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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Post-Conflict Colombia

Dangerous times in Colombia

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing 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 were ignored, 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, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. 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.

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 18-24.)

Duque Pulls Ahead in Presidential Polls

After handily winning a primary of right-wing candidates that accompanied March 11 legislative elections, Bogotá Senator Iván Duque has rapidly emerged as the frontrunner for the May 27 presidential elections. Duque, the candidate of far-right former president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, now holds a comfortable double-digit lead and is in striking distance of the 50 percent threshold he would have to hit to avoid a second-round runoff in June.

An Invamer poll commissioned by three large Colombian media outlets found Duque with 45.9 percent of voters’ preference. He is followed by:

  • 26.7% for leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, who won his own “primary” ballot on March 11;
  • 10.7% for center-left former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo;
  • 6.3% for center-right former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras;
  • 5.0% for former vice-president and former government peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle;
  • 2.5% for socially conservative former chief prosecutor Viviane Morales; and
  • 0.6% for leftist former senator Piedad Córdoba.

The same polling company found Duque with only 8.4 percent support in December and 9.2 percent in January.

Though he is President Uribe’s standard-bearer (and has to keep denying that he is Uribe’s “puppet”), Duque presents himself as a more moderate candidate than his party’s firebrand leader. He did so on a brief visit to Washington this week, when he called his governing platform “center-centrist” and said that “left and right” is a thing of the past. Duque met with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and spoke at an Inter-American Dialogue event.

Political moderation aside, Duque called for adjustments to the FARC peace accord that could be fatal to the process, such as demanding that no ex-guerrillas hold office without first being judged by a transitional justice tribunal. He also proposed a constitutional change to make narcotrafficking a “non-amnistiable” offense. If applied retroactively to ex-guerrillas who did not enrich themselves through the drug trade, this reform would send many to jail for a long time, a prospect that would probably cause them to take up arms again.

Duque also called for a reactivation of the U.S.-backed program of aerially fumigating coca fields with herbicides, which Colombia suspended in 2015. This time, Duque proposed using a chemical other than glyphosate, which a 2015 WHO study found to be potentially carcinogenic.

U.S. Congress Extends the “Peace Colombia” Aid Package Into 2018

Back in May, the Trump White House proposed a 36 percent across-the-board cut, from 2016 levels, in U.S. assistance to Colombia. The cut would have more than undone the 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package, proposed by then-president Barack Obama a year earlier, that intended to help Colombia implement aspects of the FARC peace accord. Colombia was not being singled out: Trump’s “America First” priorities called for similar cuts to Latin America and most of the world.

The Republican-majority U.S. congress un-did those proposed cuts completely, repeating the “Peace Colombia” numbers exactly for 2018. Colombia will receive $391 million in mostly non-military assistance this year from the State Department and Foreign Operations appropriation. In addition, it would get an as-yet undetermined amount of military and police aid (in 2016 it was $78.8 million) through the Department of Defense’s counter-drug budget.

Undaunted, the Trump administration has requested a similar cut to Colombia aid for 2019.

This week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would transfer $2.5 million from other accounts to Colombia to “provide emergency food and health assistance for vulnerable Venezuelans and the Colombian communities who are hosting them.”

Also this week, the State Department published its latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, an annual document looking at the state of worldwide illicit drug production and trafficking, and U.S. efforts to stop them. This year’s report noted that “Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production exceeded all-time record levels during 2016,” but that “Colombia continues to take steps to combat the drug trade.”

An editorial in the Colombian daily El Espectador was critical. “Since Donald Trump arrived in the Presidency, the United States has been a diffuse ally with regard to narcotrafficking. We went from understanding that the peace accord would bring an increase in violence and illicit crops while new measures began to be implemented, to being constantly reminded that they’re watching us and that not enough is being done.” It concludes, “the situation is not good, but the seeds for solving the problem are in the accord. We must persist.”

ELN Talks Develop “Roadmap”

The round of negotiations with the ELN guerrillas that began March 15 is slowly progressing. Negotiators agreed on a timeline for discussions to be held in Quito, Ecuador between now and May 18.

For now, they are considering proposals for how to incorporate civil-society participation in future dialogues. On April 2, they will begin discussing a future cessation of hostilities, based on the experience of a 100-day bilateral ceasefire that the government and guerrillas failed to renew on January 9. Meanwhile, on April 5 they will develop a response to a civil-society proposal that they agree to, and observe, a humanitarian accord in the northwestern department of Chocó, where fighting between the ELN and the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group has displaced thousands.

“We have reasonable expectations of advancing quickly in the building of a new ceasefire with the ELN, based on experiences collected by the oversight and verification mechanism of the prior ceasefire,” said chief government negotiator Gustavo Bell. That mechanism was made up of staff from the UN mission verifying security for the FARC peace process, and the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference.

ELN-EPL Fighting Continues in Catatumbo

Aggression continues between the ELN and the EPL, a small but locally powerful guerrilla group, in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing areas. The two groups got along for years, but are now confronting each other as they compete to fill spaces vacated by the FARC, and as the EPL undergoes leadership changes. The population of Catatumbo is caught in between.

A week after a meeting between local leaders ended with six dead and three wounded, several Catatumbo municipalities have seen businesses and schools shuttered for fear of further violence. The EPL has blockaded roads, leaving parts of the region cut off. The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) says that at least 1,350 people have been displaced.

The ELN put out a statement saying “the EPL have publicly declared war on us.” An EPL statement insists, “We have never declared war on the ELN,” and demands dialogue between the two groups.

Slain Afro-Colombian Leader’s Children Are Murdered

Last June, many Colombians were horrified by the murder of Afro-Colombian leader Bernardo Cuero. A leader of the National Association of Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) in the Pacific port city of Tumaco, Cuero was killed by an assassin in the Caribbean port of Barranquilla.

This week in Tumaco, two motorcycle-mounted hitmen shot and killed two of Cuero’s children, Silvio Duban Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero. Denouncing the crime, AFRODES pointed out that the double murder took place twelve days after the first hearing in Bernardo Cuero’s case.

Crop-Substitution Leader Killed in Bajo Cauca

Colombian army personnel found the body of José Herrera in Valdivia, Antioquia, not far from the town of El Aro, Ituango (the site of a notorious 1997 paramilitary massacre). A local Community Action Board leader, Herrera was a founder of the Bajo Cauca Campesino Association and a member of the Marcha Patriótica, a left-leaning nationwide campesino network. He was also one of his community’s leading participants in a coca-substitution program that the government is carrying out within the framework of the FARC peace accord.

Herrera’s home region of Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, a few hours’ drive northwest of Medellín, has been one of Colombia’s most violent in 2018. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 2,192 people displaced there between January 18 and March 9.

Nationwide, participants in peace-accord crop substitution programs are being increasingly targeted. At least twelve were killed in 2017, and nine so far in 2018. El Colombiano cites a recent report from INDEPAZ blaming most of these killings on the Urabeños and the EPL. Eduardo Álvarez of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank (FIP) also cites “tensions between small-scale coca cultivators and large-scale farmers who don’t view substitution as any kind of incentive.” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas adds that four members of the security forces were killed during forced eradication operations in 2017, and another thirty-one, plus nine civilians, were wounded.

Dissident Groups Attack at the Colombia-Ecuador Border

A group of un-demobilized ex-FARC fighters active in the coca-growing countryside of Tumaco in far southwestern Colombia, set off a roadside bomb across the border in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers.

The group believed responsible is headed by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” a native of Esmeraldas, Ecuador who spent time in the FARC. His group, El Colombiano reports, “wants to recover for Mexican ‘narcos,’ according to military intelligence sources, a strategic corridor allowing him to take coca paste into the country.” FIP’s Eduardo Alvarez says, “‘Guacho’s’ people are sponsored by Colombian narcos, and intermediaries of Mexican cartels, who help with logistics, resources, and arms.” Alvarez told El Colombiano that Guacho’s group has perhaps 400 to 450 members (a very high estimate), many of whom belonged to FARC structures.

Tumaco and adjoining northwest Ecuador appear to be the busiest coastal jumping-off point for cocaine shipments headed to Mexico and Central America.

New Military Estimate of FARC Dissidents

The government’s estimate of the nationwide membership of these FARC “dissident” groups leapt to 1,200, amid rapid desertion of the accord implementation process and recruitment. Armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía’s February 2017 estimate of dissidents was 300 members. “Initially there was a jump from 500 to 750, to 1,000… and now the figure is approximately 1,200,” Mejia told reporters. This coincides with a February review of the situation by the FIP, which estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 members of at least a dozen groups operating most often in 6 departments.

Gen. Mejía added that the government has captured, killed, or accepted the desertions of 248 FARC dissidents since the middle of 2017.

Bill Would Change Law for Small-Scale Illicit Crop Cultivators

Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero introduced legislation in Colombia’s Congress to change how the government deals with some criminal aspects of drug policy. If passed into law, the bill would fulfill a commitment the government made in the Havana peace accord.

It would offer lighter penalties to small-scale coca cultivators. The government reduced that definition of small-scale cultivator from an initial proposal of 3.8 hectares (9.5 acres) or less of coca, to 1.7 hectares (4.25 acres) or less. The FARC political party complained about this reduction, arguing that it leaves out many cultivators who should be considered small-scale.

The bill also hold the possibility of a 50 percent reduction in sentences for members of criminal groups who turn themselves in and give evidence about their group’s activities. While its language appears to be ambiguous about whether FARC dissidents count as members of such “criminal groups,” President Santos insisted that dissidents, who violated the terms of their demobilization, would not qualify.

Coca Eradication and CEO Expansion

Since 2017, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said, the Colombian government has forcibly eradicated 60,000 hectares of coca: 53,000 in 2017 and 6,500 so far this year.

These operations are supported by the U.S. government, most notably through the establishment of Strategic Operational Commands (CEOs) combining police and military activities in specific regions. Vice-President Oscar Naranjo said that a fourth CEO will be established next week in Norte de Santander department. The other three are based in Tumaco, Nariño; San José del Guaviare, Guaviare; and Caucasia, in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region.

The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2016. The White House released that estimate on March 14, 2017. It has been more than a year, but no estimate for 2017 has yet appeared.

New UN Human Rights Representative

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá is bidding farewell to Todd Howland, a U.S. citizen who held the post since 2012. Howland gained high marks for outspoken but well-researched advocacy for judicial accountability for past human rights abuses, protection of human rights defenders and ethnic groups, assistance in bringing a peaceful end to campesino protests, and technical support to the peace process.

Howland’s replacement, accredited by the Colombian government, is Alberto Brunori, an Italian citizen who had been heading UNHCHR’s Central America regional office. Before that, he headed the High Commissioner’s offices in Guatemala and Mexico, and helped to launch the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

In-Depth Reading

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(We’re catching up on overdue updates. This one covers the week of March 11-17.)

