By Colombia in Transition, EL ESPECTADOR, July 8, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

There has to be a government response beyond just the presence of Army troops in order to curb the armed conflict, especially in the northern part of Cauca, Bajo Cauca in Antioquia Province, Catatumbo, and Bajo Atrato in Chocó Province, the four regions where the violence, the drug trafficking, and the humanitarian crisis are now concentrated in Colombia. This is one of the principal conclusions in the second phase of the Dialogs to Prevent Repetition of the Armed Conflict, carried out by the Truth Commission, supported by Colombia 2020.

The situation of armed conflict after the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016 has flared up, especially in four regions of the country: Cauca, Bajo Atrato in Chocó, Catatumbo, and Bajo Cauca in Antioquia. Groups succeeding the paramilitaries ( like the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) and the Caparrapos, as well as the guerrillas of the ELN and the EPL, and the FARC dissidents) are fighting with blood and fire over the illegal crops and the extraction of minerals in the areas that were controlled by the now-dismantled FARC guerrillas. The conflict leaves dozens of social leaders murdered and thousands of displacements in its wake, without the government and the Armed Forces having power to stop it. The opening of the second stage of the Dialogs to Prevent Repetition of the Armed Conflict, organized by the Truth Commission with the support of Colombia 2020 and El Espectador, are focused on the situation in these territories.

According to José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the X-ray produced by his organization, in the four above-mentioned regions, concludes that the presence of the illegal armed groups has detonated a humanitarian crisis of broad dimensions, affecting the most vulnerable populations. In Catatumbo, for example, the armed groups, especially the EPL and the ELN, have imposed strict regulations on the people, and they attack a person “for committing such small infractions as selling food or drink to a soldier. Even for supporting the plans for substitution of the illegal crops, which provide the campesinos with the possibility of having work with dignity,” Vivanco said.

The journalist and Director of Cúcuta Daily Opinion shares this view. “The peace process made way for a super strong increase in the violence, because of the conflicts generated between the ELN and the EPL over the areas that the now-dismantled FARC had controlled, and the control of the coca plantings in Catatumbo, where there are also Mexican cartels controlling the traffic of the drugs.”

In Bajo Cauca in Antioquia we have seen a fierce armed dispute between the dissidents from FARC fronts 18 and 36, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), and the Caparrapos for control of the drug trafficking routes. “This has generated the displacement of more than 30,000 people who have had to leave their homes in recent years,” and the murder of 16 social leaders since 2016. Specifically, according to Vivanco, the killing of social leaders has happened because “they are the protagonists for the new Colombia” in which the Peace Agreement has left very little government presence in these territories. Besides that, the majority of the leaders support the implementation of the Peace Agreement as well as the program of substituting the illegal crops.

In Bajo Atrato in Chocó, according to HRW, the AGC and the ELN guerrillas fight over control of the rivers “while thousands of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people are confined to their territories or they are obligated to displace to save their lives.”  In fact, at least “seven community leaders in this area have been murdered,” he added.

In Cauca the armed actors that have affected the communities the most are the mobile columns “Dagoberto Ramos”, the “Jaime Martínez” and the ELN, who “have devastated Nasa indigenous people, the Afro-Colombians, and the campesinos.” Just in northern Cauca they have murdered at least 30 social leaders since 2016, Vivanco said. The indigenous governor of Toribío, Ana María Ramos, knows this at first hand. She said that the situation has gotten worse since 2018, after “two apparently peaceful years.”

Why doesn’t the violence end? Everybody that answers this question mentions the precariousness of government institutions, the presence of the illegal crops, the government’s failure to combat the scourge, and the absence and weakness of the legal system. The Presidential Counselor for National Security, Rafael Guarín, himself believes that the conflict can’t be ended with only “troops and more troops, or police and more police.”

There’s more. The report talked about the need to transform the Armed Forces so that they can meet these challenges. Vivanco emphasized that, as far as he has observed the Armed Forces, they have been playing a “corporatist” role, being more concerned about maintaining the reputation of the military institutions than about protecting the civilian population. And he questioned whether the Army of today possesses appropriate systems for preventing and punishing violations of human rights that the troops commit. He also asked whether this might be the time, for example, to strengthen the Police more, and transfer Police functions to the Interior Ministry.

