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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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Duque deals blow to dissident Farc but suffers setback

Colombia’s President Iván Duque celebrated the capture of a member of the high command of the dissident Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) on 8 May. This successful operation was overshadowed, however, not just by another illegal spying scandal to engulf the army but also by the murder a day earlier of a demobilised member of the Farc. This brings the total number of former guerrillas slain since the signing of the 2016 peace accord to the verge of a grim milestone of 200. The latest killing prompted the Farc political party to call for international human rights bodies to send a mission to investigate, while Colombia’s transitional justice system (JEP), established under the terms of the peace accord, announced that it was evaluating the introduction of collective precautionary measures.

A joint operation, codenamed ‘Aniela’, by the police, military and attorney general’s office culminated in the arrest of Audiel Pinto Calderón (‘Korea’) in Puerto Carreño, the capital of the eastern department of Vichada. Pinto is a chief lieutenant of Luciano Marín Arango (‘Iván Márquez’), the Farc’s former chief peace negotiator who reappeared in a video issuing a fresh call to arms last August accusing the government of having betrayed the peace accord. 

Pinto, who had a reward of Col$3bn (US$766,000) on his head, is the first one of the 21 guerrillas flanking Márquez in the video message recorded that day to be captured. The director of the police, General Óscar Atehortúa Duque, said his arrest had put paid to 32 years of criminality. President Duque celebrated his arrest as a major breakthrough in the battle against the ‘Segunda Marquetalia’ dissident Farc. He said Pinto played a key role in drug-trafficking operations, especially smuggling cocaine into Venezuela, and had been behind the murder of social leaders in Colombia.

The Duque administration is facing domestic and international pressure over the murder of not just social leaders but also demobilised Farc members. On 7 May, the day before Pinto was seized, Wilmer Daniel Marín Alarcón became the 197th former Farc guerrilla to be murdered since the signing of the peace accord. There have also been a further 14 forced disappearances of demobilised Farc guerrillas and 39 attempted murders in that time.  

A total of 117 of the murders have taken place under Duque, who took office in August 2018. The killings have continued unabated even after a lockdown and curfew was imposed to reduce transmission of the coronavirus (Covid-19) on 24 March: five in total. Marín Alarcón was one of two in the northern department of Antioquia, and there were a further three in the departments of Meta, Caquetá, and Tolima, south of Bogotá.

The number of murdered former guerrillas is a long way short of the 2,000-3,000 demobilised guerrillas and other left-wingers butchered after establishing the Unión Patriótica (UP) party during the peace process with the Farc under the government led by Belisario Betancur (1982-1986). But it is inexorably climbing. The Farc political party insisted this week that the government implement the protection policies contained within the peace accord. The Farc’s lawyer, Diego Martínez, said it was weighing up making a formal request to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to send a mission to verify “the systematic extermination of former combatants”.

The presidential counsellor for stabilisation and consolidation, Emilio Archila, rejected the call for external intervention arguing that this “would imply…that the state is not doing what it should be doing”, which, he maintained, was not the case. Archila said that last year the government had invested more, for instance, in the violence-ravaged region of Catatumbo, in the north-eastern department of Norte de Santander, than at any point during the last 16 years.

It is not just the Farc, however, calling for action as the number of murdered demobilised guerrillas continues to increase. The JEP is also considering taking action in the form of collective precautionary measures in order to try and protect former guerrillas, not least because many of those murdered or threatened had or have important information that could satisfy victims’ rights if it were shared with magistrates sitting on the tribunal.

One particular concern of the JEP is that many of the murders have taken place in municipalities where territorially focused development programmes (PDETs in the Spanish acronym) were established 20 months ago. The PDETs were set up in 170 municipalities most affected by the violence and poverty, covering a third of national territory and 5% of the national population. They were created with the express purpose of building peace to transform areas scarred by the armed conflict. Criminal groups, however, have not been disbanded in these areas and are in fact expanding their influence.

No fewer than 12 former guerrillas have been killed in Santa Lucía PDET in the municipality of Ituango, Antioquia, which is now a ghost town, with over 100 people displaced after receiving threats from illegal armed groups. It is a similar story in the municipality of Dabeiba, Antioquia; four municipalities (Argelia, Caldono, Buenos Aires, Miranda) in the south-western department of Cauca; two (Ricaurte and Barbacoas) in the contiguous department of Nariño; and two (Riosucio and Jiguamiandó) in the north-westernmost department of Chocó. 

A key problem is that drug-trafficking routes often pass through PDETs. The deputy attorney general, Martha Mancera, said this week that 75% of the murders of ex-Farc guerrillas occurred in areas where illegal armed groups are vying for control of these drug corridors. Mancera is well-versed in the situation on the ground, having served for three years as director of the Unidad Especial de Investigación, in charge of investigating attacks against social leaders and ex- Farc guerrillas, before being appointed to her current position in February.

The political opposition argues that the Duque administration is set on undermining rather than implementing the peace accord and that army intelligence is more intent on spying on journalists and social leaders [WR-20-18] than using its resources to seize back control of national territory from illegal armed groups. The defence minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, insisted in an interview with the national daily El Tiempo on 10 May that the government would get to the bottom of the latest spying scandal to afflict the army. He put great store by a USB stick the army handed to the attorney general’s office on 11 May containing information pertinent to the investigation, as a sign of its readiness to “cooperate fully in the interest of transparency and legality”.

Coronavirus in the Amazon

On 12 May President Duque announced the militarisation of Colombia’s frontier with Brazil by the port city of Leticia, the capital of the border department of Amazonas, in an effort to contain a severe outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in the area, where there are already 743 confirmed cases and 26 fatalities. There were 191 confirmed cases on 11 May alone, with nearly half of them inmates in the Leticia prison. The aim of the military deployment is to try and stop more imported cases from Brazil’s Amazon region which has been particularly hard hit by Covid-19. The health minister, Fernando Ruiz, announced that a medical team was on its way, as well as assigning Col$14bn (US$3.6m) to the only regional hospital. The border departments of Amazonas (114), Guaviare (92), Guainía (31) and Vaupés (10) have only 247 beds between them and no intensive care units.