Congressional Elections

Colombians went to the polls on March 11, and elected a Congress that looks a lot like the one they elected in 2014. Right-of-center parties made hair-thin gains, mainly in the House of Representatives.

Parties that remain mostly supportive of the Havana peace accord with the FARC lost a bit of ground in the House and stayed about the same in the Senate. The pro-accord contingent gets a boost in each chamber from five automatic seats granted to the FARC, as stipulated in the peace accord. Accord proponents may lack, or barely have enough, votes to pass legislation necessary to implement what was agreed. Opponents may similarly find themselves lacking enough votes to roll back accord commitments.

Senate 2014 2018
Centro Democratico Right 20 19
Cambio Radical Center-right 9 16
Conservative Center-right 18 15
La U Center 21 14
Liberal Center 17 14
Green Center-left 5 10
Polo Democratico Left 5 5
List for Decency Left 0 4
MIRA Center (evangelical) 0 3
MAIS Center-left (indigenous) 1 1
AICO Center-left (indigenous) 0 1
Opción Ciudadana Center-right 5 0
ASI Center-left (indigenous) 1 0
FARC automatic seats Left 0 5
Total 102 107
Parties that mostly support the Havana accord 50 57

House 2014 2018
Liberal Center-left 39 35
Centro Democratico Right 19 35
Cambio Radical Center-right 16 30
La U Center 37 25
Conservative Center-right 27 21
Green Center-left 6 9
Others 7 2
Opción Ciudadana Center-right 6 2
Polo Democratico Left 3 2
MIRA Center (evangelical) 3 2
List for Decency Left 0 2
MAIS Center-left (indigenous) 0 1
AICO Center-left (indigenous) 2 0
ASI Center-left (indigenous) 1 0
FARC automatic seats Left 0 5
Total 166 171
Parties that mostly support the Havana accord 91 81

2014 source2018 source

The “Democratic Center” party of former president Álvaro Uribe, a rightist, had a good day. With about 16 percent of the vote in both houses, it became the party with the most representation.

It especially benefited from a primary vote held alongside the congressional balloting. Any voter who asked for a ballot could choose a unified right-wing candidate for the May 27 presidential elections from a list of three contenders. Of about 17.8 million voters who participated in the elections, more than 6.1 million voters requested the right-wing ballot. The winner, Iván Duque of the Democratic Center, got more than 4 million votes. The resulting momentum propelled Duque to the front-runner position for the May elections.

A left-wing primary between former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and a little-known candidate, former Santa Marta mayor Carlos Caicedo, gave a similar but smaller boost to Petro’s candidacy. 3.5 million voters asked for a ballot in this contest, 85 percent of whom chose Petro. The exercise of voting for either Duque or Petro, plus the publicity that the primaries received, helped both pull away from the pack of five major candidates.

The political tendency that opposed the 2016 accord with the FARC is now unified behind Duque, or behind former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras, who is polling in the single digits. Supporters of the peace accord remain divided between Petro and two more moderate candidates: former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo and the government’s former lead negotiator in Havana, Humberto de la Calle.

The electoral outcome was grim for the new FARC political party. The ex-guerrillas’ 74 candidates got a combined 0.34 percent of votes in the Senate, and 0.21 percent in the House. This historically rural group got more than half of its votes from capital cities, points out an excellent analysis from La Silla Vacía. The FARC party won more than 10 percent of the vote in only 6 of 170 historically FARC-influenced municipalities (counties) that the government has prioritized for post-conflict investments.

The FARC gets an automatic 10 seats in the new legislature, but the March 11 result was a hard landing, as it revealed the group to have no silent base of rural support. Analysts say that voters were repelled by the ex-guerrillas’ lack of expressed contrition for past crimes, their insistence on keeping their acronym and running feared former leaders as candidates, and these leaders’ desire to hold office without first passing through war crimes tribunals, which will happen later. “The key is that they had not passed through the special justice unit for peace and more importantly, they had never apologized publicly and rejected the impact of their violence – this is what cost them so dearly,” Jorge Restrepo of Bogotá’s CERAC think-tank told Al Jazeera.

Traditional political parties appear to have won seats through traditional, corrupt means like vote-buying. Alejandra Barrios, director of Colombia’s non-governmental Electoral Observer Mission (MOE) told El Tiempo, “We’ve received about 1,200 citizen reports, just this Sunday, about electoral anomalies and irregularities. An important number of them are related to the buying and selling of votes.” The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank contends that 42 of the 278 new legislators come from political groups that are notorious for corruption or links to organized crime.

ELN Talks Restart

The ELN guerrillas observed a five-day ceasefire around the elections. In response to this gesture, President Juan Manuel Santos sent his negotiating team back to Quito, Ecuador, to re-start peace talks with the ELN. These had been effectively suspended since January, when the guerrillas chose not to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire and carried out a series of attacks.

In this fifth round of talks, scheduled to go from March 15 until May 18, negotiators are to discuss how to include citizen participation in talks—an ELN priority—and how to move toward a new cessation of hostilities, a government priority. The last “truce brought concrete relief to communities, and we’ll never know how many lives were saved,” said the government’s chief negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell. “The task now is to build a more stable ceasefire that will allow us to advance in the development of other agenda points.”

Chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán said the guerrillas hope to leave the process in as advanced a state as possible so that the next president cannot simply discard it.

“They should bring the process to an irreversible point,” observed León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, who demobilized from the ELN in 1994. “So that the next president has to continue it. The vote that Duque obtained was not a good sign, since he has said he’d review the accords and has different demands for any conversations with the guerrillas.” The government view is that the best way to lock in the dialogues is to have a ceasefire in place, which the next president would be less likely to end unilaterally.

Transitional Justice System Starts Work

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the system of tribunals to judge war crimes set up by the Havana peace accord, opened its doors on March 15. As of that date, JEP President Patricia Linares explained, victims may collectively share their cases with the JEP. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) will also hand over 25 reports of cases.

The system is expected to take on the cases of 7,916 people accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity. (Linares, the JEP president, cites a figure of 7,392 people.) Those who fully confess their actions will receive lighter sentences of up to eight years in “restricted liberty” that is not prison. Though the numbers don’t exactly add up to 7,916, El Espectador cites 6,094 former guerrillas, 1,792 current or former members of the security forces, and 24 (El Tiempo says 27) private citizens who have petitioned to be included in this justice system. The private citizens include a former interior minister, a former governor of Sucre department, and a former mayor of Cúcuta accused of collaborating with paramilitary groups.

The JEP will only be able to rule on a tiny fraction of the serious crimes committed during the conflict. “Transitional justice, by definition, is modest, because we already know we can’t do everything,” JEP Executive Secretary Nestor Raul Correa told Reuters. “If I were to give a random figure—of 200,000 crimes that have happened in these fifty years, we’ll investigate 1,000.”

The military has shown support for the JEP. On March 15, armed-forces commander Gen. Alberto Mejía met with tribunal judges, as Verdad Abierta put it, “to show support for the jurisdiction and to impart ‘a complete vision of military doctrine and especially operational law.’”

The Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) sent JEP President Linares a letter voicing concerns about the distribution of prosecutors assigned to the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit. Of 11 prosecutors, 7 are to investigate FARC crimes, 3 to investigate the security forces, and 1 to investigate civilians and other state agencies. The victims’ group asked that the JEP not consider “false positive” killings committed by security-force personnel, as they “were perpetrated with the objective of obtaining rewards, economic benefits, leave time, and other aspects, which by no means are related, directly or indirectly, to the armed conflict.”

In a process that began in January, 35 of 38 JEP judges have been sworn in. They will not start hearing cases until later this year. First, Colombia’s Constitutional Court must rule on the law, passed last November, governing the JEP’s operations. In its current form, that law would actually disqualify many of the current judges, as it prohibits the participation of anyone who has done human rights work within the past five years. The Court is expected to strike down this provision.

When they do start taking place, all of the JEP’s war-crimes hearings will be open to the public. The system will operate for 10 years, with an option for a 5-year extension.

Since January, the judges have been working on the regulations that will govern their work, and the text of a procedural law, which Congress must pass to guide how processes will function. “These procedural norms are almost ready,” Linares told Semana. The JEP is about to send its proposals to the Presidency, which must then send the bill to Congress.

Another Visit From the ICC

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s office sent three investigators to Colombia this week to look at prosecutors’ efforts to bring to justice commanders of military units that committed large numbers of extrajudicial executions. Last September, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda visited Colombia to ask for information about the cases of 29 Army officers, some of them high-ranking.

“Diplomatic sources” told El Espectador that the purpose of this week’s ICC visit was “to open formal investigations against some of these questioned officers.” The ICC can call for the arrest of individuals in signatory countries whom it believes responsible for serious human rights violations, if it views that these individuals are not being seriously investigated or tried in that country’s justice system.

The ICC has requested access to Fiscalía archives on the cases of these military officers. It appears that the Court has not received the response it expected.

ELN and EPL are Fighting in Catatumbo

A meeting between local leaders of the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a tiny but locally powerful guerrilla group, ended in the deaths of six people, with three wounded, in the conflictive Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department. In a rural area of Teorama municipality, “they carried out a meeting to figure out how to get over their disagreements,” said armed-forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía. “They didn’t come to any accord between the capos, and they decided to kill each other, firing on each other. This has generated great concern in the population.”

Catatumbo, Colombia’s second-densest coca-growing region, had a presence of FARC, ELN, and EPL guerrillas who mostly avoided confronting each other. With the FARC demobilized, the ELN and EPL have both been expanding. Once-friendly relations between the two groups have deteriorated, and this month have erupted in violence. Eduardo Álvarez of Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation told El Colombiano that the disagreements owe to “interests in the cocaine market, new routes and foreign sales, as well as the ‘EPL’s internal degradation due to rapid change of leaders, some more criminalized and less ideological.’”

Violence Worsening in Northern Antioquia and Southern Córdoba

In Antioquia department’s Bajo Cauca region, a few hours’ drive northeast from Medellín, and just over the departmental border in southern Córdoba, violence has flared up between two organized-crime groups with paramilitary heritage, the Urabeños (aka the Gaitanistas, or Clan del Golfo) and a local group called Los Caparrapos. The fighting displaced 1,500 people from Cáceres municipality in March, and 80 Zenú indigenous people from Caucasia this week.

The region has seen four killings of social leaders in 2017, and eleven attacks, including two homicides, so far in 2018.

In Tarazá, Valdivia, Anorí, and Ituango municipalities, El Espectador reports, the Urabeños “have even called on social and community leaders to demand copies of their meeting minutes, carried out censuses of the population, and required them to attend meetings to know ‘the new rules’ that they, and all residents, must follow.”

