WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Feb 2011 | Commentary | News

Six months in, Colombia’s Santos faces a murky security situation

Six months ago today Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated president of Colombia. Santos replaced two-term President Álvaro Uribe, who left office only because the country’s Constitutional Court prevented him from running again. Uribe’s eight years of high defense spending and tough security policies greatly reduced the intensity of Colombia’s decades-long conflict. Because of that, he left office quite popular.

Six months later, President Santos also enjoys approval ratings near 80 percent. Though he served three years as his defense minister, the new president has broken surprisingly with Uribe on many issues. In areas ranging from land tenure to human rights to relations with Venezuela, Santos has shown himself to be far more moderate than his deeply conservative predecessor.

Santos has maintained the core of Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy, maintaining an active military-police offensive to capture guerrilla and paramilitary leaders and gain control over new territories. Colombia is the only country in the Americas to have registered a strong improvement in public security during the past decade; in recent months, Colombian police and military trainers have offered their services in MexicoHondurasJamaica and the Dominican Republic, among others.

Colombia’s security situation, however, was starting to become more complicated during the latter part of Uribe’s government, as most measures of violence ceased declining and some even increased. While things did not worsen dramatically during Santos’s first six months in office, the security picture is muddy. It is no longer possible to say with confidence that security in Colombia is actually “improving.”

Violence data

Official statistics did show a small decrease in Colombia’s homicides in 2010: 15,459 people were killed last year, over 3 percent less than in 2009, according to the police. This means a homicide rate of 34 per 100,000 people, lower than Central America’s “northern triangle” countries but far higher than Mexico.

But Colombia’s largest cities are becoming more dangerous. Bogotá saw a 5.4 percent increase in murders between 2009 and 2010. Murders in Cali are up 18 percent from 2007 to 2010. In Medellín, where as many as 5,000 young people are members of violent, drug-funded street gangs, thehomicide rate dipped from 95 to 86 from 2009 to 2010, but only after shooting up from 46 in 2008 and 34 in 2007. Some local analysts speculate that Medellín’s 2010 improvement, which began during the last quarter of the year, may owe mainly to one criminal gang beating its rivals and facing fewer challenges.

In Colombia’s countryside, meanwhile, massacres (killings of three or more people) are on the increase. 2010 saw more massacres – 38 as of November, and 8 in one week in November – than any year since 2005.

“Emerging criminal groups”

Most of these massacres were the work of perhaps 6,000 armed men, operating in at least seven criminal bands in at least 17 of Colombia’s 32 departments (provinces). Most of these drug-funded “emerging groups” are headed by former mid-level leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group, which formally disbanded in 2006. A report by the Colombian government’s Reconciliation and Reparations Commission estimates that about 17 percent of their members are former AUC fighters. Taken together, these new groups now have almost as many members as the FARC guerrillas – and in some parts of the country they are collaborating with FARC fronts on cocaine production and transshipment.

The “emerging group” threat has received the most attention in the Caribbean coast department of Córdoba, a former AUC stronghold. There, fighting for control of trafficking routes between the “Paisas,” “Urabeños” and “Rastrojos” gangs killed 600 people last year, and 45 more in January. Though several “early warnings” had been issued about threats to Córdoba’s civilian population, the crisis there only gained national attention after the January 10 murder of two students from Bogotá’s prestigious Los Andes University, likely at the hands of the “Urabeños.”

In the wake of the double murder, the head of Colombia’s National Police, Gen. Óscar Naranjo,called the “emerging” groups “the greatest threat to security” in Colombia today. Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera made the surprising announcement that, while the security forces “would not neglect pursuit of the guerrillas,” they would concentrate their efforts on “emerging groups” and urban criminality.

