POPAYÁN, Colombia—The death threat to Jorge Sánchez came by phone. The caller identified himself as a commander with the Army of National Liberation (ELN), Colombia’s largest active guerrilla group since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a ceasefire with the government at the end of 2016. The self-proclaimed comandante told Sánchez—a 47-year-old former governor of the indigenous reserve of Ambaló in the southern state of Cauca—that he had just 48 hours to leave the area. Or else.
“The comandante said he was assuming military control over this zone, and that he would be implementing certain rules for the general populace,” Sánchez told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘I’m in my territory, and I don’t have to go anywhere.’ But he said the ELN was taking over now.”
Sánchez had made a name for himself as governor by staunchly defending the rights of the ambalueños against incursions by armed groups, and that reputation is likely what made him a target. After the threat against his life the father of two sought sanctuary in the office of the Indigenous [Native] Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC), in the state capital of Popayán.
“I’m more worried for the community than for myself,” said Sánchez, fingering a crucifix on a chain that he wears around his neck for protection, as he put it, “against devils of all kinds.”
The Ambaló reserve sits near an important highway junction, making it a valuable site for shipping raw coca leaves and processed cocaine, both of which are vital sources of funding for the ELN. The production of “Colombian marching powder” has skyrocketed of late, despite controversial U.S.-backed eradication efforts.
“They want to control our land because of the [transit] corridors,” Sánchez said, “but we’re not going to let that happen.”
Death threats against community heads like Sánchez are on the rise in Colombia, and the ELN and other armed groups that issue them often make good on their threats. Nationwide there were 170 social leaders assassinated in 2017, an increase of about a third from the year before.
“It’s not just indigenous leaders who are at risk,” said Jhoe Nilson Sauca, the Human Rights Coordinator for CRIC, who is also overseeing Sánchez’s case. “Campesinos [small farmers] and Afro-Colombians are also targeted as a form of social control.”
According to Sauca, 32 community officials were killed in the Cauca region last year. In recent months hundreds of families have been displaced in the state, which is a hotbed of coca production and illegal gold mining. In addition to the leftist ELN guerrillas, Cauca is also home to a dozen other armed actors, including several drug-funded, right-wing paramilitary death squads with names like the Black Eagles and the Gulf Clan.
Bitter rivals to the ELN—in part over ideological differences, but also due to competition for territory and drug shipment routes—such groups are known collectively to authorities as “Bandidos Criminales” (BACRIM). Their political persuasions might differ from their leftist counterparts, but their terror tactics are much the same:
“The death threats can come in pamphlets, in phone calls, or through social media,” said Sauca, who has also sat on the cabildo (ruling council) of the local Coconuco tribe. “Often the victim doesn’t even know who sent it.”
State security forces frequently turn a blind eye to such problems, citing lack of resources and mobility. Even worse, trust between locals and authorities can be hard to come by. That’s because members of the U.S.-allied military in Colombia have also been implicated in the widespread killings of innocent indigenous people and campesinos in order to boost their kill count during operations. In fact, the practice is so common in this Andean nation it’s been given a name: Falsos Positivos (False Positives).
“The armed forces, traditionally, are very abusive of the indigenous,” Sauca said. “But the guerrillas and BACRIM are no better. The Left and the Right, they both want to control us. But we don’t want to align ourselves with any armed group.”
Rebels Without a Paz
Representatives of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have been engaged in an on-again off-again peace process with the ELN on neutral ground in Quito, Ecuador, since last year. An official ceasefire between the guerrillas and government forces broke down earlier this month, leading to renewed hostilities by both sides—and further imperiling the nation’s indigenous and other vulnerable groups.
As the conflict resumed ELN units blew up the Caño Limón oil pipeline at multiple points, forcing a shutdown that caused a massive drop in national crude production. The bombings also destroyed watersheds used by the native peoples, depriving local communities of clean drinking water. Other ELN units launched attacks on military and police installations, engaged in a wave of targeted kidnappings, and took the opportunity to carry out strikes against rival BACRIM groups.
Meanwhile the Colombian military responded by launching a major offensive into the ELN stronghold of Nariño state and capturing more than 20 guerilla fighters, including a couple of high-ranking commanders.
Minor losses aside, the ELN can still field about 2,000 fighters, organized into independent cells, all of which are capable of acting without the need of top-down direction.
“The ELN lacks a centralized command structure, which makes them harder to fight [than a traditional insurgency],” said Hugo Acero, a Colombian security expert with the National University in Bogotá. “They don’t appear to be interested in a dialogue right now. Instead they’ve decided to return to their terrorist and military ways.”
‘No Other Nation Has Lost so Much’
One of the major reasons the guerrillas gave for walking back the ceasefire was the government’s failure to abide by the accords it had voluntarily entered into with the ELN’s closest living relative, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Both the FARC and ELN movements date back to the mid-1960s, and the Santos administration has been much lauded for its attempts to end more than 50 years of civil war that have claimed some 220,000 lives and resulted in more than seven million internal refugees.
“No other ongoing conflict in the world has caused so many victims,” Acero said. “No other nation has lost so much.” (Those suffering in the Congo, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan might contest the numbers, but no other conflict has gone on so long.)
For a while it seemed as though peace was on the horizon at long last. Now, unfortunately, that may not be the case. Critics say the incentives Bogotá used to convince the FARC to disarm—including crop substitution programs for impoverished coca farmers and social development programs in rural regions—failed to materialize. And that failure is impacting the dialogue with ELN as well.
