Colombia’s Peacekilling Operation

Colombia’s Peacekilling Operation

A few days ago, the New York Times broke an explosive story on Colombia. The journal claimed Major General Nicacio Martínez, the head of the Colombian Army, had issued new and worrisome targeting orders for his troops. Soldiers were requested “not to demand perfection” and to “do anything to boost their results”. According to the article, the order asks commanders to “launch operations with 60 to 70 percent credibility or exactitude”, prompting complaints from anonymous officers concerned that such a results-driven formula would endanger compliance with Colombia’s human rights obligations. In particular, they feared a return to the “false positives” policy of the early 2000s, where Colombia faked armed engagements with alleged FARC members to camouflage outright executions.

The NY Times report is the newest episode in the seemingly unending crisis of Colombia’s post-conflict. Since taking office in mid-2018, Colombia’s President Iván Duque, a staunch opponent of the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC, has made sure to stand in the way of implementation of the nation’s transitional justice institutions. Duque’s measures have taken legal and political shape, going against the structure of Colombia’s transition, seeking reforms that would alter the system’s original restorative ethos. For Duque, the Agreement creates impunity for former FARC members and, because of that, in March of this year, he vetoed six key articles of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP) Statutory Bill, that would implement important aspects of Colombia’s transitional justice court. Trying to dismantle a peace agreement while it is being implemented is problematic enough. The NY Times report, however, reveals an additional problem: his mismanagement of the implementation itself, focusing more on “mano dura” – hard-line criminalisation and militarisation of national security –  than on ensuring the success of institutions already in place.  

Duque’s preference for militarisation should raise alarms even among those who share his opposition to the Peace Agreement. His policies are creating a perfect storm that will likely increase political violence in the country. Demobilised FARC members are in a particularly vulnerable position, as other groups penetrate in former FARC-controlled land. The UN Verification Mission for Colombia has consistently raised concerns about the ability of the Colombian government to comply with its security guarantee obligations. This last March, it reported that:  

“A continuing challenge is to ensure that the Government’s broader policy frameworks, particularly in areas of former FARC-EP presence and where reintegration efforts are ongoing, are converted into a concrete plan of action on territorial, rural and urban security to tackle the various factors affecting communities and former combatants”.

In particular, demobilised FARC members are experiencing high levels of violence in a broader context of “disputes between illegal armed groups over territorial control and a weak State presence”. In some cases, they are being targeted and killed by the State itself, and staged as armed engagements, as reported by the NY Times. Since the signing of the agreement, around 130 former FARC fighters have been killed, 99 of which have been verified by the UN. Making sure that FARC members can reintegrate in peace should be of the utmost priority, regardless of what one’s opinion of the Peace Agreement itself is.

If enough FARC lose hope in the prospects of peace, the security outlook will look particularly grim; and it looks like this is exactly what is happening. Recently, Iván Marquez, the FARC’s top negotiator, said in an interview that surrendering their weapons to the UN had been a “grave mistake”. Other former FARC fighters express feelings of betrayal, arguing they should have listened to FARC dissidents who refused to accept the peace: “They [the dissidents] told us they were going to kill us, and now it’s been more than 130 [dead]. They [the government] have not fulfilled their part”. Many FARC demobilised, including the top leadership, have argued that this security situation prevents them from attending SJP hearings to render their testimony, leaving the sui generis transitional justice court in a sort of limbo.

As time goes by, more and more FARC demobilised have simply began to rearm, usually not because of reignited revolutionary zeal, but because of the need of protection against para-military and organized crime groups advancing on former FARC-controlled land. Under the Agreement, the government was supposed to fill this power void, but never did. According to government reports, between 1,750 and 3,000 former de-mobilised fighters have now joined the dissidents and abandoned the peace process altogether. The key issue, though, is that there no longer is a FARC structure to go back to. The formerly unified FARC front is now atomised into several smaller gangs, causing considerable harm to the civilian population as they battle other groups for control of territory. One of these dissident groups, for instance, the Oliver Sinisterra Front, was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of a team of Ecuadorean journalists in the Ecuador-Colombia border.

Creating a secure environment for demobilised FARC members is vital not just for the successful implementation of the Peace Agreement, but for the wellbeing of Colombia and Colombians as a whole, regardless of their political positions. This cannot be done by losening targeting standards and demanding increased kill quotas. This will only generate more cases like that of Dimar Torres, a former FARC fighter recently found dead. According to initial reports, Torres tried to take away a soldier’s gun and died in the ensuing struggle. A later inquiry concluded however that this had been staged. Forensic and video evidence showed he had been killed by the soldier, point blank, by a shot to the head.

Colombians know full well just how terrible atomisation is. It has happened before. During the 2005 demobilisation of paramilitary groups, many simply turned to crime, creating what Colombian security forces call “Bacrim”, short for “bandas criminales” (criminal bands, in Spanish). These groups have been a massive problem for security forces, as they moved to urban centres to fight for control of crime in specific neighbourhoods. According to one Human Rights Watch report, “[t]hey dismember their victims and dump the body parts in the bay”. It soon became clear that some of these groups were quite powerful, requiring more and more intense responses from the government. By 2016, Colombia decided that some of these groups had crossed the armed conflict threshold. Directive 015-2016 distinguishes between those groups that remained “organised criminal organizations” (OCG), covered by human rights law, from those that became “organized armed groups” (OAG), under the law of armed conflict.

The situation with these groups, however, is much more complicated than simply naming them as “OAGs” instead of “OCGs”. Under international humanitarian law, states must distinguish between members of an armed force belonging to a party to a conflict, from civilians. The former lose their protection from individualized attack for as long as they possess a continuous combat function in the organized armed group. The latter, must be protected from attack except for such time as they directly participate in hostilities. The ever-complicating mesh of OCGs and OAGs operating in Colombia, sometimes in opposition to each other, sometimes in alliance with each other, makes it extremely difficult to operationalise the law for each particular engagement. An OCG (like, for instance, a drug smuggling organization) may have hired an OAG (say, the ELN) for protection of its illegal operations, unrelated to hostilities. Adding a dozen more FARC dissident forces to this mix will only worsen the security situation and risk plunging Colombia into darker days it thought it had already left behind.

With this background, political positions regarding the Peace Agreement itself are immaterial. I for one share many of the concerns raised by groups like Human Rights Watch in the past. But, like them, I am also aware that trying to dismantle it in the midst of its implementation phase is a terrible idea. Despite Duque’s wishes, Colombia simply cannot return to the way things used to be before the Agreement. That Colombia and those FARC no longer exist. At this point, Colombians need to do what is best for Colombia, and not what is worst for the FARC. The two are simply not the same thing.

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[…] ALONSO GURMENDI is concerned that the current hardliners in government in Colombia are jeopardising peace and human rights. […]