What happened in Colombia between January and March this year

Peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC

Between January and March there was partial progress in the process of implementing the peace agreements between the Colombian Government and the FARC. The FARC moved into the Transitional Normalisation Zones and Points (ZVTN/PTN) under the oversight of the tripartite Monitoring and Verification Mechanism.

Nevertheless, in several of the ZVTN/PTN there were complaints about logistical delays, a lack of medical attention for the FARC members, but also about the insecurity generated by the presence of neo-paramilitary groups in the surrounding areas, for example at the ZVTN of Gallo in Tierralta, Cordoba.[1] Near a convoy which was transporting FARC members to Caño Indio ZVTN, North Santander, in February, the local population denounced the presence of 50 armed men who identified themselves as members of the ‘Black Eagles’ neo-paramilitary group.[2]  The United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) later registered the mass displacement of the communities near the ZVTN due to threats.[3]

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), in its 2016 Annual Report, highlights that the power vacuums left by the FARC after they moved out of their areas of control, and the scant or weak State presence are risk factors which – amongst other factors – have contributed to the high numbers of murders of community leaders in rural areas during the country’s transitional phase.[4]

The Human Rights Ombudsman, in its Report 010-17 of 30 March, also emphasises several risk scenarios which affect not just human rights defenders, but the civilian population in general:  dissidence by some of the FARC, the expansion of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the increase in military operations against it, as well as the expansion and strengthening of the neo-paramilitary group ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’ (AGC).[5]

Legislative implementation of the Peace Agreement

The Colombian Congress moved ahead in the legislative implementation of the Peace Agreement; however, by the end of March, only four of the 40 necessary legislative reforms had been approved, which led to the civil society group overseeing the process, Voces de Paz, calling for the pace of implementation to be sped up.[6]  The key process from the human rights perspective was that of regulating the Integral System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and non-Repetition which includes the Special Peace Jurisdiction, the Search Unit for Persons Disappeared in the conflict, and the Commission for Clarifying the Truth, Cohabitation and non-Repetition. [7]

National Commission of Guarantees

In February, the Ministry of Interior issued Decree 154 creating the National Commission of Security Guarantees, which puts into effect chapter 3.4 of the Peace Agreement on security guarantees. The purpose of this high-level mechanism is to fight “against the organisations […] that attack human rights defenders, social movements or political movements or attack people who are taking part in implementing the agreements and building peace, including the criminal organisations identified as paramilitary successor groups and their support networks”. [8]

In spite of the new mechanism, the Minister of Defence, Luis Carlos Villegas, denies the existence and nature of the neo-paramilitary groups.[9]  The human rights union of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Sindhep) affirmed in February that “denying the existence of paramilitarism could be obscuring the persistence of the forms of violence which are maintaining control of several parts of the country under this logic”.[10]

Search mechanism for disappeared persons

In April, the decree regulating the Search Unit for Disappeared Persons in the armed conflict was emitted.[11] The roundtable on Enforced Disappearance of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (CCEEU) stated that the Search Unit for Disappeared Persons should be an autonomous entity and replace the National Search Commission,[12] as the latter is not considered to be functional, because its mechanisms such as the National Search Plan and the Urgent Search Mechanism have not been applied in practice.[13]

According to the records of the National Centre for Historical Memory, between 1970 and 2015, 60,630 people in Colombia were forcibly disappeared;[14] and in 92% of cases the families are still waiting to hear the truth about the whereabouts of their loved ones.[15]  Against this backdrop, the first meeting of Latin-American Network on Enforced Disappearance was held in Colombia during the first week of April.[16]

The risks caused by impunity and a lack of participation by victims

Different sectors of the international community and Colombian civil society have expressed concern that the Peace Agreement’s provisions do not meet international standards for transitional justice.  The UNHCHR’s annual report states that the Amnesty and Pardon Law (Law 1820 of 2016) has a number of ambiguities and lacunae that undermine the central role of victims which had been given to them by the Government and FARC in the Peace Agreement.[17]

The report also expressed doubts about how soldiers and guerrillas are being granted conditional release without any specific criteria. These ambiguities could increase the risk that people who committed serious war crimes and crimes against humanity will benefit from impunity. Human rights organisations denounced that victims have been unable to take part in decisions granting conditional release.[18]  The Agreement and the Amnesty and Pardon process should guarantee the rights and participation of victims in all procedures under the law.

