Peace, Peace! But in Colombia, there is no peace

Colombia peace

Advocates for peace and justice around the world were thrilled to hear the proposal by Colombian president Gustavo Petro for a Total Peace Plan, an effort that was promptly approved by Congress. The plan is ambitious and deserves our support. Colombia’s entire history from Spanish colonization right up to today has been a story of violence, displacement, and repression. The country has been in the grips of armed conflict and civil war on several fronts for more than 50 years. The 2016 Peace Accord between the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the Colombian Armed Forces (CAF) was a major step forward. 

Nevertheless, the accord has been marred by the failure of the Colombian government to meet its commitments, and by continued political violence. Petro has expressed his strong support for the accords and a desire to reverse the noncompliance of the state. Regrettably, the assassinations of social leaders and ex-combatant signers of the accords remains excessively high. If we add the number of victims of massacres, people are losing their lives to political violence in Colombia at a rate of more than one person per day. According to Indepaz, 189 social leaders and human rights defenders, and 43 ex-combatants, were murdered in 2022. Another 289 persons lost their lives in 91 massacres. Together, this accounts for 521 victims of assassinations and massacres in 2022. Since the accords were implemented in 2016, 1,409 social leaders, and 348 ex combatants have been killed. There have been 368 massacres, with at least three victims of each.

On New Year’s Eve, Petro announced a bilateral ceasefire among all major armed groups, including the largest remaining guerrilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army). On January 4, the ELN announced via its website that no bilateral ceasefire had been discussed or agreed to. Previously, the administration had maintained that the AGC (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) paramilitary death squads, as well as the Dagoberto Ramos front (former FARC-EP turned narcotraffickers), had agreed to negotiations. However, we know of several threats and killings alleged to both groups against sister organizations in conflict hotspots in the Departments of Cauca and Valle de Cauca. 

The Total Peace Plan by the Petro administration should be applauded. It is a tremendously positive development to have an administration in power that truly wants peace. 

However, the kinds of concrete steps necessary to achieve a durable and just peace in Colombia are still behind where they should be, even with the progress that has clearly been made. The Sindicato Memoria Viva (Living Memory Union) is especially emblematic of the problem. They are a union whose members are mostly former combatants and signers of the peace accords. Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a union member, and signers of the peace accord are routinely targeted for assault. 

Memoria Viva is already doubly endangered. Then there is the actual work they do — they are bodyguards who are assigned to provide security for leadership of the Comunes Political Party, formed as a result of the 2016 Accord, with the participation of members of the former FARC-EP. (Not all members of Comunes are formerly of the FARC-EP, and not all former members of the FARC-EP are members of Comunes.) In short, Memoria Viva is a union of the doubly threatened charged with protecting the threatened. There are few who understand the need for a real peace as much as they do, and they have a unique and invaluable perspective on how that peace might be concretely achieved. 

But the union has been hit hard by threats and murders of its members, labor violations, false allegations, and a failure by the state to provide the tools necessary for them to do their jobs. A chronic problem has been the lack of viable vehicles necessary to provide security for the people they accompany, something that has resulted in the loss of life. Ronald Rojas, an ex-combatant who led the reincorporation process in the Department of Huila is one of these. According to the union, his security detail was not available because of a vehicle that was in the shop, without a substitute provided. 

In an October 18, 2022 interview, Memoria Viva president Victor Osorio told the Alliance for Global Justice, that, 

There have been six assassinations, disappearances, and declarations of inconsistencies regarding my colleagues, as well as regular national persecution…. 

We stand firm on the implementation of the Peace Accords but in order for that to be possible we need our lives to be secure. We need to be able to move around in the territories where we can accomplish the goals, we proposed…. something which has been next to impossible on our end including with the new government. We have yet to get them to sit and talk with our unions in a genuine and sincere way or to follow our proposals and recommendations for better security protocols. These protocols have the responsibility of guaranteeing the lives of those who signed the Peace Accords….

The response from the state has been very unsatisfactory…. Ronald Rojas had expressed to our colleagues that he had received concerning information regarding being followed with the objective of assassination. Still, when the assassination happened, he was unable to depend on the security measures that should have been given to him…. The issue is that the renting car company, which has a million dollar contract with the state to rent those vehicles and provide security and mobility for the signers of the Peace Accords…. We have colleagues who have to ride public transportation because they weren’t guaranteed a vehicle. This puts them in very unsafe conditions. These rental companies…. often supply old, dingy cars that spend more time in the shop being repaired than actually protecting anyone….

What happened to Ronald was very painful for our community…. Ronald was someone who was very close to us…. He was a leader in the protection of our friends.

