A supermajority of Peru’s Congress voted on November 9 to force out President Martín Viscarra on grounds of “moral incapacity.” In a country where nearly all presidents since the 1980s have run into serious legal trouble for corruption, Viscarra was seen as relatively cleaner, and enjoyed greater popularity than the Congress. Some analysts view this as an example of Latin America’s ongoing backlash against those who propose even modest anti-corruption reforms. Meanwhile, Peru is suffering one of the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rates, while elections approach next April.
As street protests gather momentum, the situation in Lima may be even more chaotic than the current post-election drama in Washington. We discuss all of this with Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow at WOLA and associate professor of political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Burt is the author of Silencing Civil Society: Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru (2007) and directed Rights Perú, a collaborative research project on human rights prosecutions in Peru.
It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials startpushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.
A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begetd them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.
These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.
Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police wereignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.
You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).
Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.
With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.
As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.
They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.
There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.
Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”
These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.
Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.
When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.
Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”
Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.
This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.
Think about that. Already, manyColombiananalysts are soundingalarmsaboutmountingauthoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.
A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.
New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.
On August 7, Iván Duque completes two years as president of Colombia, with two left to go. I’ve seen a lot of midterm evaluation analyses in Colombia’s press. Most are largely negative: Duque has had a bumpy ride, and he’s governing from the center-right with the support of a party dominated by the ultra, populist right.
Daniel Samper, writing at Los Danieles, gave what I think is the fairest, most succinct evaluation of Iván Duque and his “mediocre” presidency so far. Here’s an English excerpt.
The evaluations I have read of Duque’s mid-term mandate are mostly unfavorable. Mediocre commentator that I am, I declare myself incapable of delving into all government issues and efforts. That is why I choose an evaluation formula worthy of a waiting room magazine. Here goes:
The good. Duque is not rowdy, like Uribe, or a cheater, like Santos; he belongs to the category he’s-basically-a-good guy, something that cannot be said of the other two … He does a good job in sectors such as technology and infrastructure … He fosters interesting productive projects … He has had gestures of solidarity with Venezuelan exiles … He has faced up to the virus …
The bad. He torpedoes peace [accord implementation] … He has not been able to manage or clean up the Army … The environment and culture are absent from his concerns … He does not know the value of self-criticism … Cronyism and companionship are his misguided guide to choosing personnel, so he has empowered unprepared, vain, immature and insecure officials … He designed a tax reform for the wealthy … He brought his personal religious fervor into the public arena … He kneels before the United States on many issues including the failed war on drugs …
The terrible. The abandonment of social leaders and environmentalists, the everyday drumbeat of diverse murders … His disastrous international policy, managed through phantoms and mediocre people, which worsened the relationship with Venezuela, broke bridges with a loyal ally like Cuba and betrayed Latin American interests.
The bad news. Two years of his period still remain.
The good news. If Duque changes the course of his administration, gets out from under his perverse godfathers [a reference to Uribe and his circle], governs with the best, and really seeks peace—even with the ELN—he would take the first steps toward a better country. As the mute person said, we’ll talk in two years.
“Across Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is embedding the armed forces more deeply into citizens’ daily lives,” reads an analysis from me that was just posted to WOLA’s website. “At a time when it’s more important than ever to rethink the role of policing and the accountability of public security forces to the people they protect, this militarization of public security is greatly concerning because it will be difficult to reverse.”
In many Latin American democracies that have spent decades trying to leave military dictatorships behind, COVID-19 has put soldiers back on the streets playing roles ranging from handing out food to enforcing curfews. Once this is over, will the region be able to put this toothpaste back into the tube? Read on.
In the meantime, here’s a text box that appears in the piece that I think even non-Latin Americanists will find useful.
Key differences between militaries and police forces
Though exceptions exist, with several listed below, some of the characteristics that distinguish military and police forces include the following.
Police seek to de-escalate situations, using force—especially lethal force—only as a last resort. Combat demands that militaries escalate quickly and use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.
Police tend to carry much lighter weaponry than military forces.