In December, an elite unit of Bogotá-based police killed one of the most notorious and powerful “emerging group” leaders, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero alias “Cuchillo,” in southeastern Meta department. Guerrero had controlled drug trafficking, and appeared to have no trouble evading the local security forces, in a broad swath of territory in Colombia’s eastern plains. His disappearance from the scene leaves a big power vacuum in Colombia’s underworld. It may be filled by the FARC – a police official who helped bring down “Cuchillo” speculated that the gangster’s men could join the guerrillas’ First Front, swelling its ranks to almost 1,000 – or by Víctor Carranza, the so-called “emerald czar” who holds sway in nearby territories.


The FARC, for its part, suffered perhaps the most severe blow of its history in September, when a raid killed the group’s top military leader, Víctor Suárez alias “El Mono Jojoy.” While the group is notably weaker, the death of “Mono Jojoy” did not bring a hoped-for wave of desertions from guerrillas in his zone of influence.

In a New Year’s video, the group’s paramount leader, Alfonso Cano, called for a “redoubling” of the FARC’s activities. The past few months have seen greater frequency of guerrilla attacks in Colombia’s southwest (Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, Caquetá) – where today they are perhaps strongest – as well as in northern Antioquia and along Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, particularly Arauca. The guerrillas have also increased their use of improvised explosive devices: not just landmines, but roadside bombs like the one that wounded 30 troops in Arauca last week. Meanwhile large numbers of troops continue to pursue Alfonso Cano in and around the area he is believed to be hiding: the Cañon de las Hermosas, a region of extremely difficult terrain in southern Tolima department, roughly halfway between Bogotá and Cali.

Colombia’s smaller, but just as old, ELN guerrilla group continues to have influence over zones in the country’s northeast and southwest, though it is far less active than the FARC. Military sources citedin Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper estimate that the ELN’s membership has shrunk from 8,000 to 1,800 members since 2002.

Hostage release and peace prospects

This week the FARC are to begin releasing five hostages whom they have held for as many as 3 1/2 years, but promised in December to release unilaterally. On Wednesday February 9 they will release Guaviare town councilman Marcos Vaquero (kidnapped in June 2009); on Friday 11 they will release Huila councilman Armando Acuña (kidnapped May 2009) and marine Henry López (kidnapped May 2010); and on Sunday 13 they will release Police Major Guillermo Solórzano (kidnapped June 2007) and Army Corporal Salín Sanmiguel (kidnapped May 2008).

As in past unilateral releases, the operation to pick up the hostages is in the hands of theInternational Committee of the Red Cross, the government of Brazil, and former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba. Unlike its predecessor, the Santos government has cooperated fully with these releases, doing nothing that might result in delaying the procedure.

Sixteen more military and police officials remain hostages, forced to live chained in the jungle while the FARC pressure to exchange them for guerrillas held in Colombian prisons. Over the weekend, Senator Córdoba – who maintains contacts with the FARC – expressed her belief that all sixteen will be freed through unilateral releases between now and June. She gave no indication of why that might be.

In a communiqué about the hostage releases, the FARC said President Santos, “if he really is interested in seeking a solution other than war, should take advantage of this opportunity to begin a dialogue to allow a political solution” to Colombia’s conflict. The FARC’s true interest in a peace process at this point is hard to gauge, though as analyst León Valencia has noticed, this and other recent guerrilla communications have avoided language that directly criticizes President Santos.

The ELN made a similarly vague appeal for peace in October: a video in which leader Nicolás Rodríguez (alias “Gabino”) calls for a “National Accord for Peace” through a mediation process led by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Vice-President Angelino Garzón, speaking for the government, has responded to both videos by repeating a demand that, before talks can start, the guerrillas must first cease hostilities, including crimes like kidnapping and use of landmines.

While this demand doesn’t necessarily preclude back-channel “talks about talks,” it sets the bar for negotiations far higher than it was during the failed 1998-2002 peace process, when talks took place amid intense hostilities. It is the same standard set by the Uribe government, and it is generally upheld by public opinion, which holds the FARC and ELN in very low esteem.