Trump Announces Colombia Visit

The White House announced that president Trump will pass through Colombia on his way back from attending the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. While in Colombia, he will meet with President Santos. Topics, according to spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, will include immigration, border security, and “fair and reciprocal trade.” Though Sanders didn’t mention cocaine production, that will likely be on the president’s mind as well.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia’s Peace Process

Congressional Elections Are This Sunday

Colombians go to the polls on March 11 to elect new members of a 108-person Senate and a 172-person House of Representatives. All will serve four-year terms. Regardless of the result, at least five from each house will be members of the political party formed by the former FARC guerrillas. The peace accord gives the FARC ten automatic congressional seats for the next two four-year terms, until 2026.

Polling indicates that rightist parties, and traditional political families, will do well. The “Democratic Center” party of former President Álvaro Uribe led in a Guarumo/EcoAnalitica poll with 20.1 percent of intended Senate votes. (Despite its name, this party is the farthest to the right politically.) Of the next five parties, four are big political machines with blurred, but mostly conservative-leaning, political views (the Liberals, Cambio Radical, the Conservatives, and the “U” or Unity party). The fifth, the Green Party, trends center-left.

Much coverage of the campaign’s last stage focuses on the continued power of local family dynasties, whose members keep getting re-elected despite allegations of corruption or collusion with organized crime and paramilitarism.

In the Wall Street Journal, John Otis profiles Sucre Department candidate Juliana Escalante García.

“[I]t hasn’t hurt Ms. Escalante that her uncle, former senator Álvaro García, is now serving a 40-year prison term for murder or that other politically active relatives have been convicted or investigated for graft and allying with death squads. What ensures loyalty from voters in this impoverished state of Sucre are the personal favors the candidates dispense.”

Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation tells Otis that “about a third of Colombia’s incoming 280-member Congress will be made up of politicians from 11 political clans.”

El Espectador mapped out the dominant political clans in Valle del Cauca (Toro), Santander (Aguilar), and the Atlantic (Char) and Pacific (Martínez Sinisterra) coastal regions. El Tiempo profiled 17 political families throughout the country. La Silla Vacía looked at how jailed politicians continue to manage their electoral machinery from their comfortable prison cells.

“Timochenko” Drops Out of Presidential Race

The former FARC are performing poorly in polls: the Guarumo/EcoAnalitica survey showed its 74 Senate and House candidates sharing the support of 0.6 percent of respondents. And the former guerrillas’ presidential campaign suffered a knockout blow this week as its candidate, former paramount FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko,” suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery.

The 59-year-old Timochenko has been plagued by health problems. Following this medical event, he pulled out of the campaign completely. The FARC will not run a presidential candidate in the May 27 elections.

Timochenko’s campaign had not been going well. Most polls had him in the 1 percent range. And some of his campaign appearances had been met with angry mobs throwing objects at him. “Nothing has gone well for the party,” León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation told the New York Times. “The implementation of the peace accords going ahead will depend on their presence and political influence in the country and this is in question.”

Former FARC members continue to face attacks and threats around the country. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo told Verdad Abierta that since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord, 56 people tied to the FARC have been murdered, among them 42 ex-combatants, some relatives, and “a very small number, two or three people, tied to the new FARC political party who weren’t ex-combatants or relatives.”

Presidential Candidate Petro Claims He Was Shot At

Leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who narrowly leads polls for May’s first-round presidential vote, visited Washington to consult with the OAS about an attack that took place in Cúcuta on March 2. As his motorcade drove through the city, it was hit with a projectile so hard that it cracked the thick glass of Petro’s armored car. Petro claims it was a bullet. The investigative arm of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (the CTI) said the damage did not result from a bullet, but did not suggest an alternative.

Petro blamed the attack on the machine that dominates local politics in Cúcuta. The city’s current mayor is a close associate of former mayor Ramiro Suárez, who is currently imprisoned in Bogotá for working with paramilitary groups.

U.S. Senate Holds Nomination Hearing for Next U.S. Ambassador

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met March 7 to hear testimony from four ambassadorial nominees, including Joseph MacManus, the State Department’s pick for Colombia.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) raised concerns with MacManus about whether human rights would be upheld in the FARC peace agreement, or would be sacrificed. MacManus replied that “the key word is accountability,” and human rights are a part of that. He added that while Colombia has made advances in protecting labor leaders and human rights defenders, there is a long way to go, and institutions need strengthening.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) called Colombia a “success story,” and endorsed the country’s bid to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). MacManus said that the OECD bid was helping Colombia to make progress on standards, but cited child labor as one of a few areas where Colombia still needs to do more.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) brought up what he characterized as “record supplies of cocaine,” along with a drop in prices and an increase in U.S. consumption. The timing of increased coca, Rubio said, “coincided with the peace deal,” which he says included a program “paying growers to stop growing coca,” which encouraged people to grow coca to qualify. Rubio said that MacManus would be ambassador at a time when cocaine may compete with opiates as the worst illegal drug plague in the United States. “I see it becoming a major irritant in the relationship.” MacManus replied, “That irritation is already there. It’s beyond an irritation,” citing President Trump’s September near-decertification of Colombia as a partner in the drug war. MacManus assured that the Colombian government is also concerned about coca: it interdicted about 500 tons in 2017, a record, and registered its highest numbers for manual and voluntary eradication in years. MacManus noted that the peace accords call for both rural reform and addressing illicit drugs. He recalled that, at an early March High Level Dialogue, Colombia committed to eradicating to 50 percent of the current area planted with coca within five years.

Sen. Rubio noted that the territorial space, and the role in the cocaine trade, that the FARC once occupied have been taken up by “cartels and the ELN.” He added that “It is indisputable that distribution of cocaine is assisted actively by elements in the Venezuelan government.” Rubio said that Venezuela is supportive of the ELN, and that aerial trafficking routes almost all begin in Venezuelan territory. MacManus did not dispute Rubio’s assessment.

Rubio concluded that between the unstable border and a flood of migrants, “Venezuela poses a national security threat to our strongest ally, Colombia.” McManus concurred that Venezuela is “a principal threat, a threat to Colombia” and “the principal problem of today, of right now,” in Latin America. He noted that Colombia is prepared to seek international assistance to attend to Venezuelan migrants, and that there have been discussions within U.S. agencies about how to provide that.

The Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on MacManus’s nomination. Conservative media outlets had attacked MacManus last year: though he is a career Foreign Service officer, they, and some far-right senators, perceive him as being too close to Hillary Clinton, on whose staff MacManus served when she was secretary of state. Sen. Rubio’s first line of questioning dealt with MacManus’s role in dealing with the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which U.S. conservatives contend that Clinton mishandled.

Crop Substitution Plan is Lagging

The National Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana (COCCAM) held a press conference to warn that the government’s crop substitution program, part of Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord, is not going well.

COCCAM members throughout the country have signed agreements with the Colombian government to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for a package of aid—mainly a stipend and help with productive projects and technical support—valued at about US$12,000 over two years. This National Integral Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), the growers warn, is on the brink of failure. Payments are arriving very late. Productive projects and technical support have not begun anywhere.

“The National government included 1 trillion pesos (about US$360 million) for the PNIS,” said COCCAM spokeswoman Luz Perly Córdoba. “If we count up how much it costs to attend to the 54,000 families signed up just for this year, the budget rises to 1.5 trillion pesos.”

Cristian Delgado, who manages human rights for COCCAM, counted 27 of its members killed since January 2017. Participants in crop-substitution efforts have been among a growing wave of social leaders killed in post-conflict Colombia.

10 ELN Killed in Bombing Raid

Colombia’s air force and army bombed a column of ELN fighters in Cáceres, in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, on March 6. The raid killed 10 ELN members, and troops captured 3 more. It was the deadliest military attack on the ELN since January 9, when the government and guerrillas failed to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.

Among the dead was alias “Cachaco,” whom Medellín’s El Colombiano called “the ELN’s second most important man in Antioquia and southern Bolívar.” The military was able to locate him because “Cachaco” was attending a meeting at the site of the bombing raid to discuss logistics for transporting him to Quito, Ecuador, where he was to join the ELN’s negotiating team for peace talks with the government.

These peace talks remain suspended. After the ceasefire ended and the ELN carried out a wave of attacks, including a bombing at a Barranquilla police station, President Santos pulled back the government’s negotiating team and demanded a signal of goodwill from the guerrillas. The ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire from March 9-13 to coincide with congressional elections.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

This post is several days overdue because of travel—it covers the week of February 4-11.

Citing insecurity, FARC suspends election campaign

The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party formed by the former Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrilla group, announced on February 10 that it was suspending its campaigning for Colombia’s March 11 legislative elections and May 27 presidential elections. Party leaders cited a wave of threats and violence against its candidates, including its presidential nominee, former maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias Timochenko.

The FARC clarified that it is not abandoning these candidacies: Londoño and 74 House and Senate candidates are still running, but they are staying off the campaign trail. “We’ve decided to suspend our campaign activities until we have enough [security] guarantees,” read a statement.

One of the promises of the November 2016 peace accords was that the FARC, or any other leftist opposition movement, would be able to participate in politics without fear of violence. The New York Times remarked that “their sudden departure from the campaign—on the grounds that it is not safe—casts doubt on whether the conflict is over yet.”

Days before the suspension, Colombia’s vice president, Oscar Naranjo, and vice-prosecutor general, María Paulina Riveros, reported that since the signing of the peace accord, 28 FARC ex-combatants have been murdered. Another 12 relatives of ex-combatants and 10 leaders of social organizations “associated with the FARC party,” they reported, have also been killed, bringing the total to 50. On February 6 assassins, apparently from the still-active National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, killed ex-FARC member Kevin Andrés Lugo Jaramillo on the premises of the former guerrilla demobilization site (ETCR) in Montecristo, Bolívar.

Less lethal—so far—but still concerning has been a series of incidents in which angry mobs have descended on FARC campaign events. In most cases, ex-guerrilla candidates have been met with shouted epithets and chants of “murderer,” organized by victims of the guerrillas or, at times, local right-wing politicians.

In Armenia, the capital of Quindío department, a mob damaged the car in which Londoño was traveling. In Cali and nearby Yumbo, in Valle del Cauca, a crowd hurled vegetables and objects at Londoño and attacked his supporters and security guards, injuring several members of a local labor union. In Cali, Londoño had to be escorted from a neighborhood by members of the riot police (the ESMAD, a unit most often associated with heavy-handed repression of protests). In Pereira, Risaralda, protesters kept FARC organizers and candidates from leaving the cooperative where they were holding a campaign meeting. Senate candidate and former chief negotiator Iván Márquez had to cancel campaign events in Caquetá and Huila.

