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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Public Security

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of April 29-May 5)

Dire Warning from Former Chief Negotiator De La Calle

Humberto de la Calle, a respected former vice president and the Liberal Party’s low-polling candidate for May 27 elections, led the Colombian government’s team for all four years of peace talks with the FARC in Havana. On the campaign trail, he has been largely silent on the government’s subsequent implementation of what the accords promised. This silence ended April 29, when he published a brief statement to his website entitled “They’re throwing away peace.” An excerpt:

They’re throwing away peace. That’s it, in plain Spanish, without hypocrisy. They’re throwing away peace.
First, [former president Álvaro] Uribe and [Ivan] Duque [the presidential candidate of Uribe’s Democratic Center party] have been building a fabric of fallacies and hatreds that have brought much of the population into a nostalgia for the war.
The Constitutional Court opened the door for Congress to betray and slow down the accord. Cambio Radical [the party of right-of-center candidate German Vargas Lleras] joined with the Democratic Center in this task, with the support of Dr. Vargas’s vacillations. The FARC have also failed to take the step of showing enough empathy for Colombians.
And implementation has proved to be too much for the government.
This is a call on the nation. As we’re going, we’re heading into war with our eyes closed.

President Juan Manuel Santos emphatically rejected De la Calle’s assertion that his government has dropped the ball on accord implementation. Talking to reporters after a meeting with his “post-conflict cabinet,” Santos contended that their “exhaustive” review of what the government has done brought a “positive evaluation.” Critics of the process, he added, “can’t come and tell us now that the peace accords’ implementation is failing.”

Even though the armed forces have estimated that dissident guerrilla groups’ membership now totals 1,200, Santos insisted that the majority are the result of “forced recruitment.” The real proportion of guerrillas who have dropped out of the process and rearmed, he said, is “7 percent.”

Nearly a year and five months after the accords’ ratification, Santos said that the government has complied with 70 percent of the 80 indicators it had laid out for itself for the first two years of the post-accord period. He noted that by the end of May, the illicit crop substitution program carried out to fulfill the accords’ fourth chapter would bring about the voluntary eradication of 30,000 hectares of coca. The original goal for this program’s first year, Santos did not mention, was 50,000 hectares.

Aftermath of Jesús Santrich Arrest

FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich was moved from Bogotá’s La Picota prison to its El Tunal hospital for “preventive care,” as he has been on a hunger strike since his April 9 arrest. Santrich was indicted April 4 by a grand jury in the Southern District of New York on charges of conspiring with Mexican traffickers to transship ten tons of cocaine. Colombian judicial authorities are awaiting an extradition request from the U.S. government.

The Wall Street Journal reported late on April 28 that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has evidence pointing to a more senior FARC commander. Luciano Marín alias Iván Márquez, who served as the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in Havana and is often regarded as the FARC’s number-two leader, apparently appears in a cellphone video speaking “to an associate of a known Mexican trafficker.” The video was recorded after the peace accord went into effect, a source told the Journal.

[T]he video in which he speaks was intended as a message to reassure Mexican gang contacts following the seizure in Miami of an alleged drug payment. The Drug Enforcement Administration seized $5 million in Miami that the officials said was an alleged payment for a shipment of cocaine. The date of that seizure remains unclear.

After Santrich’s arrest, Márquez—a close Santrich ally within the FARC—abandoned Bogotá for an ex-guerrilla concentration site in his home department of Caquetá, in southern Colombia. From there, Márquez charged that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscal General), Nestor Humberto Martínez, was behind the Journal report. (Martínez has been critical of aspects of the peace accord.) Martínez, however, announced that his office “is not working on any investigation against Mr. Iván Márquez with regard to narcotrafficking or actions that took place after peace was signed.”

While Colombian prosecutors may not be working a case, the U.S. Spanish-language outlet Univisión confirmed what the Wall Street Journal reported: that the DEA appears to have incriminating evidence.

The U.S. anti-narcotics agency (DEA) is investigating a high member of the Venezuelan government and one of the maximum leaders of the demobilized FARC Colombian guerrilla group, Luciano Marín alias Iván Márquez, for drug trafficking, U.S. government sources confirmed to Univision Noticias. The identity of the Venezuelan official remains confidential so as not to affect the investigation’s advance.
U.S. authorities are investigating a video of the 62-year-old ex-guerrilla leader in which he presumably speaks with someone presenting himself as a collaborator of the Mexican capo Rafael Caro Quintero, in a meeting that happened after the peace accord went into effect.

From Caquetá, Iván Márquez said that he would not take his seat in the Colombian Senate on July 20, when the new legislative session begins, if Santrich is not freed. (The peace accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in Colombia’s Senate and House during the 2018-22 and 2022-26 congressional periods.) FARC leader Carlos Antonio Lozada said that the ex-guerrillas are asking Márquez to reconsider. Because Márquez served briefly as a congressman during a failed 1980s peace process, Lozada said, “He has parliamentary experience and this would be extremely helpful to us.”

When the FARC met in late August and early September to launch its political party and choose its leadership, the delegates in attendance gave Iván Márquez the most votes. Though Márquez has not explicitly threatened to do so, should he abandon the process, because of this internal popularity he would be likely to take many ex-guerrillas with him. La Silla Vacía spoke with several former mid-level leaders who are seriously considering a return to clandestinity.

The same La Silla article analyzed how the Santrich case is exacerbating divisions within the ex-guerrillas. While Márquez has taken a hard line and insisted that his friend’s arrest is a “setup,” maximum leader Timoleón Jiménez and other moderates have stated that those who violate the law in the post-accord period must face consequences as agreed. These divisions existed during the peace talks, the article continues.

From Havana, while the negotiations were occurring, two sources told us separately that his [Santrich’s] sharp tongue and intransigence not only bothered the government’s negotiating team. Within the FARC team they also began to feel that he wasn’t allowing the discussions to advance, to the point at which they once said that it would be better if he returned to Colombia.
“Iván defended him and said that if Santrich went, he would go too,” one of the sources told us.
Later, during the convention from which the party emerged in September of last year, “Santrich and his people, most of them academics who had helped us from clandestinity, questioned Timo’s [Timoleón Jiménez’s] command. They said that it was the moment to renew and have civilian commanders, with more time and youth ahead of them, instead of military commanders. Some were quite rude to him,” a source who is part of the FARC party and attended those meetings told us.

In his missive warning about “throwing away peace,” former government negotiator De la Calle urged Colombia’s justice system to try Santrich in Colombia, rather than swiftly extraditing him to the United States. “His victims have the right to know the truth; don’t cast them adrift, as occurred with the extradited paramilitaries’ victims.” El Tiempo reported that De la Calle’s proposal was not catching on in Bogotá political circles.

Meanwhile, El Espectador reminds that the U.S. government continues to offer a US$5 million reward for information leading to the capture of Timoleón Jiménez or Iván Márquez, who are both wanted on charges of narcotrafficking that took place before the peace accord.

Alleged Irregularities in Management of Peace Funds

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) continues to investigate allegations of malfeasance in the awarding of contracts to implement programs to fulfill the peace accords. The Fiscalía is now looking at 12 people who may have served as intermediaries, receiving kickbacks in exchange for steering contracts to businesses or individuals. Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez says that evidence includes 80,000 telephone records.

A key witness in this investigation is Marlon Marín, a nephew of FARC leader Iván Márquez, who also happens to be a key witness in the case against Jesús Santrich. Marín went to the United States on April 17, where he has agreed to give evidence against Santrich. The Fiscalía has also reached an agreement with U.S. authorities to allow them to question Marín about misuse of peace funds. Marín gave Colombian prosecutors hours of testimony about this before leaving the country. In a recording, Marín can be heard asking a would-be contractor for a 5 percent kickback, instead of the 12 percent “that traditional politicians ask for,” and said that his ties to the new FARC party’s leadership would be useful in securing contracts.

Colombia’s Treasury Ministry has hired the accounting firm Ernst and Young to review contracts granted by the Colombia in Peace Fund, the mechanism channeling hundreds of millions of dollars in funds from many international donors and from Colombia’s national budget.

Two Afro-Colombian Leaders Remain Detained

Prosecutors released several of 33 social leaders from southwest Colombia who had been arrested the previous week to face charges of collaborating with the ELN. However, two women leaders from an Afro-Colombian community along the border with Ecuador, in the Alto Mira region of Tumaco, Nariño, remain in custody.

In a Cali court, Sara Quiñones of the Alto Mira Community Council and her mother, Tulia Marys Valencia, were among a group of 11 local leaders being charged. Two of this group were freed, and one confined to house arrest. The other eight, including the two women, remain in custody. Prosecutor Roberto Gordillo demanded this because they are “a danger to society,” asking that they be charged with sedition and aggravated conspiracy to traffic drugs.

According to Verdad Abierta, “Several sources consulted, who for security reasons asked not to use their names, contended that Gordillo, the number 11 Specialized Prosecutor Against Organized Crime, made serious discriminatory, racist, and condemnatory references.” The prosecutor reportedly referred to Colombia’s Pacific coast as “a nest of criminals” inhabited by an “extremely violent” population. He went on, “attacking human rights defenders by saying that we mask ourselves in subversive activities and narcotrafficking,” a source told Verdad Abierta.

Presiding judge Moisés Malaver was apparently convinced by the prosecutor’s arguments, as he sent Quiñones and Valencia to await trial in the Jamundí women’s prison outside Cali. “Although the decision was appealed,” Verad Abierta reported, “its resolution could take two months.”

