Controversy over FARC ‘concentration zones’

Under the plan now being formalized for demobilization of Colombia's FARC guerillas, special zones are to be established for fighters to "concentrate" and then be integrated into civilian life. There are respectively being called Encampments and Veredal Zones of Transition and Normalization—a reference to veredas, as unincorporated hamlets are known in Colombia. There are to be eight Encampments: at Fonseca, Guajira department; Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia; Riosucio, Chocó; Tierra Alta, Córdoba; Corinto, Cauca; San Vicente, Caquetá; Losada and Macarena, Meta; and Puerto Colombia, Guainia. There are to be 23 Veredal Zones in 12 departments: Cesar, Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Tolima, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Caquetá, Arauca, Meta, Vichada, and Guaviare. The Defense Ministry says it will guarantee the security of nearby localities. But the plan is still meeting with some opposition from regional leaders. the governor of Tolima, Óscar Barreto Quiroga, states that he will oppose the location of any concentration zones in his department. (Colombiano,, June 25; El Colombiano, El Tiempo, El Tiempo, El Tiempo, El Pais, El Heraldo, June 24)

Former president and now hardline right-wing opposition leader Álvaro Uribe is especially critical, saying: "Now they are converting the FARC from a narco-trafficking group to a 'para-state,' because the government seeks to integrate the FARC to combat the residues of paramilitarism, criminal bands, corrupt functionaries and other supposed enemies of peace." (El Espectador, June 24)

Steps are being taken to address concerns about impunity for rights abuses. Colombia's Superior Judicial Council says it has identified some 22,000 individuals who will be tried under the new process of "transitional justice" for grave crimes committed in the context of the armed conflict: 10,400 FARC fighters, 7,500 members of the security forces, and 4,350 others. (El Espectador, June 24)

In a message from Havana, where the peace talks are being held, the FARC said it is preparing legislation it will submit to Colombia's Congress on reform of the electoral system, so that the rebel army can exchange "bullets for votes." (El Tiempo, May 26)

And in a sign of opening the peace dialogue to civil society, last week a delegation from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) travelled to Havana to participate in the dialogue and press concerns about recogniztion of indigenous autonomy in the post-conflict order. (ONIC, June 28; El Espectador, June 26)

A decision is still pending from Colombia's Constitutional Court on a planned plebescite to approve a final peace accord by popular vote. But the FARC says it will not return to war regardless of whether the plebescite takes place. (El Tiempo, May 29)

War continues with ELN
Bernard Aronson, US envoy to the FARC negotiations, expressed his hope this week that the dialogue can be extended to Colombia's second guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). (El Teimpo, July 3)  But the war with the ELN is actually escalating. ELN guerillas reportedly killed six members of the security forces in a clash in Antioquia, and bombed the Caño Limon oil pipeline that links the Arauca oil-fields to the Caribbean coast. The blast came just as state oil company Ecopetrol, which runs the line, celebrated its 52nd anniversary. (Colombia Reports, El Colombiano, July 5)

The violence comes as Colombia's public prosecutor, the Fiscalía, charged the ELN with a campaign of "femicide," claiming evidence that the group has killed 126 since 1981, targeting the wives and girlfriends of members of the security forces. (El Tiempo, May 15)

Paramilitary terror unrelenting
Leaders of the ostensibly disbanded right-wing paramilitary networks that terrorized Colombia for a generation are still being brought to justice. José Eberto López Montero AKA "Caracho" was this week sentenced to 26 years in prison for the massacre of eight campesinos at the village of El Retorno, Guaviare department, in June 2003, when he was a commander of the ERPAC paramilitary group. (El Tiempo, July 3)

But surviving elements of the paramilitary networks are still very much active. Last week saw a cross-country march from the villages of Tibú to La Gabarra in Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, demanding action in the case of community leader Henry Pérez, who disappeared Jan. 26 and has not been seen since. (El Tiempo, June 28) Paramilitaries seem to be especially targetting leaders of the recent campesino strike in Colombia. Leaflets signed by Los Rastrojos were distributed inl Cauca department, threatening local inidgenous leaders who had participated in the mobilization. (El Tiempo, July 1) The strike ended after two weeks June 14, as the government agreed to negotiate on questions of land rights and support for the rural sector. (Prensa Rural, June 14)

On June 29, the house of community leader Arnovis Zapata Martínez in Montelíbano, Córdoba, was sprayed with bullets, the attackers leaving a pamphlet accusing him of support peace with the FARC and saying "the next bullets we will put in your head." (El Espectador, June 29)

The Fiscalía again expressed fears that "criminal bands" (the official euphemism for paramilitary groups) will take control of former FARC territory as the guerillas disband. He especially named the Rastrojos and "Clan del Golfo," or "Clan Úsuga," as posing such a threat. (El Espectador, June 29)

The Gulf of Urabá region in Colombia's north is currently witnessing a three-way war between government forces, paramilitaries including the Clan del Golfo and Gaitanistas, and the ELN guerillas. The conflict has left thousands displaced in recent weeks. (El Espectador, June 7)

In the face of all this, the government's official denialism about the existence of paramilitary groups continues. The top prosecutor assigned to breaking up the "criminal bands," Jorge Fernando Perdomo, said last week: "From a technical, theoretica point of view, we cannot say that paramilitarism, as such, persists." (El Espectador, June 27)

Colombia continues to be the country with most internally displaced people in the world, with at least 6.9 million uprooted citizens, according to the United Nations. This actually places it ahead of Syria with 6.6 million internally displaced (although far more having fled the country). The UN's refugee agency UNHCR, says that last year alone 113,700 new displaced persons were registered, while "few internally displaced return to their place of residence" in spite of government programs officially in place to support this. (Colombia Reports, June 20)