Here’s video of a full-length lecture I gave (virtually) two weeks ago, on November 15, at Syracuse University’s Moynihan Center. It’s called “Beyond ‘Soldiers as Police’: The Military’s Growing Role in 21st Century Latin American Democracies.” With no strict time limit, I got to go through:
the region’s post-1980s transitions to democracy,
the subsequent move to use soldiers as police,
how ineffective that turned out to be against organized crime,
increased politicization of militaries starting circa 2018-19,
how this overlays with authoritarian populist leaders,
I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.
I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.
I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.
I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, “A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.
November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.
The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.
For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.
Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.
It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.
That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.
10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost. 2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate. 3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021. 4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011. 5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits. 6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.” 7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020. 8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups. 9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women. 10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.
In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”
The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.
The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.
Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.
Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.
The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.
Summary: U.S. military assistance has long encouraged armed forces to take on internal roles, complicating civil-military relations. This kind of aid declined, however, during the post-cold war period, as the U.S. “wars” on drugs, terror, and organized crime brought reduced, more focused aid and some reluctance to expand military roles. The U.S. pullback from encouraging militarization may be reversing in the 2020s, though, as Washington’s defense strategy shifts to great-power competition. We can expect more U.S. military support for governments that work with the United States and deny access to China and others. This may happen even if recipient governments are authoritarian-trending and use their militaries internally to confront “hybrid threats” within the population. Avoiding this outcome will require the United States to do more to protect and support the region’s increasingly vibrant, but often misunderstood, civil society.
At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.
The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.
They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.
An update from Cali, a month after Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests mostly died down, from Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group, writing for Razón Pública:
Four weeks after the lifting of a resistance point in one of the neighborhoods, the citizenry lives in an atmosphere of insecurity.
The police left the neighborhood during the first week of May; they have not yet returned. In their place, a group of young people took over control of public order—in theory. At first it was thought that the protagonists of the protest were in charge of security; this was not possible.
“Things got out of hand, it became unbearable,” said a local leader. Homicides have increased in the last two months and the neighbors are afraid to denounce: they say that dozens of people have died in that neighborhood since June, although these figures could not be confirmed.
The lawless situation is the result of the state’s neglect of basic citizen security. The elders of the area—the threatened leaders—consider that the disappearance of the police is a punishment to the community for having supported the strike.
(The boldface is mine.) Dickinson here is arguing that Colombia’s Police have abandoned poor neighborhoods to anarchy, as payback for having dared to protest police brutality. If accurate—and I have no reason to doubt this is what’s happening—this is just incredibly shameful.
What a vivid example of a long-governing elite punishing people for daring to step out of “their place” in Colombian society. Entire communities being denied the most basic of public goods—security—as punishment for having spoken out.
U.S. Southern Command’s online magazine yesterday ran an interview with the general who heads the Honduran armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. The article is headlined “Honduran Armed Forces in the Fight Against Crime.”
Gen. Tito Moreno lists the following missions currently occupying his military:
fighting against organized crime
fighting against narcotrafficking
fighting against common crime
aerial drug interdiction and “destruction of clandestine landing areas”
countering illicit activities in border areas
rescuing people in cases of natural disaster
Honduras, a poor and unequal country that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” maintains a military at no small cost in resources ($280 million in 2017), human rights, and political involvement. But do any of these roles require the maintenance of a military?
fighting against organized crime or narcotrafficking: military tactics only necessary if the country has allowed the situation to deteriorate to the extent to which civilian police are “outgunned”
fighting against common crime: this is the foundational role of a civilian police force, and is not a military role
aerial drug interdiction: could be performed by either an air force or a police air wing
countering illicit activities in border areas: elsewhere, frequently performed by police, civilian border patrols or gendarmes
natural disaster search and rescue: could be performed by a civilian emergency corps, though militaries are often the only institution with inactive assets, like helicopters and personnel, that can be “surged” in a disaster
Notably missing from Gen. Moreno’s list is “defending against external aggression” or “combating internal insurgents.” That makes sense, since Honduras faces no credible scenarios in either category right now.