Tumaco Violence Degrades Further with “Casas de Pique”

Nearly 20,000 people marched in the Pacific port city of Tumaco, in Nariño near the Ecuador border, on April 27 to demand an end to violence between an assortment of dissident guerrilla bands, the ELN, and organized crime groups. La Silla Vacía noted that the march was organized mainly by the mayor’s office, the Catholic church, and the local Chamber of Commerce, with little participation of civil-society groups.

Tumaco’s police had been celebrating a streak of 25 days without a homicide in the city’s urban core (population about 100,000), even though it sits along the busiest cocaine trafficking route in Colombia. Local Police Chief Col. José Palomino credited a security crackdown including 24-hour military patrols of neighborhoods.

However, La Silla reported, “other sources don’t dismiss the possibility that homicides have been replaced with disappearances that, according to three sources, have shot upward.”

Many of the disappeared, it seems, are being tortured and dismembered alive in so-called “chop houses” (casas de pique) in the midst of Tumaco neighborhoods. This is a return to a practice that horrified many circa 2014, when reports emerged of gangs and paramilitaries using casas de pique in the larger Pacific port of Buenaventura.

The grisly news comes from the government Internal-Affairs Office (Procuraduría), whose Land Restitution unit issued an as-yet unpublished report documenting the existence of at least seven such houses in Tumaco. At least one may be operated by the “United Guerrillas of the Pacific,” a FARC dissident group headed by alias “David,” and at least one more by the “Oliver Sinisterra Front” dissidents headed by Walter Artizala alias “Guacho.” After disappearing and chopping up their victims, the groups take the bodies onto boats and dump them in the open sea.

“It’s a strategy to discipline people,” Internal Affairs chief (Procurador) Fernando Carrillo said. A Tumaco-based investigator told La Silla Vacía that most victims are “snitches” who gave information about the criminal groups, or people who didn’t make extortion payments.

Meanwhile in rural Tumaco, or perhaps just over the border in Ecuador, the dissident group headed by “Guacho” continues to hold two Ecuadorian citizens hostage. The group also continues to hold the remains of two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver, whom it kidnapped and killed in March. Ecuador’s government received an apparent message from Guacho early in the week asking that security forces pull out to create a “humanitarian corridor” to allow the group to free its captives and hand over the bodies.

Nothing has since happened, though. By the end of the week, Ecuador’s presidency secretary, Juan Sebastián Roldán, told a local television outlet, “We don’t have contact with the criminals,” and said that the situation of the two kidnapped people is in Colombian hands because they are not on Ecuadorian soil.

Violence in Catatumbo

Transportation and commerce resumed in the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia on April 30 after the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small but locally strong guerrilla group, lifted an “armed stoppage” that prohibited vehicles from transiting and businesses from opening for at least two weeks. The situation in the region remains tense, though, as the EPL and ELN, which have been in open combat since mid-March, continue to fight.

Norte de Santander human rights ombudsman Nélson Arévalo told El Colombiano that the historically conflictive coca-growing region had returned to “a semi-tranquility …because the conflict between those two illegal groups continues and may generate more displacement. For example, in the last several hours new combats have been reported.” Arévalo said that many of the thousands of people displaced by lack of food during the armed stoppage might now return to their homes, but that those who displaced for humanitarian reasons might remain in their places of refuge.

In a report for The Guardian, reporter Mathew Charles visited the region, and noted that much of the fighting seeks to occupy parts of Catatumbo abandoned by the FARC’s 33rd Front, which demobilized in early 2017.

Down the road, in the town of El Tarra, a group of locals gathered in the midday heat to call for peace. “The guerrillas should be fighting for the people, not against us. With Farc, we knew where we stood. They had their laws and they’d sort out any problems we had. Since they’ve gone, it’s just got worse,” said one woman.
Hovering above the protest is a Colombian army helicopter. “This is as close as the government gets,” said Álvaro, 22, pointing upwards.

Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, visiting the Catatumbo municipality of Tibú, said that security forces there continue to carry out a campaign called “Sparta,” begun since January. Villegas said that security forces in that time have captured 168 members of the ELN and other groups.

The two presidential candidates who are furthest to the right on the political spectrum, frontrunner Iván Duque and Germán Vargas Lleras, have both paid recent visits to Catatumbo, a region where voters overwhelmingly supported the peace accord in a October 2016 referendum.

Vargas advised the region’s armed groups “to take full advantage of the three months they have left, because on August 7 [inauguration day] we’re going to fight them like they’ve never imagined.” Duque promised that “I will hold my first security council meeting in Tibú.” Both spoke as well about infrastructure investments. Neither mentioned forced eradication of coca, including aerial herbicide spraying, an option that both strongly favor. Past eradication campaigns have drawn fierce protests from organized farmers in Catatumbo.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of April 22-28)

Jesús Santrich Case

Arrested FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison, where he is continuing a hunger strike that began after his April 9 arrest. He agreed to receive medical attention, but only from “trusted personnel.”

Colombia’s judicial system—both the transitional system set up by the FARC peace accord and the regular criminal system—are awaiting a formal request for Santrich’s extradition from the U.S. Justice Department’s Southern District of New York. That is where Santrich was indicted on April 4 to face charges of conspiring with Mexican traffickers to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

The Colombian investigative website La Silla Vacía reported that three people with whom the site consulted,

(a journalist who has covered narcotrafficking for decades, an investigator who is an expert on the issue, and a lawyer who used to defend narcos), said that upon viewing the evidence, they were convinced that the case is not a fake setup.
… What they do believe is that it looks like “entrapment” by the DEA, which over several months put together an operation with undercover agents in order to catch someone in the act who believed he was negotiating with narcos.

Santrich’s closest ally in the FARC leadership, Iván Márquez, told an interviewer that until the jailed ex-guerrilla leader is freed, Márquez will not take his seat in Colombia’s Senate. (The peace accord gives the FARC five seats in each chamber of Colombia’s Congress for eight years, starting when the new session begins in July.) “How can I go on July 20 and be a senator… when they could go and tell me I’m a narcotrafficker? …What I’m saying is very hard because it means the failure of the peace process in Colombia.”

Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator in the Havana peace talks and is often referred to as the group’s number-two leader, was elected to Congress and served briefly during a failed 1980s FARC process. He left Bogotá in mid-April, relocating to a former demobilization site in a rural zone of his native department of Caquetá. If Márquez does not serve in the Senate, his seat will go to Israel Alberto Zúniga alias Benkos Biojó, the former commander of the FARC’s 34th front in Chocó and Urabá.

Márquez’s angry statements about the Santrich situation contrast with calls from other top FARC leaders, who have called for calm. “The moment we signed the accord, we accepted the constitution and the laws,” reads a statement from top FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, “and it is our duty to act according to them. Whoever does not should prepare for the consequences, and it would be difficult for them to ask the [FARC] party’s solidarity.” A source in the FARC told El Tiempo of “alarm” within the organization about apparent divergence between the group’s hardliners, like Márquez, and moderates.

A key hardliner, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa,” abandoned the Caquetá demobilization site where he was living (Miravalle, the same site where Márquez is now), conditioning his return on Santrich’s freedom. During the conflict, Velásquez headed one of the FARC’s most deadly and powerful units, the Teófilo Forero Column active in south-central Colombia and occasionally in cities. According to La Silla Vacía, this unit carried out the 2003 El Nogal bomb attack in Bogotá, which killed 36 people; the 2001 kidnapping of 12 from a building in Neiva, the capital of Huila; the 2003 “house bomb” that killed 6 in Neiva; the 2000 assassination of congressman Diego Turbay; the 2002 airplane hijacking and kidnapping of a senator that triggered the end of the 1998-2002 peace process; and the 2012 bomb in Bogotá targeting former interior minister Fernando Londoño.

Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera pointed out that “El Paisa” is free to leave anytime. “The Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces are not a prison. People can come and go freely.” This is true at least until they are called to stand trial for war crimes in the new transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

“Alias ‘El Paisa’ was always resistant to the peace process,” Angela Olaya and James Bargent of the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory told La Silla. “It wouldn’t be strange if he finally dropped out of the process.”

“Of course he is in the process,” Iván Márquez told an interviewer.

Don’t you see how he’s working? I’m going to take his place while I’m here [at the demobilization site]. …I would like to keep seeing “Paisa” in this situation, and not in another, not in a confrontation. He isn’t thinking of war, he’s not thinking about being a dissident. He’s thinking of Santrich being freed and in resources coming to finance productive projects.

Local Leaders Swept Up in Wave of Arrests on Charges of ELN Collaboration

On April 20 and over the following weekend, Colombian authorities arrested between 33 and 42 individuals, including social leaders and former municipal officials, in the southwestern department of Nariño and the city of Cali. The Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) is charging many with being part of the ELN or its support network. Some have been released for lack of evidence.

Perhaps the best known of the arrested was Harold Montúfar, who served between 2004 and 2007 as mayor of Samaniego municipality in Nariño. One of several former Samaniego mayors or officials arrested, Montúfar was known as an active promoter of peace during, and since, his tenure. Samaniego has long been an ELN stronghold, and is notorious throughout the country for the large number of guerrilla-laid landmines scattered throughout its territory. Montufar has led efforts to make humanitarian demining possible, an effort that requires dialogue with local ELN leaders. In addition, he promoted a Local Peace Pact that brought important reductions in violence to the Samaniego region. Montúfar had traveled to Quito, where the government’s peace negotiations with the ELN until recently were taking place, to promote the idea of reviving the Pact.

