Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Politics and Security

Colombia podcast with Toby Muse

Here’s today’s WOLA Podcast. We should have some going up tomorrow and Friday as well.

Toby Muse spent almost two decades as a foreign correspondent in Colombia, where he traveled to dozens of places affected by the war on drugs and recorded innumerable conversations with people—participants in the drug trade, officials, reformers, and victims caught in the middle. His new book, Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels – From the Jungles to the Streets, draws heavily from all of his conversations. It comes out on March 24, 2020.

The podcast is above, or download the mp3 here.

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

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

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

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

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

Here are some highlights from the report:

On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders

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

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

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

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

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

On the government’s response to these attacks

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

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

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

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

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

On the military and human rights

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

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

On blurring the lines between military and police

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

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

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

On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories

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

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

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

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

On illicit crop eradication and substitution

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

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

WOLA Podcast: How Corruption Continues to Erode Citizen Security in Central America

Here’s a podcast recorded last Friday with Adriana Beltran and Austin Robles from WOLA’s Central America / Citizen Security program. We talk mostly about setbacks to the anti-corruption fight in Guatemala and Honduras. Good thing we didn’t talk about El Salvador too much, because two days after this conversation, President Nayib Bukele set everything on fire there by bringing armed soldiers into the legislative chamber with an aggressive display.

I learned a lot about what’s happening just by hosting this. Here’s a direct download link.

Here’s the blurb on WOLA’s website.

Adriana Beltrán and Austin Robles of WOLA’s Citizen Security Program discuss the beleaguered fight against corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Their Central America Monitor tracks progress on eight indicators and closely watches over U.S. aid.

Politics and the English language and migration

I pointed this out on Twitter last week, but repeat it here.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in 1946. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

In that amazing essay, “Politics and the English Language” (stop what you’re doing and read it if you never have), Orwell cites examples like “pacification,” “transfer of population,” or “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition.” Doesn’t that sound nicer than “bombing villages,” “forced displacement,” or “throwing the opposition in jail?”

The essay comes to mind constantly when working on the U.S. border and migration, where:

  • The “Remain in Mexico” program that has forced 60,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers into dangerous Mexican border towns is called Migrant “Protection” Protocols.
  • Rushing Mexicans’ asylum cases with no access to council is called the “Humanitarian” Asylum Review Process.
  • Honduras and Guatemala are called “Safe” Third Countries.
  • Mexico’s migration authorities insist on calling migrant apprehensions “rescues” (rescates). They don’t detain migrants, they “lodge” them (alojar). And deportation is “assisted return” (retorno asistido).

Here we are in 2020, having to repeat lessons about the authoritarian mindset that we should have learned 74 years ago.

At the Forum on the Arms Trade’s 2020 Annual Conference

A great conference today hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade at the Stimson Center, “Beyond the Headlines: Redefining Responsibility in the Arms Trade.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) gave great opening remarks, and then the panels were really timely and action-oriented.

I gave the overview of Latin America. I come on at around the 1 hour and 5 minute mark in this video.

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela: New Year, New Political Tumult

For Venezuela, 2020 began with new political turmoil, as the Maduro government maneuvered to take over the presidency of the opposition-majority National Assembly.

Will this backfire for Maduro? Can the opposition maintain unity? Are negotiations toward new elections feasible? Is the U.S. government sending a coherent message? What about other international actors, like the EU and Russia? Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, explains this moment and potential solutions.

WOLA Podcast: Protest and Politics in Post-Conflict Colombia

In this podcast, recorded this afternoon, I talk about Colombia with my longtime WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. She explains Colombia’s four-week-old wave of social protests, and we talk about the continuing challenge of peace accord implementation, and efforts to protect social leaders. She also covers what we saw and heard during October field research in the historically conflictive, and still very tense, regions of Arauca and Chocó.

(mp3 download)

At wola.org: What is Latin America’s Political Turmoil Doing to Civilian Control of the Military?