Human Rights

The Santos government has departed sharply from the Uribe government on the rhetoric it uses to address the country’s human rights situation. In particular, verbal attacks on human rights defenders, whom
Álvaro Uribe frequently called “terrorist spokespeople” or worse, have ceased. Instead Vice-President Garzón, on a recent trip to Washington, pledged that his government would desist from public criticism of human rights groups, while a recent press release from Defense Minister Rivera stated, “The Colombian government considers the NGOs allies of the government and of Colombian society in the common purpose of ending all forms of violation of and abuse of human rights on Colombian soil.”

Similarly, the new government has ceased its predecessor’s confrontational relationship with Colombia’s high courts. President Santos has even said that while he believes President Uribe is innocent of ordering his intelligence service to wiretap and intimidate human rights defenders, reporters, judges and others, he will do nothing to block official investigations of the ex-president.

While the rhetorical change is important and hugely necessary, it is not yet clear that it has been accompanied by the very tough decisions that progress against impunity will require. For one thing, we do not know whether the Defense Ministry has resumed sending cases of alleged human rights violations to the civilian justice system, as Colombian jurisprudence requires. We await data to determine whether the defense sector is aggressively challenging most cases’ jurisdiction, in order to keep them in the lenient military justice system. This is what happened during the final year and a half of the Uribe government.

Impunity for even the most egregious past abuses awaits signs of progress. The practice of “false positives” – killings of civilians, their bodies presented as those of armed-group members killed in combat – has nearly stopped, with five to seven cases recorded in 2010. But investigating and punishing past cases, most of them from before 2007, remains agonizingly slow: a recent piece in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana found a verdict reached in only 5.7 percent of 1,487 “false positives” cases (with a larger number of victims) before the civilian justice system.

Even where military abusers have been successfully prosecuted, controversy arises. The brief January escape of Maj. César Maldonado, sentenced to a military brig for plotting a 2000 attack on prominent labor leader Wilson Borja, shed light on the easy terms of military imprisonment. Though he successfully escaped once before – from 2004 to 2008 – Maj. Maldonado enjoyed furloughs from his custody at the Tolemaida military base, as witnesses reported seeing him in the nearby resort town of Melgar. Another military human rights prisoner, Juan Carlos Rodríguez alias “Zeus,” even held parties at the Tolemaida brig, complete with liquor and prostitutes. (Similar scandal has surrounded a lavish party held on January 29 in Bogotá’s La Picota prison to celebrate the birthday of one of dozens of politicians jailed for collaborating with paramilitary groups.)

Progress has also been slow in investigations of wrongdoing at the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the presidential intelligence service. President Uribe’s first DAS director, Jorge Noguera, is on trial for “aggravated homicide” after allegedly conspiring with paramilitaries to kill labor leaders and other human rights defenders. Meanwhile several DAS directors and employees, as well as close Uribe advisors, are on trial or under investigation for ordering illegal wiretaps, surveillance and intimidation of human-rights defenders, opposition politicians, reporters and judges.

These investigations suffered a blow in October when one of the key suspects, former DAS Director María del Pilar Hurtado, fled to Panama (easily passing through Colombian migration, which is run by DAS), whose government apparently granted her asylum at President Uribe’s recommendation.

While the change in human rights rhetoric is positive, then, progress against impunity has not been registered yet. The Santos government is not principally to blame for this: Colombia’s civilian prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) has fallen into serious disarray recently. President Uribe’s conflict with the high courts left Colombia without a chief prosecutor for nearly a year and a half; during this period of drift the institution suffered the loss of more than a third of its prosecutors, who were fired after failing a controversial 2007 aptitude test. Viviane Morales, the new prosecutor-general who began a four-year term in early December, must improve management over a system that currently has over three million cases in a state of “hibernation,” with no recent progress whatsoever.

Shifts in U.S. Policy

“After a decade of Plan Colombia, U.S.-Colombia relations are entering a new phase,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), a vocal critic of Colombia’s human-rights record, said in December. “While there will likely continue to be issues about which we disagree, I look forward to working with President Santos and his government on a wide range of issues of mutual interest and concern.”

