On 14 May, bombers from the Colombian air force deployed to a remote rural area in the north of Bolivar province. Their target: a camp of National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, in particular one of its leaders, a commander who went by the name of Macho Tierra.
The mission was a success, at least from the government's perspective: Macho and two other guerrillas were killed. But it was also the latest in a series of dramatic escalations to threaten the increasingly shaky 2016 peace accord, which brought an end to a 50-year civil war.
During that war, Colombia earned the dubious distinction of the country with the highest number of internally displaced in the world: some 7.6 million people, roughly 15 percent of the total population, fled violence from both armed groups and Colombian military forces.
As the state ratchets up aggressive military action once again, the UN is also reporting increased displacements in conflict zones where the peace never truly arrived in practice, with armed groups continuing to vie for territory even during the supposed COVID-19 lockdown.
The bombing in Bolivar was part of a larger plan by the Colombian government to militarise five conflict regions dubbed “future zones" – Pacífico nariñense, Catatumbo, Southern Cauca, Arauca, and Chiribiquete. The goal, according to a statement by President Iván Duque, is to “stabilise, develop, and transform illicit economies into licit ones”.
Conflict areas the Colombian government plans to militarise
Source: Colombia Reports, Presidency of Colombia
In conjunction with the United States and under the cover of national quarantine restrictions, Colombia is moving forward with aggressive military measures that critics say harken back to the bloodiest period from the country’s so-called War on Drugs.
Dangerous manual “search and destroy” missions to eradicate coca fields, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine, have been ramped up since lockdown began in March, resulting in the deaths and woundings of farmers as well as skirmishes with armed groups.
Alongside highly controversial plans by the Colombian government to resume aerial fumigation of coca fields has been the arrival of US Special Forces, which, according to the US embassy, will be conducting joint drug-fighting operations with the Colombian military once the move has gained final approval by the Colombian Senate.
On 18 June, the US State Department also announced a $10 million bounty for information leading to arrests of two ex-FARC leaders accused of drug trafficking: Seuxis Hernandez-Solarte, aka “Jesus Santrich”, and Luciano Marin Arango, aka “Iván Marquez.” The two leaders made a dramatic break from the peace agreement with the Colombian government last year, publicly vowing to renew the armed struggle against the state.
Taken together, these events have some experts worried that the country is barrelling towards a period of government aggressiveness unparalleled since Plan Colombia, a joint US-Colombian anti-drug military operation in the 1990s at the height of the civil war.
The shadow of Plan Colombia remains highly controversial here, and the rash of government measures has left peace monitors, researchers, and humanitarian groups worried about the impact on human rights in the “future zones” the government plans to militarise.
The intensification of the drug war comes as aid groups face growing needs due to COVID-19 – shortages of basic foods and medicines in indigenous and border communities – and access difficulties because of severe lockdown measures imposed by the government: travel restrictions, closed borders, and strict curfews.
The International Crisis Group described these quarantine measures in May as “severely restricting the movement of aid workers – including those wishing to monitor violence levels”, which may be further emboldening armed groups as well.
A promise fulfilled
During his 2018 election campaign, President Iván Duque promised to dismantle and renegotiate aspects of the 2016 peace accord negotiated by his Nobel Peace Prize-winning predecessor Juan Manuel Santos.
Since taking office, Duque has used parliamentary strategies to slow down and challenge the implementation of the accord. Citing the criminal activities of FARC dissidents who refuse to lay down their arms, he has called for FARC leaders to be charged with war crimes – leaders who were granted immunity under Santos in return for joining the government.
The government has also been spurred into action by popular anger over a long-running series of political killings of activists and community organisers. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office counts 555 social leaders killed between the peace accord being signed and the end of 2019, and the number is growing even faster in 2020. INDEPAZ, a monitoring group, counts 96 killings of social leaders between 1 January and 5 May alone.
Duque’s military escalation is also being encouraged by the United States. In 2019, cocaine production in Colombia reached an all-time high, leading to tension between the two countries. This past January, after US threats to revoke more than half a billion dollars in foreign aid if Colombia failed to address rising cocaine production, Duque announced plans to resume the controversial fumigation programme together with details of military escalations he described as a “firm hand” approach to narco-trafficking.
Armed groups in conflict zones have been using the situation to their advantage. Recruitment among rebels has nearly doubled as residents in conflict zones increasingly perceive the government as either unable or unwilling to provide peace or fulfill its promises. Killings by the ELN have risen and the armed group is pushing into new territory. The move has led to a rise in accusations of sex trafficking and forced labour in recent reports from both Human Rights Watch and Foundation Ideas for Peace (FIP), a Colombian peace-monitoring group.