If you follow Latin America, do you feel like you keep seeing the same photo over and over again?

I talk about that in a new commentary that went up on WOLA’s website today:

A president—usually one with low approval ratings—announces a politically risky or unpopular move, often a crackdown on social protests or dissent. To give the announcement more weight and menace, the president issues it while surrounded by uniformed military officers. The subtext is “the military is with me on this”—even if the message is a political one that doesn’t fall within the military’s responsibilities.

It’s part of a larger trend of “the pendulum… swinging back, fast, in the militaries’ direction. It probably won’t go so far back that Latin America re-enters an age of military juntas holding total power. It’s hard, though, to see where or how far it will go.”

Latin America may not be headed back to the age of coups. But it might not be democracy, either. This piece looks at five worrying trends, including an unhelpful U.S. role. Read it here.

Colombia may never be the same

“Wow. It just keeps going,” I said out loud upon leaving Medellín several years ago. Our car was taking us to the airport via the city’s southeast, through El Poblado, its wealthiest sector. And as we drove, the luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, and manicured parks kept passing by my window for what seemed like miles. They didn’t stop. I’d only been to Medellín a few times, but the fancy part of town was much larger than I’d thought.

It’s the same in Bogotá. Following the eastern mountains 100 blocks north from the financial district around 72nd street—but actually starting below, in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Chapinero and La Soledad—through El Chicó, El Retiro, Santa Bárbara, Usaquén, and others, there’s a profusion of gleaming shopping malls and condominiums, creative restaurants, arty hotels, brewpubs, espresso bars, armored SUVs, and uniformed security guards. These neighborhoods are mostly affordable if you live on a U.S. wage scale, but even then, many are too pricey. Most of these amenities didn’t exist when I started visiting Colombia in the late 90s. And now, they just keep going.

There is a lot of money in Colombia. Development economists call it an “upper middle income” country.

But there’s even more lack of money in Colombia.

Go to an upper floor of one of Bogota’s condo towers or bank skyscrapers, and you can see vast neighborhoods of self-built brick houses hugging the hillsides, in Usme, Ciudad Bolivar, Bosa, Soacha, Kennedy. The people who live there are Bogotá’s poorest, and they number perhaps three million, maybe more. Many make do in the informal economy, at or below the US$250 monthly minimum wage.

Closer in, you can see thousands of florescent-lit, cramped apartment complexes and housing projects where a similar number of people live. Those are the lower middle class, with enough to eat and their kids in school, probably, but barely making it.

Back on the street, look at all the blue SITP buses and TransMilenio vehicles stuffed with people, packed until they’re pressed up against the windows during rush hour. The sub-compact yellow taxis looking for passengers. The uniformed guards, waiters, maintenance workers, maids, and domestics, just off work and hoping not to have their cash or cellphones robbed during their long journeys home.

The people in those neighborhoods and buses—the “sectores populares”—they see the shopping malls and restaurants, too. (They’re not shopping or eating there, of course.) They see the condos and social clubs. It’s all in plain view, and it just keeps going.

Do they admire and aspire to join those who live there? Or do they tell each other that much of the wealth they see is ill-gotten? Do they believe that most of the “estrato seis” neighborhoods’ inhabitants are simply the most skilled thieves—or those thieves’ descendants? It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion given Colombia’s decades of drug-trafficking wealth, money-laundering wealth, and incessant corruption scandals.

Either way, the majority who ride the bus and make a living rebuscando (barely getting by) probably don’t believe that the people in those well-to-do neighborhoods are paying their fair share. There’s a lot of money in Colombia. If the tax burden were just, and the resources managed cleanly, surely the rest of the city would have better schools, safer conditions, reliable healthcare, fewer potholes, and yes, a modern subway.

