. They entered into the camp and found him dead with three shots (one in the head), half naked and lying next to a road.
They realized that the soldiers were digging a hole that was big enough to bury him and his motorcycle, and they cordoned off the area after sending an alert on WhatsApp -with videos and audios- to request that media and authorities arrive at the village to verify what was happening.
Dimar Torres Arévalo, excombatiente de las Farc, fue asesinado por militares del Ejército en Norte de Santander, según señalan habitantes de la vereda Carrizal. Los militares iban a esconder el cuerpo en una fosa común.
It’s encouraging that the residents of Carrizal, Convención—a remote area far from the nearest paved road—were bold enough to confront the Army about what had happened. We also have modern smartphones to thank for getting the word out. One wonders how the worst years of Colombia’s conflict (late 90s, early 00s) would have gone if campesinos had cameras and broadband back then.
Right now, the Army’s campaign in Catatumbo, just getting underway, could go one of two ways: horrific scorched earth, or “hearts and minds.” The spectacle of soldiers digging a grave for an extrajudicially executed civilian is a big warning sign of the former. Prieto’s article discusses some other recent incidents involving military personnel. Colombia needs to bring the Dimar Torres case to justice swiftly and conspicuously, or the military can forget about winning the trust of Catatumbo’s population. Note added April 28: the commander of the military task force in Catatumbo has acknowledged the crime and asked forgiveness. This is no substitute for a judicial process, but it is a very good first step on the “hearts and minds” front.
Almost exactly 1 percent of demobilized guerrillas have now been killed. (Not counting dissident guerrillas killed in combat.) Colombia needs to get a handle on this quickly, improving protection and punishing those responsible, or the gains of the 2016 accord will evaporate.
Only a few years ago, Guatemala was making historic gains in its fight against corruption and human rights abuse. Since then, the country has suffered a severe backlash. A “pact of the corrupt” in Guatemala’s ruling elite keeps pushing legislation that would terminate trials and investigations for war crimes and corruption. A U.S.-backed UN prosecutorial body, the CICIG, has been weakened. High-court rulings are being ignored. Things have gotten so bad that the U.S. government has suspended military aid.
And today, Guatemala has incredibly surpassed Mexico as the number-one nationality of undocumented migrants being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As a new presidential election looms, Adam talks about the situation with WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, just returned from one of her frequent visits to the country. See more of Jo-Marie’s recent analysis at: