Colombia: See Through The Silence


June 22, 2017: The peace deal with FARC has hit some snags but appears to be working. It’s taken longer than expected to collect all the FARC weapons and it appears that some FARC factions did not (and apparently will not) turn in all their weapons. But without definitive proof the government or foreign observers can’t do much. The security services can and note the surrendering FARC members who were connected with holding back weapons. Some of the FARC factions did not surrender at all and went directly into gangster mode.

Such is the case with any amnesty program like this. Allies like the United States have also noted the switch while monitoring illegal cash flows in and out of Colombia. The two countries share intel on major crime of all sorts and while leftist political violence is in decline corruption and large-scale criminal activity is still big. The Americans continue to sanction or indict Colombians they have enough evidence on and these days it is big-time gangsters.

The only leftist rebels still active are the ELN, which was never as involved with the drug business as FARC and always more hard-core in its communist social beliefs. As a result, ELN was always smaller than FARC. Before the demobilization began FARC had more than three times as many armed members than ELN. Now the ELN is the largest political rebel group and is getting a lot more attention from the security forces. For that reason ELN does not bother to take credit for many of its attacks, secure in the knowledge that most people will see through the silence.


For Colombia the largest security problem is in the east where there is a growing refugee crises on the Venezuelan border. The border is largely rural and easy to slip through. The area was always popular with FARC and is still full of drug gang members and some of the ELN groups. These days the majority of foot traffic consists of Venezuelans using the last of whatever money they had to get to the border and then just walking into Colombia with no idea of when they might be able to go back. Unofficially it is believed nearly a million Venezuelan refugees are now in Colombia. Since late 2016 most of them were not looking to resume careers but to escape death from hunger, disease and a growing number of other problems. While many go to Brazil or North America over 90 percent now head for Colombia because it is all they can afford.

Even a lot of Venezuelan government officials are leaving in addition to of lifelong supporters of socialism. Few are choosing Cuba, which the current Venezuelan rulers long sought for advice. Opinion polls show that by late 2016 nearly 60 percent of adults wanted to leave, which is a sharp rise from 49 percent in 2015. It would appear that about two million have left already but that is accelerating as the Venezuelan economy disintegrates and food becomes increasingly difficult to get, even if you can pay black market rates. At the current rate of emigration over three million will be gone by the end of 2017, which is more than ten percent of the population. Until 2016 most of those leaving had money and were entrepreneurs or people with skills that would assure them employment anywhere. By late 2016 nearly all the Venezuelans fleeing were facing a life (flee) or death (by starvation, disease or murder) decision.

For Colombians living near the eastern border it is also becoming obvious that the situation in Venezuela is spiraling out of control. Violent anti-government demonstrations since late March have left nearly a hundred of the demonstrators dead. The security forces have been unable to quickly shut down these public outburst as they have in the past. In response to that some army and police commanders began ordering their subordinates to avoid hurting, much less killing demonstrators. Many of the demonstrators are now high school and college students along with non-students the same age who are unemployed and hungry. The senior Venezuelan leadership saw these orders as illegal and began firing senior officers who spoke out while others simply resigned (and often realized they had to flee the country while they still could). But even senior prosecutors and other government officials are now criticizing government policies. Since May that has led to more firings and resignations of senior government officials and often they are being replaced with senior military men. President Maduro is more concerned with loyalty and dependability than competence. The federal government has now ordered the military to take over the control of police in any province where the police appear to be unable or unwilling to use force to suppress demonstrators and any other critics of the government.

Public protests are now more widespread and violent than there were in 2014 when the government was forced to accept free (and scheduled) elections for the legislature. The government lost the 2015 vote and found itself with a hostile legislature. By 2017 the government was using the pro-Maduro Supreme Court to declare the legislature illegitimate but many senior government officials balked at that, realizing that the result would be a police state and a very unpopular and bankrupt one at that. Nevertheless the senior officials are moving ahead, even as this drives away most long-time foreign supporters. This now includes China and Russia.

China has been a major investor and lender to the socialist government of Venezuela. But that ended after late 2016 when they agreed to invest $2.2 billion to upgrade Venezuelan oil facilities. It soon became obvious that Venezuelan oil facilities were beyond getting upgraded because there had been too many years of inept decision making. China quietly stopped delivering cash to Venezuela. The years of government corruption and mismanagement has done fatal damage to the Venezuelan oil industry and a major shakeup was required to fix it. The government was trying to survive by borrowing. That option is now gone as potential lenders perceive the current government as unwilling or unable to do anything about the fundamental problems. This means major losses for China, which has been a major lender by providing over $50 billion since 2007. Some of these loans were repaid with Venezuelan oil but the Venezuelan oil industry is so disorganized and decrepit that the country can’t even produce enough oil for its own internal needs. Russia was another generous ally that has invested billions in Venezuela. Now that investment is about to be lost, mainly because of corruption.