Most of the time, the barely-scraping-by majority will tolerate much from the wealthy minority. Especially when a media-savvy populist leader cracks down on petty crime or rallies behind socially conservative causes. Or especially when there’s a commodities boom, and all sectors see their incomes and services improve for a while. Or especially when an armed conflict is raging, and all who complain too loudly get tarred as supporters of radical and unpopular guerrillas—and thus threatened, spied upon, or worse.

But eventually, the populists’ messages wear out, and tepid technocrats take over. The commodities boom ends, and government budgets shrink to what can be collected through taxation. The armed conflict—or at least the worst of it—ends at the negotiating table. What then?

What then, especially, when a belt-tightening government takes measures—or even considers measures—that hit the already-stretched budgets of the poorest and lower-middle? A pensions cut, a fare hike, a regressive sales tax?

What happens is probably what Colombia is seeing now. A labor union confederation calls for a day of work stoppages and protest—something that’s happened, regularly, since pretty much forever. But this time, dozens of other organizations, representing many sectors, join in. This time, word spreads on social media, and within weeks the whole country is bracing for a national event, an inchoate spasm of protests without a unifying demand but with a generalized anger at those who benefit from the status quo.

I’m surely overstating some of this. The protests that began on November 21 in Colombia aren’t quite a “class conflict.” Many of those out on the streets are from the middle class, not the poorest—although the middle also feels financially stretched, uncertain, and unhappy about what they’re getting from government and from Colombia’s economic arrangement. The poorer neighborhoods, though, are also among those ringing with the nightly cacerolazos, where people go out to their windows, roofs, and balconies to bang empty pots and chant slogans.

Still, nobody is marching on the Centro Andino mall or the Zona Gastronómica restaurants, or raiding the mountainside condo complexes of El Chicó. Other than President Iván Duque’s residence, protesters aren’t massed outside the homes of senators or CEOs. People aren’t directing their anger at those neighborhoods that “just keep going.”

At least not yet.

One way to move the anger in that direction is for President Duque and his unpopular ruling party to behave the way that they have during the protests’ first few days. They’ve issued messages conflating peaceful protesters with masked “vandals.” They’ve sent riot police to attack peaceful protests without warning or provocation, blanketing plazas and intersections with tear gas, killing an 18-year-old, and filling social media with shocking cellphone videos. They’ve deigned to meet only with business leaders and elected officials.

The Duque government’s tone may be changing now, and I hope it does. When a government finds itself this out of touch with the mood of the country, its only real hope is dialogue with its opponents. Iván Duque won only 39 percent of the vote in the first round of Colombia’s 2018 presidential election, his party just got trounced in October 2019 local elections, and now his approval rating is in the mid-20s. To pretend he can govern without dialogue, and without some pretty fundamental concessions about the country’s political and economic model, is folly.

Let’s hope the dialogue that may—may—be getting underway soon is genuine. Colombia has just entered a 29-month stretch with no elections, with the past few days’ protests as a major turning point. The next two and a half years could be a time of difficult but necessary conversations, or they could be a time of intense strife between two very different Colombias, as traumatic as—though fundamentally unlike—what the country endured during 40 years of cartel violence and armed conflict.

It’s President Duque’s call.

WOLA Podcast: Bolivia’s Post-Evo Meltdown

Here’s a podcast recorded yesterday with Kathryn Ledebur, a longtime Bolivia expert and colleague who directs the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. We discuss:

  • The election process and the events leading up to Morales’s resignation.
  • The disorder and violence following the election, and missed opportunities to achieve an institutional solution to the crisis.
  • The role of the military and police.
  • The political opposition, which appears to be headed rapidly in an extreme direction.
  • The mistakes made by, and future of, Morales’s long-ruling MAS party.
  • The likelihood that Bolivia might be able to hold truly free and fair elections, with a level playing field.
  • What daily life is like in a place like Cochabamba right now.

Download the mp3 file

Why are homicides declining in Colombia this year?

