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The Peace That Never Was: The Case of Cauca, Colombia

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

Colombia's Central Mountain range

By Bárbara Orozco Díaz

The department of Cauca, in the Pacific region of Colombia, has started the year 2022 with a wave of violence that has left in the first 4 months of the year 9 leaders assassinated, 5 massacres with 17 victims, 17 kidnappings, 4 massive forced displacements, 4 accidents caused by antipersonnel mines and constant threats against communities, social leaders and human rights defenders through leaflets and phone calls.

Cauca has historically been one of the Colombian regions most affected by clashes between different armed groups fighting for the territory’s control. Its geographic location in the Central Mountain Range, its connection with the Pacific, and its proximity to the cities of Cali and Buenaventura (the main Pacific Port) allows armed groups to establish transit zones, strategically locate illicit crops, and obtain resources from communities through social control.

A brief history of the Armed Conflict in Cauca

In the 1960s, the first signs of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) in the region occurred in the Central Mountain Range at strategic spots that connected the North of Cauca with the South of Valle del Cauca and Tolima, where four nodes of what would later become the first four fronts of the FARC-EP.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the FARC-EP had succeeded in consolidating its presence in the high zones of the Central Mountain Range, in the municipalities of Miranda, Corinto y Toribío (known as a ‘Triángulo de la Marihuana’). At the end of the decade, violence in Cauca intensified in the context of Plan Colombia implementation and the State’s attempts to regain territorial control over strategic areas that communicated inland with the Pacific Ocean.

The expansion of the paramilitary groups, the offensives of ‘guerrillas’ groups, the Army’s dispute for territorial control, and the armed strengthening of the drug traffickers generated an unprecedented increase in violent actions in Colombia, particularly in the Southwest of the country.

2016 Peace Accord

Cauca is not only a tri-ethnic and rural department, but it is also equally distributed in terms of population and territory among peasants (28%), black people (26%), indigenous people (24%), and urban mestizos (22%).

Along with Chocó and La Guajira, it is among the worst in terms of poverty, inequality, unsatisfied basic needs, and violence indicators, but also in terms of social organization and capacity to resist the impacts of war and forms of exclusion and discrimination.

The 2016 Peace Accord not only establishes the end of the conflict between the extinct FARC-EP and the State, but also establishes a series of measures and transformations to lay the foundations for a stable and lasting peace in the country. Access to land (Point 1) and voluntary substitution of illicit crops (Point 4) establish a transformation of the countryside and an approach to the problem of illicit drugs that seeks to reverse the effects of the armed conflict and bring about the rural development necessary to break down the gaps between the countryside and the city.

One of the fundamental pillars included in Point 1 are the Special Development Programs with a Territorial Approach (PDET in Spanish abbreviation), which are established to rebuild the regions most affected by the armed conflict by coordinating major State interventions to work hand in hand with the communities. Of the 16 PDETs established in the country, the largest is located in the department of Cauca, called PDET Alto Patía-Norte del Cauca.

Armed Conflict after the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord

After the end of 52 years of armed conflict between the extinct FARC-EP and the State, the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord marked a period of relative peace that lasted approximately a year and a half. However, as of 2018, the reconfiguration of armed groups in dispute for the control of the areas left by the FARC-EP and an aggravating armed conflict year after year since then became increasingly evident, being Cauca, one of the most affected departments.

In addition to the presence of new armed groups in dispute for territorial control and mostly linked to drug trafficking, this reconfiguration can be explained by the ineffectiveness of the 'new institutionality' for peace that has not allowed structural changes in the territories and the lack of implementation of Points 1 and 4 of the 2016 Peace Accord.

According to INDEPAZ, it is estimated that there are currently at least 8 armed groups disputing the control of the territory, including the Comando Coordinador de Occidente, Comando Conjunto Occidental Segunda Marquetalia y Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). The paramilitary groups Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) and Águilas Negras exercise their control through leaflets.

Instead of social investment and implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord, the State's response was to militarize the department, thus adding one more armed actor to the armed conflict and turning Cauca into one of the most militarized regions in the country.

U.S. and Colombia Militarization

The United States plays a key role in the financing and training of the Armed Forces and the National Police in Colombia. Colombia, who in turn, have become a go-to provider of military instruction in other countries, particularly in Central America.

Since 1999, Plan Colombia has been implemented and expanded under Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Trump, spending more than $10 billion. While the Plan claims its primary purpose to fight drug trafficking as part of the so-called “War on Drugs”, as well as to support the end of 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 is the largest recipient of US military aid in the hemisphere, 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 black, indigenous, peasant and mestizo communities living together in the Cauca are resisting the reconfiguration of armed groups, the militarization of the department, the worsening of the armed conflict, and the non-implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord, suffering countless violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, registering since 2016 to date: 299 leaders murdered; 33 massacres with 116 victims (from 2020 to 2022); 57 signatories assassinated and constant threats and harassment.


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