“Activists who know Montúfar’s social and political trajectory” told Verdad Abierta “that at least since 2000, authorities have tried to link him to the ELN guerrillas.” Samaniego priest Jhon Fredy Bolívar told La Silla Vacía,

“Here anybody who doesn’t have a link to those people [the ELN] can’t live in Samaniego, because they enter houses, demand things, take food and basic goods, it’s part of the dynamic of the conflict we’re living through. Farmers, church, officials, everyone ends up getting tied to the conflict in some way because you help, or if you don’t help you must prepare for the consequences.”

Montúfar was freed later in the week.

Still in custody is Sara Quiñones, a leader of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council, an Afro-Colombian community settlement in Tumaco, Nariño, along the Ecuador border. She was arrested in Cali, where she had been taking refuge from death threats, along with her mother, Tulia Marys Valencia, who was also arrested. The Fiscalía accused Quiñones of being an ELN member since 2013, “in charge of financial tasks directed at subversive activities and narco-trafficking.” It accused her mother of being a presumed “guerrilla militia member” since 2013 “who has used her social work to carry out intelligence and recruitment tasks.”

Quiñones’s and Valencia’s arrests come just weeks after the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, on March 11, ordered protective measures for Quiñones and other members of the Alto Mira y Frontera leadership. Verdad Abierta reports that they are now being subject to cruel treatment.

Those present at this judicial hearing expressed their concern about the poor treatment that Sara Quiñones and her mother are receiving: “They’re strong, but they want to break them with the conditions. While some women are placed in a jail in the south that is newer with better conditions, they ended up in a station in the center of Cali, the most disgusting of all.”

The chief of the Fiscalía’s organized crime unit, Claudia Carrasquilla—who has a past record of going after paramilitary organizations—responded to questions with tough talk, as Verdad Abierta reported.

“It’s an investigation that had been ongoing in the Organized Crime Directorate against the ELN’s Southwestern War Front, in which it was evident that some former public officials and leaders were possibly at the ELN’s service, above all in the management of support networks and finances,” Carrasquilla explained.
“We knew that this was a complex process, that was going to generate what it is generating, the disagreement of the majority of human rights collectives, precisely because the majority of the arrest orders went against that type of people. But we wanted to go very strong, with very compelling elements, to be able to try them.”

The Black Communities Process (PCN), a grouping of Afro-Colombian organizations especially active in the Pacific region, condemned the arrests of Quiñones and Valencia as “judicial false positives.” PCN leader Charo Mina told Contagio Radio, “It’s a criminalization process, and it’s what we’re used to seeing from the Fiscalía, showing its opposition to the ELN dialogues.”

Procedural Law for Transitional Justice System Introduced in Congress

The transitional justice system set up by the peace accords to try war crimes, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), took another step toward being able to function fully. The last piece of legislation needed to establish it is now before Congress. Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero presented a 76-article bill, drafted with input from the new system’s judges, that would become the JEP’s Procedural Law.

This is the third piece of needed legislation. Colombia’s Congress approved the first, a constitutional amendment, in May 2017, and it received Constitutional Court approval in November. The second, the statutory law governing the JEP’s functioning, passed the Congress in late November and the Constitutional Court is still reviewing it. Congress will also have to pass the new bill—which is far from guaranteed before the next session begins on July 20—and it will probably have to undergo court review.

These long delays occur while 6,094 former guerrillas, 1,792 current and former armed-forces members, 44 former civilian officials, and 6 private citizens await judgement in the JEP for alleged involvement in serious human rights crimes. Still, even without all laws in place, the JEP has been able to start working, getting established and beginning written reviews of case files. It has stumbled in recent weeks, though, as internal disagreements over structure and procedure turned nasty, resulting in the April exit of tribunal administrator Nestor Raul Correa.

Army Patrols Medellín’s Troubled Comuna 13

Comuna (Ward) 13, a complex of poor neighborhoods on Medellín’s western edge, became nationally known in 2002 when recently elected president Álvaro Uribe ordered an intense military offensive there against guerrilla militia groups. Operations Mariscal and Orion ejected the militias (essentially, guerrilla-tied gangs) with significant loss of life, only to end up replacing them with paramilitary-tied gangs, some of whom participated in the operations alongside the troops.

The Army was back in Comuna 13 this week, amid a crime wave. 300 soldiers are patrolling the neighborhoods in an effort to weaken violent gangs that residents call “combos” and local officials call “ODINs” (Organizaciones Delincuenciales Integradas al Narcotráfico, Narcotrafficking-Linked Criminal Organizations). Fighting between gangs in recent days had killed four people, confined people to their houses, and shuttered schools.

El Espectador explains the complicated situation:

As Medellín Security Secretary Andrés Felipe Tobón explained it, two illegal groups are present in the Comuna: La Agonía and El Coco, which have not only occupied territory for years, but are also aligned with two other larger, more powerful armed structures: the ODIN Caicedo and the ODIN Robledo. Carlos Pesebre formed part of the second group, and until recently it was under the command of Cristian Camilo Mazo Castañeda, alias Sombra, who was captured last Saturday in El Peñol municipality. As a result, the authorities’ conclusion is that the fighting this week responds—in large part—to ODIN Caicedo taking advantage of the momentary lack of leadership in ODIN Robledo to attack its structures.

Transportation companies—which are routinely extorted by gangs—have been especially targeted. A public bus was set on fire in the Calasanz neighborhood. Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez blamed “Juancito,” the 45-year-old leader of the “Betanía” combo, for the threats and attacks on bus companies.

Authorities dismissed as fake several flyers circulating in parts of the city declaring a curfew enforced by the “Gaitanistas,” one of the names used by the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Still, residents of the marginal neighborhoods tell reporters that they are restricting their movements.

Medellín Police commander Gen. Óscar Gómez Heredia told El Colombiano that his force has 320 men patrolling the neighborhoods, in addition to the soldiers. But a reporting team from the Medellín daily wrote, “We passed through eight neighborhoods of Comuna 13 yesterday morning. In all of the zone, El Colombiano only found two police patrolling in the La Torre sector, and several soldiers posted alongside a military base.”

EPL “Armed Stoppage” Pauses in Catatumbo, Violence Continues

A humanitarian crisis continues in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. Home to the country’s second-largest concentration of coca crops, this neglected territory has strong social organizations and a historic presence of FARC, ELN, and EPL guerrillas.

The latter group (Popular Liberation Army), which is only active in Catatumbo, has been enforcing an “armed stoppage” for about two weeks, preventing road travel, confining people in their communities, and forcing businesses and schools to close. In the face of emphatic protests from communities faced with the possibility of running out of food, the EPL announced a 60-hour pause in its stoppage, from the morning of April 24 to the evening of the 26th.

The April 23 announcement read, “our guerrilla organization is open to dialogue to solve the differences between the two guerrilla organizations.” This refers to fighting that broke out between the EPL and ELN around March 14, and has since killed about 30 people and forced over 4,600 to displace.

The government calls the EPL “Los Pelusos,” and considers them a regional organized crime structure. The organization calls itself an insurgent group, organized as the Libardo Mora Toro Front, that can trace its lineage to a Maoist guerrilla organization that mostly demobilized in 1991. The EPL remnant has been growing, and estimates of its current size range from 130 to 400-500 combatants, which would make it at least as large as the ELN contingent active in Catatumbo. The EPL is also regarded as the wealthiest illegal group in Catatumbo. Its longtime leader alias “Megateo”—killed by the security forces in late 2015—built a vigorous operation trafficking cocaine across the Venezuelan border.

Verdad Abierta explained the EPL’s origins in a lengthy article published this week. It reports that the Libardo Mora Toro Front has been in Catatumbo since early 1982, where it coexisted alongside the FARC’s 33rd Front and two ELN fronts. As soon as it decided not to participate in the EPL’s late 1980s-early 1990s peace process, the Front involved itself in drug trafficking. After the 2015 killing of “Megateo,” alias “David León” took over leadership. He emphasized ideology and growth through recruitment until his September 2016 capture.

Since then, the EPL’s leadership has been in flux. “It’s gotten so that very young people arrive in power, who don’t have enough political education and who are more contaminated by narcotrafficking,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based human rights group Fundación Progresar told Verdad Abierta. “At least, that’s what the ELN members say: that they want to get the EPL out of the region because they’re tired of their mafioso way of acting, that they’ve lost their revolutionary vocation.”

Until recently, Verdad Abierta notes, “ELN guerrillas and members of the Libardo Mora Toro Front walked together through the same Catatumbo hamlets as though they were members of the same family, or at least the same organization.” They patrolled together and fought the military or paramilitary groups together. “Here in the region there were accords between guerrillas, and between guerrillas and the community: for example, not to use weapons or wear camouflage in the town centers; respect the work of social organizations; respect international humanitarian law; respect each armed group’s boundaries,” a resident of the central Catatumbo town of El Tarra told Verdad Abierta. “But the ELN and EPL mutually accuse each other of having violated those accords, of not respecting community work, of not respecting boundaries.”

The same source says much disagreement centers on the marketing of coca paste that they purchase from the region’s growers. The FARC had controlled much of this business until its late 2016-early 2017 demobilization. Competition between the ELN and EPL intensified.“The ELN pay COP$3.2 million or COP$3.1 million [just over US$1,100] per kilo of coca paste, two, three, four months at a time. On the other hand, “The Pelusos,” to win people over, started paying COP$3.5 million per kilo [US$1,242], all at once. And the ELN didn’t like that at all.”

Verdad Abierta reports that the situation has grown still more complicated with the presence of another actor in the region: intermediaries from Mexican cartels. “The Sinaloa Cartel is buying the majority of coca that’s coming out of Catatumbo. They are in the territory,” said Cañizares of the Fundación Progresar. Today, “we’re not talking about campesinos with three or four hectares, we’re talking about campesinos with more then 10 hectares of coca leaf.”

