Illustration Credit: Pedro Pablo Hidalgo
Last Friday, the helicopter of President of Colombia Iván Duque was struck by multiple bullets as it approached the airport of the city of Cúcuta, capital of the Norte de Santander region, located on the Venezuelan border. No passengers were injured by the small-arms fire, although Duque’s government released photographs showing the helicopter’s exterior lacerated by bullet holes. The attack occurred in the context of escalating levels of violence in Colombia—as the landmark 2016 peace deal signed with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) lurches unsteadily toward its fifth anniversary—and record-low approval ratings for President Duque. Over the weekend following the attack on the presidential helicopter, at least nine people—including four police officers—were killed in multiple separate incidents across Colombia, from Cali on the Pacific coast to the Department of Cesar (located northwest of the Department of Norte de Santander, also on Colombia’s border with Venezuela).
On Saturday, Colombian Minister of National Defense Diego Molano, who was also flying in the helicopter at the time of the attack, announced that up to three billion Colombian pesos (roughly USD $800,000) would be offered as a reward for any information leading to the apprehension of the responsible parties. The attack also prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to call President Duque in a show of support, pledging a donation of 2.5 million doses of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines to Colombia while also voicing support for the right to peaceful protest, underscoring the importance of accountability for state security forces, and condemning wanton acts of violence. (Although Colombia’s National Strike Committee recently called for a suspension of the demonstrations that have rocked the country’s major cities since April, leaving at least 60 dead, protests have resurged in Bogotá amid allegations of “egregious abuses” committed against demonstrators by police and security forces.)
The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander—the region being toured by Duque when his helicopter was fired upon—exemplifies the simmering violence that continues to threaten the future of the 2016 peace accord. In the first few months of 2021, more than 27,000 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia, a figure that represents a 177 percent increase over the same period a year before; earlier this month, a car bomb was detonated at a military base in Cúcuta, injuring dozens of military personnel. Since his election in 2018, Duque has accused the embattled regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro of permitting armed groups that operate in border regions such as Norte de Santander and Cesar to seek refuge on the Venezuelan side of the porous binational border. While it remains undetermined if attackers were aware of the passengers present on the helicopter when they opened fire, a search team sent to investigate the attack located two assault rifled bearing the insignia of Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Armed Forces.
Despite the provisions of the 2016 peace agreement directed toward the reduction of violence, the Duque administration’s halting implementation of the deal—related, certainly, to Duque’s steadfast personal opposition to many of its key components—has enabled paramilitary violence to resume, and even flourish, in large swathes of Colombia. For instance, one such provision of the peace agreement called for a government assistance program designed to encourage small-scale farmers to transition from cultivating coca—the principal ingredient for the production of cocaine, the sale and trafficking of which represents a crucial source of revenue for armed groups—to cultivating other cash crops. However, in the absence of governmental assistance and intervention—whether due to a lack of available funds in Colombia’s already-stretched national budget, or to a lack of will within the Duque administration—farmers in violence-plagued regions such as Catatumbo have not yet divested from growing coca; indeed, last year, Colombia’s coca-growing acreage reached a record high. Furthermore, the power vacuum generated by the FARC’s post-2016 demobilization has incentivized the emergence of numerous smaller splinter groups, eager to vie for drug trade profits and occupy territories over which the FARC once reigned. Even given the increased prominence of other armed groups—most notably the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), which today represents Latin America’s largest active rebel force—the FARC has remobilized an estimated 40 percent of its armed cadres since agreeing to lay down arms in 2016.