US approves new Colombia aid —amid para terror

The US Congress this week finalized a 2018 budget that maintains aid to Colombia at its 2017 level, $391 million—despite efforts by President Donald Trump to slash the amount. The package includes large sums for human rights training and aid to the displaced, with some advocates hailing it as a boost to Colombia's peace process. Continuance of this level of aid is "a huge support to peace accord implementation," according to Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The budget passed both House and Senate this week. Despite a previous veto threat, Trump signed the budget bill March 23, just in time to avoid yet another government shutdown. There have already been two brief shutdowns during the protracted fight over the budget. This budget authorizes spending through September. The Republican-controlled Congress firmly rejected not only Trump’s proposal to slash aid to Colombia, but his overall foreign policy goal of dramatically reducing aid throughout Latin America and the world, and significantly cutting the international diplomacy budget of the State Department.

The sum of $391 million for Colombia in 2017 and again in 2018 is 30% higher than its level in 2016, $300 million. The 2017 aid package was part of a US initiative dubbed “Peace Colombia” by Obama administration. There appear to be no changes in the categories of aid being funded. These include $187.3 million for economic support, including human rights training, aid to the displaced, development of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and protection of biodiversity. The package also includes $143.0 million for narcotics control and law enforcement; $38.5 million under foreign military financing; $21.0 million for counter-terrorism, de-mining and related programs; and $1.4 million for international military education and training. (Colombia Reports, AP, March 23)

Assassinations of social leaders unabated
Despite moves toward peace, violence in the countryside across Colombia remains at an alarming level, with social leaders being targeted for assassination by paramilitary factions. The body of José Herrera, a campesino leader in Ituango, a municipality in the Bajo Cauca region that has been especially targeted by paramilitary groups, was found March 22 in the vereda (hamlet) of Filadelfia. (El Colombiano, March 22)

March 19 saw the double assassination of the brothers Silvio Duban Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz, who were the sons of Bernardo Cuero, an prominent Afro-Colombian leader and advocate for displaced campesinos who was assassinated in June 2017. The brothers were killed by gunmen on motorbikes in Tumaco, Nariño department, another municipality hit hard by paramilitary violence. Javier's wife was wounded in the attack. (Contagio Radio, March 19)

On March 18, Juan Mena, president of the Communal Action Committee for La Arrocera district of Quibdó, capital of Chocó department, was killed in an armed attack—apparently for his refusal to pay protection money to a local gang. (El Espectador, March 19)

Also March 18, authorities announced the arrest of a suspect in the October slaying Ezequiel Manyoma, former governor of the indigenous resguardo (reserve) of Dabeiba Queracito in Chocó. The suspect was named only by his alias "Brayan," and was said to be a member of the Clan del Golfo crime machine (linked to the Gaitanista paramilitary force). (El Tiempo, March, 18)

On Feb. 5, the self-declared "peace commuity" of San José de Apartadó, in northern Urabá region, announced that residents had managed to surround and disarm a paramilitary gunman who entered their village on a probable assassination mission. They spared his life, but destroyed his semi-automatic pistol, posting photos of the weapon's disarticulation online as a statement  (Prensa Rural, Feb. 5)

February also saw a plantón, or ongoing vigil, in Bogotá's central Plaza Bolívar to protest the ongoing assassinations and to demand that measures against the paramilitary networks be included as part of the peace process. (Colombia Informa, Feb. 4)

War continues with FARC renegades
Renegade elements of the FARC rebels have also been implicated in the slaying of social leaders. Three adherents of the FARC's First Front, which remains in arms despite the peace accords, appeared in court this week in connection with the assassination of a human rights activist in Meta department. Carlos Arturo Mena Rentería, working as a rights monitor in the village of Mapiripán, was killed in an attack on his home there Dec. 2. He was one of 170 social leaders slain in Colombia last year, according to the Institute for the Study of Peace and Development (Indepaz). (El Espectador, March 22)

Also this week, nine members of a renegade FARC unit said to be led by a commander known as "Gentil Duarte" were killed in a military air-strike on their camp near the banks of the Río Itilla, in Calamar municipality, Guaviare. (El Tiempo, March 19)

Peace talks with ELN resume
The Colombian government returned to the negotiating table with representatives of the ELN guerillas in Quito this week, although there was no progress toward even a bilateral ceasefire. (El Heraldo, March 22) The last ceasefire ended Jan. 9, but the ELN issued a statement calling on civil society to pressure the government to return to the table. (ELN Voces, Feb. 5)

Colombia's prosecutor general, the Fiscalía, meanwhile officially alerted judicial authorities that it has opened an investigation into two prominent lawmakers, Sen. Jesús Alberto Castilla of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole and Rep. Germán Bernardo Carlosama López of the Movement of Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (MAIS), for their supposed links to the ELN. (El Colombiano, March 16)

Hague investigation widens
Following a visit to Colombia in September, prosecutors from the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that an invesitgation will be opened into 29 members of the country's security forces, including 23 military generals and six colonels, in relation to thousands of cases of extrajudicial execution. Many of these were so-called "false positives"—civilians arbitrarily killed but reported as guerrlla combat deaths. (Contagio Radio, March 16; El Espectador, March 14)

Colombia is already facing investigations by the ICC, but Bogotá's recognition of the court's authroity has been a matter of some controversy.

Photo: ELN Voces