Criminal groups also make money by trafficking cheap gasoline from Venezuela, precursor chemicals, and weapons. Some specialize in refining a crude gasoline from oil siphoned from the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, which passes through Catatumbo’s center. This gets used to refine coca paste from the dried leaves.

After a March 14 meeting between the two groups erupted in violence, ELN-EPL fighting has raged unabated. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 90,000 Catatumbo residents have seen their ability to travel in the zone reduced or curtailed, in some places resulting in total confinement. At least 80 schools have closed their doors, leaving 45,000 kids without classes. OCHA also notes that armed-group pressure has 10 social leaders to abandon their organizations.

A leader of CISCA, a Catatumbo campesino network, noted to Verdad Abierta that some of the most violent communities are those that the Colombian government had pinpointed as priorities for implementing the FARC peace accord. “But, what has been done? Nothing. Neither crop substitution nor Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). Nothing. Later, they’ll say they couldn’t do it because of the violence, even though the Accord was signed two years ago and this violence got worse only a month ago.” Cañizares of Fundación Progresar held a similar view:

“The FARC concentrated in Caño Indio [the demobilization site in Tibú municipality] and the Santos government said: now the state will arrive. And nothing. Before [2004], when the paramilitaries demobilized in Campo Dos [Tibú], the Uribe government said: the state is arriving. And nothing. When the EPL concentrated in Campo Giles [Tibú], the Gaviria government committed to building an aqueduct for that township. Today there is no potable water. The state never arrived, but those who did come quickly were the illegal armed actors.”

This week, in response to the crisis in Catatumbo, Mariana Escobar, director of the Territorial Renovation Agency—the new entity that implements the PDETs in compliance with Chapter 1 of the Havana accord—promised to present within 10 days a “road map” for structuring PDETs in the region. And a group of 2,000 soldiers from the Army’s Engineering Brigade arrived with promises to help meet infrastructure needs in the areas of ELN-EPL fighting. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo, visiting the city of Ocaña at Catatumbo’s periphery, said that 12,000 members of the police and military are already deployed in the region.

However, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Army Commander Gen. Ricardo Gómez Nieto angered some in Catatumbo by insisting that conditions in the zone were calm. Villegas questioned the Norte de Santander governor’s decision to suspend classes in the region’s schools, and Gen. Nieto said that after a visit he saw little evidence of war.

According to La Silla Vacía, “part of the complexity of combating both the ELN and the EPL is that their men, in their majority, are born and bred in the region.”

They were recruited there and are relatives or friends of the zone’s inhabitants. So networks of paid informants don’t work as well here as in other regions. In addition, since both groups’ guerrillas spend much of their time dressed in civilian clothing, it is very hard to identify them. And as they’re in a border zone, when they’re chased, they go to the Venezuelan side.

Somos Defensores Reports on January-March Attacks on Social Leaders

The non-governmental organization Somos Defensores, which monitors attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders, published its latest quarterly report. It documents a dramatically worsening situation.

Forty-six rights defenders or local leaders were murdered during January through March: one every two days. That is up from 20 in the same period of 2017. Somos Defensores categorized their work as follows:

  • Community Action Board leader: 13 victims
  • Community leader: 11 victims
  • Campesino or Agrarian leader: 8 victims
  • Indigenous leader or rights defender: 7 victims
  • Economic, Social, Cultural rights defender: 3 victims
  • Afro-Colombian leader: 3 victims
  • Victims leader: 1 victim

Leaders of Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), hamlet or neighborhood-level advisory bodies first established in the 1960s, are heavily represented because many of their members are independent local leaders. Nine of the dead were members of a cross-cutting category: participants in coca substitution programs established by Chapter 4 of the Havana peace accord.

In 11 of the homicide cases, the report identifies the group presumed responsible. The security forces appear four times, paramilitary/organized crime groups three times, FARC dissidents twice, and the ELN twice. Thirty of the forty-six murders took place in just five departments: Cauca (8), Antioquia (7), Norte de Santander (7), Arauca (4), and Córdoba (4).

As Colombia’s slow-moving government apparatus struggles to respond to the problem, the Interior Ministry promulgated a decree that would make possible more collective protection measures for entire communities. According to Contagio Radio, the decree “seeks to create and implement an Integral Security and Protection Program for Communities and Organizations in the Territories, and define necessary measures that protect communities in an comprehensive manner.”

President Santos Visits U.S. Southern Command in Miami

While briefly in Miami, President Santos paid a visit to the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command, the Defense Department body responsible for U.S. military activities in all of Latin America except Mexico, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. In remarks, he effusively thanked those in attendance for 18 years of military assistance since Plan Colombia was launched in 2000. He also talked up the peace process using defense-friendly language.

Any asymmetric war today ends in a negotiation, regardless of what ends up being negotiated. And that’s what we did: a negotiation that from our point of view was a cheap negotiation. With regard to what we sacrificed, compared to what they were demanding at the beginning of the process, it was practically free of cost.
…That’s something the world is applauding, admiring, and studying, and this is something that was possible thanks to the very special relationship we’ve had with the Southern Command.

Meanwhile, while testifying in Colombia’s Congress about a military corruption scandal, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Alberto Mejía mentioned that during the previous week, they signed a 5-year cooperation agreement with the U.S. government to combat narcotrafficking.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Still catching up. This is the week of April 15-21.)

Ecuador Will No Longer Host the ELN Negotiations

The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, announced April 18 that his country will no longer host the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN. Government representatives and guerrilla leaders had held five rounds of talks in Quito since February 2017. Moreno’s announcement came days after the murder of two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver, whom a group of re-armed FARC guerrillas had abducted in late March on Ecuador’s side of the border with Colombia.

“I have asked the foreign minister of Ecuador to put the brakes on the conversations and put the brakes on our role as a guarantor of the peace process while the ELN does not commit to ending terrorist actions,” Moreno told Colombian cable news network NTN24.

“President Santos understands the reasons why President Moreno has decided to move away from his role as guarantor and host of these negotiations,” Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín responded, adding that Colombia will seek a new foreign country in which to hold the talks, which have made only very modest progress on their agenda. The candidate leading polls for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election, rightist Iván Duque, endorsed Ecuador’s move: “President Moreno was completely right to suspend the dialogues with the ELN. What President Santos did not do, the Ecuadorian government did well.”

The talks’ remaining five guarantor countries are Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela. Analysts asked by Colombian media coincided in the view that Cuba or perhaps Chile is the best choice for a new venue: Brazil is about to have elections, Chile just inaugurated a new conservative government, Norway is too far away, and Venezuela is roiled by political and economic instability. Another option would be to continue the original vision of “itinerant” negotiations that move from country to country, which poses logistical challenges.

Moreno’s decision came after the journalists’ kidnapping-murder, another kidnapping of two Ecuadorians who remain in custody, and several attacks on Ecuador’s security forces in the border region, mainly in the Pacific province of Esmeraldas. All of these actions were perpetrated by the so-called Oliver Sinisterra Front, a grouping of ex-FARC members headed by Walter Arizara, an Ecuadorian-born former FARC member who goes by the alias “Guacho.” Though the ELN has nothing to do with Guacho’s group’s actions, the attacks on Ecuadorian soil have soured public opinion in the country toward Colombian armed groups in general.

The Colombian journalism website Verdad Abierta adds that Ecuador’s government was also probably miffed at the “lack of diplomatic tact” with which Colombia’s government handled the reporters’ kidnapping and murder.

For more than two years, annoyance has been incubating within the Ecuadorian Defense Ministry over their Colombian counterparts’ lack of commitment to the design of a joint border security strategy that would include contingency plans. Since that time, it was known that some FARC units wouldn’t accept the accords signed with the Colombian government.
… A researcher who has studied the armed conflict dynamic in that border region for several years, and who asked not to use his/her name, affirmed… “The Ecuadorian government has always felt undervalued by the Colombian government. The situation intensified with President Juan Manuel Santos’s response to the situation with the murdered journalists. This had several elements, for example that he did not go to Ecuador to meet with Moreno at a moment of intense pain for Ecuadorians. This was seen as an affront.”
That atmosphere became even tenser after President Santos’s clumsy statements saying that “Guacho” was Ecuadorian and that the reporters were killed in Ecuador. Those statements were interpreted by many Ecuadorian people, including by international bodies as saying “that’s Ecuador’s problem.”

On April 15, two days after President Moreno announced the reporters’ death, President Santos recognized that the reporters were killed on Colombian soil. The bodies remain there, unrecovered.

On April 19 someone—the Colombian military said the ELN—bombed a power pylon in Nariño, Colombia, shutting off electricity throughout the border region, including the troubled port city of Tumaco. The peace talks, meanwhile, continue to seek a new venue at which to resume their fifth round.

Aftermath of the Arrest of Jesús Santrich

Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, the FARC ideologist and negotiator arrested April 9 on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine, was transferred to southern Bogotá’s La Picota prison, where he will remain as Colombian judicial authorities determine whether he should be separated from the peace accords’ transitional justice process and extradited to the United States. Colombia’s Supreme Court denied a habeas corpus motion seeking his release; his lawyers contended, unsuccessfully, that the transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) should have executed the arrest order instead of the regular criminal justice system.

From his confinement, Santrich gave an interview to Colombia’s W Radio news station. He confirmed that he had spoken to Mexican traffickers —who were either undercover DEA agents, or had one or more DEA agents embedded in their group—but thought that they were potential investors in post-conflict agricultural projects. Santrich had been put into contact with the Mexicans by Marlon Marín, a lawyer who is the nephew of chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, a close associate of Santrich’s on the FARC party’s hardline wing.