Activists from the Democratic Center, a right-wing political party led by former president Álvaro Uribe, were seen on video egging on some of the protests. Another protest organizer is Herbín Hoyos, who during the conflict hosted a radio show that allowed relatives to broadcast messages to kidnap victims whom the FARC were holding in remote jungle camps.

Suspending the campaign will further dampen the electoral prospects of the FARC party, which already appeared low, with Londoño consistently polling well below 5 percent. Regardless of outcome, however, the peace accord grants the FARC five automatic seats in each house of Colombia’s Congress for the next eight years.

Secretary of State Tillerson visit

On the afternoon of February 6, Bogotá was a stop on U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s five-country tour of Latin America. In his public remarks alongside President Juan Manuel Santos, Tillerson had nothing to say about Colombia’s peace process or about attacks on social leaders. He focused on coca cultivation and on Venezuela.

The Secretary’s visit came days after President Trump, in a meeting with Homeland Security officials, mused about cutting aid to drug-producing countries.

“And these countries are not our friends.  You know, we think they’re our friends and we send them massive aid.  And I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them — we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us.  So I’m not a believer in that.  I want to stop the aid.  I want to stop the aid.  If they can’t stop drugs from coming in — because they could stop them a lot easier than us.  They say, “Oh, we can’t control it.”  Oh great, we’re supposed to control it.

“So we give them billions and billions of dollars and they don’t do what they’re supposed to be doing.  And they know that.  But we’re going to take a very harsh action.”

“I don’t think that President Trump was referring to Colombia because Colombia is not laughing at the U.S.,” President Santos said. “On the contrary, we think we’re working together in a problem and a challenge that needs cooperation from both countries.”

For his part, Secretary Tillerson took a much more conciliatory tone than his boss.

“We did discuss our concerns about the surge in coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, but the president also gave me a very good report of the steps that are being taken, the progress that’s being made, and he just spoke to much of that. And we are quite encouraged by what we hear.”

Santos offered some statistics about Colombia’s post-conflict coca eradication and substitution effort.

“So far this year we have forcefully eradicated 54,000 hectares, which is more than the goal we had set, and by the end of this year we hope to have cleared 150,000 hectares.

“As far as voluntary substitution is concerned, for the very first time we have a greater likelihood of being successful, and that has led us to sign agreements with 124,000 families that say that they have over 105,000 hectares of illegal crops. This is almost 30,000 of these families today are currently substituting their illegal crops.”

In March 2017, the U.S. government estimated that 188,000 hectares of coca were growing in Colombia in 2016, more than double the 2013 figure.

Tillerson also praised Colombia for being “a key player in the hemisphere’s efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela,” adding, “we had a very extensive exchange on how we can work together, along with others in the region, through the Lima Group, ultimately through the OAS, to restore democracy.”

Venezuela migration crisis

Meanwhile, citizens from shortage and inflation-plagued Venezuela are pouring into Colombia in ever greater numbers. The official number of Venezuelans moving to Colombia just in the last half of 2017 was 550,000, a 62 percent increase over a year earlier. Colombian officials cited by The Guardian “believe more than 1 million Venezuelans have moved to Colombia since the economic crisis took hold in 2015.” With Red Cross and UN assistance, Colombia opened up a “Temporary Service Center” in the border city of Cúcuta that can care for 120 migrants at a time for up to 48 hours. President Santos also banned the entry of Venezuelans without passports or border-crossing permits, and ordered 2,000 military personnel to the Venezuelan border to clamp down on illicit crossings.

ELN could be distributing Venezuelan government food rations on the Venezuelan side of the border

Across the border in Táchira, Venezuela, the Venezuela Investigative Unit at InsightCrime reported that ELN guerrillas may have been given a role in distributing food to Venezuelan citizens.

“Javier Tarazona, director of the Venezuelan non-governmental organization Fundación Redes, reported on February 6 that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the largest active guerrilla group in Colombia, is distributing boxes of food in the Venezeulan border states of Táchira, Apure and Zulia by way of the government-run Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción – CLAP).

Tarazona says that the boxes are delivered with propaganda for the ELN’s Carlos Germán Velasco Villamizar Front. They also promote one of their three radio stations broadcasting in that region of Venezuela.”

InsightCrime speculates that the Colombian guerrillas “may be seeking a rearrangement that lets continue to operate in Venezuelan territory, while consolidating its position in case the peace talks with the Colombian government collapse.”

With dialogues frozen, ELN calls an “armed blockade”

The ELN continued a wave of violent actions that began after January 9, when guerrilla and government negotiators in a slow-moving negotiation process could not agree on terms to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.

On February 7 the group announced a three-day “armed blockade” around the country, warning Colombians to abstain from travel between February 10 to 13 because of increased attacks on social leaders and “the government’s refusal to continue the fifth cycle of conversations” at the negotiating table in Quito, Ecuador. While the 2,000-person ELN lacks the capacity to attack travelers in most of the country, incidents were reported on roads in areas under its longtime influence, like Cesar and Arauca.

The government negotiating team remains absent from Quito, pending a display of goodwill from the ELN. However, two politicians with a longtime history of playing a good offices role in guerrilla negotiations, Senator Iván Cepeda and former mining and energy minister Álvaro Leyva, continue to seek to broker a solution. Public calls on the ELN to restart the bilateral ceasefire, and the negotiations, came from a group of artists and intellectuals, and from the National Peace Council, a multi-sectoral government advisory body.

Demining plan in Putumayo

Putumayo department, in southern Colombia bordering Ecuador, will be the site of an ambitious plan to remove landmines, carried out by Colombia’s army, the Colombian Campaign Against Mines, and the HALO Trust. The goal is to clear mines from 2,757,000 square meters of territory—equal to Bogotá’s colonial La Candelaria neighborhood—across 10 of Putumayo’s 13 municipalities. During the conflict, landmines, mostly laid by guerrillas, have killed 110 Putumayans and wounded another 335.

Tribunal calls for investigating ex-president Uribe for paramilitary ties

The Superior Court of Medellín released a finding citing the existence of “sufficient elements” to investigate former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe for supporting paramilitary groups during Uribe’s 1996-99 tenure as governor of Antioquia, the populous department of which Medellín is the capital. During Uribe’s term, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary organization expanded rapidly in Antioquia, carrying out emblematic massacres. The Medellín high court asked Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to investigate the popular but controversial former president for possible responsibility for two of these massacres, in El Aro (1997) and La Granja (1996), and for the 1998 murder of human rights lawyer Jesús María Valle.

Three weeks before he was killed, Valle told a Medellín prosecutor:

“I always saw that there was something like a tacit agreement or an ostensible behavior of omission, cleverly plotted between the commander of the [Army’s] 4th Brigade, the Antioquia Police commander, Dr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Dr. Pedro Juan Moreno [Uribe’s chief of cabinet, who allegedly served as a go-between to the paramilitaries], and [paramount AUC leader] Carlos Castaño. The power of all of these ‘self-defense groups’ has been consolidated through the support they have had from people tied to the government, to the military class, the police class, and the wealthy cattlemen and bankers of Antioquia department and the country.”

The Medellín tribunal’s finding stated, “The military, police, and security forces, the Antioquia governor’s office, groups of cattlemen, businessmen, industrialists, and a good quantity of people who were victims of guerrilla actions, allied with these self-defense groups or paramilitaries.”

It’s not clear what the next judicial steps might be, as Colombia’s prosecutor-general’s office may be in no rush to order an investigation. Senator Uribe, for his part, rejected the court’s allegation as a campaign-season maneuver.

Social leaders: failure to follow up on an early warning

In Tibú, Norte de Santander, authorities found the body of rural community leader Sandra Yaneth Luna, who had disappeared after armed men took her from her house in September 2017. Investigators believe her killing was a response to non-payment of an extortion demand. Still, Luna’s murder is one of well over 100 killings of social leaders that took place around Colombia last year.

The country’s human rights ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), Carlos Negret, called into question the government’s commitment to protecting social leaders. Negret alleged that, between March and July 2017, the Interior Ministry “held on to” a report demanding that it take early-warning measures to protect leaders in several parts of the country. The report, the ombudsman said, cited “up to 500 citizens under threat, among them Víctor Alfonso Castilla and Bernardo Cuero who were later killed.”

Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera rejected Negret’s accusation of inaction, tweeting a March 2017 email that he had sent to the government’s Early Warning System, which is meant to manage the deployment of protection measures. In turn, Negret, the ombudsman, said that the minister’s e-mail proved nothing. It “doesn’t constitute an early warning, not even the evaluation of one. It is a request that the corresponding authorities verify the information in order to proceed later to evaluation” of an early-warning operation.

“The Ombusdman’s Office,” Negret’s statement continued, “notes with concern that the Minister of Interior considers that a reaction and immediate response to a warning about a serious human rights situation would be the simple sending of an e-mail.”

In a column, Rodrigo Uprimny, a former Supreme Court auxiliary magistrate and founder of the DeJusticia think-tank, called the wave of attacks on the country’s social leaders “a historical anti-democratic pattern in Colombia, in which any democratic openings are violently closed by a jump in violence against social leaders, usually deployed by paramilitary groups.” Uprimny called for “massive rejection to those crimes, through a pact between all political forces without regard to their orientation, that condemn those crimes, without regard to whether or not the victims’ political sensibilities were the same as ours.”

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia peace process

This post is several days overdue because of travel—it covers the week of January 28-February 3.

Wave of violence intensifies

Violence involving guerrillas, guerrilla dissidents, or organized crime forced 2,560 people to flee their homes in January, according to CODHES, an NGO that tracks forced displacement. Of the displaced, 230 were forced out in mass events, a big increase over the 100 such displacements measured in January 2017.

In addition:

  • The Antioquia Indigenous Organization (OIA) warned that 400 Senú people are in imminent risk of forced displacement because of nearby combat in in the Bajo Cauca region municipality of Caucasia.
  • Army troops killed Embera indigenous leader Eleazar Tequia Bitucay in Chocó on the night of January 26. The Army at first claimed that Tequia, a leader of the local Indigenous Guard, was killed while trying to disarm a soldier during a peaceful protest over delayed education funds. However, the community said he was shot for no reason. Five days later, the Army admitted responsibility and asked forgiveness of the community.
  • Elsewhere in Chocó, in the Chagpien Tordó indigenous reserve of Litoral de San Juan municipality, Colombian security forces wounded a minor while carrying out a bombing raid on suspected ELN targets. The Defense Ministry insisted that the joint military-police operation was planned and carried out within the framework of international humanitarian law.
  • Six Colombian employees of the UN Office on Drugs and crime were robbed, apparently by members of a FARC dissident group, in a rural area of Paujil municipality, in Caquetá. The UNODC is verifying that families participating in the crop substitution program mandated by the peace accord are truly eradicating their coca. Two truckloads of verifiers were stopped by armed men who took their vehicles, cell phones, and GPS devices. The assailants said they opposed the crop substitution program. The incident has suspended the ONDCP program in this area.
  • The human rights ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) warned that a longstanding pact has broken down between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a geographically limited but locally strong guerrilla group. The office issued an “early warning” alert about probable violence in southeastern Cesar department and the western part of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region. The EPL appears to be expanding into this zone of increasing coca cultivation.