Congressional critics of Colombia’s human rights record have softened their tone toward the new government, while Plan Colombia’s backers continue to hold the country up as a model. Still, it is anyone’s guess at this point whether the U.S. Congress will move this year to ratify the free-trade agreement that the Bush and Uribe governments signed in 2006. Conce
rns about impunity for labor killings, among other military and paramilitary abuses, remain paramount.

Meanwhile, U.S. aid to Colombia is destined to decrease in 2011 and 2012. The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has proposed a 2011 budget that would cut the Obama administration’s worldwide foreign aid request by one-sixth. Even if the Democratic Senate softens this cut, a decrease for Colombia this year would still be likely (if, that is, Congress manages to pass a 2011 budget at all).

We will see what the Obama administration’s aid request for 2012 looks like when it is published on February 14th. Sources tell us that this request will include a significant cut in assistance. Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera has been hearing the same thing: in mid-January he said that, since Colombia must soon begin dealing with aid cuts – including having to pay for its own aerial coca-spraying chemicals – it would have to delay the creation of eight new army battalions that would have been deployed near the Venezuelan border.

Venezuela and Ecuador

In July, just weeks before leaving office, President Uribe was denouncing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez before the OAS for allegedly helping the FARC on its soil. Upon his inauguration, Juan Manuel Santos – a vocal Chávez critic when he served as Uribe’s defense minister – pivoted, moving immediately to improve relations with Venezuela.

The two presidents have met twice, re-established diplomatic relations, and pledged to improve counter-drug intelligence cooperation and carry out joint counter-drug operations. Venezuela haspromised to send 15,000 troops to the border zone to help with security (we do not know if that deployment has occurred), and extradited three FARC and ELN members from Venezuela to Colombia in November. The Santos government, for its part, risked angering U.S. officials and congressional leaders by promising to extradite to Venezuela Walid Makled, a Venezuelan narcotrafficker also wanted by the United States for his apparent knowledge of narco-corruption in Caracas.

The improvement in Colombia-Venezuela ties has not yet led to a recovery in trade between the two countries, which fell to US$1.4 billion in 2010 from US$6.09 billion in 2008.

The Santos government has also patched things up with its other neighbor on the political left, Ecuador, which broke relations after Colombia’s military, in March 2008, raided a FARC encampment inside Ecuadorian territory. Ambassadors have been restored to the embassies in Bogotá and Quito, and Ecuador’s armed forces have deployed more forces to the border zone to make it less hospitable to illegal armed groups.

Land and Victims’ Law

During the 2010 presidential election campaign, Juan Manuel Santos had not made reconciliation with Venezuela and Ecuador a central part of his platform. Nor had he prominently featured what has become a banner initiative of his administration’s first six months: a law to grant reparations, and to restore stolen land to, hundreds of thousands of victims of Colombia’s long armed conflict.

This law is currently passing through Colombia’s Congress; it passed the House of Representatives in December and is now under debate in the Senate. It looks a lot like a law, championed by the then-opposition Liberal Party, that failed in 2009 when President Uribe opposed it, citing its cost and its inclusion of reparations to people victimized by government forces. The Liberal Party is now part of the pro-government coalition that makes up about 80 percent of the Congress, and made promotion of the Victims’ Law a key condition for its support of the government.

The most contentious debate so far has been over the date after which people can be considered victims eligible for reparations. In Colombia’s long conflict, the eligibility date could conceivably be set at 1964 (the year the FARC and ELN were founded) or even 1948 (when a decade of extreme violence, known as “La Violencia,” began). The House of Representatives’ version of the bill sets the date at 1991, the year that Colombia’s Constitution was ratified. Proponents of a stronger Victims’ Law, including key senators and Interior Minister Germán Vargas Lleras, ask that the eligibility date at least be moved back to the [early 1980s][early], when paramilitarism began to gather power, land theft began in earnest, and the FARC-tied Patriotic Union political party, which had thousands of its members systematically killed, was founded.