Santrich said his relationship with Marín “is a working relationship about ideas for productive projects, specifically about farms growing native crops, to implement in zones where the accord on integral rural reform will be carried out.” He said that he did not know the name of Rafael Caro Quintero, the top Mexican drug trafficker whom his intermediaries claimed to be representing. “It’s very hard for me to keep in mind who could be a narco or not. Many people came to my house with the idea of contributing to moving the peace process forward, and all of the people who came were registered with the National Police.” Asked about the ink drawing he gave the Mexicans, dedicated to Caro Quintero, he said that he thought Caro was a potential investor, and that he had given similar drawings to Vice-President Óscar Naranjo and presidential post-conflict chief Rafael Pardo.

“You will never hear words like ‘cocaine, payment, five-kilogram packages’ come out of my mouth,” Santrich said. “This is like an Indiana Jones movie, everyone adding special effects and the setup is right around the corner.” He added, “It’s more likely that cocaine passed through the nose of the chief prosecutor of the nation than through my hands.” Recordings of Santrich’s conversations with the Mexicans, currently in U.S. authorities’ possession, may give a clearer idea of to what extent Santrich knowingly discussed a plan to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States, or how he reacted when Marlon Marín—who had urged Santrich to meet the Mexicans—discussed the plan in his presence.

Yezid Arteta, a former FARC member turned columnist for Semana magazine’s website, called Marín “the typical lizard that one finds in all political parties and institutions, who seems to be one of the planners of the trap laid for Santrich.” On April 16, Marlon Marín boarded a flight to New York, where he has agreed to testify against Jesús Santrich as a cooperating witness. Asked about his relationship with his nephew, FARC leader Iván Márquez only said he was a “gentleman” whose “conduct will have to be investigated.”

On April 19 Márquez, who is slated to take a seat in Colombia’s Senate on July 20, notified Colombia’s Police and National Protection Unit that he was leaving Bogotá, moving “temporarily to the territorial space [FARC demobilization site] in Miravalle,” in the southern department of Caquetá, “due to the situation and until there is greater clarity and certainty about what comes next.” Santrich, on a hunger strike in La Picota, said he would rather starve to death than be extradited.

Aftermath of Revelation of Peace Fund Irregularities

A week after Colombian media reported on letters from European ambassadors and from Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) voicing concerns about the management of special peace accord implementation funds, President Santos announced a “crash plan” to improve monitoring of resources and administrative steps to restructure management of resources from international donors.

The concerns center around the “Colombia in Peace Fund,” which concentrates a few hundred million dollars in resources for peace accord implementation projects, most of them from foreign donors. Though the fund is subject to close oversight and reporting, in order to speed delivery of aid it is largely exempt from often cumbersome procedures in regular Colombian law designed to prevent corruption in contracting.

The government found that 97 percent of the fund’s resources so far have gone to 40 contracts. “That’s why the denunciations and suspicions that persist about supposed poor management are so concerning,” reads an editorial in El Espectador. “In synthesis, it seems that the corrupt political bureaucracy that is so rooted in our country has also tried to stick its hand in the investments that should be consolidating the accord’s implementation.”

The concerns led to the dismissal of Carlos Fidel Simancas, a contractor of the International Organization for Migration who worked in the Presidency’s Post-Conflict Secretariat. “In that Secretariat,” El Tiempo reported, Simancas

was the manager of former Green Party congressional candidate Sonia Elvira Veloza Mogollón, who last Friday was called for questioning at the Fiscalía as part of the “group of people who played specific roles” in the presumed irregularities in the management of productive projects for demobilized FARC.
Another eight people—a list that does not include Simancas—were also called to the Fiscalía, and their offices and homes were searched on suspicion of being part of the network of Marlon Marín Marín, who according to the investigative body was a sort of articulator of a network that sought to enrich itself with peace contracts.
Marlon Marín first sought to obtain a cut of the contracts for basic healthcare at the demobilized combatants’ concentration sites.

This is the same Marlon Marín involved in the arrest of Jesús Santrich, the FARC leader’s nephew whom columnist Yezid Arteta referred to above as a “lizard.” Before discovering his efforts to strike a cocaine deal with Mexicans, Colombian authorities were already monitoring Marín because they suspected he was mishandling these health contracts.

Vice President Óscar Naranjo said that the government will seek “to accelerate the accords’ implementation, especially with relation to productive projects.” Treasury Vice-Minister Paula Acosta said that the government has contracted the accounting firm Ernst and Young to audit the contracts awarded so far.

Naranjo promised a detailed review of post-conflict productive projects. He said there are 214 such projects so far, in different states of development. Among them, 35, involving 1,533 ex-FARC members, are in the “formulation phase” and will cost about COP$22.764 billion (US$8.081 million).

“This is no reason, certainly, to slow implementation” of the peace accord, concluded El Espectador’s editorial. “The accord has already faltered too much for the government to keep delaying compliance with its promises. The money is there precisely to be spent as soon as possible and to put in motion everything that was promised. Can’t we do this with transparency?”

UN Secretary General Reports on Peace Process

The UN Security Council convened on September 19 to hear the Secretary General’s latest report on the peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission. The ambassadors in attendance gave supportive statements and celebrated the progress away from conflict that Colombia has made. Some, most notably Russia, voiced concerns about the pace of implementation.

“While it is obviously too early to take stock of a peace process that has set ambitious and long-term goals,” UN Mission Head Jean Arnault told the Council that there is reason for optimism.

[W]e have already observed that it has achieved a notable reduction of violence in the context of the congressional elections. Similarly, it has created a series of institutions dedicated to overcoming patterns of social, economic and political violence in the conflict areas. …Throughout the implementation phase of the Peace Agreement, circumstances have occasionally tested the commitment of the two parties to stay the course. They have stayed the course.

Nonetheless Arnault, and the Secretary-General’s report, warned of problems. “[T]he resurgence of violence in several of the areas most affected by the conflict and the persistent pattern of killings of community and social leaders are the main subjects of concern at present,” the report emphasized.

The report highlights the slowness with which Colombia is reintegrating former FARC combatants.

Socioeconomic reintegration is lagging behind. The transition from early reinsertion to sustainable reintegration has not yet been completed, and this uncertainty continues to undermine the confidence of former members of FARC-EP in their reintegration and in the peace process itself.

Lack of progress in this respect is in good part responsible for the movement of former FARC-EP members outside the territorial areas, hence the growing importance of access to land, the design, funding and implementation of viable productive projects linked to local development and the creation of cooperatives to implement them.

Remarkably, Colombia still does not have a plan in place for reintegrating ex-combatants, violating a cardinal precept of how a peace accord should be implemented.

I reiterate the need for the National Reintegration Council to adopt, as provided for in the Peace Agreement, its national reintegration plan linking reintegration to development.

The Secretary-General’s report also voices concern for the security of former FARC members located outside the former concentration zones, and of threatened social leaders throughout the country.

I am concerned that, by all accounts, the killing of community leaders and human rights defenders has continued unabated in the past three months, despite several measures to address the alarming number of killings registered in 2017. This trend and the proliferation of illegal armed actors associated with it should be brought under control as a matter of urgency, as has been acknowledged by the President and top officials of his Government.
Of particular concern are the attacks against persons working to implement government programmes related to coca substitution and land restitution. Members of local community boards, the governance mechanism established in rural districts, are among the main targets of violence.

A Supportive Statement From U.S.-UN

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, read a statement that was significantly more supportive of the peace effort than has been customary for the Trump administration. It calls for greater government presence in territories, reintegration of former combatants, and action on land tenure. The expected exhortation to “accelerate its counter-narcotics effort” doesn’t appear until the 11th of 15 paragraphs.

The agreement that ended five decades of war in Colombia has created the conditions for the just and lasting peace that Colombians deserve. It was a historic achievement. But peace in Colombia remains an unfinished project. All of us have a role in ensuring that it succeeds.
…We cannot allow formerly FARC-controlled areas to fall into the hands of criminals and illegal armed groups. That would undo much of the progress of the peace accord. We encourage the government to continue efforts to eliminate Colombia’s ungoverned spaces. The United States also urges the government to continue the full implementation of the comprehensive peace plan. This includes efforts to reintegrate former combatants into civilian life.
The peace accord provides an important opportunity to address historical land issues that have driven conflict and violence in Colombia. We welcome President Santos’ landmark decree meant to formalize land ownership for more than 2.5 million farmers. Improving access to land is essential in transforming rural livelihoods. Criminal groups and narco-traffickers have dominated rural areas of Colombia for decades. With secure land titles, the Colombian people can provide for their families without feeling beholden to these groups.

DEA Investigating Corruption Allegations Against Agent

A story by BuzzFeed reporter Aram Roston, later picked up by the New York Times, reveals that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating veteran agent José Irizarry, who had been stationed in the agency’s field office in Cartagena, Colombia. The nature of the now-resigned agent’s misconduct is not clear, but three anonymous sources told Roston “the scope of the case is believed to be unprecedented in the agency’s history.” One source said that Irizarry is also being investigated by the Justice Department’s Inspector-General and the FBI.

Proposal To Eradicate Coca With Drones

El Tiempo reported that the U.S. government’s estimate of the amount of coca planted in Colombia in 2017 reached a new record of between 220,000 and 230,000 hectares, up from 188,000 in 2016. The White House has not yet published its 2017 figure. Nor have Colombian authorities published their estimate, but the same article cites a Colombian estimate of 170,000-180,000 hectares, up from 146,000 in 2016. This apparent increase occurred even though Colombian government, police, and military eradicators uprooted, cut down, or directly applied herbicides to 53,000 hectares of coca bushes last year, and worked with farmers for the voluntary eradication of about 20,000 more.