“Don Temis” and the plight of social leaders

On the evening of January 27, two armed men shot and killed Temístocles Machado outside his house in the Isla de Paz neighborhood of Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. The 58-year-old Machado, known widely as “Don Temis,” was a member of the Black Communities Process (PCN, a national Afro-Colombian rights association). He had been receiving threats for more than 10 years.

In Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port city, Machado had led efforts to save his neighborhood. Isla de Paz is under threat from business interests and aligned armed groups who would eject residents to make room for new cargo warehouses and truck lots for the expanding port. Machado was also at the forefront of efforts to petition the government to provide basic services to his neighborhood. In May 2017, he was among the most visible leaders of a 21-day peaceful protest that brought the city to a halt.

Juan Diego Restrepo, editor of Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative website, had sat down with Machado last October. “Through the civic stoppage” of last May, “Don Temis” told him, “we now have interlocution with the national government. But Buenaventura is a town without law, nothing works, the oversight and accountability entities don’t work.”

“Theft of land in Buenaventura,” he added, “is carried out by the very same public officials, starting with the national government, to the municipal, through its illegal armed groups.… Whenever there’s a ten or fifteen-year plan for a new economic project, the armed groups come first, generating terror, intimidation, fear, to displace the people and later grab the land and sell it. I don’t believe the armed groups come here alone. Without consent. It’s not a coincidence. They are armed apparatuses used by politicians, businessmen. Government authority doesn’t function here.”

Despite frequent threats to his life, Machado had not accepted protection from the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Program. An official of the program told La Silla Vacía, “He said only God protects him.” Berenice Celeyta, longtime head of the local human rights group NOMADESC, rejects that. “It’s not that he didn’t want protection, but that he wanted collective protection [for the neighborhood], more than just a bodyguard and bulletproof vest for one person.”

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) stated that Machado’s killing was likely related to his community work, and that it is prioritizing bringing his case to justice. Just days before his murder, Machado had met with the Office’s number-two official, Vice-Prosecutor General María Paulina Riveros, to discuss his security situation.

That same night of January 27, assailants on motorcycles in Villavicencio, Meta attacked and wounded María Cecilia Lozano, a victims’ leader and survivor of the 1998 paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, Meta.

Throughout Colombia, the Fiscalía has counted 101 homicides of human rights defenders, social leaders, political leaders, and community leaders between 2017 and so far in 2018. Counts vary so far for January 2018: the Somos Defensores organization denounced 12 murders, the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) counts 18 murders, and the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) has identified 21.

According to Somos Defensores, murders of social leaders in 2017 happened the most in Antioquia, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, and Norte de Santander, with notable increases in Chocó and Cesar. “We thought that after 2017 things would calm down,” Carlos Guevara of Somos Defensores told El Espectador, “but it seems like the closer we get to elections this is going to get even worse.”

An analysis by the DeJusticia think-tank of data from the ¡Pacifista! website found that 31% of social leaders killed in 2017 were leaders of local Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), 23% were leaders of peasant farmer organization; 14% were indigenous leaders; 12% were Afro-Colombian leaders; 6% were union leaders; and 3% were trying to reclaim stolen land.

ELN violent activity worsening

President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiating team not to go to Quito, Ecuador to start a fifth round of talks with the ELN. The President cited the guerrilla group’s lack of “coherence” after the January 28th bombing of a police post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city.

The guerrillas continued a wave of violent attacks that began after a 100-day bilateral ceasefire ended on January 9. The Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline (which the U.S. government provided $104 million in military assistance to protect in 2003) has been out of service for 23 days after 22 different attempted or actual attacks in Arauca, Boyacá, and Norte de Santander.

Arauca has been the hardest-hit department by ELN attacks since the ceasefire ended, concentrating 46 percent of attacks according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) think-tank. The ELN has been aggressively assuming control of parts of Arauca that had been under FARC dominion. This, FIP reports, has meant the ELN applying its “norms of social control and conduct” in former FARC areas and increased “pressure against social and political leaders who are either FARC-aligned or contrary to ELN policies.”

The ELN structure in Arauca, the Domingo Laín column, is the group’s largest. It’s leader, Gustavo Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito,” is viewed as the member of the group’s five-man Central Command who most opposes peace talks with the government. Other ELN fronts’ actions “have been reduced compared to those of the Domingo Laín,” FIP notes. That could indicate that “this structure may be showing its internal dissent with respect to the Quito dialogues an the slow implementation of the FARC accords.”

In response, the Colombian military’s “Vulcan” Task Force announced an increased deployment of troops from its Energy Operational Command, which consists of three battalions totaling 1,800 troops, to guard pipeline and oil infrastructure.

A communiqué from the FARC political party denounced on February 1 that the ELN kidnapped four of its members, killing three, in Santa Cruz de Guachavez, Nariño. According to the FARC’s count, as of January 23 ex-combatants and party activists had suffered 49 attacks, with 36 killed, since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord. Unknown assailants also killed a demobilized FARC militia member last week in Caquetá.

Armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía meanwhile alleged that in Chocó, Nariño, Arauca, and Catatumbo the ELN is recruiting not only children but impoverished Venezuelan migrants.

In a statement responding to President Santos’s freezing of peace talks, the ELN leadership pointed out that it never agreed to a permanent ceasefire with the government.

Polls for May presidential election

It’s very early and things may change. Also, polls don’t take into account shady get-out-the-vote machinery that may boost turnout for candidates who appear unpopular today. But right now, polling for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election is hinting at a leftward or anti-corruption direction.

Several top local media outlets sponsored an Invamer poll of 1,200 Colombians in 41 municipalities (out of 1,100) in 26 departments (out of 33). It found two left-of-center former mayors in the lead. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who had a stormy 2012-2015 tenure as mayor of Bogotá, leads a crowded field with an intended vote of 23-plus percent. Sergio Fajardo, a center-left former mayor of Medellín, is just behind with 20-22 percent depending on the likely matchups. Also high in the running are two right-of-center candidates, former defense minister Marta Lucia Ramirez and former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras.

Taken together, candidates who support the FARC peace accord and its implementation total about 62 percent of voters’ intentions. The FARC candidate himself, Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko), is at the bottom with less than 2 percent.

The “Gran Encuesta” poll seems to show Fajardo besting Petro and all others in hypothetical second-round matchups. But either candidate would have to get there first. Despite his low showing in the poll, Vargas Lleras will be a hard candidate to beat. The former vice-president broke with President Santos after spending nearly seven years in his administration, and is now critical of the FARC peace accord. He has assiduously courted local power brokers around the country who are adroit at getting voters to show up and do what they’re told at the polls.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

In third week after end of ELN ceasefire, violence intensifies

Talks in Ecuador between the government and the ELN made no progress more than two weeks after the non-renewal of a 100-day cessation of hostilities, which ended on January 9. Last week, events on the battlefield made the situation worse.

In the early morning hours of January 27, an explosive device killed five police and wounded forty-three more as they began their day at a post in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city. A second bomb went off on January 28 near a police post in another Barranquilla neighborhood, wounding two police and three civilians. Also on January 27, a bomb in Santa Rosa del Sur, in the northern department of Bolívar, killed two police. The ELN retweeted a statement from an urban bloc (account since suspended, but it was here) claiming responsibility for the Barranquilla attacks. The government reported capturing a suspect: a man who, authorities allege, had a notebook with a map of one of the bombing sites.

The week also saw combat between Colombia’s army and the ELN in Valdivia, Northern Antioquia, while four ELN members died in an army-air force-police attack in Chitagá, Norte de Santander.

Following the Barranquilla attacks, rightwing candidates for Colombia’s May presidential elections called on President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend or end talks with the ELN. “The government can NOT restart negotiations with the ELN in these conditions, it must react with determination and authority,” tweeted Germán Vargas Lleras, who had served as Santos’s interior minister and vice president. The candidate of ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Center” party, Iván Duque, tweeted, “when terrorism is given advantages, it feels free to attack with cowardice.”

Former FARC launch campaign but are increasingly vulnerable to attack

The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party descended from the FARC guerrillas, launched its 2018 election campaign at a January 27 event in Ciudad Bolívar, a sprawling low-income neighborhood in southern Bogotá. (And one of a handful of Bogotá districts where a majority voted “no” against the FARC peace accord in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.) Led by maximum leader and presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño (previously known as “Timochenko”), the new political party introduced a political platform including a proposed guaranteed basic income for all Colombians.

The peace accords give the former guerrillas an automatic 5 seats in a 107-seat Senate and 5 in a 172-seat House of Representatives. The new party is running 23 candidates for Senate seats and 51 in the House. That places the FARC 12th among all Colombian parties in number of House candidates, and 13th in number of Senate candidates. “We’re very optimistic and confident that we will win more than 10 seats,” said top leader Carlos Antonio Lozada. That is far from certain: the ex-guerrillas’ past of human rights abuses, most of which remain unacknowledged for now, make them quite unpopular in mainstream Colombian opinion. The peace accord also holds out an awkward possibility of FARC officeholders standing trial for serious war crimes.

Meanwhile, threats and attacks against the FARC political organization are worsening. About 33 former guerrillas have been killed since the final peace accord was signed in November 2016. The past week saw armed men raid the FARC party headquarters in Quibdó, the capital of the northwestern department of Chocó. FARC party member Johana Poblador was beaten in Bogotá by armed men who threatened to kill FARC leaders. Two FARC members in Medellín received death threats from the “Gaitanistas” or “Urabeños” neo-paramilitary group, which has already threatened to attack FARC party offices around the country.

Violence and displacement around the country

Last week it became evident that, between only the 17th and 20th of January, violence forced more than 1,000 people to leave their home communities. The Urabeños, the ELN, and FARC dissident groups—all of them fighting to occupy vacuums left by the demobilized FARC—were involved in all cases. Violence continued, and perhaps worsened, this week.

