(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 , 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.
- Helen Murphy, Luis Jaime Acosta, “Colombia Struggles as Other Armed Groups Seize Farc Rackets, Territory” (Reuters , April 27, 2018).
- Natalia Arbelaez Jaramillo, “‘Guacho No Sigue las Directrices del Cartel de Sinaloa’” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), April 27, 2018).
- Adam Taylor, “He Was Linked to War Crimes. Now He’s Colombia’s Ambassador in Seoul.” (The Washington Post, April 26, 2018).
- Juan Esteban Lewin, “Los Indicadores de Villegas No Reflejan el Desastre en las Regiones” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), April 25, 2018).
- “Los Entuertos de la Inteligencia” (El Espectador (Colombia), April 23, 2018).
- Kyle Johnson, “Tumaco: ¿la Paz Inalcanzable?” (Razon Publica (Colombia), April 23, 2018).
- “Cinco Preguntas Alrededor del Caso ‘Santrich’” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), April 23, 2018).
- Marisol Gómez Giraldo, “Proceso de Paz Con el Eln: Una Carrera Contra el Tiempo” (El Tiempo (Colombia), April 23, 2018).