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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.

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.