Colombia’s peace deal fails to produce a promised new era

When things go wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they?

After Colombia’s government signed a peace deal with the country’s main rebel group FARC on November 24, 2016, ending half a century of war and upheaval, both sides said it heralded a new era. But two-and-a-half years after the militants agreed to lay down their arms, many of the promises made are not being honored, and the prospect of a true, lasting peace now seems far from certain.

This is what a New York Times investigation found:

• As many as 3,000 militants have resumed fighting, threatening the very foundation of the accord.

• Many of the millions of Colombians who once lived in rebel-held territory still await the promised arrival of roads, schools and electricity. The government’s pledge to help rural areas was a big reason the rebels stood down.

• Since the peace deal was signed, at least 500 activists and community leaders have been killed, and more than 210,000 people displaced from their homes amid the continuing violence. That undercuts a core selling point of the deal — that it would bring safety and stability.

• Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, a conservative who took office in August 2018, has expressed skepticism of the accords and wants to change a commitment that was fundamental to the rebels agreeing to lay down their weapons.

Peace deals of this scope are never easy to implement, and Colombians knew a long, daunting path was ahead of them. The deal the two sides reached was ambitious and complex — with 578 separate stipulations, but it can be boiled down to a few core promises.

A primary goal of the FARC insurgency was improving the lives of rural Colombians. The deal calls for “universal” education in rural areas for preschool through secondary school; guaranteed access to drinking water; and heavy subsidies for development programs in former rebel territories.

The rebels, in turn, would cease all hostilities, turn in their weapons to the United Nations and return to civilian life. The FARC would be allowed to compete in elections and was guaranteed 10 seats in Congress.

Raised Hopes and Dashed Ones

The peace agreement raised hopes that the rural deprivation that fueled the conflict might finally ease. But a visit to the town of Juan José made clear that little has changed. The community of 8,000 has not received even the most basic services it was promised. With no running water, residents are still forced to rely on untreated wells. No schools have been built in the surrounding villages, despite government pledges, and many children have never seen the inside of a classroom. While the police are now in Juan José, neither they nor the military have made it to the nearby villages, and new armed groups have moved in to fill the vacuum left by the FARC.

For Farmers, Coca Is Still King

Much of the FARC’s funding came through the drug trade. But peace did little to make farmers rethink their business model. Last year, the amount of land used for coca leaf production reached an all-time high. Part of the problem is that the appeal of the lucrative cocaine business is as strong to the armed groups that have swept into rural areas as it once was to the FARC. But the government also bears much of the blame.The crop-substitution program agreed to in the peace deal promised cash payments to those who uprooted their coca plants and replaced them with legal crops, but in Juan José, residents say the payments to farmers ceased for a time and the officials who were supposed to introduce the alternative crops never arrived. So, many farmers have gone back to planting coca.

A Pushback Against Leniency

A central pillar of the accords was a promise to seek the truth of what happened during the conflict, with the goal of national reconciliation. The deal established the Special Jurisdiction for Peace — tribunals to hear accounts of crimes and abuses.

Ten thousand former rebels and 2,000 members of the armed forces pledged to testify under a broad blanket of immunity. Blame could be assigned, but no jail time would be handed out, except for a few select crimes. That part of the peace deal, however, was a tough sell for many Colombians. In October 2016, when they were given a chance to weigh in on the accord, they shocked many by voting against it in a referendum.

Now, Mr. Duque has requested an overhaul of the tribunals, calling them too lenient. Some worry he hopes to dismantle them entirely, but the no-jail pledge was critical to getting the FARC to sign the deal. Reneging on it might well be seen as a bait and switch. And that could be a deal breaker.

Steps Forward, but Only a Few

Some of the promises made in the peace accords have been kept. More than 6,804 FARC fighters did initially disarm, and more than 8,994 weapons were surrendered. By 2017, the FARC had completely demobilized, except for a small dissident group.

About 23 percent of the 578 provisions in the deal have been fully carried out, according to a recent study by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which is monitoring the accords. But the study projected that despite the “steady progress,” only one-third of the commitments made in the deal would be met in the agreed-upon time frame. The rest, it said, were either in a “state of minimal implementation” or had not yet even been touched.

One of the biggest failures has come on the security front, which government officials and rebels alike assured skeptical Colombians would be the largest dividend of the peace deal. In many areas where the FARC has disarmed, the government has yet to arrive in force, breaking a key promise of the accords. The resulting lawlessness and disorder in rural areas have proved deadly for Colombian activists, 252 of whom were killed last year, up from 191 in 2017, according to Colombia’s Institute of Studies for Peace and Development.