In January, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, warned that legislation implementing the Peace Agreement’s provisions on justice, particularly on chain of command responsibility, must meet the obligations under the Rome Statute. Bensouda refers to the need for clarity on how senior officers will be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates in the armed conflict.[19]

The Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movice) and the CCEEU expressed concerns over several points in the final text. They underline the lack of means to investigate and prosecute third parties who took part directly or indirectly in funding paramilitary groups, because the law states that only those civilians whose participation in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity was “decisive” (determinante) would be prosecuted for financing paramilitarism. This limitation is an impediment to a genuine dismantling of neo-paramilitary structures.[20]

Another worry is the restriction on the Peace Tribunal using information provided to it by human rights organisations and victims as a basis for calling to account those who are allegedly responsible.  There are also concerns over the reasoning expressed during the debate in Congress, which alleged that the restrictions on using information from the organisations was needed to “prevent alleged cartels of false witnesses from functioning”, which undermines the rigorous gathering of evidence by organisations and victims over many years by equating it with criminal practices.[21]

Organisations such as CCAJAR, Movice and CCEEU have therefore asked the Constitutional Court to conduct an exhaustive review of the Peace Agreement and the amendments made by Congress, in order to guarantee the rights of victims and the constitutionality of the legislature’s actions. [22]

Difficult start to negotiations with the ELN

On 7 February, peace dialogues began in Quito (Ecuador) with Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). This process includes significant participation by civil society which is being organised through the Social Roundtable for Peace initiative.  The methodology for participation in the negotiations has yet to be defined, but it will be via regional meetings in seven places around the country which will gather proposals from different sectors of the population.

Whilst there has been progress on how the negotiating table will function, and some humanitarian agreements have been achieved,[23] the Government and the ELN have not been able to make significant advances in negotiations because of differences of opinion about the minimum agreements that must be reached before discussions can start.

Despite the peace negotiations, the violence of the conflict between the ELN and the Government has escalated in recent months, leading human rights organisations in Colombia, including PBI, to call repeatedly for a bilateral cessation of hostilities.[24] The ELN has increased its operations in various regions of the country like Catatumbo and Arauca,[25] and the National Army has launched military offensives against the ELN, which have had a negative impact on the civilian population caught in the crossfire.  In Northeastern Antioquia a civilian was extrajudicially executed as he travelled on a motorcycle with an ELN commander, who was also killed by the Army.[26]  Human rights organisations have also issued warnings about the mass detentions and prosecutions in Southern Bolivar of social leaders alleged to have links with the ELN.[27]

Fighting between the neo-paramilitary group ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’ (AGC) and the ELN has escalated in different regions causing mass displacements in Valle del Cauca and Choco. [28] The vacuum left by the FARC has been filled by these groups in many areas, whilst other areas are in dispute and the communities there are living under severe risks caused by fighting between the groups.  The persistence of these armed groups has a serious impact on the safety of many communities throughout the country.

Critical situation for human rights defenders

The escalation of the attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders remains critical in the first quarter of 2017, and became so concerning that the international community made public statements on the issue.  The Swedish, Norwegian, German, Swiss, UK, Netherlands and European Union ambassadors in Colombia were amongst those who reiterated their support for implementing the peace agreements between the Government and the FARC, but made clear that all these efforts would not be enough unless the lives of social leaders were protected.[29]

Whilst figures for the number of attacks do vary, official figures by the We Are Defenders Programme show an increase in attacks in all categories, compared to the same period in 2016.[30]

According to the programme, there were 481 attacks in 2016,[31] of which 80 were murders and 49 attempted murders; there were 317 cases of threats, and 15 cases of arbitrary detention.[32] The international organisation which protects human rights defenders, Front Line Defenders, in 2016 documented the killings of 85 human rights defenders, a number which makes Colombia the country with the highest number of murders of human rights defenders in the world.[33]

In the first quarter of 2017, We Are Defenders confirmed the following number of attacks against human rights defenders: 193 human rights defenders were the victims of some kind of incident, 24% of which were women.  Of these incidents, 20 were murders, 19 were attempted murders, 136 were threats and 13 were arbitrary detentions. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Risk Report on social organisations which was drafted by the Early Warning System (SAT) in March 2017, reports that 111 people “who had some degree of leadership in their communities” were the victims of killings in 2016.[34] The report highlights five cases of enforced disappearance and 431 threats against this group.  It also warns about the risk levels of at least 310 social organisations, which include more than a dozen organisations accompanied by PBI.[35]