Médecins Sans Frontières reported at least seven large-scale displacements due to fighting among armed groups in Nariño, on the Ecuadorian border, as well as in other departments along the Pacific coast, which have affected at least 14,000 people since national lockdown measures began on 25 March.
Fumigation plans, human lives, and a dark past
“The government is criminalising civil society in these regions,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director for WOLA, a human rights group focusing on Latin America. “They call their efforts, ‘Peace but with legality’, a term that sounds nice when you read it, but in actuality they are addressing the coca problem the same way it has been addressed for years – and it hasn’t worked.”
Sánchez-Garzoli said farmers had signed on to the peace deal amidst promises of investments in their communities and crop-substitution subsidies – farmers that now find their communities occupied by military forces.
“You have to imagine what this feels like to them,” she said. “Eighty-percent of those who signed up for these programmes haven’t received the promised funds. And now they see their neighbours being raided by soldiers.”
For Shauna Gillooly, a peace-building and conflict researcher for University of California Irvine who is based in Colombia, the return to illegality and violence in the remote, rural regions once controlled by the FARC shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Many of these communities have been forced to make informal deals with the armed groups who control these regions,” Gillooly told TNH. “They had no choice. We are talking about regions where there has been no government. And historically, when the military arrives they have difficulty distinguishing between armed groups and civil society.”
“Many of these communities have been forced to make informal deals with the armed groups who control these regions.”
The fumigation plans draw particular ire from activists and humanitarian groups. The government previously halted aerial fumigation in 2014 after a World Health Organisation report said the spray's main ingredient, glyphosate, could be linked to cancer in humans. Experts have also pointed to widespread ecological and social damage during the height of the programme in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“The programme led to what we call the ‘balloon effect’,” said Sánchez-Garzoli. “As armed groups were driven from areas being fumigated, they spread to new areas, and displaced new communities with violence. Then the government would follow and the cycle repeated for 25 years.”
The ‘future zones’
The Colombian Ministry of Defense laid out the thinking behind its “future zones” programme in an email to TNH.
“Illegal cultivation and illicit economies finance and stimulate the growth of criminal armed groups,” it said. “This leads to a degradation of the democratic system and negative consequences for human rights.”
As part of the plan, the newly deployed US Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) battalion will be attached to Colombian military units as “trainers and advisers” to assist in narco-trafficking operations that will include manual and aerial fumigation as well as counter-insurgency tactics targeting the armed groups that now effectively control the regions.
Darwin Molina, a community organiser who helps residents of poor neighbourhoods run for office in Buenaventura, a coastal city with a long history of drug conflict, doubts the programme will achieve its goals. “We have nothing,” he told TNH. “And then [the government] blames us for living in a conflict zone.”
“When a youth with no education, no job prospects, and no future is given the opportunity to work for the narcos, they will,” he continued. “The solution to this problem isn’t to send the military to kill us. It is to build a functional economy and education system.”
Asked what the future holds as conflict in Colombia escalates, experts were wary of sweeping generalisations but did offer some specific predictions.
“The solution to this problem isn’t to send the military to kill us. It is to build a functional economy and education system.”
“Further conflation between criminal armed groups and the communities they operate in, leading to criminalisation of civil society [in conflict zones],” said Gillooly, the security researcher. “If you had asked me about the prospects for the peace accord in 2018, I would have replied ‘shaky’. But now I fear we may have reached a point of no return. The situation is becoming critical.”
“Violence directed at vulnerable communities,” said Sánchez-Garzoli, of WOLA. “The pressure on farmers is enormous. They can't win. If they cooperate [with the military], it’s often because they don't have another way out, but then they find themselves attacked by armed groups who control the regions they live in.”
“On paper, the plans for the future zones include plans for development of communities in conflict zones as well as militarisation,” said Juan Pappier, Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But in the past the government has been more prone to the latter than the former. The situation is unlikely to improve if the Colombian government continues to deploy the military without simultaneously strengthening infrastructure, the justice system, and economic opportunities.”
David Restrepo, environmental director for the Center of Security and Drug Studies at the University of the Andes, agreed. “These are the same regressive tactics the government has tried before. They didn’t work then and they are unlikely to work now,” he said.
“The ‘War on Drugs’ is lost. A war on the people isn’t going to work either. But the peace can still be won with long-term investment and security in these communities.”
Data visualisation by Abigail Geiger.
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.