  • About 172 people were displaced by fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents in the La Voz de los Negros Community Council of Magüi Payán, Nariño, southwestern Colombia.
  • In Cumbal, Nariño, fighting between the ELN and FARC dissidents forced many to flee into neighboring Ecuador.
  • Just to the north, in Argelia, Cauca, at least 11 armed men opened fire on a festival, killing three people.
  • Further north, in Buenos Aires, Cauca, a roadside attack killed two members of a mining cooperative. “We’re feeling the fight for territorial control, with the exit of the FARC from municipalities that have to do with narcotrafficking. In addition are those affected by illegal mining,” said Cauca governor Óscar Campo.
  • An “unidentified armed group” forced 425 people to flee five hamlets and an indigenous reserve in San José de Uré, in the northwestern department of Córdoba. This area, the southern part of the department, sits along a key corridor for trafficking cocaine to the Caribbean coast. The government human rights ombudsman (Defensoría) reports that Urabeños have been increasing their presence, patrolling in camouflage-clad groups of 15 to 30 combatants in zones that used to be FARC-dominated.
  • Just to the south, in the coca and cocaine-producing Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, three armed men entered a bar on January 21 in the town of Yarumal, indiscriminately opened fire with Mini Uzis and killed seven people. A similar massacre took place in the same municipality in December.
  • Elsewhere in the Bajo Cauca region, in Cáceres and Caucasia municipalities, violence forced about 400 more people to flee. Here, the identity of the armed group isn’t clear: “It’s that we don’t know who they are, they don’t identify themselves, they don’t wear labels,” a local witness told Medellín’s daily El Colombiano. “We’ve only seen them several times around here, armed, wearing camouflage, it was about 30 men.” The zone has a presence of both ELN and Urabeños. (Also in Caucasia last week was U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker, paying a visit to observe U.S.-supported coca eradication and substitution programs.)
  • Fighting between the security forces and the ELN displaced several families in Paya, Boyacá.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

ELN and government negotiating new ceasefire?

The frequency of ELN attacks appeared to slow in this, the second full week after a 100-day ceasefire ended between the guerrilla group and the Colombian government. The days since January 9 have seen at least 24 events, most of them small-scale guerrilla attacks on energy infrastructure or ambushes of military or police personnel. ELN fighters kidnapped an oil worker in Saravena, Arauca, damaged the TransAndino oil pipeline in Nariño, and killed a soldier in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander.

The UN verification mission in Colombia, taking note of this reduced tempo of ELN attacks, called on the guerrillas and government to resume negotiations that went dormant after the bilateral ceasefire’s end. The Colombian government’s head negotiator, former vice-president Gustavo Bell, is returning to Quito, Ecuador, the site of the talks. Instead of the agreed negotiating agenda, these talks are likely to focus on conditions for a renewed ceasefire.

Transitional justice system launches

President Juan Manuel Santos swore in 30 magistrates who will adjudicate cases in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the new justice system set up by the peace accords. The JEP will consider cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Another eight magistrates remain to be sworn in. A few are still in the process of leaving current judicial posts. Several others are currently disqualified, as Colombia’s Congress added language to the law establishing the JEP that bars judges who did any human rights work in the past five years. Most participants and observers expect that Colombia’s Constitutional Court will strike down this prohibition when it reviews the JEP law. The Court’s decision is likely before May.

Another part of the JEP, the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons, still awaits launch. The Unit is part of the Justice Ministry, within the executive branch. Its director, human rights lawyer Luz Marina Monzón, says frustratedly that she is awaiting a decree allowing the Unit to operate, but there is no clear timetable.

Last year, the embryonic JEP had a budget of US$4.7 million, covered mainly by foreign donors, especially the UN Development Program. In 2018, the system will require 230 billion Colombian pesos (about US$82 million).

To date, 3,534 ex-FARC members have agreed to face this justice system, which will hand out lighter penalties, with no prison time, to those who fully confess crimes and provide reparations to victims. Another 1,729 members of the security forces, including 3 generals, have also signed up. Twenty-one civilians currently imprisoned for human rights crimes, including a former mayor of the city of Cúcuta who worked with paramilitary groups, have also registered.

Threats and attacks against former FARC fighters

Two former FARC fighters were shot to death in the town of Peque, Antioquia while campaigning for FARC congressional candidate Wilmar de Jesús Cartagena. (Congressional elections are in March, with the FARC running candidates as a political party.) “This is the great worry that we have,” Cartagena—who missed the campaign event for medical reasons—told El Espectador. “We don’t see any security guarantee that the government has the commitment to offer us. We don’t know what actions the government might take to facilitate our party’s participation in politics.” A statement from the UN verification mission expressed “serious concern” over the killings, “which constitutes the first mortal attack within the framework of the 2018 electoral process.”

The FARC party headquarters in Cali received a threatening pamphlet signed by the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia,” a thousands-strong organized crime group commonly called the “Urabeños” or “Clan Úsuga.” The document declared the group’s intention to “blow up” the FARC office in Cali, as well as those of other leftist movements: the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, the Marcha Patriótica, and the Congreso de los Pueblos.

“While there hasn’t been any serious incident within the training and reintegration zones [where the FARC underwent demobilization] thanks to the security forces’ protection measures, the number of killings outside those zones is an issue of growing concern in the last few months,” said Jean Arnault, chief of the UN verification mission in Colombia.

The Marcha Patriótica political movement counts 54 ex-FARC members or relatives killed between November 13, 2016 and January 18, 2018. These murders took place in Nariño (15), Antioquia (11), Cauca (6), Caquetá (5), Putumayo (4), Chocó (3), Bolívar (2), Meta (2), Norte de Santander (2), Boyacá (1), Tolima (1), Arauca (1), and Valle del Cauca (1).

FARC dissidents attack police in Meta

FARC dissidents attacked police in two different parts of Meta department, in south-central Colombia. Six members of a column of rural police were injured when fighters detonated an explosive as they passed by, then fired upon them, in Mesetas, western Meta. The attack, blamed on remnants of the FARC’s 3rd Front, happened days after two police were injured by a thrown grenade in Puerto Concordia, south-central Meta.

In-Depth Reading

Last week in Colombia’s peace process

I’d like to post these all year without missing a week. Travel plans may complicate that, but I’m going to try.

ELN ceasefire breaks off

For 102 days, while peace talks proceeded in Quito, the Colombian government and ELN guerrillas mostly honored a cessation of hostilities. That period saw 33 possible ceasefire violations committed by the ELN—of which 12 were verified—killing 26 noncombatants and involving the kidnapping of 13 people and forced recruitment of 14. Still, this was a much lower tempo of violence than normal. And there were zero incidents of combat between the ELN and Colombia’s security forces.

The cessation of hostilities ended on January 9, when the parties failed to agree to extend it. Overall analysis of the non-renewal placed most blame on the ELN, which appeared to lack internal consensus, or even unity of command, about whether to continue the truce.

The ELN’s standing in public opinion plummeted further as the group immediately launched a series of attacks on security forces and infrastructure, mostly in the northeast of the country. The week saw approximately 13 attacks, leading to the deaths of at least two police and at least three bombings of the 485-mile-long Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.

The Colombian government pulled its negotiating team from Quito, and appeared to suspend talks until the ELN agrees to a new ceasefire. This is a reversal of the 2012-16 FARC negotiations, when the guerrillas repeatedly demanded a bilateral ceasefire but the government preferred to keep fighting while talks proceeded.

France, the European Union, the “guarantor countries” of the ELN talks (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway, and Venezuela), and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño all called on the parties to return to the table and agree on a new cessation of hostilities. The UN noted that it cannot keep its monitoring and verification structure in place very long with no ceasefire to monitor.

The U.S. government issued a travel warning for four departments where the ELN is most active: Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, and Norte de Santander.

Other coverage: Washington Post, New York Times, El Tiempo

Visit of UN Secretary-General

The need to restart the ELN talks and ceasefire was a main message of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during a January 13 visit to Colombia. Guterres visited Bogotá and Meta to get a sense of how implementation of the FARC accord is going, to give political support to the ELN process, and to support the work of the UN verification mission in Colombia.

That mission’s latest 90-day report to the Secretary-General, made public on January 5, voiced concern about the government’s implementation of the FARC accord: “Overall, the implementation of the peace-related legislative agenda has progressed unevenly, compounded by events relating to the presidential and parliamentary elections, to be held in the first semester of 2018.”

Military sets up giant task force in Nariño

Colombia’s Defense Ministry has set up a joint task force, “Hercules,” with about 9,800 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and police stationed in Nariño, on the Pacific coast in the southwestern corner of the country. Nariño is Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department and a heavily used corridor for cocaine shipments into the eastern Pacific. It has very active FARC ex-militia dissident groups and a growing presence of the ELN. Not all of the 9,800 personnel are new: many are already stationed in Nariño but now form part of this joint command structure.

“This plan has had a big media deployment in the region and in Bogotá,” writes Laura Soto in La Silla Vacía. “But four sources who know the zone (members of the Tumaco mayor’s office, two human rights defenders who have worked closely with Caritas, and a social leader) aren’t hopeful that the panorama will approve, at least not in the short term.”

Lowest homicide rate in 40 years

President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated that Colombia’s 2017 homicide rate reached the lowest point in 42 years: 24 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants (about the same as Washington DC). Security analyst Hugo Acero cast some doubt on the statistics, though the overall trend points to declining homicides.

Nastiness between Santos and Maduro

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro told his countrymen that “thousands of Colombian patients cross the border to get operated on here, to treat a flu, to clear up a cataract, to seek medicines in Venezuela” where the health system is “free.” (Venezuela in fact suffers from severe shortages of most medicines, while Colombia’s healthcare system is also theoretically free.) President Santos called this comment “cynical,” pointing out that the reverse phenomenon is happening with Venezuelans recurring to Colombia’s border-zone hospitals. “President Maduro, don’t try to use the Colombian people to hide the enormous shortcomings of your failed revolution,” he said. Maduro responded that Santos “has his country in chaos” and isn’t complying with the FARC peace accord.

In-Depth Reading

Where some see a wave of terror, Colombia’s Defense Minister sees “skirts”

Throughout Colombia’s countryside, especially in areas of longtime influence of the former FARC guerrillas, leaders of social organizations are living in fear. Every few days, somewhere in the country, a land-rights claimant, a participant in a crop substitution program, a campesino organizer, or a leader of an ethnic community is murdered. It’s a huge threat to the viability of Colombia’s fragile peace.

On Saturday, Colombia’s Noticias Uno television program ran an interview with the country’s defense minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, who oversees both the military and the national police. An English transcript of his comments is below the video.

Villegas voiced doubt about whether social leaders’ killings are really a problem. He said that most of the murders have been about disputes between neighbors over property lines, or lovers’ quarrels (or as he put it, “skirts”).