The People’s Human Rights Observatory (Observatorio de los Derechos Humanos de los Pueblos) and the Alliance for Global Justice recently sent a letter to  Petro, the National Protection Unit (UNP), Department of Labor, and leadership of the Comunes Party in support of Memoria Viva’s demands, including a meeting with Petro. The president’s office replied that it had forwarded the letter to various cabinet offices with instructions to investigate the concerns, and the UNP responded that they are taking the concerns under consideration. A meeting with the president was denied, citing that his agenda was not open. AFGJ will continue to monitor the situation and mobilize solidarity with Memoria Viva. We will continue to support their call for a meeting with Petro. 

The Alliance for Global Justice has also maintained an ongoing campaign for better protection and an adequate vehicle for the security detail of Darnelly Rodriguez, the coordinator of the Pacific Human Rights Center (Centro Pazífico) and of the Francisco Isaias Cifuentes Human Rights Network (REDDHFIC) in Cali. Darnelly has been singled out by name in several death threats, she’s been followed, and her office burglarized. She has told us that her team’s vehicle is frequently in the shop for repairs, without a substitute provided. 

The threats of political violence extend to all levels. Even as this article is being written, we hear on the news that a bomb was found (January 10, 2023) near the family home of Colombia’s Vice President Francia Marquez in the Department of Cauca. Marquez came to prominence as an eco-defender and Afro-Colombian social leader. 

Clearly, the administration should meet with the leadership of Memoria Viva not only to hear their demands, but because their analysis and advice could be transformative. Listening to these voices from real grassroots experts in this peace process is perhaps a missing piece that could bring the Petro administration’s dream of a Total Peace closer to reality. 

Unfortunately, there are other voices vying for the attention of the Petro administration, and few as persistent and loud and ominous as that of a US government that is firmly oriented towards maintaining Colombia as a military colony for the Pentagon, and a springboard for implementing the Empire’s agenda throughout Latin America and even the world. The US government has used the Drug War as a smokescreen to spend billions of dollars to militarize Colombia and fund the repression of its people. Colombia has been a training ground and base for countless forms of interference, including attempted coups and invasions, in Venezuela. Colombia has trained scores of thousands of police and military personnel across Latin America and the world. Colombia has sent its soldiers to engagements in Korea, Afghanistan, Yemen — even in Ukraine. While the US and NATO maintain they have no boots on the ground in Ukraine, Colombia, a NATO Global Partner, has sent soldiers there to give de-mining training. 

Colombia is well known as a proxy for the US military where it is often prevented from going. As former head of the Southern Command, General John Kelly once testified before Congress,

The beauty of having a Colombia – they’re such good partners, particularly in the military realm, they’re such good partners with us. When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it almost without asking. And they’ll do it on their own. They’re so appreciative of what we did for them. And what we did for them was, really, to encourage them for 20 years and they’ve done such a magnificent job.

But that’s why it’s important for them to go, because I’m–at least on the military side–restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that.

Without doubt, Petro’s denunciation of the War on Drugs as a failure, his criticisms of the US funded and created ESMAD riot police, his thawing of relations with Venezuela, even his embrace of a truly durable and just peace plan, provoke the concern of the US/NATO Empire. But, his unfortunate proposal for US and NATO involvement in an international military force to protect the Amazon Basin provokes the US to consider that Petro may be malleable to some of the Empire’s most desired interests. It must be emphasized that no matter how much he may or may not want to, Petro cannot effectively challenge the US military’s grasp on Colombia without a massive show of support from popular movements both in Colombia as well as in the United States.  

The Biden administration’s nomination of Jean Elizabeth Manes for the next ambassador to Colombia is something that supporters of peace and respecters of sovereignty should oppose. Manes comes straight out of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, where she currently serves as Civilian Deputy and Foreign Policy Advisor to SouthComm Commander General Laura J. Richardson. It is a matter of tradition that among the first visits made by any Colombian President before and after taking office is to the US to meet with the heads of SouthComm. Conversely, one of the first visits any incoming SouthComm commander makes is to Colombia. No aspect of the Colombian military is beyond the watchful eye and direction of the Pentagon. If Colombia may, sadly, be described as an occupied country, and a Pentagon colony, then SouthComm is its regent. 

As Colombia grapples with its deepest desires for peace both at home and in the region, this is not the time for a civilian analyst and strategist for SouthComm to take up direction of the US embassy. The ambassador to Colombia should be an ambassador for peace, not an architect for conflict and domination. 

When we hear the cries for peace in Colombia, when we hear of plans for total peace, we have every reason to be hopeful, even to be thrilled. But until more concrete steps are taken by the Colombian government, and until the US government stops treating Colombia as its launchpad for Empire in Latin America, when we hear the cries for peace, we will also hear that haunting echo: “But there is no peace….”

 James Patrick Jordan is a national co-coordinator of Alliance for Global Justice