The path towards a stable Total Peace remains complex in Colombia, despite President Gustavo Petro’s efforts to put an end to the ongoing armed conflict. Despite the Peace Agreement signed eight years ago between the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos and the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, the FARC, in Havana, Cuba, on June 23, 2016.

The balance of the ceasefire in the last year does not show true gestures of peace from the armed groups with whom dialogue is being held. According to the latest monitoring by the Early Alerts of the Ombudsman’s Office, in 2019 the Gulf Clan was present in 114 municipalities and now it is in 392 in more than 24 departments. The ELN, on the other hand, was present in over 180 municipalities and today it is in 234 in 19 departments. The dissidents of the Farc, led by alias «Iván Mordisco», have increased from 189 to 231 municipalities in more than 19 departments of Colombia, and organized crime structures have increased from 114 in 2019 to 189 municipalities in 2024.

Despite institutional negotiations progressing, violence in the regions is escalating, which tends to jeopardize these dialogues, as recently happened when President Petro ended the bilateral ceasefire that was in place with the Farc dissidents in the southwest of the country (and which was agreed until July 15, 2024, in the departments of Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño), due, according to the president, to a series of breaches by this criminal structure, under the command of alias «Iván Mordisco», and which reached its peak with the attack on the indigenous community in Toribío, in the department of Cauca, where the leader Carmelina Yule Paví, 52 years old, died after the attack by men from the Dagoberto Ramos front, which occurred on Saturday, March 16.

In the last year (between January 1 and December 31, 2023), the Ombudsman’s Office continuously monitored the bilateral ceasefire decreed at the beginning of the previous year by the National Government with several armed groups. The result of the study leaves much to be desired, as the civilian population is the main victim, with fundamental rights such as the right to life, integrity, freedom, security, among others, being violated.

The monitoring established that there were 236 violent actions by illegal armed groups during the ceasefire, of which 34 were direct actions against the security forces and the remaining 202 were indirect actions among the armed organizations, constituting clear violations of international humanitarian law, as stated by the Ombudsman, Carlos Camargo.

Cauca department was by far the most affected with 21 out of the 34 direct actions, according to the Ombudsman’s Office. It was followed by Huila with four; then Valle del Cauca with three; Nariño with two; subsequently, Antioquia, Arauca, Guainía, and Guaviare, with one direct action each.

The monitoring by the Ombudsman’s Office shows that 27 out of the 34 Direct Actions (DA) occurred in the first half of 2023, with January having the highest number at seven. February and April followed with six each; March and November with four each; May, June, and October with two DAs each; and August with one. There were no direct actions in July and December.

Of the total, 32 were committed by the self-proclaimed Central High Command (EMC) of the Farc dissidents (94%), and there was one incident attributed to the guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Corinto (Cauca) was the municipality with the most DAs, with five; followed by Suárez, Patía, and Buenos Aires (Cauca), with three each; La Plata (Huila) with three; Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca) with three; and Argelia (Cauca) with two.

In 62.5% of the 16 municipalities where direct actions were registered, there were homicides against human rights defenders.

Additionally, armed confrontations between the EMC and the Second Marquetalia against the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and the ELN, mainly in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, Bolívar, and Arauca, are part of the indirect actions identified by the Ombudsman’s Office that resulted in displacements, confinements, homicides, massacres, kidnappings, disappearances, mobility restrictions, extortions, among others.

For the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, Pares, the murder of three indigenous people in Toribío, Cauca, between January and March 2024, jeopardizes the development of the Fifth Cycle of President Gustavo Petro’s peace dialogue table with the Central High Command (EMC) of the Farc dissidents, to be held in Ocaña.

The Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Toribío, Tacueyó, and San Francisco in the Cauca department requested the International Criminal Court to investigate the crimes against the three indigenous people.

Enrique Pertuz, human rights defender and president of the Departmental Peace Council of Norte de Santander, indicates that one of the main challenges in the dialogue table’s situation is building trust by the EMC of the Farc dissidents with the civilian population.

«Despite progress in the cycles, the civilian population is unaware of the status of the agreements reached, and with that outlook, it is difficult for them to be supported by the communities (…) Trust must come hand in hand with national government social investment; there are regions with historical social, economic, and political debts that must be addressed in the territories affected by the conflict,» Pertuz adds.