An argument I included in Monday evening’s post, about the Colombian Defense Minister’s security performance, raised a few hackles on social media.

That post cited President Iván Duque’s crediting Defense Minister Guillermo Botero for a 2 percent reduction in homicides so far in 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. To refute it, I cited the work of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, whose big annual analysis of the conflict, published in August, looked at the data for the first half of 2019.

Much of the 2018-19 decrease in killings, that report concluded, owes to shifts in the landscape of armed groups and organized crime—not to the Duque government’s security policies. In Colombia’s historically conflictive regions, homicides rose in 2018—then shrank in 2019 so far, as armed groups achieved regional monopolies, entered into non-aggression pacts, or otherwise altered their behavior, making many territories less violently disputed.

Some on social media found this argument insulting. A few analysts, some of whom have carried out security policymaking for the Bogotá municipal government, called me out for failing to credit to the work of Colombia’s security sector, especially those in charge of security in the main cities, which have seen important drops in homicides. For them, this argument crediting organized crime realignments lacks “responsibility,” was “politicized,” and “doesn’t stand up to the most minimal empirical analysis.”

I’m sorry, but I need to push back a bit. Let’s unpack this further.

First, I’m not talking about the progress made since 2010, or since 2002. I’m talking about the 2018-19 timeframe, for which Colombia’s government claims a 2 percent reduction in homicides year-to-date, after a 6 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Between 2002 and 2008 or so, and again between 2013 and 2017, Colombia achieved some very important decreases in homicides, unlike anything seen elsewhere lately in Latin America. And I absolutely agree that much of it owed to government policies, especially in the larger cities.

But then there was a hiccup in 2018. After the FARC’s demobilization and exit from many areas, homicides increased last year amid a violent reordering of organized crime and armed-group activity and a continued absence of state presence.

Daniel Mejía of the University of the Andes, a former Bogotá municipal security secretary, tweeted violent crime data charts appearing to show an inflection point after August 2018, when President Iván Duque was inaugurated. Mejia sees this as evidence of the new Colombian government’s actions.

Why would that happen right after August 2018? Did Duque and Minister Botero offer a superior recipe for dealing with insecurity? Was Colombia in need of a conservative government’s more iron-fisted approach? Or have lots of other, parallel, things happened in Colombia since August 2018?

These 15 months saw, for instance, a non-aggression pact form between ex-FARC and other groups in the violent port city of Tumaco, and in surrounding Pacific coastal areas used heavily for cocaine trafficking. It saw the ELN all but vanquish the EPL guerrilla/criminal group in the Catatumbo region. It saw a group called “La Mafia” consolidate its presence, avoiding aggression with FARC dissidents, in Putumayo. In Arauca last month, I was told the ELN and FARC dissidents had entered into a non-aggression pact. I heard the same in Chocó about similar arrangements between the ELN and FARC dissidents and, in some parts of the department, between the ELN and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries.

These are just a few examples. A proliferation of these “new equilibria,” most of which date to after August 2018, can’t be dismissed as a potential reason for this period’s drop in homicides.

Second, I’m hardly talking about Colombia’s main cities, most of which for years have had homicide rates well below those of Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and several other U.S. cities. There, talented security technocrats and honest cops have achieved strong gains.

In 2018, homicides continued to drop in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. But the country as a whole saw an increase. Something was seriously wrong in some smaller cities and rural areas where the drug trade and armed groups have thrived. But not the principal cities.

“In effect,” concludes the cited Peace and Reconciliation Foundation report, “the 2018 increase in violence took place in municipalities with the greatest institutional weakness, the presence of illegal markets, and low institutional capacity—that is, in rural areas that have historically been affected by violence. In the big cities and in coca-free municipalities, the violent homicide trend continues to diminish.”

But then in 2019, the trend reversed again: homicides are down nationwide. In its August report, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation crunches the national medical examiner’s data from January through June 2019, comparing it with the same period in 2018. It finds 497 fewer homicides across Colombia during that 6-month period, which in fact is more than a 2 percent decrease.

