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virtual peace, confined war? Covid-19 and violence in Colombia

October 14, 2020


by Laetitia Braconnier Moreno, doctoral student at the University Paris Nanterre and the National University of Colombia, coordinator of the Andean center (Bogota) of the Institut des Amériques.




by John Edison Sabogal, anthropologist and psychologist at the Universidad National de Colombia. He is working with the Missing Persons Unit (UBPD) in Colombia.  



Four years after the signature of the Peace Agreement between the FARC-EP guerilla group (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army) and the Colombian government, the country is experiencing acts of extreme violence. It seems to be getting further each day from its goal of "stable and durable peace" stated in the text of the Agreement, celebrated internationally for its integrative and innovative nature. Some of the fuel feeding these new outbursts are the lockdown measures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, put in place at the end of March through to the beginning of September - Colombia being the country with the longest lockdown. The goal of this article is therefore to observe how the pandemic and the physically restrictive measures came to interact with the armed violence, and at the same time, with the implementation of the Peace Agreement.



Virtual meeting organized by the Commission for the Clarification of Truth on August 13, 2020 "Impactos del conflicto armado en la familia negra".
Virtual meeting organized by the Commission for the Clarification of Truth on August 13, 2020 "Impactos del conflicto armado en la familia negra".

Even though the guerilla group ELN (Ejercito de liberación nacional, National Liberation Army, did not sign the Agreement), declared a unilateral cease-fire between April 1 and 30 because of the Covid health crisis, the armed violence did not go into quarantine in the country, just as it had not disappeared after the 2016 treaty.


A first terrifying and stunning assessment: according to the NGO Indepaz, since the signature of the November 2016 Peace Agreement up to August 21, 2020, one thousand social leaders and defenders of human rights have been killed. The specific qualification of "social leader", translated from "líderes sociales", is diverse and includes representatives of the defenders for the rights of the victims of the conflict, ethnic groups, farmers, women, LGBT+ people, environmentalists, union many players in the "transformation" as were needed for the eradication of inequalities and the end of land appropriation, which are huge factors of the armed Colombian conflict. As seen in the graphes (see Graph 1. Assassinated social leaders (2016-2020), Departments such as Cauca (226) and Antioquia (133) are the hardest hit[1]. Fights over the control of land and natural resources are frequent motivations for these assassinations, as witnessed by the fact that Colombia has been ranked the country with the most assassinations of environmental defenders in 2019. Futhermore, other leaders have been targeted because of their commitment to substitute the production of the coca leaf with food crops, in accordance with the planned programs listed in point 4 of the Peace Agreement.


This violence also shows the government institutions' inability to ensure an appeasement in many regions following the retreat of the FARC in 2016. Furthermore, the structures of the institutional authoritative entities dedicated to the protection of social leaders (Defensoría del Pueblo and Procuraduría), whose effectiveness was obviously insufficient before the pandemic, have been weakened[2], the confinement measures having yet again reduced the institutional presence in the regions. The strategies of social dialogue between the authorities and local organizations were impacted by the lockdown measures and by the inability to access peripheral areas where the healthcare system was insufficient to treat the contaminated people.

Graph 3. Violence committed by armed groups under the guise of the health crisis.
Graph 3. Violence committed by armed groups under the guise of the health crisis.

Other than the assassinations of social leaders, assassinations of former fighters has not let-up either. According to Indepaz numbers for the period mentionned (November 2016-July 2020), 211 ex-guerillas who signed the agreement were killed. There also, Departments such as Cauca (37), Nariño (25), Antioquia (24) and Caqueta (20) are the most dangerous areas for those who put down their arms and put their trust in the peace process (see Graph 2. Former fighters assassinated (2016-2020)). La Fiscalía (equivalent to the public prosecutor) states that these crimes were mainly committed by dissident groups of the FARC, who had refused to accept the peace treaty, or had rearmed themselves because the agreement had not been implemented and there was no guarantee for their security. Because of a lack of opportunities, they have a hard time breaking away from their ties to illegal trades, especially with drug trafficking.