The FARC said that 130 of its former fighters had been killed since the signing of the peace deal. The ex-rebels have repeatedly complained that demobilizing has left them defenseless against the paramilitary gangs still roaming the countryside. This has led to a major setback for peace: Experts estimate that as many as 3,000 militants have taken up arms again — a figure equal to more than 40 percent of those who initially demobilized.

The optimism that peace was around the corner, thanks to the deal Mr. Santos signed, has faded among people like Andrés Chica, a farmer who lives near Juan José but now fears heading into town. “What he sold us was a dream,” said Mr. Chica.

– edited from The New York Times, May 17, 2019
PeaceMeal, July August 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

In Mexico, those searching for missing relatives can vanish too

Jennifer Gonzalez Covarrubias

Maria Herrera is scraping at the earth on a hill in the town of Huitzuco in southern Mexico, looking for the mounds or sunken spots that indicate a buried corpse. At 70 years old, Herrera is hoping to find her four missing sons — two who disappeared in 2008 and two who vanished in 2010 looking for their brothers.

“Every time we come to one of these nasty places, we suffer,” she said through tears as she dug in the dirt with a group of 100 other activists in the violent state of Guerrero.

The small, gray-haired grandmother is the face of a dirty secret that has haunted Mexico for years: the countryside of Latin America’s second-largest economy is littered with bodies. More than 40,000 people are missing in Mexico, which has been swept by a wave of violence since the government declared war on the country’s powerful drug cartels in 2006.

Herrera regularly goes out searching for her sons with other relatives of “the “disappeared.” She is also part of a smaller, even more tragic group: some 20 families who have lost children not once but twice, when the ones who remained went looking for their missing siblings and ended up disappearing themselves.

Herrera’s family comes from a small town in western Mexico where most people are farmers or emigrate to the United States. She and her husband decided they wanted something better for their eight children. They started a small business selling house-hold goods door to door, then used the profits to launch a nationwide gold exchange.

Part of the business, she said, involved traveling the country to buy and sell gold — which is what sons Jesus Salvador, then 24, and Raul, then 19, were doing in Guerrero in 2008. Traveling with five employees in an SUV carrying nearly $90,000 in cash and gold, they did not realize a bloody drug cartel turf war was just breaking out in the state.

Their older sibling, Juan Carlos, 41, said, “My brothers had no idea when they arrived.” He and his family believe a local cartel mistook the brothers and their co-workers for members of a rival drug group and had some crooked police arrest them.

Such stories are not uncommon in Guerrero. It is the state where 43 student protesters disappeared in 2014 after being arrested by state police, who apparently handed them over to cartel hitmen — a notorious case that drew international condemnation and remains unsolved.

With no news of their sons and fed up with the lack of answers from the authorities, the Herreras hired private investigators and began searching on their own. Their situation got more desperate in February 2009, when Herrera’s husband died of a stroke.

Taking up the family gold business and using their travels to search for Jesus and Raul, two more brothers, Gustavo, then 27, and Luis Armando, then 25, started criss-crossing the country. They were on such a trip when they, too, disappeared.

Gustavo had called his wife on September 22, 2010. Moments later, the brothers were detained by police in Poza Rica, in the eastern state of Veracruz — another cartel hotspot known for hit squads run by corrupt police. The family believes the police decided to get rid of the pair when they realized they were searching for missing persons.

Looking for the missing can be dangerous in Mexico. Herrera’s latest organization, the Fourth National Missing Persons Search Brigade, had to be escorted by federal police. Her son Juan Carlos was attacked by an unknown gunman six months ago while organizing another search party. He managed to escape by jumping over a wall.

Herrera has long given up hope of finding her four younger children alive, but she wants to find their bodies to achieve some degree of closure.

She joined her first search party in 2016 in Veracruz and has since become an expert, learning the trade from forensic anthropologists — things like how to hammer metal rods into the ground to release any odors of decaying flesh. Her latest group found seven bodies during its two-week search. Other groups have found many more.

Officials say there are probably more than 1,000 unmarked burial sites in Mexico. “Unfortunately, the country has become a giant, clandestine grave,” Mexico’s under-secretary for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, said recently.

On top of that, there are around 26,000 unidentified bodies in the forensic system, according to the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December. His government recently announced a new plan to search for the missing, including a new forensic institute.

Identifying the bodies languishing in the system would be a good start, said Herrera. “We’ll keep looking,” she said, “but please, for the love of God, let them identify the ones we’ve already found.”

