By Irene Escudero
Bogota, May 24 (EFE).- The optimism about a potential end to Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict that surrounded the 2018 election has evaporated over the past four years.
As citizens head to the polls for the first round of presidential balloting on Sunday, growing territorial control by illegal armed groups and near-daily massacres and murders of social leaders have dashed those former hopes for peace.
“(Conservative President Ivan) Duque is leaving behind a country in flames,” Daniela Garzon, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), told Efe.
A divided country with festering open wounds, Colombia’s future direction is at stake on May 29 in a contest that pits seven candidates, of whom a leftist former guerrilla, Sen. Gustavo Petro, and rightist ex-Medellin Mayor Federico “Fico” Gutierrez appear most likely to book their place in an expected June 19 runoff.
The security situation has deteriorated and was especially bleak in 2021, a year that saw the most murders (139) and attacks (996) on human rights defenders since 2010, according to the We Are Defenders Program.
A total of 96 massacres (one every four days) last year also left 338 people dead, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies.
LACK OF STATE PRESENCE
Instead of government forces filling the void left when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group demobilized as part of the 2016 peace accord, National Liberation Army (ELN) leftist rebels, Clan del Golfo paramilitaries and FARC dissidents stepped in to establish control of those territories.
In places like the northeastern border with Venezuela or the Pacific coast, “the state presence is there above all to protect companies, but not to exercise sovereignty and make people feel like they’re under the authority of the state as opposed to the authority of an armed group,” Garzon said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been warning for a couple of years that five ongoing conflicts are now pitting illegal armed groups against one another or against the Colombian military.
“As soon as the peace accord was signed, the state needed to make an effort to occupy the territories the FARC left behind,” Garzon said. “That didn’t happen, and what we’ve had in these four years is an increase in the numbers these groups have.”
The growing power of these illegal armed groups was seen in a recent “armed strike” enforced in May by the Clan del Golfo (AKA Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of its leader.
That paramilitary group’s more than 3,000 members, according to Pares, brought 77 municipalities and nine departments to a standstill, particularly in the Caribbean and northern Pacific regions. Nearly two-dozen deaths were reported during that armed action, in which the gang members set cars and establishments on fire.
Garzon said the next president must make a clear decision: either combat these illegal armed groups militarily or negotiate with them, adding that the outgoing administration did neither and allowed their ranks to nearly double.
Most of the candidates have expressed a willingness to at least resume negotiations with ELN, and restart a peace process with those guerrillas that ex-President Juan Manuel Santos launched in Havana but which were definitively suspended under Duque after a January 2019 terrorist attack on a Bogota police academy.
Although Gutierrez would likely take a more hard-line approach toward the ELN, unlike Duque and other rightist politicians in Colombia he at least calls himself a supporter of the peace accord that was signed with the FARC.
Garzon says it would likely be more difficult to reach a negotiated agreement with the other groups because “you wouldn’t know who to talk to” and those outfits are driven more by economic interests than by revolutionary ideology.
SCOURGE OF DRUG-TRAFFICKING
The fight against drug-trafficking also is a major challenge in a country where entrenched cocaine production continues to rise despite a reduction in the number of hectares dedicated to coca cultivation.