Why you should care
The world’s attention is on the Venezuela crisis, but Colombia is near the breaking point. And a new U.S. posture isn’t helping.
The Colombian peace deal of 2016 ended the longest-running conflict in the Western hemisphere. It won the country’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize. But now, with the world’s attention on the internal strife in neighboring Venezuela, the Colombian deal faces its greatest threat yet. President Ivan Duque and his party, Democratic Center, are rejecting key elements of the pact, determined to renegotiate it. And they have found in the Trump administration a vital international ally to back them up.
The Marxist FARC guerrilla group that fought the Colombian government for half a century finally demobilized with guarantees that its members would be tried under a transitional war crimes tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), and would not be extradited. But in mid-March, Duque refused to sign a law passed by the country’s Congress to set out the powers of the JEP, dealing what experts say represents the largest blow yet to the peace accords.
Duque is rejecting key points on extradition rules and sentencing of war crimes. He has argued the law is too vague in its demands that the FARC fully repay its victims. But the change in Colombia’s leadership isn’t the only shift that’s propelling a new approach to the peace deal. The U.S. under President Donald Trump is emerging as a solitary international actor that is refusing to pressure Duque to sign the law.
Among [FARC combatants], there is a sense of serious uncertainty, a feeling of being betrayed and deceived.
Sergio Guzman, a lawyer who works with the FARC political party
The U.S. is charging Jesus Santrich, a top FARC official, with orchestrating a major cocaine deal, arguing that the crime was committed after the peace deal was signed, rendering Santrich ineligible for the judicial benefits and non-extradition guarantees of the JEP. The FARC claims Santrich was set up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the U.S. has so far refused to provide evidence. The American ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, told a local radio channel after Duque’s rejection of the draft law that America is “very much in agreement with what he did.”
That’s a posture in contrast with the position taken by the Obama administration, which sat at the table during the peace deal negotiations. And FARC commanders warn that Duque’s decision leaves thousands of demobilized combatants wondering if the government will honor their end of the deal. The last time peace negotiations with the FARC fell apart in 2002, it led to one of the bloodiest chapters in Colombian history when Alvaro Uribe won the presidency promising to crack down hard on rebel groups.
“Among the reincorporated FARC, there is a sense of serious uncertainty, a feeling of being betrayed and deceived,” says Sergio Guzman, a lawyer who works with the FARC political party and defends political prisoners.
The debate over the peace deal itself is hardly new. In fact, it was narrowly rejected in a 2016 referendum. And renegotiating the deal was a campaign plank for Duque. But the referendum was only on the specifics of the peace agreement, not on peace versus war with the FARC. And Duque too has insisted he wants to uphold peace — he has only objected to six of the 150 articles of the law. But those objections would render the JEP impotent and go back on key components of the peace accords, including by turning many cases over to the Colombian justice system and allowing extradition.
“The rejections of the JEP and the non-compliance [by the government] are creating pressure for rearmament [within FARC].” says Camilo Gonzalez, director of Indepaz, a Colombian NGO focused on research and investigation related to peace, adding that there’s a “clear intention to end the JEP.”
What’s decidedly new is the manner in which the U.S. is injecting itself into that debate over the future of the JEP and the peace deal more broadly, backing up Duque’s attacks, which have become more than just campaign promises. The special tribunal has been operating for more than a year. Under the peace agreement, it is to try only leaders who are most responsible for crimes, dole out more lenient punishments than the regular justice system, focus on building an accurate account of the conflict and offering reparations to victims.
Earlier this month, JEP prosecutor Carlos Bermeo was charged by Colombian authorities with drug trafficking and accepting a bribe from an undercover agent to impede the extradition of Santrich, after the DEA informed the Colombian district attorney’s office of a criminal network plotting to sell influence in the JEP. Critics have argued that entrapment, often used by the DEA, is illegal as an investigative technique in Colombia, but the case has given ammunition to opponents of the JEP, like former president Uribe, Duque’s mentor, who argue the tribunal is corrupt and should be dismantled.
The Trump administration and the DEA have not supported the crop substitution program for coca cultivation that was part of the peace accords. Instead, they’re seeking the reinstatement of the controversial glyphosate fumigation program — bitterly opposed by the FARC — that Santos had banned and that the World Health Organization has concluded probably causes cancer in humans, while being ineffective in reducing coca cultivation, according to critics. Colombia has long depended on U.S. aid to fund anti-narcotics policies. Duque recently advocated for the practice before Colombia’s constitutional court.
“With the change to the Trump administration, the diplomacy and embassy have moved in line with the right,” says Gonzalez. “There is a convenient alliance between Trump and Duque.”
The U.S. position now is at direct odds with that of the rest of the international community. Right after Duque’s rejection of the law, the U.N.’s mission in Colombia affirmed the importance of the JEP as the “main instrument for guaranteeing victims’ rights to justice.” It urged Colombia to implement the law as soon as possible, as did the U.N. secretary-general in a meeting with Colombia’s foreign minister. Cuba and Norway, the guarantor countries under the peace deal, have also asked Colombia to enact the law. International Criminal Court Deputy Prosecutor James Stewart has previously voiced support for the JEP, warning of “implications” if Duque did not approve the statutory law.
But for Duque, U.S. support is critical at a time Colombia’s institutions appear divided on the peace deal. Congress passed the law that Duque has rejected. The constitutional court had approved the law. And the Supreme Court has made it clear it isn’t in favor of extraditing ex-paramilitary leaders, in the case of demobilized soldiers of the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC), another former rebel group.
“This is a crisis for the rule of law in Colombia,” says Diana Isabel Güiza, lawyer and principal investigator for De Justicia, a Colombia-based research and advocacy group, adding that there are “no clear rules” for the unprecedented instance of a president objecting to a law approved by the constitutional court. The constitutional court on Wednesday gave Congress until June 22 to approve or reject Duque’s actions, after which the court will rule on them.
Victims’ rights groups and the Supreme Court have argued, in the case of AUC, that proceedings against extradited paramilitary leaders do not provide a full account of crimes committed since they focus on drug-trafficking charges. That leaves victims without the truth and society without guarantees of non-repetition, both primary goals of the current peace process.
“We are now in a peace process. I do not think the United States has understood this very well,” Güiza says. “Extraditing an ex-guerrilla who has signed a peace agreement has very distinct political and judicial implications.” And Colombia could have to live with those implications for years to come.