By Catalina Oquendo, EL PAIS, América, August 9, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The head of the delegation in Colombia, Lorenzo Caraffi, talks about a tendency for the humanitarian situation to deteriorate, and he offers neutral facilitators.
Lorenzo Caraffi (Italy, 1971) now the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR) in Colombia, is very familiar with the advancing conflict in this country. In 2002, he headed the Red Cross office in Saravena, (Arauca Department); he returned to Bogotá in 2008 after the demobilization of the paramilitaries, as head of the sub-delegation in the center-east of the country; and now as head of the delegation in Colombia, he is worried about the way the conflicts between the armed groups have gotten worse, leaving the civilian population in the middle.
Up until last year, the CICR used to publish an annual report, but they saw how what was happening in the territories that are suffering violence is changing rapidly. Therefore, they are now furnishing a report every six months. The most recent report, presented a few weeks ago, shows that President Gustavo Petro will receive a critical humanitarian panorama. Caraffi speaks of the increasing number of victims of explosive artifacts, the confinement of whole settlements, and of forced disappearance. He also mentions the disposition of the Red Cross to serve as a facilitator, as they did in the peace process with the FARC, foreseeing peace negotiations with groups like the ELN.
Question. You just published a report. What kind of humanitarian panorama will the new administration be receiving?
Answer. We are seeing that in the first half of 2022 there has been a continuation of the worrisome tendencies we have observed in past years, because since 2018 the deterioration of the humanitarian situation has been very evident in aspects like displacement, confinement, victims of explosive artifacts, people disappearing because of the conflict and the violence. That is centered particularly in some regions of the Pacific, especially Nariño, Cauca, and Chocó; parts of Antioquia; Sur de Bolívar; the border with Venezuela in Norte de Santander; and Arauca in particular this year. Besides that, in the southern parts of the country, like Putumayo, Caquetá, or Guaviare, where it’s less visible because the population is less concentrated, but what we are seeing is a deterioration, as I was saying, of a tendency.
Q. How would you describe the conflict, or the conflicts, now in Colombia?
A. Beginning in 2018, the worsening of the situation is very clear. That’s due to a reorganization and reconfiguration of the armed groups into a struggle against each other for territorial control, and a struggle, naturally, against the government, against the Armed Forces.
Q. How many conflicts are there today in this country?
A. The analysis that we made, which is entirely legal and based on the principles of International Humanitarian Law, at the level of the organization of the groups and the level of intensity of the hostilities—without considering what are the objectives of those groups, if they are political or economic—made it possible this year for us to identify the existence of six armed conflicts that are not international in this country. Three of those involve the government and nongovernmental armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN in Spanish), the AGC or the Border Commandos, and three involve armed groups fighting with each other.
Q. Is that one conflict more than those you identified last year?
A. Actually, last year we said that there were at least five conflicts. Now we’re sure there are six.
Q. And what was the doubt, exactly?
A. The doubt was the fairly rapid evolution of the context. That’s compared with my first mission in Colombia (2002). It was changing much faster now. We are transparent, and all of the actors in those conflicts were notified that they were in conflicts with other parties. That creates the basis for the dialog that we have with the armed actors, whether it’s the government or armed groups, and so it will be very clear to everyone that we are handling these cases according to International Humanitarian Law (DIH in Spanish). Outside of those conflicts that have specific parties, our work is predicated on international human rights law. It’s a way of delimiting the application of DIH, identifying the conflicts and the parties involved.
Q. What are those six conflicts and their particular dynamics in the regions like, exactly?
A. The six conflicts are: the Government of Colombia against the ELN; the Government of Colombia against the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC in Spanish); the Government of Colombia against the organizations of the previous FARC-EP who never took part in the peace process, the forces of Iván Mordisco; the AGC against the ELN; Segunda Marquetalia against the organizations of the previous FARC; and those organizations against the Border Commandos.
Q. In Colombia we think of conflict that’s connected to political objectives . . .
A. Traditionally, in Colombia we identify as a conflict the ones in which the goals are political. That’s why it’s really important for us to say that the analysis we are doing is purely legal, based on two principles: the intensity of the hostilities and the level of organization. We don’t have the responsibility to make distinctions between political actors and non-political actors, in order to preserve the perception of our neutrality in our capacity to confer with all of them, and to ask that DIH be respected.
Q. Understanding your neutrality, now there is talk of the possibility of negotiating with several of the groups that are in conflict. Could that legal definition help in the attempts for dialog, submission, and negotiation?
