Colombia: New round of peace talks begins in tense atmosphere

This is a weekly roundup of events from 16 March to 22 March 2014.

The 22nd round of peace talks between the FARC and the government kicked off in Havana this week. The negotiations are proceeding in an atmosphere made tense by the revelation of the military’s spying on the talks, President Santos’s controversial ousting of Bogota’s leftist mayor and the ongoing kidnappings and killings apparently carried out by the FARC. The current discussions aim to reach an agreement on the issue of illicit drugs.

In a recent meeting with United States Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, Colombian Minister of Justice Alfonso Gomez stressed the need to “look at the drug trade as an economic and social problem.” Citing land redistribution and alternative crop programs as potentially effective substitutes to the current militarized approach, Gomez requested that the US shift anti-narcotics assistance away from coca eradication programs. A number of factors, including the ongoing negotiations with the FARC and a decline in US anti-narcotics assistance, may lead to the end of aerial coca bush fumigation programs in Colombia.

In a move condemned by the FARC, President Santos signed a decree to finalize the dismissal of Bogota mayor and former leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro, who was ousted for “irregularities” in his attempts to de-privatize the capital city’s trash collection services. In so doing, Santos ignored a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered the government to reinstate Petro. Ignoring the court’s binding decision may jeopardize Colombia’s membership in the Organization of American States, the court’s parent organization. The entire government of city of Bogota resigned in a show of solidarity with Petro. Also, the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch condemned Santos’s actions. Santos appointed Labor Minister Rafael Pardo as Petro’s successor and promised that a special election will be held to form a new government.

Also in Bogota this week, of thousands of farmers took to the streets to protest government policies that they say threaten their livelihood. Representatives from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities worked with thousands of rural farmers known as “campesinos” to organize the protest, which some saw as a revival of a mass demonstration last year that shut down much of the country and led to a violent crackdown by security forces. Among the protesters’ grievances are slow progress on rural development initiatives and the signing of free trade agreements by the government. Santos ordered his ministers to continue a “dialogue” with the protesters, who threatened an agricultural strike similar to the one seen in 2013.

Bus drivers in Cali used their vehicles to blockade main streets in the city as a demonstration against cuts to public transportation programs. The protests turned violent with 1 person reported dead and 9 injured. Major transportation hubs were disrupted and dozens of buses vandalized. Eleven were arrested. Last month, 2,000 protesters came out to demonstrate against Cali’s mass transit system, which they claim does not adequately cover a number of the city’s neighborhoods.

Headlines

An investigation by the Colombian Prosecutor General’s office has revealed a network of nearly 50 public officials who have been receiving payments from Victor Ramon Navarro Serrano (AKA “Megateo”), leader of the “Libardo Mora Toro” Front of the now-demobilized Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a  guerrilla group on the DEA list of most wanted drug traffickers. Eight members of the group, also linked to arms and fuel trafficking, were captured by local police in the Norte de Santander region on the Venezuelan border. Megateo has also been linked to other illegal groups such as the FARC, the ELN and Los Rastrojos.

The kidnapping of five oil workers in the central province of Meta was blamed on FARC guerrillas, who apparently set up a fake police checkpoint to capture the victims.

Two police officers reported kidnapped over the weekend were found dead from gunshot wounds on Tuesday in Narino state. The FARC has claimed responsibility for the murders and the government says three men known by the aliases of ‘Tachuela’, ‘Ferney’ and ‘Yomba’ are responsible.

A bomb attack at a homeless shelter in Medellin killed four people after violent clashes between police and homeless residents of that city. Some suspect the bomb was planted by police.

Segundo Benjamin Morales, a councilman from the center-right Cambio Radical (Radical Change) party, was murdered last weekend by an unknown gunman who broke into his house and shot him to death in San Jose de Alban, in Colombia’s southwestern Nariño province. Four other councilmen from the area also received death threats and were forced to leave the town. Morales had complained that since last year he had been the target of death threats and extortion. In the neighboring province of Cauca, another councilman belonging to the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole party was also murdered. In that region last Friday a total of 13 councilmen and one community leader had to abandon the municipality after receiving threats.

