Colombia: Citizens remember victims of conflict as peace talks continue ahead of elections

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 6 April to 12 April 2014.

Colombia commemorated the National Day of Victims this week, remembering those who have suffered in the country’s decades-long internal armed conflict between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing-paramilitaries, criminal gangs and state security forces . Many citizens took the opportunity to reflect on the progress of the Law of Victims and Land Restitution signed by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2011, which aims to return stolen and abandoned land to internally displaced Colombians and provide reparations to victims of human rights violations and infractions of international humanitarian law.

Ana Teresa Bernal, a tenured lecturer at the High Council for Victims Rights, Peace and Reconciliation said there are still “many issues to be corrected” with the law. According to Bernal, “compensations and restitution of lands [are happening] at quite a slow pace.” Even President Santos admitted in a  radio interview that despite a “monumental institutional and financial effort” by his administration, the state “does not have the capacity to attend to all the victims right now.” Most estimates put the number of victims of the conflict at 6 million or more.

The national director of the Liberal Party, Simon Gavaria Muñoz, said in a statement that he “[would] like to apologize to all the victims of Colombia’s internal conflict, on behalf of the Liberal Party, the historical party that has both victim and victimizer.” In the 1950s, Colombia experienced a period of unrest known as La Violencia (“The Violence”), during which Liberal- and Conservative-aligned paramilitaries battled for years, helping to the scene for the decades of armed conflict that followed.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court announced that President Santos – along with the inspector general, prosecutor general, peace commissioner and other officials – will be expected to make a public appearance before the court to provide details on the agreement reached with the FARC regarding their potential future political participation. In November last year, the negotiators came to an agreement regarding the FARC’s possible participation in the formal political process, but the details of the deal have remained under wraps. The court is expected to ask how that deal would be implemented in accordance with the 2012 Legal Framework for Peace, a law passed by congress that lays out some stipulations for the political incorporation of the FARC in the event of a final peace deal. The hearing will be held just five days before the country’s presidential election, which is scheduled to take place on May 25.

The FARC have ruled out pausing the peace negotiations with the government during the presidential election to be held next month. The group also reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process saying that “it is the majority will of the Colombian people that in Colombia there is peace.”

President Santos said he would “think twice” about ordering the killing of FARC leader “Timochenko,” although he claimed that military intelligence showed “more or less” the location of the rebel leader. Santos said that he was “not telling whether [he] would or would not take that decision.” The FARC issued a statement in response saying that the way to peace is not by “acting like bullies.”

Headlines

Over 10,000 displaced people are seeking refuge from Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict in the Caribbean state of Atlantico already this year. According to the US Human Rights Council, 4.7 million people – more than 10% of the country’s total population – were internally displaced, one of the highest rates in the world.

Three policemen were killed in an attack by FARC guerrillas, who took for themselves the prisoner the police had been transporting with them.

Repeated ELN (National Liberation Army) attacks on the Caño Limón-Coveñas oilfield have forced roughly 500 employees to be put on leave. The site, which is Colombia’s second-largest oilfield, has been attacked dozens of times in recent months, causing significant damage.

Three hundred soldiers will be sent to Bogotá to assist with security operations in 10 areas of the city. The army has denied that this move represents a “militarization” of law enforcement in the capital.

President Juan Manuel Santos claimed that security forces had arrested 136 members of criminal gangs over the last month and a half in the pacific port city of Buenaventura. He also touted $100 million worth of investments in social programs aimed at helping the city recover from devastating violence caused by a turf war between the Los Urabeños and Rastrojos gangs.

The Colombian government seized $90 million worth of property linked to Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias “Comba” or “Combatiente,” the leader of the Rastrojos gang who surrendered to US authorities in October 2012.

Seven tons of cocaine were seized by authorities in the port city of Cartegena, bringing the total amount of cocaine seized this year to 30 tons.

Costa Rican authorities arrested four Colombian nationals who were allegedly transporting a ton of cocaine in the Gulf of Mexico.

A municipal judge ordered the Santos administration to publicly apologize for statements made by its predecessor hinting that some of the country’s unions and their members had ties to guerrilla groups. Although there have been some improvements in the protection of worker’s rights to free association and collective bargaining, 73 Colombian labor activists have been executed in the last three years, and nearly 1,000 death threats were registered in 2013 by the Escuela Nacional Sindical (National Union School, or ENS). 

Senator Juan Manuel Corzo accused Senate President Juan Fernando Cristo and his brother Andres Cristo of having ties to paramilitary groups. Cristo and dozens of his colleagues been investigated for links to paramilitary groups in the past. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, more than 11,000 politicians, officials and businessmen are suspected of having made pacts with such groups.

To Watch

Farmers are planning a national strike later this month, similar to the strike conducted during August of last year. Agricultural workers are upset at government policies such as free trade agreements, which they view as harmful to their livelihoods. They are also frustrated because the government has fulfilled less than half of the promises it made after last year’s strike. President Santos’s administration is pressing for a dialogue with the farmers to head off a major protest just weeks before the presidential election. Last month, tens of thousands of farmers took to the streets of Bogotá to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with government policies. Rice growers planned a national strike this week. The Colombian government has offered a promise to purchase rice at $52 per ton to avoid a strike by the farmers.

President Santos said that he will reinstate ousted Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro if he is ordered to do so by a Colombian court now considering the case. Petro was removed from office and banned from politics for 15 years over supposed “irregularities” that occurred during his attempt to de-privatize the city’s trash collection services. Santos’s recent decision to ignore an order from the Inter-American Court on Human Rights demanding that he reinstate Petro spurred the resignation of the entire government of the city of Bogotá.

President Santos announced that his government will begin demolishing and repossessing dozens of buildings being used as points-of-sale for drugs, saying that “We have recognized that if we manage to destroy these [buildings] – literally destroy them…we will be able to tackle the root of these mini-structures that are causing so much damage.” However, many experts believe that this effort will harm legitimate property-owners while causing only a small inconvenience to drug dealers forced to relocate their operations. Santos also announced the addition of 100 police to target “micro-traffickers” in Antioquia state, designating such criminals “high value targets.”

Spain extradited suspected Urabeños member Carlos Andrés Palencia (alias ‘Visaje’), who was wanted on multiple drug trafficking and murder charges.

President Santos signed an order approved by Colombia’s Supreme Court authorizing the extradition of seven gang members accused of an attempted kidnapping that resulted in the death of US DEA agent James Terry Watson in June 2013.

The family of Conservative politician Alvaro Hurtado Gomez, who was killed in 1995, plans to sue the Colombian government at the InterAmerican Court on Human Rights. The family alleges that the Prosecutor General’s Office has impeded the investigation into Gomez’s death causing “monetary and moral damages” to his family, constituting a human rights violation. Gomez, the son of former Colombian president Laureano Gomez, ran for president three times and was a media mogul who founded the newspaper “El Siglo,” the magazine “Sintesis Economica” and a TV news station. His family alleges that he was murdered for editorials he wrote claiming that contemporary president Enrique Samper’s campaign was funded partially by the Cali drug cartel.

Extra

The Red Cross presented a report documenting 207 violations of human rights in 39 Colombian cities. The spike in violence in likely attributable to the supposed demobilization during the mid-2000s of right-wing paramilitary groups known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, which were originally formed to protect wealthy landowners from attacks by left-wing guerrillas. Since then, many former members of those groups have integrated into criminal organizations, such as the Urabeños and Rastrojos gangs.

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