But it gets more interesting. The Foundation identifies 281 municipalities (counties; Colombia has 1,100) that are “priorities for the post-conflict”: places where government presence is scarce and there’s a history of armed-group activity. Those municipalities made up 30 percent of homicides in 2018. Colombia’s five largest cities made up 28 percent, and the rest of the country shared the other 42 percent.

During the first half of 2019, the medical examiner’s data show these 281 municipalities with a surprising 13 percent fewer homicides: 243 fewer people were killed here compared to the first half of 2018. As noted, nationwide over the same period, homicides declined by 497, so almost half of Colombia’s homicide reductions during January-June 2019 happened in the 281 most troubled municipalities. Colombia’s other 800-plus municipalities, including the major cities, shared the other half.

That is a remarkable result. What’s the miracle in these historically abandoned corners of the country? It’s not a big increase in government presence: the PDETs, “Zonas Futuro” and other post-conflict plans to introduce government into these territories are still just getting off the drawing board. It’s not the genius of urban security planners, whose writ hardly extends to the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities.

That’s where the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation’s hypothesis comes in. Something has happened, in many long-abandoned regions, among the armed groups themselves, without regard to government policy. This makes sense to me, as the most plausible explanation for why homicides have declined in conflictive rural areas. I’m actually surprised, when referring to what’s happening outside of the cities, that it would even be that controversial. Meanwhile, the contrary evidence presented to me doesn’t knock it down.

(A bigger project for another day—I’m traveling right now—would be to use the Colombian National Police’s homicide statistics, downloadable here as big Excel spreadsheets, code the “priority for post-conflict” municipalities, and view the year-to-date data to see whether it differs from Peace and Reconciliation’s number-crunching, and if so how.)

Colombia’s Defense Minister’s indefensible record

From the legislature to the media, a lot of prominent Colombians are asking why, amid regular gaffes, human rights abuses, and evidence of deteriorating security, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero is still at his post.

In an article explaining that it’s basically “Botero is ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s man in his party’s government,” the online journalism outlet La Silla Vacía included this:

the President [Iván Duque, from Uribe’s party] supported him by saying that “it is not time to talk about a resignation of Minister Botero.”

The explanation of the Ministry is that under Botero’s guidance, between January 1 and September 12, 2019, kidnappings fell by 50 percent, homicides by 2 percent, and shoplifting by 15 percent. In addition to the 278 tons of cocaine that the security forces have seized and the 57,400 hectares of coca leaf that have been eradicated.

I don’t know about the kidnappings and the shoplifting. But on the 2 percent reduction in homicides, I’d note this explanation from one of Colombia’s main security think-tanks, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation:

Between 2012 and 2017 there was an incredible reduction in the indicators of violence. In 2018, some of these indicators increased, mainly homicide. In 2019 they are falling again, returning to 2017 levels. However, this good news brings a rather problematic diagnosis: much of this reduction is due to, in some areas, several criminal organizations reaching non-aggression pacts (Pacific coast of Nariño), in other cases some illegal structure won the local war (Catatumbo), or simply decided to lower levels of violence while strengthening itself (Putumayo). In any of the three scenarios the levels of violence would fall. In other words, violence levels are not proportional to the presence of criminal organizations.

So this very modest drop in homicides owes more to adjustments in the criminal underworld than it does to improved performance of the security forces under Minister Guillermo Botero.

And on the cocaine seizures: 278 tons of cocaine seized through September 12 is behind the pace of the past few years. At that rate, the security forces under Botero’s command would seize 398 tons of cocaine by the end of the year. That’s a lot—but fewer than in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup Poll shows 83 percent of Colombians believing that the problem of “insecurity” is worsening—holding steady from Juan Manuel Santos’s second term, but definitely not improving.