Venezuela has run out of sufficient cash to import basic food items and will not admit what the real problems are. The main cause, according to the government, is the United States and neighbors like Colombia working with disloyal Venezuelans. Solutions are impossible if the government will not recognize they are the problem. The government does not want to admit that it cannot afford to buy sufficient imported food or that its corrupt officials are stealing a lot of what is imported. President Maduro apparently is willing to create a dictatorship but too many of his key officials point out that will get Venezuela declared an outlaw state and increase the financial problems. So the government is going ahead with its effort to change the constitution and allow Maduro to rule as long as he like with no legal opposition.

In this part of the world the way this works is the neighbors wring their hands and deplore the tragic events. If it leads to rebellion or civil war the neighbors will stay out of it as long as they can but eventually the growing number of cell-phone images of the suffering and slaughters, not to mention all those desperate refugees crossing the border, will trigger official and unofficial intervention and some semblance of peace and prosperity will return. The lessons of all this, if any, will soon be lost and the cycle of corruption (especially in government) and decline will repeat.

June 21, 2017: The Venezuelan Supreme Court approved efforts to remove the current attorney (Luisa Ortega) from her job for criticizing the effort to change the constitution with an illegal process backed by the Supreme Court. According to the current constitution only the parliament (national assembly) can remove an attorney general from office. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the current parliament is illegal. The parliament describes these actions as a coup and most Venezuelans agree with that. Unlike most other democracy constitutions Venezuela does not allow the legislature to impeach (remove) the president. Rather the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president (and approved by the legislature) do so. But before Maduro’s party lost control of the legislature in the 2015 elections he appointed enough loyal (to Maduro) new judges to the Supreme Court to block any efforts to remove him from power. The legislature and the government have not been able to agree on a compromise solution for this problem.

June 20, 2017: Although the first FARC members completed the disarmament and demobilization process by mid-May the process of processing all 6,800 FARC members at 26 demobilization camps by May 31st did not happen and the deadline was extended until today. It appears that most of the weapons have now been turned in but that there are still another ten or more percent of the weapons to go. FARC members must turn in their weapons before they can be registered for benefits like government jobs, training and other education programs plus medical care and debriefing. The camps are monitored by UN teams with over 500 trained staff.

Another part of the peace agreement is legal proceedings for FARC members known to have committed major crimes. The amnesty process is based on the one used in other nations and involves cooperation from the accused (who did what to whom when and where) to qualify. The demobilization process is to be completed by the end of 2017 although the bad memories will linger for generations. Demobilized FARC members will get some cash assistance and FARC leaders will be able to engage in political activity (via forming parties, running for election and voting). One worrisome aspect to all this is that many veteran FARC members still believe Colombia would be better off with a more socialist government, just not one next door in Venezuela.

June 17, 2017: In the capital a bomb went off in a women’s toilet of an upscale mall. Three people were killed, including a French citizen (who was working as a volunteer in a local education program). Another nine people were wounded. No one took credit but the ELN was suspected as this is the sort of social justice target they like to hit. The government offered a $35,000 reward for information leading to the culprit.

In the east (Arauca province) ELN blew up a section of a major pipeline near the Venezuelan border. It will take a few days to repair the damage. This is the 32nd ELN attack on oil industry operations this year. ELN and the government began peace talks in February and the ELN increased its attacks since then.

In northeast Colombia (Norte de Santander province) two Dutch journalists were kidnapped and ELN was suspected as they still do this sort of thing and this is territory they have long been active in. The security forces also received tips that ELN had done it and have been pursuing those leads.

June 13, 2017: The government negotiators believe that efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the ELN are stalemated largely because the ELN leadership appears to have lost control of many of its factions. ELN violence (bombings and kidnappings) have continued and appear to be on the increase. ELN blames the government without giving specifics. Meanwhile out in the rural areas where ELN is most active the local chatter is all about disgruntled ELN faction leaders, many of them opposed to any peace deal.

June 12, 2017: In Venezuela demonstrators in the capital set fire to the Supreme Court building.




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