“A huge underlying problem is that the state’s legitimate authority, in terms of both security and governance, is still weak or absent in many parts of rural Colombia,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
“This is why multiple armed groups like the BACRIM and ELN are vying for control of spaces vacated by the FARC, and why so many social activists are being killed,” said Arnson, in an email to The Daily Beast.
The FARC were able to re-group as a high-profile political party, but the public spotlight has made them vulnerable to their old enemies from the BACRIM. At least 25 assassinations have occurred since the majority of FARC fighters laid down their arms and entered social rehabilitation camps last year.
Pablo Escobar’s Own Private Army
The original BACRIM groups got their start as private cartel armies in the early ’90s. Wealthy drug lords like Pablo Escobar hired Israeli and British mercenaries to turn poor peasants into soldiers for the express purpose of battling leftist insurgents over land disputes and cocaine production sites.
These paramilitary forces soon grew and proliferated, and, after the fall of Escobar and his cronies, they began to call themselves autodefensas (self-defense groups). They eventually became a proxy force for the Colombian government in its fight against the FARC and ELN. As such they received funding and arms from Bogotá , much of it sent down as military aid from Washington.
Transnational companies like Chiquita and Coca-Cola, have also been accused of contributing to the autodefensas’ coffers. In 2007 Chiquita acknowledged in U.S. court paying almost $2 million dollars to the BACRIM. Fresh allegations against the Coke company surfaced in 2016. The soft-drink giant denied charges, but Colombian prosecutors claim to have evidence linking Coke’s local affiliate to the murder of at least 10 union members. More than 50 other companies, including BP, have also been investigated for alleged financing of the armed conflict.
Once the FARC laid down their arms in 2016, the old autodefensas—re-dubbed BACRIM by law enforcement, perhaps in order to distance the cops from complicity—declared open season on the fledgling FARC political party.
Politically motivated killings and a mishandled demobilization process have combined with the lucrative cocaine trade to keep a well-armed contingent of some 800 dissident FARC warriors out in the jungle. Those same factors also seem to have made ELN fighters think twice about giving up their guns.
The ELN “is certainly right to be concerned about the assassinations,” said the Bogotá-based Acero. “The government has been very slow to make good on its guarantees of security. Now it’s not certain that the conflict will end.”
‘Trump Doesn’t Care Anything About Peace’
Colombia is currently the world leader in cocaine production, generating a staggering 900 metric tons per year, and up over a third since 2015. The increase comes despite more than 15 years of Drug-War efforts that have cost American taxpayers some $10 billion—much of that coming as part of the controversial “Plan Colombia.”
“The spike in coca cultivation has become a central issue in US-Colombian relations,” said the Wilson Center’s Arnson, who estimates that “90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States still comes from Colombia—about the same percentage as a decade and a half ago.”
The cocaine boom, along with the authorities’ inability to provide safety and viable infrastructure in large swaths of the country, demonstrate that “the achievements of Plan Colombia were vastly oversold,” Arnson said.
But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from doubling down on those same failed policies. In September POTUS threatened to blacklist Colombia as a narco state on the order of Bolivia or Venezuela—which would cost the country millions of dollars per year in U.S. aid—if the Santos administration didn’t step up its coca-crop eradication efforts.
Although Colombian authorities had balked at the resumption of aerial fumigation, due to proven long-term health complications for those getting sprayed from the sky, Bogotá finally kowtowed to Trump and other far-right Republicans by increasing its manual eradication program. Thousands of soldiers and police were sent into the mountains to dig up coca fields, which are often the sole source income for for families in outlying regions.
Some farmers, however, resisted seeing their cash crops destroyed without the compensation already pledged by the government. The heavy-handed approach pushed for by Trump and company culminated in a police massacre of cocaleros last October near the Pacific port city of Tumaco. The shortened timetable demanded by Washington also forced the government to walk back assurances of financial restitution and crop swapping it had made to the FARC and their rural constituents.
All those broken promises encouraged FARC fighters to abandon the social rehabilitation camps and return to the jungle, thus weakening Bogotá’s place at the table with ELN during the Quito talks.
“During the FARC negotiations, President Obama took an active interest in the dialogue, and in fortifying democracy and international relations,” Acero said, when asked about the present U.S. administration's approach. “President Trump’s tendency is much more to the right, much more dictatorial, and apparently without regard for democracy.”
In fact, some involved in the FARC peace negotiations have openly criticized Trump’s “militarism” as endangering an end to the conflict in Colombia.
Given the historical precedent set by the U.S. in helping to arm the BACRIM, and the direct role Trump and other Drug-War hawks have played in undermining the Santos regime’s talks with both the ELN and the FARC—even many neutral observers have come to believe that leaders in Washington are unconcerned with ending the conflict, so long as their own agenda is met.
“[Trump] doesn’t seem to care anything about peace,” security consultant Acero said. “The Drug War is all that interests him.”
Indigenous council member Sauca agreed, and added that trying to convince “El Donaldo” to worry about violence in Colombia must be like “talking to the wind.” But the Coconuco chief also faulted both the guerrillas and the Santos administration for the exclusionary nature of the Quito talks.
“Both sides are seeking to negotiate without consulting the will of the nation at large,” he said, “and that can never work. Where is the voice of the people in all of this? Where is our seat at the table in Quito?”
Sauca pointed out that the majority of civilians killed, displaced, and sometimes claimed as falsos positivos over five decades of conflict have been poor campesinos and disenfranchised native peoples.
“Of course we support the talks between the government and the guerrilleros,” he said. “But without true political and economic change in Colombia, there will never be a lasting peace.”