“The Honduran armed forces are still undergoing a crisis of identity and cannot decide whether their role is to defend territorial sovereignty and integrity, protect the state from real or fictitious threats, or else continue performing law-enforcement duties,” the most cited of Honduran civil-military analysts, Leticia Salomón, wrote in 2012, three years after a coup in which Honduras’s military played a central role. The above list indicates that nothing has changed since then.
Two of Honduras’s neighbors, Costa Rica and Panama (which both have Freedom House scores as high—or higher—than that of the United States), confront these threats with police forces that are better trained and resourced than Honduras’s. While those forces have units that occasionally use heavier weapons, particularly near coasts and borders, they retain their civilian character and are not significant political actors.
The interview at Southcom’s magazine fails to make the case for maintaining a military in a small country like Honduras, with few traditional defense threats and enormous development and democratic deficits.
Jacqueline Hazelton, author of the new bookBallots not Bullets,argues that elites facing insurgents often prefer to live with the insurgency than to implement reforms, like democratization, having the rule of law apply to them, or income distribution. After all, such reforms are a loser deal for them: they reduce prerogatives and their ability to profit from corruption.
If pressed to carry out reforms (as the United States often does when propping up elites with counterinsurgency aid), the elites will go through the motions. They’ll agree to the reforms, but they’ll fail to implement them. That means stringing everyone along, often for years.
The insistence that good-governance reforms is the path to keeping a partner regime in power—let alone that democratization, modernization, and liberalization are crucial to its long-term stability—sets an unachievable political objective. It also makes interventions last longer, as elites find ways to affirm (and reaffirm and reaffirm) their commitment to reforms they never intend to fully implement. And because the counterinsurgency doctrine expects victory when—and perhaps onlywhen—those reforms are implemented, the intervening power winds up in a particularly bloody version of Waiting for Godot.
This sounds a lot like Colombia, where elites promise reforms—land restitution, peace accord commitments, territorial stabilization, protecting social leaders, innumerable pacts signed with protesting communities—then invariably drag their feet.
If Hazelton is right, then, what are the options? I haven’t read her book, so I can’t tell whether the conclusion is “prop up authoritarian elites for stability, Cold War-style” or “abandon the whole notion of counterinsurgency aid even if it means regime failure.”
For a country like Colombia or Honduras, both of those choices, at least in the short term, would weaken governance even further, and that would increase migrants and illicit drug supplies in the United States. The U.S. political system has proved unable to deal sanely with either migration or drugs—in fact, a rise in either brings political freakouts and pressure for crackdowns at home. So most U.S. leaders would rather not have their domestic agendas derailed by that.
The result is a feedback loop between bad domestic policy and bad counterinsurgency policy. Local elites are willing to tolerate some insurgency in order to keep their prerogatives. And U.S. political leaders are willing to tolerate some counterinsurgent governance half-measures if they keep issues like drugs and migration at “manageable” levels.
Of course, messy counterinsurgency doesn’t do that—not in the long term at least. Perhaps a lot of the solution is about domestic politics: what we choose to freak out about. If we sought to manage migration and drug use—recognizing, with policies ranging from temporary work visas to harm reduction, realities that have been with us for more than half a century—the feedback loop could finally break.
Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés were mainstays of Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” folk-pop musical movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Their melodies were influenced by the Beatles, but their lyrics and political positions were solidly supportive of the Castro regime. Rodríguez (who had a 1991 greatest hits album compiled by David Byrne), in particular, has staunchly supported the Cuban government’s policies over the years.
It’s notable, then, to see both of them used their Facebook accounts to criticize the government’s crackdown on the young people who went out to protest since July 11. Silvio Rodríguez called for the release of non-violent protesters, and more dialogue and “listening.” Milanés posted: “It is irresponsible and absurd to blame and repress a people who have sacrificed and given their all for decades to sustain a regime that in the end only imprisons them.”
Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.
This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.
Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.
Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)
I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.
Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.
Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.
Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.
All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.
U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.
The latest WOLA Podcast is about Peru, where presidential elections are happening on Sunday. I started by asking WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist at George Mason University, “Is it really a Leninist versus a corrupt right winger?” She said, “pretty much,” and we went on from there.
Peruvians go to the polls on June 6 for a runoff election between two presidential candidates who, in April 11 first-round voting, combined for barely 30 percent of the vote. The candidates, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, represent ideological extremes in a country hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which both heightened and highlighted gaping social divisions and failures of the past 30 years’ economic model.