As a result, the same El Tiempo article revealed, the Colombian National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DIRAN) is pursuing the possibility of employing drones to spray herbicides on the coca fields. Each would fly a meter or less over the bushes, spraying the herbicide glyphosate.

In 2015, Colombia suspended the U.S.-funded practice of spraying glyphosate from aircraft after the UN World Health Organization published a literature review finding that the chemical “is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate is still commonly used in Colombian (and U.S.) agriculture, and eradicators still kill coca with the more precise method of applying it from backpack-mounted dispensers, which presumably minimizes spray drift to populated areas and destruction of legal food crops. The drone proposal would enable similar close-proximity spraying without the risks that sharpshooters, ambushes, landmines, and booby traps have posed to human eradicators working in the fields.

On April 13, the DIRAN began testing drones from five companies. It is prepared in 2018 to spend COP$21 billion (US$7.5 million) on drones that meet a series of standards:

  • Ability to fly between 50 centimeters and one meter above the plants.
  • Ability to operate in temperatures ranging from -5 to 40 degrees Celsius.
  • Two GPS systems to guarantee precision of spraying.
  • An anti-collision sensor.
  • An automatic recording system that records the drone’s location at every second.

The DIRAN expects that each drone would be able to spray between 10 and 15 hectares per day, whereas a human eradicator can only destroy 3 to 5 hectares of coca per day. In an absence of government presence in coca-growing zones, though, it remains unclear what would prevent farmers with limited economic options from replanting the crop.

Fighting Between Armed Groups in Bajo Cauca and Catatumbo Has Displaced Thousands This Year

In addition to the Colombia-Ecuador border region, where the FARC dissident group commanded by alias “Guacho” has drawn much attention, two other regions saw intensified violence during the week between groups that remain active, and are growing, in post-accord Colombia.

The Bajo Cauca region in northeastern Antioquia, a coca production and cocaine transshipment zone a few hours’ drive from Medellín, is the scene of frequent combat between two organized crime groups. The Urabeños (also known as Gulf Clan, or Usuga Clan, or Gaitanistas), the largest organized armed group in the country, is battling a regional group called the “Caparrapos” (also known as the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Front). Both groups can trace their lineage back to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary network that terrorized much of Colombia, and enjoyed some support on the political right, in the 1990s and 2000s.

So far this year, fighting between the two groups has displaced at least 2,175 people in the Antioquia municipalities of Cáceres, Caucasia, Tarazá, and Ituango. Violence has also been intense across the departmental border in southern Córdoba. Fighting on April 13-15 killed five people and displaced 210. In the sports complex in Tarazá’s town center, 120 of the displaced are currently taking refuge.

Sergio Mesa Cárdenas of the Medellín NGO Corpades told El Colombiano that the warring groups are getting support from the Mexican cartels that buy their illicit product.

The “Caparrapos” gang, led by alias “Ratón,” has alliances with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Medellín’s “Los Triana” gang. Regarding the “Gulf Clan,” led by alias “Gonzalito,” the investigator says they have the support of the “Pachelly” gang from [the Medellín suburb of] Bello and the “Zetas” cartel.

The situation is arguably worse in Catatumbo, a poorly governed coca-growing region in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. This zone had a longtime presence of the FARC, the ELN, and the EPL. The latter group, the People’s Liberation Army, is descended from the dissident remnant of a larger group that demobilized in 1991. (The Colombian government often calls them “Los Pelusos.”) The EPL remained active in Catatumbo, profiting from the production and transshipment of drugs into Venezuela; today it has about 200 members and appears to be growing.

With the FARC’s exit from the scene—the 33rd Front concentrated in a demobilization zone in Tibú municipality over a year ago—the EPL and ELN began to compete for control of its previous territories of influence. A longstanding non-aggression arrangement broke down in mid-March, and combat has intensified ever since. “According to voices in the region who spoke to reporter Salud Hernández-Mora,” El Tiempo noted, “it is all because the ELN believes that the ‘Pelusos’ violated accords to share the business that the FARC left behind.”

After a month of tensions and sporadic combat, the situation worsened April 15 with the EPL’s declaration of an “armed stoppage”: a several-day prohibition on all road travel, and often a requirement that local businesses shut their doors. Residents of several Catatumbo municipalities received pamphlets informing them of the stoppage, and many of the region’s population centers became “ghost towns.” Schools closed all week, “affecting about 45,000 children and 2,000 teachers,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Norte de Santander Governor William Villamizar declared a state of humanitarian emergency in Catatumbo, and asked the national government to authorize a dialogue between ELN and EPL leaders at the ELN negotiating table. The commander of the Colombian Army’s “Vulcan” Task Force, stationed in the region, said that “a special deployment has been done.”

Civil society groups in Catatumbo, along with the Catholic church and local governments, have joined in calls on the armed groups to leave the civilian population out of the fighting. Business owners tried to open their establishments for half-day periods, but, according to El Colombiano, were met by armed people “who obligated them to close with the threat: ‘we’re the ones who have the weapons here.’”

The UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs says that 2,500 people have been displaced by Catatumbo’s violence since the situation deteriorated in mid-March. A government source told El Colombiano that the actual number is probably higher, as many displaced are fearful of registering and may be staying with relatives and friends. If the situation continues for another week, the source said, food could start running out in some communities.

In-Depth Reading

Use of Deadly Force in Toronto, and At the Border

Watch this New York Times explainer video showing Toronto Police Constable Ken Lam de-escalating a situation, avoiding the use of deadly force, as he singlehandedly arrests Alek Minassian, the driver of a van that ran over dozens of pedestrians on April 24. Then contrast it to the 2012 shooting of a Mexican 16-year-old through the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, for which a court acquitted U.S. Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz a day earlier.

As the Times describes it:

First, Constable Lam turned off the siren blaring from his car. This immediately lowered the temperature, experts said, making it easier for him to communicate with the suspect. Also, by leaning into the car, the officer is indicating that he is not in a rush.…
When the suspect yells that he has a gun in his pocket, Constable Lam replies: “I don’t care. Get down.”…
Next, the video shows, Constable Lam steps out and away from the cover of his car, indicating perhaps that he has assessed that the object in Mr. Minassian’s hand was not a gun.
Constable Lam then issues his first warning: “Get down or you’ll get shot.”…
Constable Lam then backs away from Mr. Minassian, who walks toward him, threatening object in hand. In response, the officer appears to replace his gun with a baton, visibly de-escalating the threat to Mr. Minassian.…
Then, Constable Lam confidently and slowly approaches the suspect with his baton in hand. By the time the officer reaches him, Mr. Minassian has dropped the object in his hand, raised his hands in surrender, turned and laid down on his stomach with his hands behind his back.

Now, every case is different. But compare this to the October 10, 2012 nighttime use-of-deadly-force incident at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona-Sonora. Agent Lonnie Swartz killed José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16-year-old who was likely throwing rocks over the border fence.

From The Arizona Republic:

As rocks begin to hit the fence and ground on the U.S. side, one of the Border Patrol agents by the fence retreats for cover. A Nogales police officer also retreats and places his K-9 partner into his vehicle. All in a matter of seconds.
Swartz, with gun drawn, walks to the fence and starts shooting. “Shots fired, shots fired,” someone calls on the radio. He fires 13 rounds, stops, reloads his pistol and fires three more rounds—16 shots in 34 seconds, according to the prosecution.

From The Tucson Sentinel:

On Thursday, the jury watched several different parts of the model, which showed that Swartz was about 90 feet away when he fired his first salvo of shots. Swartz then moved to two different firing positions along the fence, emptying an entire magazine of .40-caliber hollow-points from his H&K P2000 before reloading, and firing three more shots.
Swartz later returned to collect his magazine, before he went over to a telephone pole, vomited and began crying, according to fellow agents’ testimony last week.

On April 23, after a monthlong trial that was the first of a Border Patrol agent for a cross-border shooting, an Arizona jury acquitted Agent Swartz of second-degree murder. A juror said “the evidence showed the Border Patrol agent perceived that lives were in danger.” But the jury ended up deadlocked on lesser manslaughter charges. Prosecutors are deciding whether to pursue a manslaughter retrial.

Here’s a photo of the site where the shooting took place, taken in December 2013. That’s me in the lower right, taking a picture. I’m standing in the very spot where Elena Rodríguez, the 16-year-old, fell to the curb and died. Police would find ten bullet wounds in his body.

As you can see, the top of the border fence looms about three stories overhead from here: any rocks thrown would have been bloopers more than line drives. Agent Swartz knew that using less-than-lethal force was an option; he had reported responding to six earlier rock-throwing incidents, according to the Tucson Sentinel, “either by throwing a ‘stingball’—a grenade-like weapon that explodes and throws out rubber balls—or by firing a pepper-ball launcher—a paintball gun that fires balls made from a pepper-spray-like concoction.” But he did not use those options this time.

Based on this and other incidents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) asked the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for recommendations in 2013, and in 2014 it released a new use-of-force policy. Here is what PERF said about rock-throwing incidents at the border:

Review of shooting cases involving rock throwers revealed that in some cases agents put themselves in harm’s way by remaining in close proximity to the rock throwers when moving out of range was a reasonable option. Too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force. In cases where clear options to the use of deadly force exist and are not utilized in rock-throwing incidents, corrective actions should be taken. CBP should improve and refine tactics and policy that focus on operational safety, prioritization of essential activities near the border fence, and use of specialized less lethal weapons with regard to rock throwing incidents. The state CBP policy should be: “Officers/agents are prohibited from using deadly force against subjects throwing objects not capable of causing serious physical injury or death to them.”