– Agence-France Presse, March 8, 2019
PeaceMeal, March/April 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

A new breed of gangs is taking over Central America

Apopa, El Salvador – The Congress of El Salvador agreed in April to extend the authority of jailers to keep gang leaders in solitary confinement. Over the next five days, the two reigning street gangs killed more than 100 people. With the highest homicide rate of all countries in the world, El Salvador is a nation held hostage.

Latin America accounts for 8 percent of the world’s population and a third of its homicides. At its violent core is El Salvador, where an imported American gang culture rivals government authority, and its leaders hold sway with a surplus of money, guns and willing young men. El Salvador’s homicide rate is the world’s highest. Last year it was 60 per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly 12 times the rate in the United States.

Law-enforcement officials estimate that one gang, MS-13, operates an extortion racket with little pressure from authorities in 248 of the country’s 262 municipalities. It battles for neighbor-hood control with another gang, Barrio 18, which runs its own protection racket in nearly as many regions.

In San Salvador, the nation’s capital, gangs control the local distribution of consumer products, experts said, including diapers and Coca-Cola. They extort commuters, call-center employees, and restaurant and store owners. In the rural east, gangs threaten to burn sugar plantations unless farmers pay up.

They have grown so pervasive that “you don’t know where the state ends and the criminal organizations begin,” said Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, El Salvador’s minister of justice and security, who oversees the national police force.

Unlike the major drug cartels that for years produced much of the region’s violence — using murder in the service of selling marijuana, cocaine and heroin largely to Americans — gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala profit from extorting their own neighborhoods.

The gangs have evolved a more violent, chaotic economic model, one that is advancing in drug-trafficking countries, including Mexico, where large cartels have splintered into many warring groups. While drug cartels collect profits from customers abroad, with dollars and euros trickling into local communities, these gangs steal from their own people.

Documents collected in a recent federal investigation in El Salvador found that MS-13 earns as much as $600,000 a month in extortion payments from bus companies, retailers and other businesses. The payments range from a few dollars a day on each vehicle operated to hundreds of dollars a month charged to vendors in public markets.Drug enforcement officials said El Salvador’s gangs earn about $20 million a year from extortion, with an estimated $3 million coming from businesses in San Salvador’s historic center. The gangs also sell drugs and stolen cars, adding to the revenue from legitimate businesses they have seized.

People try to keep track of which group controls the streets where they live, work and travel each day. A wrong turn risks robbery, assault or death, and the gangs kill with total impunity. Many in San Salvador won’t say gang names aloud. If they have to ask, they say, “Numbers or letters?” Numbers for Barrio 18; letters for MS-13.

An elementary school, the Dr. Jose Antonio Rodriguez Porth Scholastic Center, sits on a dirt road lined with open sewers in Comunidad Iberia — on the fault line between two neighbor-hoods, one controlled by MS-13, the other by a faction of Barrio 18. On a recent morning, as students in blue-and-white uniforms kicked around a soccer ball, school principal Amilcar Rivera described their prospects. Many of his students, he said, start working for one or the other gang as lookouts when they are as young as 10 years old.

“The only opportunities they have are working at the market nearby, where they can unload or load trucks. It’s either that, or they can join one of the gangs,” Mr. Rivera said. “You can earn $300 a week doing manual labor, or you can get $1,000 a week from extortion. Which one do you think these young people will choose?”

One-third of Salvadorans live in poverty, according to World Bank data, meaning they earn less than $5.50 a day.

Although the reach of the gangs in the United States — they are found mostly in Central American immigrant neighborhoods in California, New York’s Long Island, Maryland and Virginia — doesn’t compare with their dominance in El Salvador, they have been responsible for brutal crimes here.

The plight of Salvadorans is one explanation for the steady stream of migrants to the north. Thousands seek to enter the United States each year, either by petitioning for asylum or by crossing the border illegally. Researchers found most are impelled by fear of violence. Mexico and U.S. immigration officers apprehended 335,545 Salvadoran migrants from 2014 to the end of 2017, according to government data.

With each passing day, more migrants make it to Mexico's side of the U.S.-Mexico border. But for those who make it across, another difficult journey through the American asylum process, which requires them to prove they've fled persecution at home, awaits. More than 75 percent of asylum cases from Central America were denied from 2012 to 2017, CBS News' Adriana Diaz reports.

After using the issue of migrant caravans as an election campaign issue, President Trump once again focused on it. In a series of tweets on November 16, he questioned the motive of migrants who are planning to seek asylum in the U.S., calling it a “BIG CON.”