On this issue, Counselor Guarín agreed that today the problem in Colombia is not the FARC, and said that the policy promoted by President Iván Duque and Minister of Defense Carlos Holmes Trujillo, is one of “zero tolerance for violations of human rights”. In his observations, he assured that the restructuring of the Armed Forces, the issue being discussed in the conversation, would not be easy and “would take time.”

Guarín also called for agencies such as the Inspector General’s Office to make room for the investigations necessary to stop criminal acts by soldiers. In fact, he explained that that was the reason why those cases “ are not being sent to the military disciplinary system, but rather to the ordinary criminal justice system.”

Fernando Carrillo, Colombia’s Inspector General, said that the role of the government in the countryside ought to focus on building public social policies that contribute to diminishing the breach that exists between the country and the city, and to minimizing inequality in the territories. “You have to understand that the government is very fragile at the national, municipal, and territorial levels, but at the last two most of all.”

Governor Ramos explained that the role of the military in northern Cauca is not effective because the presence of soldiers is not synonymous with security and guarantees for the communities. “Here in the northern part of the province we have a military base very close by, but who is controlling them? This has not guaranteed security in the countryside.”

They also mentioned that the health crisis, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, has worsened the difficulties of the country people even more, and has demonstrated the structural failures in the country because of the obligatory isolation and confinement. “This quarantine has brought with it more forced recruitment and more acts of sexual violence, for example with the boys and girls, making for a more complicated situation,” stated the Inspector General.

The dialog also covered the problems with implementation of the policy of substituting for the illegal crops and of carrying out Point No.1 of the Peace Agreement, the Integrated Rural Reform. It was supposed to make a structural change in the government’s shortcomings. However, according to the indigenous Governor, there are no guarantees for all of the people who want to do crop substitution. That has led to the continuation of coca planting in the territory. That, added to the murders of leaders and defenders of the land, the very people who were trying to carry out those plans, has been decisive in perpetuating the phenomenon of coca planting in the country.

Ramos insisted that the problem of the coca is deeper, and is not only the fault of the campesinos that plant it: “If we didn’t know that we could export the coca and sell it, there would never be these illegal economies.”

Another problem that came up in the debate was the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that is affecting and adding to the continuation of the armed conflict in Colombia. Not just because of the massive exodus, but also because the ELN guerrillas and the FARC dissidents, according to Vivanco, are acting “in complicity with Nicolás Maduro’s Bolivarian Guards, in Ápure, on the frontier of Venezuela with Colombia, in Arauca Province. According to the NGO Director, there have also been forced recruitments of Venezuelans, forced disappearance and sexual violence against Venezuelan girls and women, as well as kidnapping of people that are taken to the neighboring country.

The conversation ended with some reflections by the writer and columnist Ricardo Silva Romero, focused on thinking how best to change Colombian society so that no type of violence would be normalized. “I believe in the symbolic and in what can be done with that. And in fiction and in stories we all have to be in agreement that it’s not admissible for a father to be murdered right at the door of his own house,” Romero said. He pointed out that it’s “incredible” that some killings are more socially acceptable than others. He called for the rescue of what is human, and for leaving ideologies aside.

For the Truth Commissioner, Marta Ruíz, who guided the dialog: “building peace is an unfinished task in Colombia,” but we are “facing an opportunity.” Because of that we have to “activate all of the machinery of social transformation that can make it possible for peace to come to the countryside as well as to the cities.”

The next Dialogs for the No Repetition of the Armed Conflict section of the Truth Commission, on the territorial situation in these four regions, will be in Catatumbo (August 27), Cauca (September 17), Bajo Cauca in Antioquia (October 15), and Bajo Atrato in Chocó (November 6). The dialogs will be transmitted by social networks and the web sites of the Truth Commission, El Espectador, and Colombia 2020.

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