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State Repression and Militarization in Post-Peace Accords Colombia

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

By Bárbara Orozco Díaz

On January 25, the President of the Republic of Colombia, Iván Duque, signed into law the widely-rejected Citizen Security Law 2197 of 2022. Human rights organizations and members of the opposition have filed a lawsuit before the Constitutional Court against 13 of its Articles, claiming that it criminalizes social protest.

On February 8, during the High Level Dialogues between Colombia and the United States, the U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland announced a commitment of 8 million dollars in funding to the Colombian National Police, citing that this bilateral alliance as valuable for joint work in security and human rights.

The United States plays a key role in the financing and training of the Armed Forces and the National Police in Colombia. Colombia, in turn, has become a provider of military instruction in other countries, in recent years, particularly in Central America.

For decades, the U.S. has played this role no matter the political party in power. In the 1960s, the United States began formal training of the Colombian armed forces in counterinsurgency warfare. U.S. counterinsurgency manuals stated that “civilians in the operational area” such as trade unionists, students, and community organizers could be targeted with “guerrilla warfare, propaganda, subversion, [… and] terrorist activities”.

Since 1999 Plan Colombia has been implemented and expanded under Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Trump, at a cost exceeding more than $10 billion. While the Plan claims its primary purpose to fight drug trafficking as part of the War on Drugs, as well as to support the end to the country's internal conflict, both challenges to peace in Colombia have been intensified during its execution. Before the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016, the “Plan Paz” was then established as another War on Drugs U.S.-Colombia policy.

Colombia receives among the most military aid from the U.S., is a major buyer of U.S. arms, and maintains one of the most long-standing military and intelligence agreements with the U.S.

Currently, an average of 500 members of the Colombian Security Forces receive training every year at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation - WHINSEC - (until 2001 it was called the School of the Americas - SOA -), at Fort Benning, USA, or in Colombia itself, where U.S. military instructors travel. The 2022 defense budget approved by the Biden Administration for Colombia is an 8% increase over the previous year, totaling $453 million.

The Iván Duque Government came to power on August 7, 2018, almost a year and a half after the signing of the Peace Accords between the Juan Manuel Santos’ administration and the extinct FARC-EP guerrilla in 2016 and the start of the peace negotiation process with the other most active guerrilla in the country, the ELN, in 2017.

A month after coming to power, the elected government announced the cessation of the peace talks process with the ELN. At the end of 2018, the Ombudsman's Office stated that "the conflict persists" and will worsen in the following years. The state policy has been the increased militarization of the country and the use of forced, manual, and glyphosate eradication for the substitution of illicit crops. These are in breach of the 2016 Peace Accords.

Historically, social and economic inequalities in Colombia have been especially intensified and exacerbated by the armed conflict and by the different forms of systematic violence carried out by paramilitary groups and promoted by local, regional and national elites to the benefit of their private interests and continued concentration of power.

On November 21, 2019, the majority of Colombian society, with a stated desire for peace and economic and social development declared itself INDEFINITELY in NATIONAL STRIKE, calling for a march against the so-called "Paquetazo de Duque" (economic, social and environmental policies of the government), the non-compliance with the Peace Agreements, and the murder of social leaders.

The 21N, a massive and diverse march took place, sparking a social protest movement that was unprecedented in the recent history of the country. Since that historic day, a series of demonstrations, marches, pots and pan actions (cacelerazos), theatrical events, road closures, community kitchens, and sit-ins followed until February 2020, when they were suspended due to the covid-19 pandemic.

This social protest resumed in 2021 after the announcement of the "Tax Reform proposed by the Government".

These neoliberal reforms would impact the most poor, youth, women, Afrocolombian, Indigenous and Campesino communities, and other marginalised social sectors. That year, the World Bank described Colombia as the 2nd most unequal country in Latin America and one of the most unequal countries in the world.Almost two months of mobilizations and grassroots blockades between April 28 and July 31, 2021, in which State repression, particularly in the significantly AfroColombian and Indigenous city of Cali, has been disproportionate and disastrous. The extreme levels of state militarization of the cities was codified through Decree 575 of May 28, 2022. This Decree ordered mayors and governors to remove the grassroots blockades with the express support of the Army, as a form of "military assistance".

National and international human rights organizations, UN agencies, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have all denounced the multiple human rights violations by the National Police, particularly the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD), against civil society. They have requested and recommended to the Colombian government, among other measures, the complete reform of ESMAD protocols.

U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks, alarmed at the brutal repression by police and ESMAD, requested that the Leahy Law be applied. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez presented three Amendments, one of which sought to limit the resources to be invested in ESMAD. Unfortunately, these restrictions were not upheld when the 2022 U.S. defense funding for Colombia was approved.

The current Director of Citizen Security and head of ESMAD in Colombia, Major General Luis Vargas Valencia, was an instructor at the School of Americas (SOA) in 1995 and then, in April 2019, was the guest speaker for the WHINSEC graduation ceremony.

This March 13th, Colombians will vote in their is in General Elections for new members of the House of Representatives. Shortly thereafter the elections for president will be held on May 29th. The National Strike Committee had planned mobilizations for March 3rd, but has suspended them citing their uncertainty about rights’ protections, saying "there are no guarantees for mobilization in Colombia by the National Government".

In the social protests held between April and June 2021 alone, a total of 7620 aggressions were registered: 89 assassinations, 1929 injured people, 106 charges of gender-based violence (23 of them for sexual violence), 343 aggressions against human rights defenders, 3546 arbitrary and illegal detentions of protesters, 1636 complaints of abuse of power and police violence (446 by ESMAD, 523 by the National Police, 66 by the National Army, 601 not yet identified).


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