Julia Figueroa: “Defend the Peace Accords from inside Catatumbo It has become a very high risk “

For decades Catatumbo has been the epicenter of sociopolitical violence and armed conflict. The region encompasses ten municipalities in the department of Norte de Santander, on the Venezuelan border. The 2016 signature of the Peace Agreement brought hope of peace and a dignified life for the communities. However, the lack of its comprehensive implementation has obstructed addressing the armed conflict’s structural causes and has left communities at the mercy of intensifying violence. The Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective (CCALCP)—a group of women lawyers and human rights defenders with 22 years of experience defending human rights—is one of the organizations that accompanies the Catatumbo Peasant Association (ASCAMCAT) and the peasant communities of Catatumbo, whom they represent through strategic litigation to demand compliance with the Peace Agreement.

According to Julia Figueroa, president of the lawyers collective, the peasant communities of Catatumbo have experienced a violation of their rights due to non-compliance with the Peace Agreement and, in particular, due to the humanitarian and economic crisis caused by non-compliance with the National Comprehensive Program for Illicit Use Crop Substitution (PNIS)[1] established in point 4 of the Agreement.[2] Specifically, the Government promised to implement the PNIS to generate the material conditions for well-being and a good life in communities that subsist on illicit use crops, as is stipulated in point 4.1. The population that CCALCP represents is part of the first PNIS pilot plan, which began in 2017 in four rural communities of Tibú (Catatumbo), these are: Caño Indio, Palmeras Mirador, Chiquinquirá, and Progreso 2.

Lawyers collective president, Julia Figueroa, defines herself as a woman human rights defender, part of a group of committed, concerned, and qualified women who seek to achieve human rights through the law.

However, Julia Figueroa notes that the peasant families have yet to receive the necessary components to achieve alternatives and stability for their families. Land formalization has not advanced and community assemblies have not been held to facilitate access to conditions of well-being and welfare for populations with unsatisfied basic needs. Peasant families signed the agreements with the expectation that this would provide them with access to economic projects to enable their transition to legal economies, in addition to access to decent living conditions. However, a fulfillment of the lacking commitments remains uncertain, while communities continue to be stigmatized and have yet to receive viable alternatives for their subsistence.

CCALCP documented delays in the components promised to peasant communities as beneficiaries of the substitution program, in response to ASCAMCAT’s complaints on non-compliance with the Peace Agreement. “If 2018 was discouraging, imagine now that we are in 2023,” laments Figueroa, “the issue of land has not been resolved, the issue of technical support has not been resolved, differential intervention models do not exist, community participation is not on the agenda.” ASCAMCAT, an organization that has been defending human rights in the Catatumbo region for 15 years, confirms this. According to the peasant association, “as is seen with technical assistance, they only present 78% of the 301 economic projects, of which only 18% have been implemented. Additionally, many growers have stated that they have yet to receive the first promised payment.”

Now in 2023, the economic projects for the Caño Indio pilot plan have still not been delivered or completed. In July 2020, CCALCP, ASCAMCAT, and the Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marihuana Growers (COCCAM) in Tibú, presented a tutela (writ of constitutional protection) on behalf of over 200 individuals and 60 peasant families from Tibú who subsisted on growing, harvesting, and transforming coca leaf and who enrolled in the PNIS program. This tutela was filed to achieve compliance with points: 1. Comprehensive Rural Reform, 3.4. Security guarantees for communities and social leaders, and 4. National Policy for Illicit Use Crop Substitution, a public policy established by the Peace Agreement.

CCALCP was founded in 2001 in Bucaramanga, capital of Santander, in northeastern Colombia. The group of women lawyers work to defend human rights using legal techniques and other professional skills to carry out strategic litigation actions and generate true transformations in the lives of communities accompanied by the organization. CCALCP has accompanied ASCAMCAT since 2006.