This is a very thin defense of Guillermo Botero’s record.

Interview with “Colombia Calling” podcast

I’m a regular listener of Richard McColl’s “Colombia Calling” English-language podcast, so I was delighted to accept his invitation to appear in an episode (number 297, very impressive). Even better, I happened to be in Bogotá when we recorded (back on October 20), so I stopped by his lovely home where gave me very strong coffee.

I think the conversation turned out well, we covered a lot of ground in about 35 minutes. It’s always great to be in the hands of an experienced interviewer. Here’s Richard’s summary from the show notes:

Adam Isacson of WOLA (The Washington Office on Latin America) needs no introduction to the latin americanists amongst us, but, suffice it to say that it was an honour to invite him on the Colombia Calling podcast and hear his thoughts about recent events here in Colombia. As the Director of Defence Oversight for WOLA, Isacson’s remit takes in all of latin america and now includes border issues such as those occurring right now on the Mexico/ US frontier and so, we manage to catch him for a few short minutes in Bogota to discuss: President Duque’s speech to the UN, the future for former president Alvaro Uribe, the reality on the ground in Colombia’s far-off regions such as Choco and Arauca and so much more. Frankly, 35 minutes is nowhere near long enough with one of the most knowledgeable voices for human rights in the region. Tune in and enjoy and be sure to check out his website at: adamisacson.com/
expatoverseascolombiasouth america

Some pleasant surprises in Colombia’s local elections

Colombians voted for governors, mayors, town councils, and local legislatures on October 27, and—unlike so many places in the world lately—left and right radicals and populists had a lousy day. Voters especially rejected the ruling rightist party of President Iván Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, who has lost his luster.

In most cities, voters also rejected powerful political machines. Independent candidates with anti-corruption messages—many with ties to social movements—enjoyed unprecedented success. Elsewhere, however, especially in the countryside, it was business as usual: supported by rivers of questionable campaign money, local bosses and candidates of long-reigning, corrupt political clans won easily.

Some highlights:

Bogotá’s new mayor will be Claudia López, the first woman, and the first LGBT person, to lead this city of more than 8 million people. This is a remarkable victory because Claudia comes from our sector: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her since the mid-2000s, when she was an investigator at a Colombian think-tank, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. There, she helped blow the lid off of a major political scandal, known as “para-politics,” that saw about a third of the Congress elected in 2006, plus mayors, governors, and other officials, investigated, tried, or jailed for supporting murderous, drug-funded paramilitary groups. A bold and clear public speaker, López became a frequent commentator and columnist in Colombian media, emphatically denouncing examples of corruption. She won a Senate seat in 2014, and led a 2018 effort to pass a series of anti-corruption reforms through a referendum, which failed after voter participation narrowly fell short. She is often described as “center-left,” as a member of Colombia’s Green Party; while socially liberal and a supporter of the 2016 peace accord, López may be tough on common crime, and is unlikely to spend lavishly on social programs, other than for education.

Bogotá mayor-elect Claudia López, third from left, speaks at WOLA’s annual Colombia conference in October 2018.

The surprise victor in Medellín was 39-year-old Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate from the center-left. Polls had been showing a likely victory for Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of President Iván Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático party. This is a devastating defeat for the Centro Democrático, as Medellín is the home city of the party’s founder, populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. (Uribe was briefly mayor of Medellín in 1982.) Even in his home region, the ex-president’s coattails were not enough to elect Ramos, who lost by a margin of 303,000 to 235,000 votes.

Many Colombians fondly remember Uribe’s 2002-2010 presidency for his personalistic style and tough policies that reduced several measures of insecurity and weakened leftist guerrilla groups. His star has fallen, though. The ex-president has since become quite extreme, even Trumpian, in his political messaging, leading efforts to sink Colombia’s peace accord and using his Twitter account to attack and intimidate opponents. Uribe is also in legal trouble; Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating credible allegations that he sought to bribe or coerce jailed former paramilitary fighters into testifying falsely against a political opponent.

