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Armed Groups ramp up threats ahead of local elections in Colombia— except EMC
The FARC dissident group is set to enter formal talks with the government on Oct 8, and experts are optimistic about peace prospects
Bogotá, Colombia—As Colombia approaches local and municipal elections on October 29, a customary uptick in violence has accompanied them. As armed groups vie for power and territorial control, some Mayoral candidates are left with a morbid choice— co-govern with criminals or flee.
Attacks and threats are on the rise. A car bomb targeting a police station in the department of Cauca on September 20 left two civilians dead— it was the second such attack in less than a week.
Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Andes analyst for the International Crisis Group, explained the surge as a side-effect of criminal elements seeking control over civil society in the regions they control. “Local elections are attractive to criminal elements,” she told PWS. “Controlling a mayoral office makes laundering money easier, allows them to control state contracts, and can provide them with oversight, and even limited control over security operations.”
And as a number of groups engage in preliminary negotiations with the government as part of Petro’s ‘Total Peace’ plan, “that makes it even more attractive,” she said. “If they can demonstrate an ability to effect change in a community they control, that gives them leverage at the negotiating table, as well as with the residents in that community.”
The car bombings in Cauca occurred not merely in the backdrop of elections, but also amidst ongoing negotiations towards peace talks with Colombia’s second-largest rebel group: a group of FARC dissidents known as Estado Mayor (EMC).
The EMC, currently led by Iván Mordisco, was formed in 2016 when a collection of fronts from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rejected the group's peace deal with the government.
They quickly expanded in territory in the following years, including in Cauca, where for a time their expansion went largely uncontested.
Minister of Defense, Iván Velásquez, in public statements, said the attacks in Cauca were in response to recent military actions in the region "because controlling the Micay canyon implies controlling a very good part not only of cocaine production but also control of Cauca".
The car-bomb attack occurred one day after public statements from the government announcing October 8 as the date for organizing a formal negotiation table between EMC and the government. .
The same day that EMC claimed responsibility for the attack in Timba they also announced the suspension of offensive actions throughout the country against the Military and Police Forces. In a public statement, they said they regretted the “error” of two civilian deaths in what was meant to be a “military operation.”
Danilo Rueda, High Commissioner for Peace, who is leading the talks, in public statements after the attack, stated "Violence is inadmissible in a country that longs for peace with social justice. The EMC-FARC insults the Colombian people. Peace is made with deeds".
The Ministry of Defense has vowed to ramp up military actions ahead of talks with EMC.
In spite of the attacks, and the rise in violence ahead of elections, Dickinson said she is “quite optimistic” about talks between EMC and the government.
“The government has forced some real concessions ahead of October 8,” she said. “This might be a ceasefire ‘plus’”.
EMC presence in Cauca had gone largely uncontested by the government until very recently, but a series of aggressive military operations have challenged that. That pressure, in conjunction with the killing of a young EMC leader in Magdalena who went by the alias “Pedro” may have the guerilla group re-thinking their options.
“A lot of the current leadership is young,” said Dickinson. “Some of the negotiators are in their late 20’s. I think a lot of them are wondering, "Is this really the life I want to lead?’. They’ve never faced aggressive resistance from the National government before.
On the bombings, she explained that from EMC’s perspective the attacks are retaliation for recent military operations, and might not represent a threat to a ceasefire in the future. “After the announcement we saw escalation, and then quickly a serious de-escalation.”
Camilo Gonzales Posso, director of Indepaz, described the phenomenon of new leadership with PWS in an interview last month. “This radically changes conflict dynamics,” he said. “A new generation of leadership doesn’t have the same goals as those who led during the civil war. While they may have political goals, those aren’t their primary motives. They are more attracted to consolidating power and profits than a revolution against the state.”
“This is a dynamic that might make them much more receptive to negotiations.”
Petro has promised to pursue what he calls “total peace” in a country that is still grappling with the effects of nearly six decades of internal armed conflict, but his strategy so far has yielded mixed results.
A six-month ceasefire with the largest remaining rebel group in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which was celebrated as a political victory in August, has so far held.
But a number of informal ceasefires with other armed groups this year have since collapsed, and violence in rural areas has largely continued unabated.
For Dickinson, ceasefires without serious concessions from armed groups earlier this year were a serious strategic mistake. “Armed groups used the opportunity to dig in and consolidate control,” she said.
“The process with EMC is proceeding very differently.”
But Colombia has proven again and again it is anything but predictable, and six decades have proven that conflict is stubbornly durable.
Petro, an ex-guerilla himself, is often fond of saying however that peace is the most revolutionary act one can commit. Perhaps the new generation of leadership at EMC is listening.
What we’re writing
This week Joshua took a look at indigenous protests in Bogotá. A “Minga” was called to coincide with demonstrations organized by president Gustavo Petro to support a number of reform bills, but many people we spoke with were disappointed with a lack of progress at stopping a growing wave of violence in their communities.
And some were deeply critical of an administration they say has failed to keep its campaign promises. You can read more here.
The Big Headlines in LATAM
It was a comparatively slow news week in Latin America. We think the most important story is that Spain is again considering declaring war on Colombia by charging their queen, Shakira, with tax evasion.
They are free to try, but last time Colombia and Spain went to war, it didn’t go so well for Madrid. Besides, we like to think of it less as “tax evasion” and more as “reparations”.
Spanish Phrase of the week
Ponerse las pilas- Literally: “put batteries on”
Meaning: get cracking; get ready, be alert
You can use ponerse las pilas when someone is out of the loop, being too slow, or not getting a joke. But you can also use it if you want someone to be alert in a tense or dangerous situation.
Por aca hay muchos ladrones, ponte las pilas- Around here there are a lot of thieves, be careful.
If Spain doesn’t want a war with Colombia, they need to ponerse las pilas and lay off Shakira.
Thanks for reading piratas! Hasta pronto!