Opinion: Colombia’s Violent Start to 2022: A Key Electoral Cycle

Opinion: Colombia’s Violent Start to 2022: A Key Electoral Cycle

Source: Photo: Rene Ospitia / World Bank

The New Year has not had a happy start for many Colombians: An already alarming security situation is currently escalating into record levels of violence in several parts of the country. Although the perpetrators vary regionally, the main affected are the same: the civilian population in general, and social leaders and human rights defenders in particular. In addition to the weak response of the Colombian state so far, observers expect a further deterioration linked to the upcoming legislative and presidential elections. 

New Year, Old Problems

Those who thought that Colombian armed groups would go on vacation during the main holiday season from January to March were proven wrong: Colombian authorities, the UN and the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz) registered 27 massacres, 48 targeted killings of social leaders, as well as 13,821 forcibly displaced people during the first quarter of 2022. Among the many incidents, the deliberate killing of the 14 year-old environmental activist Breiner David Cucuñame in the Cauca region particularly caused collective shock and outrage. Although the release of pandemic-related confinements had already caused a significant rise in violence in 2021, the figures for the first quarter of 2022 not only indicate the persistence of this negative trend but a further acceleration.

Geographically, the magnitude of the latest surge in violence varies. However, the most affected regions are all – without exception – priority regions for the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army). They are prioritised because they have been most affected by over five decades of armed conflict between the Colombian state, several guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and other armed groups. As such, these are the regions where the state has historically been most absent, with the highest poverty levels, most victims of violence, presence of armed groups and illicit economies. Because this has entrenched deeply rooted inequalities compared to less affected, particularly urban areas, the peace agreement aspires to address those extreme disparities in order to erase the potential for further violence. Yet, regions that most suffered from violence in the past, continue to do so in the present. 

Colombia 2022: Numerous Armed Groups and an Ineffective State?

The perpetrators of violence are not the same across the country. The recent humanitarian crisis in the Colombo-Venezuelan borderland of Arauca appears to be prompted by renewed fighting between the National Liberation Army guerrilla group (abbreviated as ELN in Spanish) and dissidents of the former FARC-EP guerrilla group. In addition, record levels of selective violence across Colombia more specifically target ex-combatants, social leaders and human rights defenders, with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities particularly being at risk. While the authorities rarely identify the authors of assassinations of social leaders, likewise increasing intimidation campaigns and forced displacements involve various (neo-) paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, and other criminal gangs, most notably the Gulf Clan. 

Why is insecurity so widespread, five years after the signing of the peace agreement was supposed to build “stable and lasting peace” in Colombia? The answer to this question is closely related to the failure of the Colombian state to comprehensively implement the agreement. Critics argue that this is actually intentional given that president Iván Duque, who won the 2018 presidential elections, has consistently advocated against the peace agreement. Consequently, root causes of the armed conflict, such as the historical marginalisation and absence of the state from Colombia’s rural territories, remain unabated. The power vacuum left by the withdrawal of the FARC-EP has not been filled by the state but has facilitated increased clashes between numerous armed groups that are currently competing for the control of those regions previously held by the FARC-EP. Because the involved actors, alliances and rivalries are frequently regionally specific, observers no longer speak of ‘the armed conflict’ but of multiple armed conflicts having present-day Colombia in a stranglehold. Rather than bringing long-standing cycles of armed conflict and violence to an end, the dismantling of the FARC-EP has thus fostered an increase in intensity and complexity of the dynamics of violence unfolding across the country. 

The right-wing Duque administration argues that the resulting violence is not political, but a fight between criminal actors competing for rents from the booming drug trade or illegal mining. Its reply has been largely focused on the tracking down of (seemingly easily replaceable) heads of narco-criminal armed groups. However, this approach neither addresses intensifying patterns of forced displacement of thousands of people nor record numbers of targeted killings of ex-FARC combatants and social leaders. Frequently, the murders of communal leaders appear to be motivated by their key role in the implementation of the peace agreement for instance, but also in growing numbers of socio-environmental struggles that frequently relate to natural resource extraction that the Colombian state promotes for the sake of economic growth. Despite repeated complaints by Colombian and international actors accompanying the peace process, the Colombian state is unable to provide comprehensive security guarantees for demobilised FARC combatants, social leaders and human rights defenders. The shocking statistics of their assassinations have therefore turned into a major indicator of the fragility of the Colombian peace process

Looking Ahead

This scene is highly unlikely to change in the short and medium-term. The complexity of regional dynamics and the vulnerability of affected communities and their leaders cannot be sustainably transformed without an effective protection system. Yet, the Colombian state appears unable to provide basic security guarantees.

Unfortunately, violence may further worsen as Colombia is in the midst of key legislative and presidential elections. The ‘traditional’ surge in violence associated with electoral cycles is not limited to increased death tolls. As this analysis is written, right-wing (neo)-paramilitary groups are collectively threatening communities in hopes of preventing the first leftist government in the history of Colombia, which would not only constitute a political but also an economic threat to their rents based on drug trafficking, extortions and illegal mining. However, even if unsuccessful, a leftist government may actually provoke a further deterioration, as armed groups across the country will want to showcase their real power in a Colombia which appears to be far from peace.

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