Former AUC paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (alias “Don Berna”) was hit with 20 additional charges by a Colombian court investigating crimes committed by the now-demobilized right-wing militia. The new allegations against Don Berna include involvement in 11 forced disappearances, 4 massacres, gender-based violence, and the displacement and killing of people in Medellin and the wider Antioquia area. Don Berna, who is currently serving a 31-year sentence for drug trafficking in the United States, has been charged with a total of 432 offenses with a total of 1,500 people being recognized as victims of his crimes.

10 members of “La Loma” gang were sentenced to eight years in prison for their involvement in the 2013 forced displacement of 74 families in Medellin. Three La Loma members had been sentenced previously in connection with that incident. La Loma is presumed to be aligned with drug-trafficking group the “Los Urabeños.”

Former FARC leader Alexander Beltran Herrera (AKA “Rodrigo Pirinolo”) pled guilty to three counts related to hostage taking in a US District Court. He faces up to 60 years at his sentencing, which will happen on on July 25. Colombia Reports has the backstory:

In 2003, three American contractors working for the US State Department were captured after their small airplane crashed in the southern Colombian state of Caqueta.  There were five original occupants of the plane, however an American pilot and a Colombian national were reportedly executed shortly after the crash.  The three surviving American citizens Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Kieth Stansell [were taken captive]…In July 2008, the Americans were rescued by Colombian security forces after over five years in captivity alongside nearly a dozen Colombian police and military members and former Presidential Candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Colombian law enforcement busted a drug trafficking group linked to Los Urabeños, arresting 17 people in five different cities including 3 members of the country’s navy.

To Watch

Bogota’s public TV station, Canal Capital, is calling on the Organization of American States to investigate the source of cyber attacks against the station’s website and threats directed at employees. The station has been airing programming aimed at promoting human rights, environmental protection and sexual freedom.

Colombia will lead a regional initiative to combat the stolen cell phone trade. Transnational criminal networks in Latin America make more than $3 million per week on the illegal cell phone trade, according to a report from Interpol.

Spanish police claim that Mexican cartels, namely Sinaloa, Los Zetas and the Knights Templar, have established a presence in the European country, possibly attempting to challenge Colombian criminal operations that have historically dominated the country’s cocaine trade. One reason Mexican groups are moving in may be that cocaine consumption in the United States has been falling, while in Europe consumption is on the rise and the drug sells for a higher price. The increasing fragmentation of Colombian organizations could provide an opportunity for Mexican groups to move in, but both they and the Colombians will also face competition from European organizations looking to diversify and globalize. As InSight Crime concludes, ” the future of drug trafficking in Spain is more likely to involve decentralized and fluid transnational networks, within which Mexicans, Colombians and Europeans all have a role to play.”

A poll by Datexco showed Green Party candidate Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, potentially defeating President Juan Manuel Santos in the upcoming presidential election. Nominated just last week, Penalosa has pledged to make reducing crime his top priority, with “severe” punishments for violent criminals. He also plans to build more jails and increase the number of police officers. He also wants to set up an industrial development commission to guide the country’s economic policy.

Criminal organizations known as BACRIM (bandas criminales) continue to fragment, causing internecine violence and making it more difficult for the government to score major blows against criminal groups.

The Colombian Prosecutor General’s office has begun proceedings intended to disqualify former AUC commander Jimenez Naranjo, AKA “Macaco,” from legal protections provided by the Justice and Peace Law of 2005. The law, created as an incentive for paramilitaries to demobilize, caps sentences for AUC members who surrendered and cooperated with authorities at eight years. The government alleges that Macaco engaged in drug trafficking after the law was implemented, which, if true, would disqualify him from its protection. Macaco is currently serving a 33-year sentence for drug trafficking and terrorism in the United States, but is expected to face another prison sentence in Colombia after his release.

Extra

Vice had a very worthwhile profile of how residents cope with life in Buenaventura, Colombia’s most dangerous city.

The LA Times has more on the mayhem in Buenaventura and the Urabeños gang behind it.

The Washington Office on Latin America has an in-depth report on US-Colombia security cooperation calling for greater transparency, stronger human rights controls and better evaluation and follow-up.

 

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