According to the Pares Foundation, «the dialogues must involve civil society participation, so that what happened with the Peace Agreement of 2016 doesn’t occur, which was signed but has not been possible to implement comprehensively.»

A situation that is experienced nationwide but which the Catatumbo region, as one of the prioritized areas of the dialogues, is not exempt from (despite experiencing a certain calm in the region). In the course of 2024, a series of events have occurred that are not indifferent to the pursuit of total peace being pursued by the National Government. Among the notable events is the abduction (by armed men) of the regional director of the Unit for Victims, Judith Maldonado, on February 20th. Days later, the former director of the Territorial Renewal Agency was also abducted and stripped of her vehicle and the weapons of her protection detail.

Similarly, at the beginning of 2024, extortions and threats from armed groups in Sardinata (a municipality in the department of Norte de Santander) prevented the resumption of mining activities. Industry associations at the time made an urgent call for solutions due to the risk to thousands of families who depend on this activity.

Likewise, the public order situation in the Catatumbo region has not improved so far this year. In mid-March, the road leading to Ocaña with Catatumbo Medio was blocked by the presence of a car bomb. On the other hand, in the rural area of the municipality of Playa de Belén, two people fell victim to a landmine explosion, resulting in one fatality.

In response to this situation, and in the pursuit of total peace, human rights defenders are calling for Catatumbo to be prioritized as a crisis zone. They hope that it will be heard in a differential and exceptional manner so that the National Government can provide social investment in health, education, roads, substitution of illicit crop cultivation, and overcome the barriers affecting the region.

Delegación de Gobierno en los diálogos de paz con el ELN, hace presencia en el Chocó para escuchar a las comunidades frente a la situación de seguridad que afronta el departamento.

In the face of this panorama of violence, amidst the peace dialogues of Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s government, the guild of merchants, grouped under the National Federation of Business Merchants, Fenalco, have been warning since 2023 that «there seems to be a weakening of the government against the Public Force.»

The president of this association, Jaime Alberto Cabal, stated that crimes such as extortion, kidnapping, robberies, and murders have increased by 30% in the commercial sector.

The guild leader asserted that armed groups in Colombia are growing stronger, while it seems that the national government has a strategy to weaken the Public Force.

According to the president of Fenalco, crimes such as extortion, kidnapping, robberies, and murders of business owners in different regions increased by 30% in the last year in the commercial sector.

«Since the middle of last year, we have started to raise the alarm and express the deterioration of security. Perhaps the sector that feels it the most is commerce, not only in major cities, where there is a deterioration of public safety, but also in all territories, in small towns and on the roads, where there is a notable deterioration due to the presence of guerrilla groups,» Cabal stated.

«We have just seen the removal of high-ranking officers of the National Police; it seems that there is a strategy of weakening the government against the Public Force, which concerns us enormously. We have just seen the lack of spare parts for the operation of helicopters parked in Tolemaida. We are also seeing the conflict over the replacement of weapons and service by Israel to Colombia halted by the national government; this is a matter that really worries us,» he said.

Petro’s Peace Dialogues

Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s Total Peace project focuses on two general strategies: on one hand, negotiation with political armed groups such as the ELN and the dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc (Central High Command), and on the other hand, socio-juridical dialogues with criminal structures without political status, associated with organized crime and armed groups that operate in predominantly urban contexts.

These efforts aim to dismantle illegal groups and improve security in cities such as Medellín and the Aburrá Valley in the department of Antioquia, in the port of Buenaventura in Valle del Cauca, and in Quibdó, in Chocó, where these groups have influence.

dialogos de paz en colombia
Dialogos de Paz

Negotiation with the ELN

Even though partial agreements have been reached as part of the negotiations with the ELN regarding the participation of civil society and the ceasefire, the government faces substantial criticism regarding the feasibility and effectiveness of the negotiations to reduce the intensity of the conflict in various areas of the country and achieve a definitive negotiation with this armed group in the future.

In the case of the Pacific region, for example, despite the focus on addressing the humanitarian situation during the first round of negotiations, in 2023, the department of Chocó accounted for 80% of the total cases of confinement in the country, affecting predominantly indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, according to data provided by the Ombudsman’s Office.