CBP ultimately went with this standard in its revised policy:

Authorized Officers/Agents shall not discharge their firearms in response to thrown or launched projectiles unless the officer/agent has a reasonable belief, based on the totality of circumstances (to include the size and nature of the projectiles), that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of serious physical injury or death to the officer/agent or to another person. Officers/agents may be able to obtain a tactical advantage in these situations, through measures such as seeking cover or distancing themselves from the immediate area of danger.

Since then, deadly-force incidents have declined. The border isn’t Toronto, but it’s better. Still, a post-trial statement from the president of the Border Patrol union, Art Del Cueto, shows that the culture of justifying deadly force, even under questionable circumstances, is deeply rooted.

“Lonnie Swartz took the extra step to defend himself and to defend the life of fellow agents around; so he pulled out his weapon and fired at the threat,” Del Cueto said. “A lot has been said that he continued firing, but the threat had not ended. There was still rocks coming at the agents, still rocks coming at Lonnie, and he was shooting at the direction where the rocks are coming from.”

Similarly, Swartz’s defense attorney, Sean Chapman, employed a line of argument that Border Patrol is somehow different from other law enforcement, even portraying it as “military,” as the Tuscson Sentinel reported. (It’s not. Border Patrol agents are civilians.)

Throughout his opening statement, Chapman emphasized how agents are different from people like the jury or the attorneys. He said the Border Patrol is essentially a military organization created to enforce federal law where there’s a risk of violence all the time. “It’s the mindset that they have, the way they are trained. … They don’t think like we do; they think based on their training.”

That’s probably not true, at least not anymore. But if it is, then that training must continue to change. Agents are not soldiers, and they are not in an armed conflict. Deadly force must always be a last resort in law enforcement as Constable Lam showed us all so well this week.

Colombia’s Dumbest Trafficker

In mid-March Jeremy McDermott, a longtime investigator of organized crime in the Americas, published a study at the site of InsightCrime, the organization he co-directs. He profiled the thriving new cohort of Colombian drug traffickers, which he calls the “fourth generation” of narcos, or just “the invisibles.”

With the FARC’s and AUC’s exits from the criminal scene, narcotrafficking has been left more exposed than ever, with nowhere to hide. Once identified by national and international authorities, the useful life of an important capo is short, at least unless he is prepared to live as a guerrilla in the jungle, passing from one shack to another every night, and renouncing the comforts and opportunities that a great fortune might offer. That’s why today’s narcotrafficker prefers to hide behind the facade of a successful businessman, avoiding the ostentation and extreme violence that characterized earlier generations.

In an English summary, McDermott added:

Colombian drug traffickers have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). …Today’s Colombian drug trafficker is more likely to be clad in Arturo Calle [Colombia’s equivalent of Men’s Wearhouse] than Armani, wear classic European shoes rather than alligator boots, drive a Toyota rather than a Ferrari, live in an upper middle class apartment rather than a mansion with gold taps. He will have the face of a respectable businessman.

With Colombia producing record-high amounts of cocaine, there is much money to be made as a drug trafficker today. But unlike past generations, the last thing a trafficker wants to be is high profile. It attracts too much attention.

But that’s exactly what Wálter Patricio Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” has chosen to do. In just a couple of months, this former FARC fighter has risen from obscurity to be possibly the most sought-after criminal in both Colombia and Ecuador. And it’s all due to his own actions.

Guacho gives a Colombian television interview, which is also a dumb move.

An Ecuadorian citizen from the border province of Esmeraldas, Arizala joined the FARC in 2007. He was a member of the group’s powerful Daniel Aldana Mobile Column, active in Nariño along the Colombia-Ecuador border. There, he specialized in explosives but was also found to be very good at math. He was promoted to management of the Column’s finances in a territory that today is the busiest cocaine superhighway in South America:

Guacho developed contacts with Mexican narcotraffickers who buy and transship cocaine in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. This makes him the classic example of the mid-level guerrilla leader whose demobilization was so important for the peace process to guarantee: someone with contacts in the criminal underworld who would be tempted to abandon the peace process at the first lucrative opportunity. And that’s what he did: when the FARC headed to its demobilization sites in early 2017, Guacho went on the lam.

His “Oliver Sinisterra Front,” named for a FARC colleague killed in 2015, grew very fast, a rapid rise documented by the International Crisis Group’s Kyle Johnson in a piece published this week to Razón Pública. Guacho may now be commanding as many as 450 people. Many of them are former FARC militias in the port city of Tumaco, and many are fresh recruits. His group reportedly controls cocaine labs capable of producing at least 10 tons per month. It is currently the largest in an ever-shifting patchwork of criminal groups fighting for control of Tumaco, whose surrounding municipality (county) has more coca than any other in Colombia.

Guacho and his “front” could have kept a low profile and become quite wealthy, had they followed McDermott’s suggestion to use “plata” much more than “plomo,” seeking to corrupt and penetrate institutions.

Instead, though, they have picked spectacular fights with authorities on both sides of the border.

  • In November 2017, Guacho’s group attacked a checkpoint of Ecuador’s Special Mobile Antinarcotics Group (GEMA) with grenades and gunfire, killing four.
  • In January, it set off a car bomb outside a police station in Guacho’s hometown of San Lorenzo, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. This was an apparent retaliation for an Ecuadorian police raid and search of his mother’s house.
  • In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties.
  • On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing four Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding ten.
  • On April 5, Guacho’s group knocked out an electric tower in Colombia, plunging Tumaco into darkness. This was an apparent retaliation for the Ecuadorian government arresting one of his brothers-in-law. Power lines again went down on April 18.

The most spectacular action, though, was the March 26 kidnapping of two reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, together with their driver. The captives’ plight became daily front page news in Ecuador. The #NosFaltan3 (“we’re missing 3”) hashtag continues to get constant use on social media. Sometime before April 13, Guacho’s group killed Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra on Colombia’s side of the border, under circumstances that have yet to be cleared up. Sometime last week, Guacho’s group kidnapped two more Ecuadorian citizens, Vanesa Velasco Pinargote and Oscar Efrén Villacís Gómez, who remain in custody.

Hostages Rivas, Ortega, and Segarra, murdered sometime before April 13.

From a drug trafficker’s perspective, these are incredibly stupid things to do. The message Guacho has sent is, “look at me, put a target on me, make me a top priority.” And indeed, Colombia and Ecuador have offered a combined reward of more than US$230,000 for information leading to his capture. Using McDermott’s frame, Wálter Arizara is a first or second-generation drug trafficker in a fourth-generation world.

Nine years ago Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo (now the Vice President) said that the authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. Today, a “well behaved” trafficker like one of McDermott’s “invisibles” may hang on for far longer. But for someone like Guacho, who has committed very grave errors, two years sounds like far too long an estimate.

This Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of March 25-31)

“Dissident” Group Kidnaps Reporters on Ecuador Side of the Border

The Pacific coastal border region between Colombia and Ecuador has heated up amid an offensive launched by a fast-growing dissident group made up mainly of former FARC members and militias who have rearmed. The “Oliver Sinisterra” group, named for a former FARC commander killed in combat with Colombia’s army, is led by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian border-zone citizen whom the FARC recruited in 2007. It has between 70 and 450 members.

Guacho’s group is disputing control of criminality in this zone, the busiest maritime cocaine trafficking corridor in all of Colombia, with the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group, the ELN guerrillas, and another FARC dissident group headed by alias “David.” Spain’s El País newspaper reported in January that Guacho does business with four drug cartels, including the Urabeños and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, said in mid-March that the group “is at the Sinaloa Cartel’s service.”

Guacho’s group has carried out the most spectacular attacks in the region so far this year. In January, it set off a car bomb in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties. On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding eleven.

On March 26, the dissidents kidnapped three reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper from the border zone, and appear to have brought them to the Colombian side. Ecuadorian authorities say they are in contact with the kidnappers and that the captives are in good health.

On the night of March 26, the Pacific port city of Tumaco, near the border, was blacked out after Guacho’s group bombed an electricity pylon. It took several days to restore power. This city of 200,000 people—never a peaceful place—has been hit by a wave of violence, with 67 homicides during the first 85 days of 2018.

FARC dissident groups like Guacho’s are growing quickly around the country. Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía said last week, “Today there are 1,200 of them dedicated to narcotrafficking and criminal economies; depending on the region, they make alliances with other armed groups.” Ariel Ávila of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank estimated that 800 of them are guerrillas who have abandoned the demobilization process, and the rest are new recruits. Of the 242 (out of 1,100 total) Colombian municipalities, or counties, where the FARC once had influence, Ávila told El Colombiano, dissidents are now active in 48. A “high source” in the governor’s office of Nariño department, which includes Tumaco, told the La Silla Vacía investigative site that Guacho has been in conversations for a possible alliance with what may be the country’s largest dissident group, that of alias Gentil Duarte in south-central Colombia. The site could not confirm this rumor.

Government Forces Kill Urabeños’ Third-in-Command

On March 28 Colombia’s National Police announced the killing of Aristides Meza, alias “El Indio,” whom it characterized as the number-three commander of the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Meza, whom the police said was wanted by U.S. authorities, was killed by an aerial assault in Montelíbano, Córdoba. According to the release, “El Indio” commanded 200 men and

directed the criminal activities of the “Gulf Clan” [one of several names used to refer to the Urabeños] on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and in the Magdalena Medio region.… In addition, he coordinated criminal alliances with narcotrafficking structures in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, for the permanent export of loads of cocaine, by sea and land, to the United States and Europe.… According to the [Police intelligence] investigation, the capo paid between 10 and 15 million pesos [US$3,000 to US$5,000] for virgin girls and adolescents, and loved imported products, especially whisky, cariar, cheese, and other canned goods.