A. Naturally, we leave that to the parties involved. What matters to us in a situation of conflict is first, that DIH be respected and that the humanitarian consequences be minimal. And second, naturally, we are very happy if there are agreements that permit the reduction of those consequences until they disappear. In case of agreements and their signature, particularly an agreement with a party that the government sees as good, that is a choice of a political character that we leave to the authorities.
Q. What role can you play?
A. As we have done in the past, and thanks to the acceptance we have in the countryside and in dialog with the groups, we offer to play a role as we have done, for example, during the negotiations between the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP. That is to be facilitators, a neutral intermediary. In the case of that negotiation, for example, we facilitated the logistics of transportation of the negotiators and, also, we were consulted about the humanitarian aspects of the Agreements.
Q. Going back to the current humanitarian panorama, talk about the 377 cases of victims injured by land mines and explosive artifacts just this year (In 2017 there were 57 victims.). Are we going back to placing land mines in some of the territories, and what’s going on with the humanitarian demining effort?
A. That’s one of the elements that makes the situation in Colombia particularly complicated, because there indeed is a humanitarian demining effort that’s continuing to have results. And at the same time there are territories where it’s clear that the use of explosive artifacts is increasing. It’s increasing because of the increase in conflict, and because of the armed activities of the groups. There was a particular increase in artifacts with controlled detonation and artifacts that are launched, which is a symptom of the increased conflict.
Q. Are sophisticated or homemade artifacts more common ?
A. There’s everything. Even military explosives that are really weapons, let’s say, of industrial character, that are left around without exploding after a battle, and that could have exactly the same effect.
Q. They are also using confinement of the people. According to the report, more than 45,000 people have been affected by that last year, and 19,210 people so far this year.
A. The figures are absurdly high and they have increased a lot in recent years. The factors that lead to confinement are the orders by the armed sectors to the people not to go anywhere; they do it in order to control the territory. It’s also because of the presence of explosives, which often reduces the possibility for members of the community to go out to work in their fields or to fish, for example. There is a complete social dynamic that changes because of that. Also, there’s displacement of communities because of the explosive artifacts and because of combat. That doesn’t just affect one victim who may lose a leg or their life, but also there is a collective impact that has to be considered
Q. There’s also been an increase in forced disappearances. Exactly what’s going on now that’s causing that practice to recur, and what is that pattern that you observe?
A. We can talk about the number of cases that have come to us (61 just in 2022), but we have no way to know if those are all of the cases of disappearance that are happening in Colombia. Unfortunately, as you were saying, it’s a pattern that has existed in Colombia in the dynamic of conflict for a very long time. Sometimes there’s a disappearance to send a message of fear to the communities; other times it’s because a person loses their life in the context of the fighting and it’s not possible for the remains to be identified and nobody knows where the body is.
Q. With so much conflict, how have the Armed Forces managed with these cases?
A. The Red Cross has been in every corner of Colombia for 53 years. All of the armed actors know us very well and that allows us to get to the most remote communities. It’s a relationship based on confidence. And that feeds the fact that when we have comments and cases of DIH violations, the delegations report that in a bilateral and confidential manner. So that when we arrive and report cases, we are taken seriously. With the Armed Forces it’s not only a reactive effort, but we also do prevention.
Q. According to your analysis, what is the region where the humanitarian situation could be stressed more for the future in the medium term?
A. Speaking only for this year, Nariño, Chocó, Cauca, Norte de Santander, and Arauca stand out. The individual displacement in Arauca increased 1,300% compared to last year. In those territories we don’t have much optimism for the future if things continue as they are. And we can’t forget the southern part of the country.
Q. A lot of things in these six conflicts are happening on the borders. I think of the case of Putumayo with the Border Commandos. What role is the relationship with bordering countries playing here? To what extent is that generating another conflict?
A. That’s something I will leave to my colleagues on the other side of the border. But clearly there are cross-border dynamics at play and as a result, let’s say, it makes understanding what’s going on and responding more complicated than if it were only Colombian territory.
Q. How have you experienced the different moments of conflict that you have been in in Colombia?
A. In 2002 I was head of the office in Saravena. Then I was sleeping with the conflict, in the sense that I was in my bed and listening to the combat and the grenades being fired. That was a very clear image of the situation the country was experiencing at that time. I came back to live in Bogotá in 2008, after the demobilization of the paramilitaries and that was a rather big change in terms of the reality, but regardless of that, a very relevant percentage of Colombian territory continues to be affected by the conflicts. At present, not like the beginning of the 2000’s, the whole country is not being affected in that way; the effects are concentrated in some regions that are remote from the center of the country, but the intensity of the conflict in those territories is extremely powerful.