REPORT: Staying on Course: Security, Coca, Justice, and Accord Implementation in Colombia

By: Emiel Haeghebaert, Reporter

Photo Credit: WOLA

On October 16, 2018, the Washington Office on Latin America hosted a remarkable selection of leaders, practitioners, and experts from Colombia for an all-day event entitled “Staying on Course: Security, Coca, Justice, and Accord Implementation in Colombia.” Throughout the day, three panel discussions offered a deep-dive into the various challenges Colombian society faces two years after the historic peace accord with the FARC guerilla group was signed. Issues such as the rise of new armed and criminal groups, ongoing human rights violations, a changing political landscape, record-breaking levels of coca cultivation, complex transitional justice cases, and ambiguous Colombia-US relations were all on the docket.

Panel One: Colombia’s Transition Justice System

To start off the first panel, Julieta Lemaitre Ripoll, president of the Chamber for Recognition of Truth, Responsibility, and Determination of Acts and Conducts in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), introduced some background information on the court system underpinning the transitional justice initiatives in Colombia. Touching on the court’s jurisdiction, composition, and procedures, she highlighted the unique nature of the judicial initiative. The court has jurisdiction over all crimes committed by the FARC, the army and police, as well as civilians in relations to the armed conflict prior to December 1, 2016. This variety of objectives requires the court to possess a uniquely dual nature. Whereas adversarial procedures allow for investigative units to prosecute, for example, high level military commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity, dialogic procedures are guided by principles of victim-centered restorative justice. The composition of the court provides the legitimacy for this objective pursuit of society-wide reconciliation. The conscious gender balance and representation of Afro-Colombians and indigenous authorities in the Chamber allow for the SJP to claim accurate representation of the country as a whole.

Less optimistic were Patricia Tobón, commissioner on the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition, and María Camila Moreno, director at the International Center for Transitional Justice. Noting the presence of substantial support for the peace process among victims, NGOs, social movements, and students, Ms. Tobón emphasized the difficulty of reconciling the wide range of perspectives and experiences from a conflict that ravaged a country for decades, as shown by the lackluster progress of the overall implementation of the accord beyond the SJP.

Ms. Moreno concurred as she elaborated on several key challenges. First, there will always be sectors of the population who do not believe the accord is legitimate, and will therefore continue to contest its implementation. The manner in which the media represents decisions made by the government further undermine the already fragile agreement. Second, the pressure that society is bringing to bear on the SJP to achieve immediate results is neither realistic nor sustainable. The jurisdiction is faced with an overwhelming amount of incoming information and often finds itself sacrificing investigative rigor for speed, given the time-sensitive nature of the cases. Third, there is a need for society to gain a better understanding of the non-traditional nature of justice in this context. The “SJP is not a jurisdiction for impunity,” Ms. Moreno said, “yet it is also not one for vengeance. It is not meant to be a tool to achieve in the field of justice what could not be accomplished in the battlefield.” The SJP has the opportunity to demonstrate that justice does not equal sending someone to jail; judges must succeed in translating restorative sanctions to the population with the goal of reconciliation above all else. Finally, the incredible caseload of the SJP forces it to be selective in its handling of cases. The result again relates to the perceptions of society: how does one explain to victims, who have often been waiting for years for their cases to be handled by the SJP, that they will not be heard? Perhaps the greatest challenge for the SJP is conveying to society that even though not all cases can be dealt with, the outcomes of those few selected should be taken as representative judgments.

Panel Two: Coca, Eradication, and Substitution

Ariel Avilla, deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation in Bogotá, opened by dispelling the alleged myth of a causational link between the peace process and the levels of coca production in the country. The crucial problem, he said, is that “the current administrations in Colombia and the United States believe that the coca market does not respond to simple supply and demand logic.” Data suggests a close relationship between the international prices of gold, the dollar, and cocaine, while international demand for cocaine has steadily gone up. Meanwhile, ineffective state security policies towards criminal organizations and armed groups have produced a myriad of new armed groups that compete for small areas of land previously held by the FARC – mostly with their old weaponry, too.

These thoughts found support with Luz Perly Cordoba, vice president of a local coca growers’ and peasant organization in Colombia. She stressed that small growers in Colombia have been arguing for three decades that an alternative for eradication policy is essential to the long-term success of the peace agreement. Not only does the current eradication and fumigation policy produce environmental and health safety concerns, it does not address the fact that the lack of legitimate opportunities for young workers will continue to force them to turn to illicit economic options, which enjoy significantly more labor mobility. Meanwhile, those supporting voluntary crop substitution fear for their immediate physical security.

Digging deeper into the peace agreements’ provisions on voluntary crop substitution, Pedro Arenas, Coordinator at the Observatory of Crops and Cultivators Declared Illicit in Bogotá, elaborated on the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS). The program is designed to provide incentives for coca producers who choose to substitute their production voluntarily. While the concept enjoys considerable support among families and victims of armed violence, the promise of support packages consisting of subsidies, training, resources for food security, and productive projects to participants of PNIS never fully materialized. As a consequence, the opportunities for young workers who previously picked coca have been very limited.

Panel Three: Security Dynamics, Peace Accord Implementation, and the ELN

Starting off by painting a bleak picture of the prospects for sustainable peace in Colombia, Claudia López, a former Senator and vice-presidential candidate, and now spokesperson for Anti-Corruption Consultation, spoke about the fragility of the peace accord and the failure of its authors to plan for a post-conflict environment. While engaged in illegal armed activities, the FARC also provided social and economic services to areas under its control, she noted. The fact that they relinquished their territories and assets to the government and voluntarily demobilized is an incredible feat. What is concerning, López continued, is that “the Colombian government and stakeholders in the peace accord failed to picture and plan for a post-conflict situation, and [that they] did not build a state apparatus on the proposed reforms.” The policy emphasis must shift from looking at the problems to addressing the symptoms, she concluded.

The subpar planning for the aftermath of the peace accord has serious consequences, according to Danilo Rueda, a human rights defender at the Inter-Ecclesiastical Committee for Justice and Peace in Bogotá. Not only has the uncertainty regarding the Colombian government’s political motives and the questionable commitment to inclusion of former fighters led certain sectors of the FARC to re-arm, the National Liberation Army (ELN) has seemingly filled the void left by the FARC. With commercial and economic interests of the coca industry tied to some actors in government, too, the future of the agreement is being called into question.

Recognizing that the ELN is increasingly using violence for political control, Kyle Johnson, Senior Analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group, urged that we do not exaggerate the presence of the group in the country. The expansion of the ELN since 2012 has been fragile, and its activity has been primarily in the nature of social work. The generational changes within the group’s leadership are concerning however, Johnson continued, as over time the ELN has become more prominent in politics and violent confrontation. When this slow, fragile, and violent growth is combined with the low incentives to negotiate with the government, the group may threaten the prospects for a sustainable peace. Ultimately, Johnson concluded, all stakeholders must come to understand issues of identity and ideology as they factor into the behavior of each of the stakeholders to the peace agreement. Understanding the motivations and ambitions of individual leaders and the groups they represent can underpin future negotiations and planning for a sustainable post-conflict society and is crucial to fostering effective change in the country.

Remarks at the event were made in Spanish. Translation was provided by professional interpreters.

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