Colombia: will paras fill post-FARC power vacuum?

Colombia's government and FARC rebels missed the March 23 deadline for the signing of a peace agreement. The date was set when President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader "Timochenko" met in Havana in September. But significant steps toward peace have been taken over the past six months. In what Timochenko called an "historic, unprecedented" meeting until recently "unthinkable," he shook hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry during President Obama's trip to Cuba this week. "We received from him in person the support for the peace process in Colombia," said Timochenko. (Colombia Reports, March 23; Colombia Reports, March 22) The FARC quickly followed up with a statement calling on the State Department to remove the guerilla army from its list of "foreign terrorist organizations." (AFP, March 23)

But the human rights situation on the ground in Colombia continues to be grim. The past week saw a popular mobilization across the country, supporting the peace process but demanding action on the slaying of activists and community leaders—more than 30 just over the past month, according to organizers. More than 100 women from the Marcha Patriotica movement occupied San Francisco cathedral in Bogotá March 19, demanding that the Catholic church condemn the wave of killings. (RCN, March 22; TeleSur, March 19; Prensa Rural, March 17) Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo responded to the pressure by announcing creation of a special body to investigate the ongoing assassinations. (El Tiempo, March 22)

An accounting for past abuses is part of the peace process. On March 15, the dialogue table in Havana heard recommendations from organizations of war victims and families of the "disappeared." (El Espectador, March 18) Of the 79,000 disappearances registered in Colombia since 1938, more than 45,000 are attributed to the armed conflict. The Fiscalía, the nation's top judicial body, has now located some 6,500 sets of human remains left in unmarked graves around the country. Some half of these have been exhumed in ongoing forensic work. (AFP, March 22)

But there may actually be a risk from the peace process itself—that criminal gangs and paramilitary groups will fill the power vacuum in remote areas of the country as the FARC is demobilized. The Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES), which has been monitoring the conflict, identifies 88 municipalities across 15 of Colombia's 32 departments were this risk is "extreme." The organization's Leon Valencia warned to daily El Tiempo: "If in the first 12 months of the post-conflict there is no emergency plan in these towns, the same will happen as has happened in other peace processes; other violent actors will arrive." He especially named the impoverished Pacific coast, and the northern departments of Antioquia and Bolívar. (Colombia Reports, March 23)

The government continues to wage military operations across northern Colombia against the "Clan Úsuga," the crime family that is said to control narco-trafficking and paramilitary networks in the region. On March 25, the government announced the death in combat of one of the network's strongmen, Jairo de Jesús Durango AKA "Guagua." He was reported killed by a sharp-shooter in Medio Baudó municipality, in the Pacific coastal department of Chocó, where a search is ongoing for his remains. This follows the death of another clan leader in January, identified only as " This follows the death of another clan leader in January, identified only as "Giovanny. The government claims to have killed 813 Clan Úsuga gunmen over the past year, with much cocaine confiscated. (El Tiempo, March 25)

On March 19, the National Police announced the arrest of businessman Eduardo Otoya Rojas on charges of collaborating with both the Clan Úsuga and the Oficina de Envigado crime machine. Otoya Rojas is accused of operating illegal mining enterprises in collaboration with the crime outfits. He is president of  Frontino Gold Mines and vice president of Canada-based Continental Gold, both with operations in Segovia, Antioquia. (El Tiempo, March 19)

Also ths week, the White House expressed concern over its finding that land under coca cultivation in the country expanded by 42% in 2015, reaching 159,000 hectares. The year before that, Colombia overtook Peru as the hemisphere's top coca producer. (El Tiempo, March 16) The Colombian government has announced a new aid program to wean rural areas off the coca economy, with the area around the Pacific narco-export hub of Tumaco, Nariño, named a showcase for the effort. (El Colombiano, March 19; El Espectador, March 17)

Another ironic risk of the peace process is that it will allow a return to destructive extractive industries to former war zones. In the southern jungle department of Putumayo, leaders of a local peasant autonomous zone issued a statement warning of ecological impacts from a new pipeline through the region. The Perla Amazónica Campesino Reserve Zone demanded a halt to work on the AmeriSur Binational Oilduct (OBA), which will allow oil interests in  Putumayo to export crude via Ecuador. (Contagio Radio, March 18; Kallanish Energy, Sept. 5)