With the retreat of the FARC in a number of regions, different groups are fighting for control of the populations and illegal activities. We can observe this demonopolization of the armed violence in Cauca where at least four successor groups (dissidents) of the FARC are competing: Columna Jaime Martínez, Columna Dagoberto Ramos, Columna Carlos Patiño and Segunda Marquetalia. They are also confronting drug cartels and paramilitary groups who have also reorganized after their 2005 dismantling during the "Justicia y paz" process.

Pamphlet distributed in the cities of Cauca, signed "Columna Movil Jaime Martinez", dissident group of the FARC-EP.
Pamphlet distributed in the cities of Cauca, signed "Columna Movil Jaime Martinez", dissident group of the FARC-EP.

This violence manifests itself with an increase in massacres affecting populations in a visibly indiscriminate manner. Over 67 massacres have been recorded by Indepaz, corroborated by the UN, over the time period going from January to October 2020, of which eleven took place during the month of August and sixteen in September: the hardest hit Departments are again Antioquia (15), Cauca (9), Nariño (9) and Norte de Santander (6). These massacres have taken another turn with the pandemic. In many areas, armed groups seem to have been given the responsability to enforce, with threats and killings, the lockdown imposed by the government. Pamphlets meant to ensure isolation is respected and prevent the increase in infections were distributed, enacting restrictions of movement, limits in activities and threats to the citizens. Graph 3 summarizes the "justified manifestations of violence by an armed group during the health crisis" and the regions in which the pamphlets circulated, each soldier and color represents a different armed group.


In this context, how are the mechanisms of transitional justice, planned for in 2016, progressing which respect to the rights of victims of the armed conflict?




The Peace Agreement created three transitional institutions responsable for judging those responsable, establing the truth about the conflict and finding the people that went missing during the war: the Special Juridiction for Peace (JEP), the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, the Coexistance and Non-repetition (CEV) and the Missing Persons Unit (UBPD). The last report of the Kroc Institute of Notre Dame University notes that there is a considerable delay in the implementation of most of the Agreement's points, and in particular those pertaining to sensitive issues such as solutions against illicit drugs and the complete agricultural reform (the first point of the Peace Agreement is supposed to re-establish the rights of farmers by a structural transformation of rural zones and a decrease in size in land ownership). The 5th point relating to victims is the one that presents the best indicators of implementation because all three cited entities are in operation. Of course, because of the pandemic, the work in different parts of the country has become essentially virtual, which has added another challenge when trying to bring these transitional mechanisms of victims and areas most hit by the war closer.

The JEP audiences for this "macrocaso" were followed by thousands of Colombians via social media and other means of communication.
The JEP audiences for this "macrocaso" were followed by thousands of Colombians via social media and other means of communication.

In May, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, mandated to pursue, judge and sanction some of the players in the conflict, put virtual hearings in place with a strategy called Digital Justice (Justicia digital). Several months later, following an explicit request by the leaders of the former FARC guerilla group, the JEP decided to make some of the hearings public for the 007 case, involving the forced recrutment of minors, an especially sensitive crime in the public opinion and for which those opposed to the Peace Agreement have demanded concrete results.


And yet, the virtual nature distinctly contrasts with the operating principles of this special tribunal. On the one hand, it announced a wish for strong regional anchoring and doing justice close to those accountable, in particular the victims, in each corner of the country. In this sense, despite many procedures being done on-line, the fact that the magistrates could not travel caused many delays[3]. On the other hand, the JEP is supposed to apply the principle of "dialogic", striving to put the victims in the center of the trial, and the option for them to exchange directly with the authors of the crimes, with a two-fold goal of reestablishing the truth of the facts and promoting a pardon, if not a reconciliation.