According to the UNHCHR, effective investigation and punishment of the material and intellectual authors of the attacks against human rights defenders is needed to guarantee their rights and ensure they are not repeated.[36]  Yet, by March this year there have only been four convictions for the 74 murders registered by the Public Prosecutor between 2016 and 2017.[37] The Human Rights Ombudsman has recognised some progress in the investigations but makes clear that impunity for the attacks against human rights defenders continues to determine their risk.[38]  There is no progress in the investigations into nearly 3000 attacks against defenders and 400 murders of defenders which took place during the administration of Juan Manuel Santos.[39]

The murder of William Castillo Chima, of the Asociación de Hermandades Agroecológicas y Mineras de Guamocó (Aheramigua), an organisation accompanied by PBI, which was carried out on 17 March 2016 in the Lower Cauca region of Antioquia, was the first crime the judiciary attributed directly to the activity of defending human rights and providing political leadership in the regions.[40]

The Human Rights Ombudsman highlights several systematic aspects of the attacks against defenders and social leaders: 69% of victims were doing community organising, 25% were indigenous leaders, and high numbers of those affected – although also members of organisations – were the leaders of community action boards and of the Patriotic March movement, or the Peoples’ Congress.[41]  In the same way, We Are Defenders highlights several factors which contributed to the increase in the murder rate: the leaders’ participating in the peace process; the impact of the “No” vote in the referendum and the resulting build-up of the far-right sectors; the FARC’s transition and reconfiguration of the armed groups; and the absence of the State in many regions.[42]

Criminalisation of social leaders and defenders

Another concern emerged in relation to judicial safety, because the Peace Agreement initially provided that social activists prosecuted under the Citizen Security Law could be released. However, the Congress changed article 24 in the Peace Agreement to require a connection with political crimes for cases involving social activists.  “In other words, citizen protests must be related to political crimes, which denies the legal and lawful right to social protests” as argued by the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR).[43]

Increase in the presence of neo-paramilitary groups

Under point 3.4 of the Peace Agreement, the State committed itself to adopting the measures needed to shed light on the paramilitary phenomenon, to avoid it being repeated, and to guarantee the dismantling of organisations and criminal conduct responsible for homicides, massacres, and systematic violence (…).[44] The increase in attacks against human rights defenders and social leaders runs parallel to an increase in reports and warnings from national and international civil society about an upsurge in neo-paramilitary activity in Colombia.

According to We Are Defenders, 66% of attacks against human rights defenders are committed by neo-paramilitaries such as the ‘Black Eagles’ or the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’.[45]  The database of the Centre for Research and Popular Education (CINEP) has attributed 550 incidents to the neo-paramilitaries since 2016. CINEP is concerned by the increase in the threats and killings carried out by these groups against social leaders and defenders.[46]

PBI has expressed concern on several occasions for the increase in their presence, visibility and actions against the civilian population and human rights defenders.  In recent months, communities in Cacarica, Jiguamiando and the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community, amongst others, have spoken out repeatedly about their presence and the way their members are harassing people in the community, and about fighting between the neo-paramilitaries, the Army and the ELN.[47]

On 21 March, during the 161st period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, 13 Colombian social organisations, four of which are accompanied by PBI,[48] presented evidence of the stigmatisation and systematic attacks directed against social movements and organisations, the need to reform the Colombian Security Forces, and the lack of justice for the crimes committed by State agents.[49]

United States evaluates the peace process

On 20 January, the inauguration of the new president Donald J. Trump marked the beginning of a new era in the relationship between Colombia and the United States, an era marked by uncertainty. Bernie Aronson, the special envoy to the peace process in Colombia under the Obama administration, stepped down from the position at the end of the administration.[50]  The new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, responded to questions by members of the Senate in January by saying he would: “seek to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it”.[51]  More than 30 US civil society organisations, including PBI USA, signed a letter to secretary Tillerson in March urging him to support the peace agreements with the FARC and the negotiations with the ELN.[52]