Another major challenge for the efforts of Total Peace was the indefinite armed strike declared by the ELN in the department of Chocó in December 2023, which caused great concern and distress in the communities. Additionally, on December 12 of the same year, the Ombudsman’s Office issued alert 453, warning about the severe humanitarian crisis faced by the department after clashes between the ELN guerrilla and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

The armed strike and the confinements show that, despite progress in the negotiation process with the ELN, regional violence dynamics persist. Thus, the gap between established agreements and the persistence of armed actions affecting civil society undermines the credibility of the process in public opinion.

Negotiation with FARC Dissidents

On October 8, 2023, in Tibú, department of Norte de Santander, the country witnessed the installation of the negotiation table between the national government and the Central High Command of the FARC, one of the actors with a significant presence in the Colombian Pacific region.

The dialogue table was established with a bilateral ceasefire and the guarantee of international accompaniment. However, the process has been marked by tensions and armed confrontations between the Central High Command and the military forces, leading to the suspension of the dialogues by the former.

The group argued that the agreements to suspend military operations had been violated, as the Army had a significant presence during regional elections in various parts of the country, particularly in several municipalities of Cauca such as El Plateado and López de Micay. During these months, the Central High Command also escalated violence through attacks in northern Cauca municipalities, where there were assaults on police officers in Timba (municipality of Buenos Aires) and Jamundí (Valle del Cauca), leaving ten people injured. Similar situations occurred in other places in Cauca such as Santander de Quilichao and Inzá.

In response to these events, the Central High Command expressed through public statements the instruction to all its fronts to suspend military actions against the security forces. On January 14, 2024, the president of the Republic issued Decree 0016, extending the ceasefire with the Central High Command by six more months, demonstrating the national government’s decision and intention to continue advancing with the process. However, on March 16, President Gustavo Petro suspended the bilateral ceasefire with the Central High Command (EMC) of the FARC, a dissidence led by alias Iván Mordisco, in Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca.

In response to this bilateral ceasefire announced by the Colombian government, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, through his spokesperson, called on armed groups to cease all hostilities against communities.

During a Plenary Session of the House of Representatives, Congressman Luis Alberto Albán of the Comunes party (a political group formed by former FARC members once they signed the Peace Agreement, warned about the killings of social leaders and peace signatories despite the government’s negotiations.

The former guerrilla and representative claimed that Total Peace is being achieved «over the corpses of leaders and peace signatories. I denounce the murder of our comrades, and it is clear that the so-called dissidents and the ELN are responsible,» he said. He also urged the government to «take the groups seriously» and enforce what is agreed upon.

Socio-juridical Dialogues

The other complementary axis of intervention of President Petro’s Total Peace has been the socio-juridical dialogues with criminal structures with a strong urban-rural presence, which has been materializing in the port of Buenaventura (Valle) and Quibdó (Chocó), cities where progress has been complex.

In Buenaventura, the dialogues have faced different challenges. The two main armed organizations in the district, the «Shottas» and the «Espartanos,» have been involved in a violent conflict in recent years for territorial control and illegal activities, resulting in many deaths, especially among young people and minors.

Recently, one of the factions, the ‘Espartanos,’ on March 6, withdrew from the conversation space coordinated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which also includes the ‘Shottas,’ due to the lack of a «decisive agreement to definitively end the war.» They also added that the rival group would be forming alliances with the ELN to exert control over the port.

The absence of a clear surrender law raised crucial questions about building solid foundations for reconciliation and the demobilization of armed structures in the region. The lack of a formal negotiation pathway, similar to that used with the FARC or the ELN, further hindered government efforts to disarm these factions peacefully.

Meanwhile, in Quibdó, Chocó department, the story is not much different. The main criminal organizations present in the territory have participated in the dialogue spaces. However, it has been identified that these groups may have ties to the Gulf Clan, which has not been part of these dialogue cycles. In this scenario, it is noted that the participating organizations (the RPS, the Locos Yam, and the Mexicanos) are advancing conversations with the aim of building peace and significantly reducing levels of violence and crime in the municipality.

