Following up on his pledge to address the matter within 30 days of taking office, Colombia's new right-wing President Iván Duque spoke this week about his conditions for resuming his predecessor's peace dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country's last significant guerilla group that remains in arms. Duque listed three conditions: the concentration of guerilla fighters in pre-determined areas (akin to the "concentration zones" used in the FARC demobilization), the liberation of all captives held by the guerillas, and a firm time-table for the dialogue process. The president spoke just days after the ELN freed three soldiers who had been taken captive the same week Duque was inaugurated last month in Arauca department. But some 20 other captives remain in the guerillas' hands, including six soldiers who were also seized a month ago in Chocó department.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on March 27 issued a statement calling on the government of Colombia to "take urgent measures" to protect social leaders and human rights defenders in response to the wave of assassinations over recent months. The statement asserted that 22 rights defenders had been killed in Colombia in the first two months of the year, and over 100 more threatened with death. The assassinations come in an atmosphere of violence across much of the country's rural areas, with some 2,500 displaced in recent months. Just three days after the IACHR statement, on Good Friday, community leader and local rights advocate Belisario Benavides Ordóñez was slain by unknown gunmen on motorcycles as she was leaving her home accompanied by her two young children in the town of Rosas, Cauca department. Benavides was a leader of the Rosas Victims' Table, made up of local residents displaced by political violence over the past generation and now demanding restitution for lost lands and property. In a second case that same day, a community leader in Cauca's village of Corinto, Héctor Janer Latín, was slain in a road ambush while riding his motorcycle to an outlying hamlet. These attacks spurred renewed calls from the National Confederation of Communal Action (CNAC) for a response from the government and IACHR. (El Tiempo, April 2; El Colombiano, March 27)
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.
Colombia's peace process continues to advance, with institutional mechanisms for a post-war order falling into place. On March 1, the country's Constitutional Court upheld the Amnesty Law agreed upon as part of the transitional justice process for ex-combatants. The ruling also restricted it somewhat, giving Congress greater power to determine when a defendant applies for the program. (Contagio Radio, March 1) The National Land Agency (ANT) reports that the Land Fund established for a new agrarian reform as a condition of the peace accords now holds 200.000 hectares. ANT hopes to have 3 million hectares for redistribution to landless peasants by 2028. (El Tiempo, March 1)
Colombia's government is under pressure from both the United Nations and impacted communities in the conflict zones to rebuild a ceasefire with the ELN guerillas and return to the dialogue table. A 100-day ceasefire that began in October ran out Jan. 10, and ELN fighters within hours attacked the Caño Limón oil pipeline in Casanare department, forcing a suspension of pumping operations. The guerillas also attacked a military base in Arauca department. President Juan Manuel Santos immediately responded by recalling his peace negotiator Gustavo Bell, who had been in Quito to begin the fifth round of talks with the ELN delegation. Santos said Bell was recalled to Bogotá "to evaluate the future of the process." ELN chief negotiator Pablo Beltrán reacted in an official statement, pledging: "We maintain our determination, previously expressed, to agree on a new bilateral ceasefire." (El Colombiano, Jan. 11; Al Jazeera, El Tiempo, Reuters, BBC News, Jan. 10; El Teimpo, Dec. 1)
After an all-night negotiating session with protest leaders in Colombia's Pacific port of Buenaventura June 5, government representatives pledged to invest $517 million in local infrastructure in return for a lifting of the civic strike that has rocked the region for weeks. Despite a curfew, confrontations had continued in the port city between residents and the feared National Police riot squad, ESMAD. On the night of May 31, clashes with ESMAD troops again filled the streets with tear-gas. Protesters continued to call on President Juan Manuel Santos to follow through on his promises of new schools, housing, hospitals and potable water for the long-neglected Pacific coast region. The strike primarilly impacted the adjacent departments of Valle del Cauca, where Buenaventura is located, and Chocó to the north. (TeleSur, Colombia Reports, June 6; El Espectador, May 31)
Following days of protests and strikes, Colombia's largest port city of Buenaventura exploded into violence May 19 as police opened fire on demonstrators, leaving one dead and many wounded. Marches have since continued in the city in defiance of a curfew, and scores have been detained. The protests are part of a regional campaign over harsh conditions on Colombia's Pacific coast. Buenaventura is one of South America's most important ports, yet half the city's 400,000 residents have no access to potable water. The protests began in Chocó department, up the coast from Buenaventura, under the slogan "Down with Colombia's corrupt oligarchy!" Strike leaders charge that millions of dollars in infrastructure investment for the region have disappeared. (Colombia Reports, May 21; Colombia Reports, RCN Noticias, May 20; El Espectador, El Tiempo, May 10)
Even as the FARC guerillas begin the disarmament process under Colombia's peace plan, the ongoing wave of deadly violence against social leaders remains unrelenting. On March 5, a brother and sister who were both local leaders in the Independent Agrarian Workers Syndicate of Meta (SINTRAGRIM), José Antonio and Luz Ángela Anzola Tejedor, were slain in attacks two hours apart by unknown gunmen in their village of Mesetas, Meta department. (Contagio Radio, March 6) Both were also followers of the Colombian Communist Party, which issued a statement calling the double murder part of a "counterinsurgency" plan being carried out against social movements in Meta by right-wing paramilitaries with the complicity of authorities. The statement said the terror campaign is aimed at destroying organizations seeking a just social order after implementation of the peace plan. (Prensa Rural, March 8)