Minister Villegas’ comments call into question his ability to do his job as a top protector of the Colombian people. His insistence on the lack of a single “organization” or entity that might be behind the killings reveals a basic misunderstanding of how organized crime works. Rather than a single body, it is a loose network, one that often includes individuals, like landowners or government officials, who operate from “legality.”

Villegas also reveals a lack of interest in protecting vulnerable people who, with the peace accord, now hope to practice politics free of fear. Instead, the implicit message here is, “you’re on your own.”

Noticias Uno: In dialogue with Noticias Uno, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas referred to the recent killings of social leaders in the country. The high official rejected that their deaths might be related to their claims.

Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas: I run the risk of generating many comments for what you’re about to hear from me.… There have been cases from [committed by] the ELN, and there have been cases from the FARC, I leave those apart. The rest have been, in their immense majority, the result of an issue with land boundaries, of an issue about skirts [women], of an issue with unmet demands, of an issue with a fight over illicit incomes.

NU: While he clarified that this issue is of concern to the national government, the Defense Minister affirmed that there is no armed group going after leaders.

LCV: One of every two killings today has a judicial explanation.… There is no organization behind this killing leaders.

NU: In addition, for Villegas, the government is convinced that there is no increase in murdered leaders out in the provinces.

LCV: It isn’t that the killings of social leaders suddenly appeared. It’s that perhaps what’s appeared is the measurement of this phenomenon.

NU: While social leaders count 104 leaders assassinated this year, Villegas affirms that the real total is about 50.

LCV: I would be the first to denounce a systematic pattern. If I had any information that there is an organization, a person, a body dedicated to killing leaders in Colombia, I would be the first to come out and say it.

NU: It’s calculated that this year, another 300 leaders have received death threats.

Rescuing Colombia’s Post-Conflict Transitional Justice System

Semana archive photo at Verdad Abierta (Colombia). Caption: “Aún no ha comenzado a operar el nuevo sistema de justicia transicional y diversos sectores ya encuentran reparos, principalmente en cuanto a la participación procesal de las víctimas se refiere.”

Remember back when Colombian officials said that the FARC peace negotiations sought to “put victims at the center” of the process?

Colombia’s Congress just finished work on the legislation that would implement transitional justice, the process of punishing the worst human rights violators and making them provide reparations to victims. They did serious damage, putting together a system that benefits the powerful and deforms the spirit of the peace accords. It will be up to Colombia’s top courts, or the International Criminal Court, to minimize the harm.

Here are seven flaws that I’ve identified in a piece that WOLA posted to its website this morning. Follow the link to read the whole thing: I tried to explain this in plain English, not human rights legalese.

  1. The choices of judges and magistrates for the new justice system were excellent. But the law would undo these by disqualifying anybody who has done human rights work or accompanied victims during the past five years.
  2. The law does not define how austere the conditions of “restricted liberty” will be for those sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  3. The law includes a watered-down standard of “command responsibility,” which could allow dozens of top military commanders to avoid accountability. It may also make Colombia a top priority for the International Criminal Court.
  4. The law stripped key language from the peace accord which would have compelled civilian third parties to appear and confess. There is now little hope of holding accountable landowners, narcotraffickers, local officials and other politically influential individuals who sponsored armed groups or even planned killings.
  5. The law leaves unclear whether “false positive” killings will be tried within the JEP, even though most were unrelated to the armed conflict.
  6. War criminals may still be able to hold office. Or maybe not.
  7. The timeline for setting up the JEP is excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, thousands of guerrillas and soldiers are in a legal limbo.

Read the whole thing here.

Ex-FARC reintegration is flailing in Colombia, a would-be OECD member state

Reuters photo at El Tiempo (Colombia). Caption: “Las zonas veredales están hechas para que las Farc se desarmen y hagan el tránsito a la vida civil.”

The chief of the UN mission verifying parts of Colombia’s peace accord implementation has had a rare public disagreement with the Colombian government.

On Tuesday, Jean Arnault urged officials to do more to keep former FARC fighters from slipping through the cracks. He pointed out some alarming things:

“A very high percentage of ex-FARC members are not in the ETCRs [Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation, the former cantonment zones where FARC demobilized, but from where they are now free to leave]. The phenomenon calls for attention. The ex-guerrillas were about 8,000 on May 20 in the Village Zones [the cantonment zones] when the storage of FARC weapons concluded. As of August 15 [the day when ex-FARC members were allowed to leave], 70 percent remained. Today we estimate at 45 percent the number that still remain at the ETCRs.

“…[T]he greatest determining factor for these departures is effectively, according to the interviews the Mission has carried out, the loss of confidence in the perspectives that the ETCRs offer. Many expectations unmet for a long time. The El Gallo ETCR and the Policarpa ETCR have been almost totally abandoned, and their residents have moved to places that seem more favorable to them. Of other ETCRs, which weren’t abandoned, groups of 20 to 50 ex-guerrillas are leaving for the same purpose.”

Why would so many ex-guerrillas be disappearing without a trace? Arnault’s response defies belief:

“[A]s of today, a framework plan for reincorporation [of ex-combatants] still doesn’t exist. That was the central mandate of the National Reincorporation Council established a little less than a year ago.”

Faced with such a dire warning couched in diplomatic language, Colombian officials struck a wounded tone. Here’s the high commissioner for peace, Rodrigo Rivera:

“We’re surprised by Mr. Arnault’s declarations. Diplomatic channels exist to propose the sort of reservations that he proposes, and I see they weren’t sufficient. This sows the notion that there’s a sort of diaspora of FARC ex-combatants from the Territorial Spaces. …The purpose of the spaces was that they be temporary, they aren’t confined there and the UN knows it.”

Rivera is mistaken. The time for quietly routing things through diplomatic channels is over.

A core element of any peace process is the careful reintegration of ex-combatants. Thousands of unemployed, under-educated people with combat skills are being set loose in a country already challenged by organized crime, narcotrafficking, and ungoverned territory. That no plan is in place to occupy them, or even to keep track of them, is a failure at the most elemental level.

It’s worth noting that the day before Arnault and Rivera were exchanging words in Bogotá, Colombia’s foreign minister was in Washington. One of the things María Ángela Holguín brought up with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the government’s oft-expressed desire to enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based club of 35 wealthy nations.

Note the incongruity between Colombia’s first-world aspirations and the UN’s very basic warnings.

Granted, Colombia is in a budget crunch triggered by the drop in oil prices. And yes, the President’s governing coalition is fragile, and public opinion toward the peace accord is tepid as the March legislative and May presidential elections approach.

But it should not be too taxing for Colombia to fund a collective reintegration plan for the former FARC, right now, before thousands of seasoned fighters melt away and join the ranks of organized crime. The cost is not prohibitive. At least, not prohibitive for a country knocking on the OECD’s door.

We’re talking about 12,000 people. How much would that cost? Let’s ballpark it.

  • Each one receives 10 million Colombian pesos—a “normalization” payment plus seed money for a productive project—plus a stipend of about 663,000 pesos per month for 24 months. That all adds up to about 26 million pesos, or US$8,730 per ex-guerrilla. For 12,000 guerrillas, the price tag here would be about US$105 million.
  • Perhaps 70-75 percent of the 12,000 would like to work land, through cooperatives. That land would need to be purchased. Let’s say 4 hectares each (10 acres) times 9,000 people: 36,000 hectares, the size of a single cattle ranch in the country’s eastern plains. Even at a steep price like US$2,000 per hectare, that would add US$72 million to give land to ex-FARC cooperatives.
  • Many of the demobilized would need basic education and vocational training. Say, US$3,000 per person for 6,000 people. US$18 million.
  • All need psychosocial support, medical attention, and just basic monitoring. Assume US$5,000 per person times 12,000 — US$60 million.
  • That brings us to a total reintegration price tag of US$255 million. I’m sure this estimate is missing a lot—and there are some items in the peace accord, like support to ECOMÚN, a FARC cooperative, that don’t have specific price tags. So let’s add another 50 percent, and another 10 percent for administrative costs, and call it US$408 million.

US$408 million over, say, two years. Colombia’s one-year GDP is about US$285 billion. Colombia is currently collecting about US$80 billion per year of that as taxes. The cost of reintegration would be about 0.26 percent of that annual budget. Money can’t be what’s stopping the ex-FARC from being reintegrated.

Why Colombia hasn’t been able to reach up and grab even this “low-hanging fruit” is a mystery bedeviling most of us. As Colombia’s OECD aspirations make clear, the problem isn’t money.

It seems more like an ossified bureaucratic culture rendering the government almost inoperable. Combined with that familiar bugbear, “a lack of political will.” This term gets thrown around a lot but is really a “black box” obscuring deeper, structural problems like social power relations, corruption and criminality, and economic inequality.

These are poor reasons to risk a slide back into violence and victimhood in what, for now at least, are post-conflict regions of the country. The UN’s warnings about reintegration are on the mark. If anything, they’re too muted.

“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”

Here’s an English translation of a long and wide-ranging exchange with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper this morning. It was a good opportunity to explain (and vent about) the current state of U.S.-Colombian relations.

If you prefer Spanish, haga clic aquí.

“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”: Adam Isacson

October 28, 2017 – 9:00 PM
Cecilia Orozco Tascón

Interview with Adam Isacson, a senior official at WOLA, an influential civil-society organization in Washington that promotes human rights on the continent. Isacson, a scholar of Colombian conflicts, talks about the United States’ “hostile tone” with Colombia since Trump’s arrival in the White House, the way the domestic right wing influences that government against Santos’s administration, and that false information it spreads to discredit the peace agreement.

Q: Despite the friendly letter Trump sent President Santos in recent hours, several signs from Washington would indicate that relations between the United States and Colombia are not, today, so sincere and in solidarity. Do you agree with this perception?

I would go further and say that the bilateral relationship has reached its worst moment since the government of Ernesto Samper. It’s not as serious as 1998—nobody’s going to revoke the visa of any top government official—but after almost 19 years of hardly any U.S. public criticism of Colombia, today there is a steady stream of scoldings, expressions of impatience, and of public distancing from the peace policy. The disagreements have ideological roots: a hard-line government has come to power in Washington, one very much in tune with the Colombian right. But the hostile tone comes from the President himself, who is also disrespecting allies elsewhere around the world, from NATO to Australia to Mexico.

Q: Do you think President Trump’s change of tone is sincere when he writes President Santos, in the last hours, in the following terms: “The United States is ready to support you in your counternarcotics efforts (and) simultaneously I am working diligently to combat internal consumption”?

I imagine that letter was written after several weeks of witnessing the negative result of the quasi-decertification language of September 13. It must have been obvious to them that the binational relationship was damaged and, perhaps, the words of the now-retired Bill Brownfield were the last straw. Diplomats must have insisted on making a conciliatory gesture. It’s important that it reaffirmed co-responsibility in drug policy, but Colombia does not know which Donald Trump it will have to face at any time. He can easily go on the attack again the next time he talks about the country.