Here’s the great Leticia Salomón of the Centro de Documentación de Honduras, who has been studying Honduran civil-military relations since the 1980s, excerpted in criterio.hn’s coverage of a conference:
“The 2009 coup d’état opened the door for the military to leave the barracks and invade political space, but the National Party [of President Juan Orlando Hernández] turned the military into an armed wing of the governing party,” said sociologist Leticia Salomón during a forum held Tuesday on the anti-military struggle of Berta Cáceres.
Moreover, President Juan Orlando Hernández “in his legal and illegal presidential terms” turned them into “guardians of a personal political project impregnated with corruption and drug trafficking,” the sociologist also said at the virtual event organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) with the participation of analysts from Honduras, Guatemala and the United States.
The military are also “executioners” of a new version of the “old enemy”, as the defenders of territory and resources are seen, who must be “fought, imprisoned or killed.”
Salomón reflected that “it seems that the old positions of the 80’s are always being revived and that they are there hidden, dormant and always ready to come out at any moment to regain space and to try to impose a vision that is extremely harmful and damaging for the country.”
This reconceptualization of the “old enemy” introduces the concept of criminalization, which has three components. The first, the military and police ready to repress; the second, churches and the media ideologizing the conflict “and introducing a Manichean vision” that turns into good and evil those who are fighting for or against the defense of territories and resources; and the third, the use of the justice system against defenders, in which prosecutors and judges play a fundamental role.
These three instances became the executors of “a conservative, repressive, Manichean and anti-democratic political project”, and explain the role of the military who have specific functions, which, in addition, “they carry out with great enthusiasm”, said the sociologist.
…”The great challenge is to identify who, how, and when will begin the dismantling of this political project and its replacement by another that is capable of recovering sovereignty over the territories, reestablishing a rule of law at the service of national interests, restoring respect for life, for the defenders of resources, and for the defenders of defenders,” Leticia Salomón also said in her message.
She considered that it is necessary to rethink a different model of armed forces and police, and to give “a gigantic shake-up to the justice system” to restore confidence and eliminate the feeling of defenselessness “in which we all find ourselves”.
…Finally, the sociologist reflected that Berta’s anti-militarist struggle, and that of all those who have been carrying it out in recent years, should not only be encouraged and remembered, but should be instilled as an urgent and necessary demand for change in Honduras.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about the eight Venezuelan soldiers who got released on May 31, after 38 days as captives of an ex-FARC dissident group. The “10th Front” dissident group captured them during combat on April 23 near the Colombian border, in Venezuela’s Apure state. There, fighting between Venezuelan forces and the 10th Front, which broke out on March 21, has displaced about 7,000 Venezuelan residents.
What we don’t know, besides whether a bag of Cheetos is really a great way to welcome someone back to freedom, is laid out in a good overview by Sofía Nederr at Venezuela’s Tal Cual.
Do three soldiers remain in captivity, as the director of Venezuela’s FundaRedes, Javier Tarazona, claims? (Tarazona gets a lot right, but he also claims that the ex-FARC leaders who are committed to the peace process, like Rodrigo Londoño, are aiding the dissidents, and there’s no proof of that at all.)
FundaRedes says that on May 30, there may have been a “truce” during which Venezuelan forces pulled out of territory in order to make possible the captives’ release, possibly to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Tarazona says the dissidents—or some Colombian armed groups, anyway—maintain five “safe houses” in four Venezuelan states.
Tarazona claims the Venezuelan armed forces’ leadership has ordered the ex-captives not to talk about what happened or how they were freed.
It’s still not clear why Venezuelan forces are fighting the 10th Front dissidents, and leaving unmolested Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” dissident group, which both operate in Apure.
The FARC dissidents, whose leadership has years of experience as guerrillas (though much of the membership is probably new recruits), has hit the Venezuelan military hard, killing at least 16 of them.
One of many, many tweets and videos that show how poorly the current Colombian government seems to understand what it’s up against.
A 73-year-old woman accompanying the “primera línea” kids in a Cali “resistance” neighborhood asks, “If these kids were vandals, why would an old lady who can’t even run anymore be here with them? …I have nothing to eat, but here they gave me three lunches.”
We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.
officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.
This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.
To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.