Police tend to live among the population, and constant interaction with them is central to their work. Military personnel tend to live in barracks and bases or otherwise separate from society as a whole. In countries that maintain a sharp division between military and police roles, citizens rarely come across armed, uniformed soldiers.
Police are expected to respond quickly to citizens’ calls for assistance, often through emergency call centers. Armed forces may respond to some calls for help, but do not maintain this response capacity.
Police forces include detectives and other specialists in investigating crimes after the fact, and all are trained in preserving crime scenes, respecting rules of evidence, and otherwise coordinating with the criminal justice system. Military forces have little or no criminal investigative capacity.
Police who commit human rights abuses tend to be tried in the regular criminal justice system. Military personnel who commit international humanitarian law violations tend to be tried in a separate military justice system. In countries that employ militaries for public security, how to investigate and prosecute military personnel who violate fellow citizens’ rights is nearly always a controversial topic.
Police tend to operate at or near capacity, immersed in daily duties with little opportunity or capacity for planning. When not at war, militaries maintain much excess capacity, with soldiers trained and equipment maintained to a state of “readiness” while officers draw up contingency plans.
Exceptions to these distinctions exist, and many of them have emerged or evolved in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them blur the lines dangerously between military and policing missions. They include:
Military police, peacekeeping, or national guard units that, while military, keep order in emergencies or in overseas territorial occupations.
Special Operations Forces, or military personnel who may be trained to relate to populations or “win hearts and minds” while seeking to stabilize territory or carry out “operations other than war.”
Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or commando units that use escalated force and heavy weapons against lawbreakers believed to be heavily armed.
Gendarmeries, constabularies, or border guards that tend to be more mobile, more heavily armed, and more hierarchically organized than police, and are often expected to operate in sparsely populated and lightly governed rural areas.
Guatemala is selecting new supreme court justices. The stakes are very high: fighting the corruption that drives so much migration will be much harder if the country gets this wrong. Here, my colleague Adriana Beltran and I talk to three people who are leading the fight from civil society.
Last year at the US-Mexico border, authorities apprehended more undocumented migrants from Guatemala than from any other country. That’s mostly because of a combination of poverty and violence. That in turn is exacerbated by corruption, which drains national wealth and benefits networks of political and economic power that, too often, are above the law.
People in Guatemala are trying to change that. They’re the ones who made important justice improvements alongside the CICIG, the international commission against impunity in Guatemala, which was ejected from the country last year. They’re still fighting, and this podcast talks to three of them. They are:
Helen Mack, the president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. A longtime leader in Guatemala’s fight for human rights, Helen founded her organization in 1993, three years after the army killed her sister, anthropologist Myrna Mack. Helen is one of Guatemala’s principal experts on judicial and police reform.
Harald Waxenecker is a sociologist who investigates networks of power and criminality in Guatemala and El Salvador, which is dangerous but necessary work.
Claudia Escobar is a former magistrate of Guatemala’s court of appeals who played a central role in some of the country’s most high-profile corruption investigations during the mid-2010s.
They’re together with Adriana Beltran, the principal host of this podcast episode. Beltran is WOLA’s director for citizen security, has worked for many years in Guatemala, and played an instrumental role in building international support for the CICIG.
Guatemala has hit a key turning point for the fight against impunity the Congress is selecting a new slate of supreme court justices. There’s a real danger that some of the country’s most corrupt elements might choose those who will judge them for the next five years. Much is in the balance here: further erosion of the rule of law will mean more misery in Guatemala, and more migration away from Guatemala.
This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)
This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.
Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde co-manage WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Also mentioned in the podcast is a May 2020 paper that both co-authored in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which explores the recent history and theory of negotiation efforts in Venezuela, as well as prospects and necessary conditions for a negotiated solution today.
I had a fun conversation yesterday with Jonathan Rosen. Here’s the description from WOLA’s site:
Jonathan Rosen, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, has published a large body of books, articles, and edited volumes in the past several years on drug policy, organized crime, corruption, state failure, and violence in the Americas.
Here, Dr. Rosen shares a strong critique of “mano dura” approaches to crime and violence, the disjointed and short-term nature of U.S. policymaking toward Latin America, and the persistence of counter-drug strategies that simply don’t work.