But how can you assure these principles when a large majority of the victims living in the most isolated regions do not have appropriate internet connections? The JEP strove to maintain this dialogic principle during the 005 "macrocase" hearings pertaining to the Northern region of Cauca and the southern one of Valle du Cauca. The victims organizations, most of them indigenous and Black, logged on to the digital platforms to listen and question, through their lawyers, the former FARC fighters. But the facts narrated via a screen probably do not have the same impact than they would have in court. The confessions of the crimes, the apologies presented, the requests for forgiveness, as well as the dialogue between the victims and the persecutors, when they are done virtually, certainly don't have the same finality of symbolic and therapeutic reparation hoped for than if they had been done physically face to face.


The Commission of Truth has also directly suffered from the consequences of the pandemic.  The Commissioner Ángela Salazar, herself a victim of the conflict, died on August 7, 2020 after getting Covid. Faced with these obstacles, the CEV decided to develop a strategy in virtual mode of gathering witness statements and doing social dialogue through which the victims, the former fighters and civil society can meet to think about what happened during the war, discern responsabilities and talk about reconciliation plans. In some regions particularly affected by the conflict such as Caldono (Cauca), one of the municipalities with the highest number of armed attacks done by the FARC, this mechanism aspires to having those responsable explicitely and publicly recognize their faults. But here, the health restrictions are not the only issue making these symbolic acts of recognition difficult, there is also the resurgence of the conflict at a local level.


Finally, the UBPD has the difficult charge of finding close to 120,000 missing people (according to its estimations) owing to the armed conflict. On top of the numerous problems the victims have to access virtual channels, and because of the resurgence of the armed violence, there is another problem. The rapid burial of the bodies of the pandemic victims - over 27,000 - on top of the ethnic and cultural violations inflicted especially on indigenous communities, is in fact a threat for the missing people buried anonymously in the country's cemeteries. It is estimated that they hold 26,000 bodies of unidentified people, susceptible to being manipulated in an irresponsable fashion because of the quantity of people having to be suddenly buried, which creates unmeasurable damage to the search for missing people that their families and civil society organizations have been doing for decades.




Though the 2016 Peace Agreement did not totally end the violence in Colombia, the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly considerably exacerbated the situation. On the one hand, it fostered a resurgence of armed actions leading to the retreat of the authorities, and on the other hand, it seriously put the brakes on the acts of reconciliation. However, if being virtual demonstrated any kind of virtue, according to the CEV commissioners' statements, it would be having facilitated and increased public discussions on the plural experiences of the armed conflict. A large diversity of players usually isolated - and not just because of the pandemic - have thus been gathered in one space, admittedly virtual, and their voices have been heard[4].


We can only hope that these meetings were massively followed and continue on, through social media especially, in order to promote not only the non-repetition of the events, but also the "non-continuity" of the conflict. In this past month, various social sectors have started to protest in the streets again to oppose the violence, demand the respect of the Peace Agreement and ask the government for structural changes to contain the consequences of the pandemic.

[1] Indepaz numbers on July 15, 2020.

[2] Watch Isabel Zuleta's remarks, from the Rios Vivos movement, and Professors Rodrigo Uprimny and Cielo Rusinque, Virtual Forum: the protection of the right to life for the social leaders in Colombia, June 30, 2020 (conclusions).

[3] Interview with the Magistrate of the JEP Juan José Cantillo Pushaina, by visioconference, August 28, 2020.

[4] Video on the CEV's work during the coronavirus?

Laetitia Braconnier Moreno, coordinator of the Andean center of Bogota at the Institut des Amériques, is a doctoral student at the University Paris Nanterre (CREDOF) and at the National University of Columbia (EILUSOS). She is also a member of the "transitional justice" of the Association of French-Columbian jurists (AJFC). Her thesis is on the mobilization of native normativity within the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) put in place after the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC-EP guerrilla group and the Columbian government.


John Edison Sabogal is an anthropologist and psychologist at the Universidad National de Colombia. He is working with the Missing Persons Unit (UBPD) in Colombia.