The tutelas were rejected in the first two judicial bodies, arguing inadmissibility given that PNIS implementation “signifies inter-institutional coordination, which is why these authorities must be the ones to review progress in its implementation.” Thus, since state institutions have discretion in public policy implementation, policy is at the mercy of state political will to review advancements and compliance. However, these court decisions generated a partially favorable opportunity. The justice operators, in addition to declaring the tutelas inadmissibility, ruled on the content of the central issue in this procedural debate. And, by September 2020, the ruling from the first instance was reiterated in the second, urging the Territory Renewal Agency (ART), the entity responsible for administering the PNIS, to: perform a detailed evaluation of program compliance; allocate a budget for program compliance, determine a calendar with clear deadlines for registered families, and, within this process, include participation from those directly affected, as well as human rights organizations, such as the plaintiffs, CCALCP, ASCAMCAT, and COCCAM, Tibú.

CCALCP, in collaboration with the School of Law of the Universidad Francisco de Paula Santander (UFPS), ASCAMCAT, and presidents of the Community Action Councils of Caño Indio, Palmeras Mirador, Progreso 2, and Chiquinquirá (municipality of Tibú), presented briefs requesting that the Constitutional Court select the tutela from Norte de Santander for review. On March 26, 2021, the High Court selected the case. The tutela presented by CCALCP on behalf of the Catatumbo communities is in addition to two other tutelas presented by peasant organizations in Cauca and Nariño (Colombian Pacific Coast). In November of 2021, given the constitutional relevance, the High Court decided to study the cases jointly. This decision from the Constitutional Court is a particularly important achievement, as it opens the possibility of a decision of substance regarding the enforceability of compliance for the Peace Agreement.

In December 2021, CCALCP, accompanied by PBI, went to Caño Indio to gather testimonies from the peasant families they represent to bring those voices to the Constitutional Court, which requested additional information about the victims.

The Constitutional Court decided to group the tutelas from Norte de Santander, Cauca, and Nariño—supported by CCALCP and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR)—and include state entities and third parties with a legitimate interest in the process. The latter provided rural people in conditions of poverty, who inhabit territories plagued by violence, the opportunity to participate. This set the stage for CCALCP, along with ASCAMCAT and COCCAM, to convene social leaders from municipalities in the Catatumbo subregion and department of Norte de Santander, who had presented their testimonies in July 2022 on the situation in Sardinata, Hacarí, San Calixto, El Zulia, and rural Cúcuta, relative to the existence of illicit use crops, their willingness to participate in substitution, and the effects of the substitution policy’s non-implementation in their territories.

The community expectation regarding the tutela is a fulfillment of substitution agreements and for forced eradication to be an exceptional measure, as established in the Peace Agreement. These three regions specifically have seen multiple forced eradication operations and human rights violations that result from clashes during military actions against the peasants dependent on this economy, despite their willingness to carry out substitution and amid complaints of non-compliance with the program or non-implementation of the substitution policy in their territories. Julia Figueroa insists that, six years after the Peace Agreements signature, the armed conflict’s persistence is the most serious aspect, and that high risks continue for human rights defenders and organizations. Organizations that, like ASCAMCAT, defend the Peace Agreement from inside Catatumbo “today, are more threatened and are victims of multiple types of attacks, such as accusations and assassination attempts.”

However, CCALCP has not lost hope. “Having brought victims’ voices to the judges is an achievement,” Figueroa highlights, “this result is primarily because of the communities, they are the ones who have wanted to participate in all these actions.” These are the voices of men and women, the voices of ongoing organizational efforts like those ASCAMCAT, on a long and exhausting path, persevering for that long-sought peace.


PBI Colombia

[1] Delays and absences stand out in the fulfillment of essential components promised to individuals and communities for PNIS to be effective.

[2] Point 4 of the Peace Agreement: Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs. In Point 4 of the Peace Agreement, a National Comprehensive Program for Illicit Use Crop Substitution (PNIS) was agreed upon, which is integrated into the Comprehensive Rural Reform contained in Point 1, with the aim of overcoming the poverty experienced by communities affected by illicit use crops; promote voluntary substitution; generate economic opportunities; and close the agricultural frontier.

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