Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in Esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.
The last few days have fueled significant friction between United Nations human rights representatives in Colombia and the government of President Iván Duque, given the results of a report whose main conclusion was: Colombia had the highest number of murders of social activists and human rights defenders in Latin America in 2019.
Since the signing of the Peace Accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016, the situation of political violence in the country has yet to be mitigated—on the contrary, the situation has transformed in a most worrying way. With the two most concerning outcomes being: almost 200 ex-FARC combatants were killed during their demobilization, and more than 700 social leaders, activists and human rights defenders were assassinated in the last three and a half years—the equivalent to a violent death about every 48 hours.
The issue of directed violence developed under an important inoperation of the state. Without a doubt, the state’s endemic weakness, its institutional precariousness and its inability to address the other aspects of violence with the FARC are beyond dispute. Thus, after the peace agreement, any hint of overcoming the structural, symbolic and cultural conditions that have sustained violence for decades appeared to be far from reach. So much so that it would seem Duque’s only preoccupation is for former guerrillas to abandon the process of reincorporation and return to the dynamic of armed violence.
Colombia continues to suffer from unresolved regional gaps of government incapacities at the local level and a complete absence in much of the territory that had long been hit by the armed conflict with the FARC. Once demobilized, however, neither the police nor the army—due to a lack of political will and a clear logistical incapacity—managed to gain control of said territory to guarantee the minimum level of security needed to overcome the violence. On the contrary, these enclaves have been co-opted by FARC dissidents; such as structures of the National Liberation Army (ELN), post-paramilitarism and, to a much lesser extent, the former Popular Liberation Army (EPL). In this way, the context of violence in Colombia ends up converging—in an intricate scenario of alliances and confrontations—the dispute for local hegemony previously resolved by the FARC, but now agitated into new and intense forms of violence.
Indeed, we can imagine that the aspirations of the peace agreement were difficult to achieve given the resources and possibilities of the Colombian state. But it becomes more complicated when the main saboteur of the commitment made with the FAC is the government itself. In this regard, it is enough to look at the underfunding of the agreement; the extreme slowness in deploying resources to the places most affected by violence; or the legal impediments and the political devices deployed in the last two years over transitory jurisdiction schemes, the truth commission and the political representation of areas with the strongest roots to violence.
The result of all of the above is a scenario like the one taking place in Colombia, where after a very notable peace agreement, the country is plunged into a level of confrontation higher than the one existing in the last years of the war. Taking advantage of the weaknesses and objections of the state, and their various sources of income such as narcotrafficking, illegal mining and extortion, a large part of the armed groups today have a greater territorial presence, number of members and operating capabilities.
For example, the EPL has grown in recent years, with about 300 troops whose presence transcends the Catatumbo region to operate in territories that were once controlled by the FARC’s 59th Front, and as it happens in Cesar and La Guajira, or in Cauca and Valle del Cauca, where they border the National Liberation Army.
The ELN, the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, is the one that, perhaps, has taken best advantage of the disappearance of the FARC. Although the bulk of the group operates along the border with Venezuela, the ELN has grown in recent years, going from less than 2,000 soldiers in 2012, to more than 3,000 today. Thus, it has managed to reintegrate in departments such as Antioquia and southern Bolívar, and gain specific weight on the pacific coast and part of the Caribbean. In any case, its biggest disputes are in the Colombian northeast, where it confronts the EPL and post-military groups, and in departments such as Chocó, Nariño or Cauca, where a multitude of small cartels have proliferated.
Of all the actors involved in the violence unfolding in Colombia, two are the most concerning. In first place, FARC dissidents. Made up of around 2,000 members, these dissidents have dozens of armed structures, most notable in territories with high cocaine production like Antioquia, northeastern Colombia and the southwest. Contrary to what one might think, the bulk of these structures are not ex-guerillas, but new additions—even though there are non-demobilized old command lines that never accepted the peace agreement. This is the case in the Eastern Plains, the Amazon or in Nariño and Putumayo, in the south of the country.
Finally, it is necessary to consider the post-military factor. Of the nearly 3,000 members that this criminal structure manages to mobilize, two thirds are condensed into the self-proclaimed Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, referred to by the government as the Gulf Clan. Apart from controlling a good part of the geography of the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, they have gained territorial presence in old territories formerly controlled by the FARC, like Meta, Guaviare, Casanare, Vichada, Chocó and Nariño. Be that as it may, in reality, violence is a mixture of links and possibilities that are created by the junctures, particularities, opportunities and advantages offered in a local context.
Given these circumstances, alerts on the scope, meaning and repertoires of the violence taking place in Colombia today by the United Nations are not surprising. What is surprising is the State’s response marked by inaction and incapacity. The UN report highlights that since 2016, only 11 percent of cases involving the murder of social leaders have been solved. In half of these cases, progress appears to be made—remarkable considering that, in general, over 85 percent of cases in Colombia end in impunity. Similarly, violence seems to have assumed increasing dynamics, for example, in regard to women, journalists and reporters who cover corruption and human rights violations.
It is also necessary to specify that, although the net number of homicidal violence continues to drop—in line with a trend of decreasing violence over the past few years—and currently stand at 25 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, these figures paint a different picture than what is occurring in demobilization zones or areas with high cocaine production. In the last year, violent deaths in areas highly concentrated by ex-guerillas rose to an average of 45 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants—50 percent more than 2016—and in areas with high cocaine production, this rose to 57 deaths, equivalent to 60 percent more than in 2016.
In any case, it seems that Iván Duque is unaware that the High Commissioner’s report isn’t a political judgement nor, as he has pointed out, does it represent an interference of the country’s sovereignty. What the Commissioner looks to do is alert of a situation that appears to be getting worse—in 2019 alone, more than 100 human rights defenders were assassinated. Let’s not forget that in such cases, the state always ends up being responsible, especially when there are indications of negligence, as is the case with Iván Duque’s government. The report is also not, in any case, the product of a random study. On the contrary, it is the result of a year’s work, with more than 1,100 documented missions.
In conclusion, all of the above gives a good account of the complexity of implementing a peace agreement and how the absence of war does not guarantee peace. Only by intervening on the country’s socioeconomic and symbolic contradictions is it possible to redirect the recomposition of the social fabric and, gradually, aspire to reduce pressing violence. To this end, the mitigation of the coca business, the strengthening of the judicial system and the approximation of resources and decisions to areas affected by violence are three priorities included in the UN report—but also in many others—and that remain irresolute under the current government.