Bolivian President Evo Morales on Christmas Eve pardoned 1,800 prisoners held in facilities across the country—part of his ongoing effort to curtail overcrowding in the Andean nation's penal system. "The present decree's aim is to give amnesty and total or partial pardons to people who have been deprived of their liberty," Morales told a news conference in the central region of Cochabamba.
The historic peace process in Colombia is finally resulting in demobilization of the country's FARC guerilla fighters, who are now gathering at designated points in the countryside to turn over their arms. The effort has won President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. But FARC leaders admit that five regional commanders—said to be those most co-opted by the narco trade—are refusing to lay down arms, and have been officially expelled by the guerilla army's high command.
Ecuador's government on Dec. 19 issued an order for the dissolution of the Quito-based organization Acción Ecológica, for 30 years a voice for the country's indigenous peoples in their struggles against oil and mineral development. The Interior Ministry issued the order, accusing the group of complicity in "violent acts" carried out by anti-mining protesters in the Amazon region. A group of experts from the UN Human Rights Council issued a statement Dec. 30 protesting the order, and calling on Ecuador's government to halt "repressive measures that seek to asfixiate civil society." The statement said: "The government of Ecuador seems to be systematically dissolving organizations when they become too vocal or challenge government orthodoxy."
In his Christmas message to the Colombian people, President Juan Manuel Santos said that the country was experiencing "at last a true night of peace." But deadly violence against social leaders, especially in the countryside, continues in spite of the peace accords with the FARC guerillas. According to a count by El Espectador newspaper, at least 115 social leaders were assassinated nationwide in 2016, with 40,000 seeking protection form the authorities in response to threats—double the figure for 2015. (El Espectador, Dec. 27) The most recent slaying came Christmas Day, when Anuar José Álvarez Armero, a campesino leader and local organizer for the Marcha Patriotica movement, was gunned down in a roadisde ambush in Argelia municipality, Cauca. (Contagio Radio, Dec. 25)
Colombian authorities are blaming ELN guerillas in a wave of armed attacks on security forces in Arauca department—including the Dec. 18 ambush of an army patrol that left two soliders dead at Saravena. The ELN is also suspected in a spate of other recent attacks around the country—including a Dec. 29 blast at a power station at Torca, north of Bogotá, that left one National Police officer dead. (El Tiempo, Radio Caracol, Radio Caracol, Dec. 29; El Tiempo, Radio Caracol, Dec. 27; AFP, Dec. 19) The attacks come days after Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas warned that the window for initiating peace talks with the ELN "will not be open forever." (El Espectador, Dec. 23) In a year-end communique, the ELN blamed the government for the "difficult and anti-peace climate," especially in its refusal to accept a bilateral ceasefire. But it said the ELN remains committed to opening peace talks, and will meet again with a government delegation Jan. 10 in Quito. (El Tiempo, Dec. 26)
Colombia's Congress on Dec. 28 approved the Amnesty Law as part of the peace process between the government and the FARC rebel army, protecting guerilla fighters from prosecution over most crimes related to the conflict. The bill passed the lower house with 117 votes in favor and three against, while the Senate approved it with a unanimous 69 votes. Lawmakers aligned with far-right former president, Sen. Alvaro Uribe refused to participate in the vote. Human rights absues and "grave" war crimes recognized by the Rome Statute are excluded from the amnesty. The measure creates a special "transitional justice" system for combatants accused of such offenses. (Jurist, Dec. 29; TeleSur, EFE, Dec. 28)
Despite advances for the peace process with the FARC rebels, the wave of assassinations of social leaders across Colombia by presumed paramilitary hitmen remains unabated. On Dec. 12, a team of two hitmen mounted on a motorcycle gunned down Guillermo Veldaño, president Communal Action Junta in the vereda (hamlet) of Buenos Aires, Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo department. Veldaño was a local leader of the leftist Marcha Patriótica movement, which has been especially targeted for terror. (El Espectador, Dec. 12) That same day, campesino leader Eder Magones was slain when the moto-taxi he was riding in was ambushed by sicarios in Tiquisio, Bolívar department. (El Espectador, Dec. 12)
Colombia's Constitutional Court on Dec. 13 approved the government's plan for "fast track" authority to expedite congressional approval of terms for a peace deal with the FARC rebels. The 8-1 ruling is a victory for President Juan Manuel Santos, who argued that the deal could collapse if delayed by debates during the traditional legislative process. The "fast track" process eliminates certain legislative sessions and limits changes lawmakers can make to the package. (Jurist, Dec. 14) On the eve of the ruling, Santos said that the rejection of the original peace pact in a national plebiscite was a "blessing in disguise," as it gave both sides the impetus to return to the table and negotiate a "better accord." (El Tiempo, Dec. 12)