He also discusses his experience as an expert witness in about 100 asylum cases involving threatened Latin American citizens in immigration courts around the country.
I’ve added a fifth “explainer” feature to our Colombia Peace website: an overview of the armed groups made up of FARC guerrillas who either rejected the 2016 peace accord, or demobilized in 2017 and then re-armed.
There are about 23 such armed groups around the country. What I hadn’t realized when I set out to write this was the extent to which they are consolidating into two national networks. One of those networks is tied to the first set of FARC dissidents, the 1st and 7th Front structure headed (loosely) by alias Gentil Duarte. The other is the organization begun by former FARC chief negotiator Iván Márquez, who abandoned the process with an August 2019 video message. I thought Márquez’s group was proving to be a dud, but it has in fact convinced dissident bands to align themselves in Nariño, Antioquia, probably Arauca, and possibly elsewhere.
Anyway, since I was lower on the learning curve than I thought, this took a long time to write. Many thanks to my program assistant Matt Bocanumenth for helping with early research and drafting to put it together.
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.
A paper published in March by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Latin America Regional Security Program takes stock of the complicated geopolitical, institutional, economic, and social moment that Latin America and the Caribbean today. It examines the crisis of democratic institutions, the United States’ hard turn toward unilateralism, the growing roles of China and Russia, and the impending effect of phenomena like climate change, automation, and artificial intelligence.
This podcast talks about all of this with the paper’s three authors, scattered across three continents:
In Santiago: Marcos Robledo, co-director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation project, is a Chilean security expert who served in Chile’s defense ministry, including as a vice-minister, during Michelle Bachelet’s time as minister and as president.
In Washington: Rebecca Bill Chávez is a defense expert who served in the Pentagon as deputy secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs during Barack Obama’s second term.
In Oslo: Mariano Aguirre, former director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, NOREF, who has worked for the UN Resident Representative’s office in Bogotá and managed research efforts in Spain, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Aguirre is a member of WOLA’s board of directors.
I’ve been reading Lars Schoultz’s scholarship on U.S.-Latin America relations since I was in college, and I was delighted that he would record a podcast.
The longtime professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published an award-winning book in 2018, In Their Own Best Interest. In it, he takes to task U.S. policymakers and advocates who seek to “uplift” or “improve” Latin American nations, viewing them as part of a very long tradition going back to imperialists of the gunboat diplomacy era. He notes that some countries are hardly better off after a century of U.S. “uplifting,” and worries about how our grandchildren will view the policies that we advocate for today.
Is WOLA guilty of this? While I frankly don’t see much of myself in Schoultz’s characterization of our work, I really enjoyed engaging him in this lively and very thought-provoking discussion. I think you’ll like this one a lot.
I got a kick out of recording this one with John Otis, from his home outside Bogotá. Since 1997, John has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).
Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.
After nearly 30 years of movement away from military rule and toward civilian democracy, Latin America’s armed forces are again playing larger, more political roles. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the trend, with the danger that having soldiers on the streets may again become “normalized” throughout the region.
Joining me to talk about this is Gregory Weeks, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Weeks doesn’t see a return to 1970s-style military regimes anytime soon—but he is not optimistic about civil-military relations in the region.
I’ll be going back to an interview format for tomorrow’s podcast (if all goes according to plan). Today’s episode, though, is the audio track of a March 20, 2020 WOLA webinar about criminality and corruption in Venezuela, and the viability of a political exit to the crisis. This event is based on a March 11 report by WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde, who look at U.S. data and find that drug trafficking and other criminality and corruption, while big problems, are not so severe as to rule out negotiating a political solution with the Maduro regime.
In this event audio, Ramsey and Smilde are joined by Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of InsightCrime, and investigative journalist Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.
Walter Benjamin wrote that happiness consists in living without fear. These days, with the state of alarm recently declared, in Spain you cannot live without fear (or at least, without fear for the lives of many people). Nor should it be so: courage does not consist in not being afraid —that is recklessness—but in mastering it, doing what needs to be done and moving on. Right now, that’s what it’s about.