InsightCrime reports that Meza’s killing is the latest result of “Operation Agamemnon II,” the Colombian security forces’ effort to take out the Urabeños’ leadership. In the last seven months, this operation killed Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez alias “Gavilán,” the group’s number-two leader, and top boss Luis Orlando Padierna alias “Inglaterra.” This puts the Urabeños, led by top fugitive Dairo Úsaga alias “Otoniel,” badly off balance, according to InsightCrime:

With a number of top lieutenants out of the picture, Otoniel will have to replace his inner circle with people who do not necessarily have the same level of experience and knowledge as their predecessors.… Now that the Urabeños’ operations on the Pacific coast are leaderless, competing groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) could try to scoop up territory that the weakened group no longer has the power to control.

EPL-ELN Combat Worsens in Catatumbo

Tensions continue in Catatumbo, a region of highly organized campesinos and extensive coca cultivation in Norte de Santander department, following a March 14 shootout that signaled the breakdown of a years-long truce between two leftist guerrilla groups. The FARC, the ELN, and a small local group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), had long coexisted. But with the FARC out of the picture and the EPL undergoing leadership changes, intensifying ELN-EPL competition has worsened the security situation.

A March 26 update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that since March 14, insecurity has affected more than 20,300 people in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Carmen, Hacarí, Sardinata, El Tarra, and Convención. 12,500 have been unable to access basic goods and services. About 3,000 are confined to their communities. More than 2,400 have been displaced. Over 2,360 children have been unable to attend school.

An extensive report by Verdad Abierta explains what is going on. Analysts cited place much of the blame on the EPL which, after losing its top leader to a Colombian Army raid in late 2016, embarked on a “disorderly” process of expansion that “violated tacitly established norms” between the guerrilla groups. “For the past two years,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based Fundación Progresar told the website, “the EPL arrived in ex-FARC territories to carry out punitive practices on the population, bringing the community together and saying: ‘These are the new rules and those who don’t comply, die.’ This happens in a very complex context, because in Catatumbo there are strong civil-society processes, the Community Action Boards have already developed codes of conduct… there are organized and politicized communities on which the EPL came to impose itself through violence, even killing social leaders, which is why their problems with the ELN began.”

Citizen groups in Teorama and El Tarra have organized marches to demand that the armed groups respect international humanitarian law and keep them out of the conflict. “The armed groups’ response [to the protests] didn’t take long in coming,” reports El Espectador. “In the town of Filo Gringo, El Tarra, where combat affected the school and other civilian assets, EPL members threatened the promoters of a protest.”

Three Social Leaders Killed in a Week in Bajo Cauca Region

The Bajo Cauca—several municipalities in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín—may be the most violent part of Colombia right now. The cause in this longtime cocaine-producing region is fighting between the Urabeños and a local organized-crime group called “Los Caparrapos.” Along with neighboring southern Córdoba department, Bajo Cauca leads the country in forced displacement so far this year. And it has seen an alarming wave of killings of social leaders.

Víctor Alfonso Zabaleta, the president of a Community Action Board in Cáceres municipality and a participant in a government coca-substitution program, was murdered on March 25 along with another campesino. That same day, Jorge Miguel Polanco, a former Community Action Board leader, was killed along with his son. As reported last week, Community Action Board leader José Herrera was killed on March 20 in Caucasia.

The problem is worsening nationwide. On March 27 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) put out a statement reiterating “its concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders registered this year in Colombia.”

According to the Ombudperson’s Office, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia over the first months of 2018.… According to an Ombudperson’s report, between January 2017 to February 2018, there have been 121 murders of human rights defenders.… The Commission observes with concern that plenty of those murdered human rights defenders carried out actions aimed at implementing the peace agreements related to land distribution. In addition, the Commission has received consistent reports indicating that indigenous and Afro-Colombians human rights defenders are exposed to aggravated violence.

Neo-paramilitary groups may be responsible in many cases, the IAHRC said: “In regards to the perpetrators of those murders, the Nation’s Chief Prosecutor has indicated, in December 2017, that he has identified the presence of ‘self-defence’ strongholds which could be acting systematically to some degree in several regions of the country.”

El Espectador noted that

Of 156 murders of leaders currently under investigation by the National Police Elite Corps and the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps, 68 have made investigative advances, and 117 people have been arrested for their presumed material responsibility for these acts. However, although in some cases it is known who ordered the killings of these human rights defenders, it’s clear that the faces of the ‘intellectual authors’ of a great majority of these homicides remain an enigma.”

Of those 156 cases under investigation, El Espectador concludes, 98 are in the initial inquiry stage, 18 are under formal investigation, 31 are in the trial stage, and 9 have achieved guilty verdicts and sentences. “These statistics make clear the long work that lies ahead.”

Senate Hold on U.S. Ambassador Nomination

The Washington Free Beacon, a pro-Trump U.S. website, reports that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is blocking the confirmation of the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Joseph MacManus. Under Senate rules, a single senator can prevent any presidential nominee from getting a vote by putting a “hold” on the process. “The hold can last for the rest of the congressional year,” the Free Beacon explains, “and force President Trump to either nominate a new person for the role or wait until January when a new Congress begins to nominate Macmanus again.”

MacManus is a career Foreign Service officer, whose Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing on March 8 was mostly uneventful. He is opposed on the far right, however, because he was on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal staff during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which became a cause celebre for Clinton’s political opponents. During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, asked MacManus about his role in Benghazi, but did not pursue the line of questioning very far.

Opponents of MacManus’s nomination may also want president Trump to nominate a political appointee—a non-diplomat who shares the president’s “America First” outlook—instead of a career diplomat. The Free Beacon article speculates that the arrivals of hardliners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to the posts of secretary of state and national security advisor might spell an end to MacManus’s nomination and the naming of a more ideological appointee. It’s not clear, though, how a more extreme nominee could win approval in the Senate, where Republicans hold a fragile 51-49 majority and where the Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), is a Trump critic who will retire at the end of this session.

New Reintegration Agency Chief

Joshua Mitrotti, the longtime director of the Colombian Reincorporation Agency (ACR), has left his post, La Silla Vacía reports. The Agency attends to ex-combatants who seek to reintegrate individually into civilian life, and some aspects of the reintegration of those reintegrating collectively, as most of the FARC has sought to do. Mitrotti said he had told President Juan Manuel Santos two months ago of his desire to leave his post for personal reasons. He will be replaced by Andrés Stapper, a lawyer with 11 years’ experience at the ACR.

La Silla Vacía notes that the reincorporation process is in rough shape, as the government and guerrillas never agreed on a collective reincorporation policy.

The good news is that of 12,535 ex-FARC combatants accredited by the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, more than 12,000 have a bank account where they are receiving 24 monthly payments of about 90 percent of minimum wage ($220). More than 11,000 are signed up with the national health system and 8,000 with the national pension system. 3,976 have received at least a few days’ vocational training.

But there have been “few advances” on “productive projects,” usually agricultural investments, “which are thought to be how they would make a long-term living.” The FARC want the government to disburse 8 million pesos (nearly US$3,000) to each ex-member, as agreed in the accord, so that they may launch their projects. The government does not want to turn over the money until all ex-guerrillas have received training and all projects have been approved by a body that includes the ACR director, the National Reincorporation Council. Of the 26 zones where FARC members congregated to demobilize in early 2017, only four have active, approved productive projects currently underway.

In-Depth Reading

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 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

The FARC really appears to be abandoning coca—which may mean violence

This is a remarkable paragraph in a Semana magazine column from Daniel Rico, a former Colombian government counter-drug official who now analyzes the cocaine trade and security at the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Bogotá think tank. In last year’s peace accords, Rico writes,

“…with regard to narcotrafficking, the FARC committed itself to ‘put an end to any relationship which, as a function of rebellion, may have presented itself with this phenomenon.’ And for now everything indicates that they have complied. As an organization the FARC has exited from its intermediary role as a buyer of coca base between farmers and narcos. Today, the laboratories and cocaine routes don’t belong to it, although they still exist. The ‘de-narcotization’ of the FARC is one of the main causes of the drop in coca base prices in hamlets from Nariño [southwest Colombia] to Catatumbo [northeast Colombia], where people are burying their kilos of processed coca waiting for new buyers to return and for prices to improve. They’re not stupid, they’ve lived through this before and they know that the coca market will stabilize sooner rather than later.”

With the FARC truly out of the drug trade, and Colombia’s state dithering in filling the governance vacuum in most previously FARC-dominated areas, several regions of the country may soon see a very violent competition to determine who will be the next dominant coca-base buyer and processor. Ariel Ávila, of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think tank, is calling this “criminal anarchy.” This could get ugly.

WOLA Podcast: The Central America Monitor

Congress appropriated $750 million in aid for Central America for 2016, and $655 million more for 2017. What’s in these aid packages? Which countries are getting what? What do U.S.-funded programs propose to do? Are they achieving their goals?

Next Wednesday (May 17) my colleague Adriana Beltrán, who runs WOLA’s Citizen Security program will join some partners from the region to launch the “Central America Monitor,” an effort to answer these questions.

This looks like a very cool project, collecting a lot of data both to document aid and to try to measure its results in the region. I talk to her about it here.

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