Despite this effort, these structures continue to engage in illicit activities, especially those related to the control of illegal revenues and extortion, demonstrating their ability to control the territory and advance the consolidation of true criminal governance. One of the fundamental challenges is to implement the agreed commitments at the community level, avoiding the possibility of restructuring or forming residual groups. In the criminal dynamics of the city, the influence of the Gulf Clan is also undeniable, as well as its ability to exploit spaces that could be left vacant in the face of possible interventions in existing structures.

It is worth noting the significant reduction, by 54%, in the homicide rate in these two cities, thanks to the dialogues and agreements with

armed structures. Despite the progress, Total Peace in Buenaventura and Quibdó shows weaknesses that require immediate attention.

In 2023, 181 social leaders and human rights defenders were murdered in Colombia

A report by the Ombudsman’s Office, prepared by its Early Warning System (SAT), reveals a panorama of risk, threat, and insecurity for those dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of communities in Colombia, as 181 leaders, both men and women, and human rights defenders were murdered in the national territory in 2023.

Despite these high figures, there was a 16% decrease compared to 2022 when 215 cases were recorded; meaning 34 fewer people were killed in 2023.

The most affected social sectors were communal (37 homicides), indigenous (37), community (36), peasant (13), Afro-descendant (10), victim (9), OSIGD-LGBTIQ+ (7), and human rights activists (7).

April (with 19 crimes), June and July (18 each), December and March (17 each) were the months with the highest number of murders against these individuals.

The ‘Annual Report on Homicides of Social Leaders and Human Rights Defenders January-December 2023’ indicates that the 181 crimes occurred in 123 municipalities (in 25 departments), with 44% of the total cases concentrated in 80 of them. Cauca (with 36 cases), Antioquia (21), and Nariño (17) were the departments with the most homicides, totaling 74, representing 41% of the global data.

They were followed by Valle del Cauca (15 homicides), Córdoba (10), Putumayo (9), Norte de Santander (7), Arauca (7), Bolívar (7), and Bogotá (6).

Over the last eight years, between 2016 and 2023, the Ombudsman’s Office has documented 1,294 murdered leaders in the country: 133 in 2016, 126 in 2017, 178 in 2018, 134 in 2019, 182 in 2020, 145 in 2021, 215 in 2022, and 181 last year.

Mass forced displacement and confinement

In Colombia, during the last year, there were 154 events of forced displacement, representing a 7% increase compared to 2022 when there were 144 similar events.

In 2023, there were 215 confinement events, a 63% increase compared to 2022 when 132 were recorded.

The previous year, 54,665 people were forced to leave their homes due to this scourge, in 17 departments.

The main cause of over 50% of the events in 2023 was clashes between illegal armed groups seeking territorial control. The duration of the clashes, which in some cases exceeded one day, and their impact on the civilian population were evident on several occasions, as families were affected due to the proximity of such violent events to populated areas.

A total of 17 departments were victims of mass forced displacement, with Nariño being the most affected, with 58 events impacting 9,445 families, composed of 23,483 people. This was followed by Chocó with 19 events, Valle del Cauca with 16, Antioquia with 15, Cauca with 13, and Bolívar with nine.

Regarding the times of the year, the months with the highest increase in the number of events were from July to September (third quarter), with 56. In 2022, the month with the most affected was January, with a total of 31 events.

The panorama of confinements

During 2023, there were 215 confinements, affecting 18,356 families, equivalent to 66,279 people, a 63% increase compared to 2022 when 132 were recorded.

Confinement occurred in ten departments; the hardest hit was Chocó, with 124 events (10,313 affected families, i.e., 40,414 people). This was followed by Putumayo with 22 events, Nariño with 21, Arauca and Valle del Cauca with 13 each, and Cauca with 12.

In 30% of the confinement events, black communities were most affected, 50% indigenous population, and the remaining 20% affected the peasant population.

Finally, in 2023, there were 124 events of risks of forced mass displacement or confinement, with the highest impact in Caquetá, with 26; followed by Antioquia, Chocó, and Putumayo, with 11 events each. In 2022, there were 143, showing that risk events decreased in 2023, but materialized in confinements and forced mass displacements.

The most affected departments in 2022 were Antioquia, with 19 events; Nariño, with 18; Putumayo, with 16; Cauca, with 15; Chocó, with 13; Bolívar, with 12, and Valle del Cauca, with 10. That year, there were 19 departments affected, while in 2023, the same pattern occurred in 20 departments.


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