Q: The most frustrating episode for the Santos government with respect to Trump was the quasi-decertification of the country due to the growth of hectares cultivated with coca leaf. He didn’t flunk Colombia, but he threatened to. Is that report a preamble to decisions that Washington may make soon, or is it pressure designed for the medium and long term?

Beyond a group of officials close to Trump, that statement was frustrating for everyone. Saying “we almost put Colombia in the same category as Venezuela” is a slap in the face and a serious strategic error. I was happy to read that, in a recent interview with El Tiempo, the former Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador in Colombia Bill Brownfield shared this assessment. That interview indicates that the hostile language came directly from the White House and not from the State Department. But from whom in the White House, if General Kelly (chief of staff, former commander of the Southern Command) knows and admires Colombia? It may be, rather, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), with whom Trump consults U.S. policy regarding Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Senator Rubio, in turn, frequently consults with Álvaro Uribe. Anyway, ultimately nobody believes that he will decertify Colombia. It’s another empty threat, like the “military option” for Venezuela, forcing Mexico to finance a wall or throwing “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Q: As you mention it, the Trump government may be close to the most conservative Colombian politicians. Since this group is the opponent of the Santos administration and the peace accord, is it possible that the American officials who make decisions in Washington are influenced by these domestic figures?

Yes. There is a sector of the Republican Party (and some Democrats too) that receives much of its information about Colombia via the opposition. But sometimes these critical perspectives also come from the Colombian community in the United States, which, like many diasporas, is more conservative than the population that lives in the country. That’s normal, it always happens. The problem arises when this information includes false information such as “the transitional justice mechanism is composed of people from the FARC who will submit the military to kangaroo courts” or that “stopping the fumigation of illicit crops was agreed in the peace accord.”

Q: After that first “barely scraping by” certification warning, the DEA published another report on the same subject: coca crops. Does that insistence imply that the United States is pressuring Colombia to abandon manual eradication and instead reactivate aerial spraying?

The DEA report is annual and its purpose is to report its production and trafficking estimates, which follow the same trendline as those of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But at least the DEA report doesn’t blame the crop increase on the peace agreement—a distortion of reality that’s heard a lot in Washington—and reports on other serious factors that affect the phenomenon, such as the Gulf Clan [Colombia’s largest organized crime group]. Both the Obama administration—less noisily—and the Trump administration have said they would prefer aerial fumigation in Colombia: despite the evidence, many officials view this method as an “indispensable tool.” But they’re not seriously pressing the Santos administration to start it again. The real pressure may fall on the next administration [which takes power in August 2018].

Q: Colombian officials are between a rock and a hard place: on one hand, Washington demanding results on decreasing crops. And on the other, the peasant populations who want to collaborate with eradication but only if they’re offered an alternative means of subsistence. Is there a third way that respects the rights of peasants and that simultaneously makes eradication effective?

No solution exists that, first, manages to reduce crops in the short term and, second, maintains those reductions permanently. It’s either the first or the second: choose one. Obviously, the Trump administration is much more interested in the first: short-term reduction. But if eradication happens without establishing a government presence that can provide basic services, what will happen? There will be replanting almost immediately. The National Comprehensive Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), from the fourth chapter of the peace agreement, is also short-term if it is carried out without that basic state presence. Substituting crops for two years is fine, but what happens when those two years expire, but governance and services aren’t in place? The result would be the same: replanting. A long-term strategy is urgent. However, I believe—as former assistant-secretary Brownfield has said—that this year’s eradication will lead to a reduction in next year’s coca measures. I hope that this gives Colombia space to work on longer-lasting strategies free from constant scolding.

Q: What could be a sustainable strategy over time? It seems impossible…

A long-term strategy means that the government arrives in areas so abandoned that inhabitants go months or years without seeing any non-uniformed state representatives. Disarming the FARC was a good first step, because the government can now arrive in those areas without having to conquer territory. Reintegrating the FARC is crucial to maintaining this security, but that effort is lagging badly behind. The second step is to initiate large investments in the countryside, investments foreseen in the first chapter of the Agreement and in the programs of the Territorial Renewal Agency (ART). This implementation is also moving at a snail’s pace, and with very little budget. Once there is progress in these areas, eradication and substitution of crops can be done with some hope of long-lasting effects. But unfortunately, due to the pressures generated by the coca bonanza and Washington’s messages, Colombia is starting out with the last step.

Q: Do the increase in the use of police force against the civilian population and, despite this, the continuous increase in the number of hectares, show the failure of manual eradication and, along with that, of the pacts foreseen in the peace agreement?

It’s too early to judge the performance of the peace agreement pacts, whose implementation has barely begun. But the use-of-force episodes are symptomatic of what happens when forced eradication happens without the government offering even basic services to the population. People tend to resist going hungry. The most notorious example of this happened in Bolivia at the beginning of the century. There, the so-called Dignity Plan, supported by the United States, drastically increased forced eradication. And yes, there was a temporary reduction in coca. But also a movement of rejection that brought Evo Morales to national notoriety and then to the Presidency. Without the Dignity Plan, who would Evo Morales be today? Probably the head of a cocalero union, leading a social movement with little influence outside the far-off Chapare region.

Q: The United States also intends to reduce its economic assistance to Colombia, and if it is consistent with the general policies of the Trump administration, there will also be cuts in technical assistance, logistics, etc. Do these purposes indicate that the U.S. government might gradually withdraw its support for the peace accord and for the Santos government beyond the diplomatic words it sends?

The Trump government has sought to cut off both military and economic assistance to the entire world. For Colombia, its request to Congress for 2018, released in May, sought to reduce it from US$391 to US$251 million. (Approximately US$50 million more goes through the Defense budget). But the Republican majority in Congress has rejected that proposal, since they’re not completely following the “America First” slogan. The House decided to give US$336 million, and the Senate held the “Peace Colombia” package at 2017 levels, at US$391 million. Congress has not finished working on the aid budget for 2018, but the figures make clear that it is more interested in the peace accord’s success than the White House is.

Q: It has been reported in several media that Ambassador [Kevin] Whitaker’s replacement may be Joseph MacManus. If this appointment happens, would it be a demonstration that the United States is going to be more or less cooperative with Colombia and its peace accord?

Joseph MacManus has been a career diplomat since 1986, and diplomats usually conceal their personal political beliefs and serve the incumbent president. I don’t know him, because he has only spent a few years of his career working on Latin American issues. To some extent, his appointment is a relief: it had been rumored that the White House intended to appoint a “political” ambassador, that is, an ally from outside the professional diplomatic corps, someone who is a true believer in Trumpism. It may turn out that MacManus has such personal proclivities, but on the other hand, he was also a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they led the State Department in the Obama administration. That’s why some right-wing media outlets have reported opposition to MacManus from the most conservative quarters of the administration. We’ll see.

Q: But on the other hand, El Espectador reported what the web site The New American* described this as a “scandalous push to install MacManus as U.S. ambassador to Bogota…”

The New American is a small digital publication with a strong pro-Trump line, one of the right-wing outlets that seeks to block MacManus for being, in their opinion, too attached to the Obama administration. That group is pushing for Trump to name someone more “pure” in “America First” ideology. But in fact, the appointment of a hardliner is not likely to succeed because it would need Senate approval. And there, although the Republicans have 52 of 100 seats, a number of senators are now anti-Trump—among them the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker—and they would never vote for an ambassador with those attributes.

“Nobody should lose their life”

Q: The conflicts between peasants and the security forces are happening repeatedly. The situation in Tumaco, where there were several deaths, is symptomatic. Are Colombia and the United States responsible for this tension, whose pressure to reduce crops may have caused a rush to show results?

There’s a pattern here that I find extremely serious. In March, the United States and Colombia agreed on a six-point plan to reduce crops. The fifth point was “a strategy to deal with the political realities of coca growers’ protests driving away eradicators.” Since then, in public forums, former Secretary Brownfield complained several times about eradication being frustrated by protests. “This is absurd,” he said in mid-September. “The government must give the Police and Army clear authorities and rules of engagement.” I imagine that, privately, the messages were stronger. My suspicion is that these pressures created an environment conducive to episodes like that of Tumaco. Instead of “you have to clarify your procedures for the use of force,” the message that was heard seems to have been “you have to hit the protesters harder.” No one, neither a coca-grower nor a security-force member, should lose his life to the pursuit of an ephemeral statistic of fewer hectares.

“The Colombian right has a semi-direct line to the White House”

Q: A few months ago there occurred a social incident that was minor but not unimportant: the ex-presidents Uribe and Pastrana, opponents of Santos and the peace accord, may have cordially greeted Trump at Mar-a-Lago days before the latter received a visit from the Colombian head of state. What does that meeting mean to you?

Media reports indicate that Senator Rubio played a role in arranging that meeting. It’s a good example of how the Colombian right has established a semi-direct line to the White House to be heard on policy issues regarding their country.

Q: If the Trump administration were to withdraw its support for the peace accord altogether, how much do you think that would affect the success of the process in Colombia?

It would be very serious. The United States financed Colombia’s war a hundred times more generously than any other country. That’s why its political support for peace is so important. Withdrawing that support would take away an important source of legitimacy from the accord. Even now, the absence of a special envoy to Colombia (of the Trump government for accord-related matters) has left an important vacuum.

FARC analysis at WPR

Here’s a Q&A with the editors of World Politics Review about the future of Colombia’s FARC as a political party. Excerpt:

The FARC’s best hope will be to start local, in the rural areas where it has been a factor in Colombians’ lives for decades. One advantage the guerrillas have over other parties is thousands of presumably disciplined members on whom it can call to do political organizing. If its members are able to avoid a repeat of the wave of killings that devastated the Patriotic Union; if it builds a political base in these far-flung areas; and if it elects officials who avoid corruption and administer local governments efficiently and responsively, the FARC of the 2020s could blur Colombians’ bad memories and become a viable political force.

That’s a lot of “ifs,” though.

Read it here (it may be paywalled).

With Glaring Omissions, a U.S. Ambassador Delivers a Dark View of Post-Conflict Colombia

Just posted to WOLA’s website: my response to U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker’s aggressive critique of Colombia’s peace process, which appeared in an interview posted Sunday to the country’s most-circulated newspaper.

“Last weekend marked the moment Kevin Whitaker truly became Donald Trump’s ambassador to Colombia.… His interview marks the sharpest reversal yet in U.S. support for the process.”

It goes on from there. The tone is harsh, but it’s much more fact-filled and much less personal than that excerpt. I’ve known Kevin Whitaker for a long time and respect him. Which is why I found Sunday’s interview so perplexing.

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