An even more contentious debate over land may be coming. In addition to victims’ reparations, the bill includes a section governing restitution of land to those who were displaced by violence, or who had their land deliberately stolen by armed groups and their allies. Among many measures designed to return about 5 million acres of stolen land is a change in the law that will require current landowners in conflictive areas to prove that they obtained their land legally.

Last October, the government launched a six-month pilot project, which has come with several high-profile handouts of land titles and intends to give 800,000 acres of land to 130,000 families. However, at the plan’s three-month midpoint, it had managed to hand out 300,000 acres to 38,000 families – most of them unclaimed lands that had been owned by the government, not land taken back from narcotraffickers, paramilitaries and other land thiev

Those who stole the land, and their political allies, remain a very powerful group in Colombia. One of the country’s principal land-tenure experts, economist Luis Jorge Garay, calls them “Those who follow mafioso business model, everyone who was with narco-paramilitarism. Also, oil-palm interests, who need a lot of land for biofuels, large-scale cacao growers, and miners. We don’t know who represents the new mining elite.”

The landowners’ fight has not, tragically, been restricted to politics. An alarming 9 people have been killed in the past six months, in five separate incidents, for attempting to recover stolen lands in Antioquia, Arauca, Valle del Cauca, Bolívar and Tolima. In all cases, the killers remain at large.

On Santos’s right flank

Garay forsees a major political battle over land later this year: “Part of the pro-government coalition is totally opposed to this. The fight will be serious.” Those leading the fight against the land and victims’ legislation come from the right wing of the coalition, mainly from the “La ‘U’” and Conservative parties, who have the deepest roots among the landowning elites of many conflictive zones. This provincial sector of Colombia’s political elite, many of them from areas where paramilitarism was born and raised, has been almost totally excluded from positions of power in the new Santos government.

This sector is also the most energetic core of support for ex-President Uribe, and they are unhappy with, among other things, Santos’ pursuit of land restitution, his rapproachement with Venezuela, and his nominations of Uribe critics to key ministries (foreign relations, interior, agriculture).

Though he maintains a very vocal Twitter account, ex-President Uribe has refrained from criticizing Santos directly. The two men, who were never close, have made sure to avoid any intimation that they disagree, despite conflicting versions over how friendly a mid-January meeting between them actually was. “I say with all due respect to those who want to see us fighting: they are … not going to see us fighting,” Santos said in November. A Semana poll that month found only 4 percent of Colombians viewing Uribe as an opposition figure. Semana estimates that the real “acid test” of Uribe’s support for Santos will be Colombia’s October municipal and gubernatorial elections, in which Uribe – who has flirted with a run for mayor of Bogotá – may campaign mainly for those candidates whom he views as his own political base, even against members of other parties in the governing coalition.

The worst natural disaster in Colombia’s history

Juan Manuel Santos has departed from Uribe’s policies in many important, and welcome, areas. He is facing a security situation that is ever more murky and complicated. Prospects for peace remain distant.

But politics and security have not been the Santos government’s main challenge. In fact, the President’s first six months have been dominated by something unforseeable and totally out of his government’s control: a slow-motion natural disaster that is now the worst in Colombia’s history.

A very heavy rainy season, widely blamed on global climate change, has caused widespread flooding throughout the country. More than 300 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands displaced and well over 2 million – one in twenty Colombians – has lost or sustained damage to their homes or property. Even as vast areas remain underwater, the rebuilding cost is estimated at US$6.6 billion.

As the waters recede and Colombians begin to reckon with the floods’ economic and human toll, Juan Manuel Santos will be spending the next six months seeking to fulfill, or at least to manage, the expectations that his first six months have created. The new government raised hopes in many areas: not just disaster relief but land, reparations, greater security, economic prosperity, human rights and reduced corruption. Fulfilling these hopes will require Santos and his administration to make tough choices and confront powerful interests. The next six months will be crucial for that.