During his presidency, the bimonthly Gallup poll of Colombian public opinion routinely had Uribe’s favorability rating above 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent; by August 2019, this rating had fallen to 34 percent, with 61 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him. (President Duque’s approval rating was only 29 percent, with 64 percent disapproving.) The Centro Democrático had a bad day nationwide, failing to win major population centers nearly everywhere. Its candidate in Bogotá, Miguel Uribe (no relation), finished fourth, the last of the major candidates.

Álvaro Uribe’s grim poll numbers.

Cali also elected a progressive candidate as its mayor: Green Party candidate Jorge Iván Ospina, a former mayor and son of a founder of the old M-19 guerrilla group, will return to the job.

In Cartagena, William Dau, a candidate who ran without a party, was the victor over a long-running political machine. The city’s corruption-riven government has gone through 12 mayors in the past 6 years.

In Buenaventura, the impoverished Pacific city that is Colombia’s busiest port, voters elected Víctor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the Paro Cívico (Civic Strike), a social movement that led weeks of protests against corruption and poor government services in 2017. This was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the elite in a city where local government corruption is epic in proportion.

In the Venezuela border city of Cúcuta, normally one of the most conservative corners of Colombia, voters chose Jairo Yáñez, a businessman running on the Green Party ticket with an anti-corruption message, claiming his campaign spent only about US$25,000. His victory is an unexpected blow to Ramiro Suarez, a former mayor, imprisoned for para-politics, who remains a major power broker in the city.

In Magdalena, Will Freeman writes at NACLA, a political movement called Fuerza Ciudadana swept the governorship and the mayor’s race in the capital, Santa Marta. This is remarkable since this coastal zone, the home department of author Gabriel García Márquez, has been notorious as a stronghold of paramilitary groups and corrupt “para-politicians.”

In the Caribbean department of Sucre, one of Colombia’s poorest, the gubernatorial candidate of para-politician Álvaro “El Gordo” Garcia’s longstanding political clan, Yahir Acuña, suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of the Liberal Party candidate.

In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, the powerful and para-political Sánchez Montes de Oca clan failed to elect its candidates for governor and mayor of Quibdó, the capital. The winning candidates, however, may not be paragons of integrity.

In Cauca Elías Larrahondo, running in a coalition of centrist parties, has become the department’s first-ever Afro-Colombian governor.

While I haven’t looked at all town council elections, the FARC political party, descended from the guerrilla group that negotiated peace in 2016, did not win mayorships, and only ran candidates for just over a dozen. The FARC ran 308 candidates, mostly for councils and departmental legislatures, and got well under 1 percent of the total vote. One former FARC member, Guillermo Torres alias Julián Conrado—known previously as a guerrilla folksinger—was elected mayor of the Cartagena suburb of Turbaco, Bolívar. Torres, however, did not run as a candidate of the FARC party; he showed up on the ballot under the logos of two other left parties.

On the other end of the populist political spectrum, candidates aligned with leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and number-two presidential candidate in 2018, failed to meet expectations. Petro’s “Colombia Humana” candidates suffered defeat in Bogotá, Medellín, Atlántico, Cesar, Nariño, Santander, and Valle del Cauca, though a few candidates (like Torres, the ex-FARC singer in Turbaco) were elected elsewhere in coalition with other parties.

In much of the rest of Colombia, allegations of vote-buying, dirty campaign money, and candidates with organized crime ties were rife. These areas remain what Bogotá’s Fundación Paz y Reconciliación think tank, referencing the work of Northwestern University scholar Edward L. Gibson, calls “local authoritarianisms,” where candidates independent of traditional political bosses don’t stand a chance. Cities and departments where voters still went out and backed the “machines” include Barranquilla, Bolívar (except Cartagena, the capital), Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, and Valle del Cauca (except Cali, the capital).

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