Although former president Obama had promised an increase in US assistance to Colombia for 2017, from US$ 340 to 450 million (“Peace Colombia”), focused on implementing the Peace Agreements, this was not approved by Congress.[53]  In its place, the legislature decided to maintain the current budget at 2016 levels until 30 April, when a partial increase which included funding for the agreements was approved, although this support is only valid until 30 September.[54]

On 15 March, president Trump presented a preliminary government budget for the fiscal year 2018, which proposed to cut nearly a third of the funding for the State Department, which is normally the largest source of assistance for Colombia.[55] The bottom line is that resources will depend on Congress; there is vocal opposition by both parties,[56] as well as by former senior military personnel,[57] to the proposal to drastically cut the funds allocated for international diplomacy and international assistance.

It is important to add that some members of Congress who are opposed to the Peace Agreements are increasingly concerned by the coca crops in Colombia which in the last year rose to their highest level in history,[58] concerns they expressed in response to an announcement in March by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.


[1]Contagio Radio: Crisis de salud, infraestructura y seguridad en Zona Veredal Gallo, 31 March 2017
[2]Confidencial Colombia, Denuncian ‘Águilas Negras’ en Tibú, Norte de  Santander; Ejército desmiente alerta, 10 February 2017
[3]Telesur, ONU confirma desplazamiento de colombianos hacia Venezuela, 17 February 2017
[4]UNHCHR: Annual Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia 2016, 14 March 2017
[5]Defensoría del Pueblo: Informe de riesgo no. 010-17 A.I., 30 March 2017
[6]Caracol Radio: Voces de Paz pide al Congreso acelerar la implementación del acuerdo de paz, 27 de marzo 2017
[7]Presidencia de la República: Aprobado acto legislativo que crea el Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición, 28 March 2017
[8]Ministerio del Interior, Decreto 154 del 3 February 2017
[9]El Colombiano: “En Colombia no hay paramilitarismo”: Ministro de Defensa, 11 January 2017
[10]Sindicato de defensores y defensoras de derechos humanos de la Defensoría del Pueblo: Carta al Defensor del Pueblo, 8 February 2017
[11]Presidencia de la República de Colombia: Decreto 589 de 2017, 5 April 2017
[12]Cceeuu: Con la creación de la Unidad de Búsqueda para Personas dadas por Desaparecidas la actual Comision Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas debe dejar de existir, 17 March 2017
[13]Movice: El MOVICE exige que la Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas sea un ente autónomo y rechaza la continuidad de la Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda ante su inoperancia durante 17 años, 13 March 2017
[14]Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica: Lanzamiento de informe nacional de desaparición forzada, 15 November 2016
[15]El Espectador: El drama de los desaparecidos tras la firma del Acuerdo: ¿Hasta cuándo buscar a los desaparecidos?, 8 March 2017
[16]Corporación Colectivo de Abogados “José Alvear Restrepo” (CCAJAR): I encuentro de la Red Latinoamericana sobre Desaparición Forzada, del 2 al 7 de Abril, 3 April 2017
[17]UNHCHR: Annual Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia 2016, 14 March 2017, p. 7
[18]Contagio radio: Corte revisará constitucionalidad de modificaciones del Congreso al Acuerdo Final de paz, 30 March 2017
[19]Semana: El acuerdo de paz de Colombia demanda respeto, pero también responsabilidad, 21 January 2017; Semana: “La JEP debe tener en cuenta el Estatuto de Roma”, 25 January 2017
[20]Cceeuu y Movice: Un sistema integral con sabor agridulce para las víctimas de crímenes de Estado, 15 March 2017
[21]Movice y Cceeu: Un Sistema Integral con sabor agridulce para las víctimas de crímenes de Estado, 15 March 2017
[22]Contagio radio: Corte revisará constitucionalidad de modificaciones del Congreso al Acuerdo Final de paz, 30 March 2017
[23]El Colombia: Gobierno y ELN lograron primeros acuerdos en mesa de negociación, 6 April 2017
[25]La Silla Vacia: El desgane con el proceso del ELN se siente más en Arauca, 19 March 2017
[26]Radio Macondo: Hombres armados hostigan y amedrentan a familia campesina de Remedios, 10 April 2017
[27]El Espectador: Fiscalía argumentó que captura de líder social se realizó porque organiza marchas, 27 March 2017
[28]El Espectador: Combates entre ELN y banda criminal dejan 304 desplazados en Chocó, 5 March 2017
[29]El Espectador: Comunidad internacional alerta sobre asesinatos a líderes sociales, 20 de diciembre de 2016
[30]Somos Defensores: Sistema de Información sobre Agresiones a Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos – SIADDHH, Boletín Semestral enero – marzo 2017
[31]155 against women and 326 against men.
[32]Somos defensores: Contra las Cuerdas – informe anual 2016, 22 February 2017
[33]Front Line Defenders, Annual Report 2016 : https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/annual-report-human-rights-defenders-risk-2016
[34]Defensoría del Pueblo: Informe de riesgo no. 010-17 A.I., 30 March 2017
[35]Amongst the organisations are the following: Ccajar, Cijp, Aheramigua, Cahucopana, Cpdh, Cceeuu, Movice, Credhos, Acvc, Asorvimm, San Jose de Apartado Peace Community, Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, Patriotic March and Peoples’ Congress.
[36]UNHCHR Annual Report: 2016, p. 11.
[37]Resumen Latinoamericano: Colombia. El Gobierno vuelve a negar la realidad ante la CIDH, 22 March 2017; El Universal: Fiscal dice que no hay sistematicidad en asesinatos de defensores de derechos humanos, 8 December 2016
[38]Defensoría del Pueblo: Informe de riesgo no. 010-17 A.I., 30 March 2017
[39]Programa Somos Defensores: Contra las Cuerdas. Informe Anual 2016, 22 February 2017
[40]El Tiempo: Ya van 56 capturados por muertes de líderes sociales en el país, 11 March 2017
[41]Defensoría del Pueblo: Informe de riesgo no. 010-17 A.I., 30 March 2017
[42]Programa Somos Defensores: Contra las Cuerdas. Informe Anual 2016, 22 February 2017
[43]Contagio radio: Corte revisará constitucionalidad de modificaciones del Congreso al Acuerdo Final de paz, 30 March 2017
[44]Acuerdo final para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera, 24 November 2016, page 80
[45]Programa Somos Defensores: Contra las Cuerdas. Informe Anual 2016, 22 February 2017, p. 53
[46]Cinep: Informe – Situación de derechos humanos en Colombia 2016: el paramilitarismo sí existe, 3 May 2017
[47]Contagio Radio: Comunidades del Cacarica sitiadas por presencia paramilitar, 30 January 2017; Amnesty International: Colombia: Incursión paramilitar en zonas humanitarias, 17 March 2017; Comunidad de Paz San José de Apartadó: Torturas, violaciones y asesinatos el pan de cada día, 2 Feburary 2017; Resguardo Indígena de Chagpien Tordo: Familias Woaunaan confinadas y en riesgo de desplazamiento, 23 February 2017; Amnesty International: Más de 300 personas desplazadas a causa de una incursión paramilitar, 6 March 2017
[48]Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP), Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL), Foundation Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP)
[49]Miami Herald: Why was this Colombian general posted to his country’s Washington embassy? 11 April 2017;  Miami Herald: Report: Extrajudicial killings in Colombia implicate top military brass, 24 June 2015
[50]Caracol Radio: No habría reemplazo para Aronson: Washington Post, 30 January 2017
[51]El Colombiano: Estados Unidos evaluarían el apoyo a la paz de Colombia, 23 January 2017
[52]Latin America Working Group: Press Statement: US civil society organisations send letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson call for his support for peace in Colombia, 30 March 2017
[53]El Tiempo: EE.UU. reitera su respaldo al proceso de paz con las Farc, 6 February 2017
[54]115th Congress (2017-2018): Consolidated Appropriations Act 2017, 1 May 2017
[55]El Tiempo: El presupuesto de Trump podría afectar la ayuda para Colombia, 16 March 2017; El País: Trump promete un aumento “histórico” en los gastos militares en EE.UU., 27 February 2017
[56]The Hill: GOP senator: Trump Budget ´dead on arrival´, 28 February 2017
[57]Carta: Dear Speaker Ryan, Minority Leader Pelosi, Majority Leader McConnell, and Minority Leader Schumer, 27 February 2017
[58]InSight Crime: US Estimates Highest-Ever Colombia Coca Production, 14 March 2017


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