– edited from The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2018, and CBS News, Nov. 16, 2018
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Repression and resistance in Mexico

Witness for Peace
Solidaridad, Winter 2018

“Twenty years have passed which have eaten time away, 20 years of dark impunity that burns all thought; but when pain and dignity come together, they bring about organization, solidarity, a heart in resistance, struggle and creation.” (Acteal Massacre survivor, 2017)

These were some of many powerful words shared through testimonies, songs and tears in Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico in December, by members of Las Abejas de Acteal (The Bees of Acteal) over a three-day commemoration of the 1997 massacre. Shortly after and because of this tragedy, Witness for Peace was invited to Mexico by Las Abejas.

Founded in 1992 as an autonomous collective in nonviolent resistance, Sociedad Civil Las Abejas is located in the indigenous community of Acteal in Chenalhó, Chiapas, where most inhabitants are Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayans.Their struggle is rooted in the defense of their territories and culture, particularly during the Mexican government’s brutal repression in response to the Zapatista uprising against the 1994 implementation of the U.S.-originated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It’s important to note that Mexico’s counterinsurgency efforts were closely tracked by the United States and supported by U.S. military equipment and training, mainly through the infamous School of the Americas.

“Our organization was born within the context of neoliberal policies through which our lands and territories were given away to countries through NAFTA. The consequences of these policies forbade us to work in our own land and ultimately stripped us of our rights to our ancestral territories.” (Las Abejas Board statement, 2017)

By 1997, Chiapas was in a whirlwind of government- sponsored paramilitary activity, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and harassment, all part of a low-intensity “counterinsurgency” strategy against those resisting and seeking peace.

One of the darkest days was December 22, 1997, when an armed group entered Acteal, murdering 45 people — including 5 pregnant women, 7 adult men, and 20 children — and injuring 26 others, mostly minors. All of those attacked that day were unarmed, in the community’s chapel, sharing a morning of fasting and prayer for peace in the region.

Twenty years alter the massacre, all of those who carried out the crime and were initially sentenced have been released, and none of those who planned it have been convicted.

As Witness for Peace has been documenting since 1997, Acteal’s long journey of resistance has borne testimony to the country’s widespread militarization and neoliberal policies, supported by the United States both politically and financially. One of the key mechanisms employed by the U.S. to provide financial support to Mexico’s militarization has been the Mérida Initiative, which was signed by former Presidents Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush as a bilateral agreement to combat drug trafficking.

Of the $2.8 billion approved by Congress, $1.6 billion has been delivered as of March 2017. Since 2012, $873.7 million of this has purchased equipment and $146 million has been spent on training. And even though U.S. Embassy staff recently told WFP delegates to Mexico that more U.S. funding is going toward supporting judicial and penal reform, the bottom line is that the repressive Mexican state security forces are still receiving U.S. taxpayer-funded equipment and training, and continue to commit staggering abuses.

Especially given that 2018 is an important election year for Mexico, many national and international human rights organizations, collectives and the Mexican public overall are worried about state-sponsored repression. Just as in the case of Acteal, the Mexican government has responded with systematic impunity to grave human rights abuses committed by the military, government officials, and federal, state and municipal police. In December 2017, the Mexican Congress approved the Internal Security Law (LSI), which authorizes military involvement in domestic law enforcement. This is troubling, given the Mexican government’s use of the military to combat the so-called War on Drugs, which has led to systematic human rights violations. Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) received almost 10,000 complaints of abuse by the army from 2006 to July 2016 — including more than 2,000 during the current Trump administration. And this number is low, considering there are hundreds more who have chosen not to file complaints due to fear of retribution.

“The danger of...the LSI is that ...[it] obliterates the checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial branches, [and] the [very] instrument with which this anti-democratic measure is implemented is the Mexican Army, an army that’s already in the streets and that only needs the LSI to justify a coup d’etat.” (Comite Cerezo, January 27th, 2018)

The Acteal Massacre of 1997 continues to be an open wound and an example of the deadly consequences of militarization in Mexico that were accelerated in part by the Mérida Initiative. After 11 years of a Drug War that has left thousands disappeared, tortured, and murdered, it’s clear that this war has failed to protect countless innocent people. But it certainly has succeeded in centralizing power in the hands of a corrupt, U.S.-backed Mexican government and military to systematically repress communities that go against its interests.

– PeaceMeal, July/August 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

She fought a silver mine to save her family’s land. It cost this teen activist her life.

Topacio Reynoso.jpg (5169 bytes)Mataquescuintla, Guatemala — Topacio Reynoso was so precocious her mother sometimes joked she was an extraterrestrial. A farmer’s daughter from a remote village in Guatemala reachable by a rugged mountain pass, she was playing perfect Metallica riffs on the guitar by age 12. She won beauty contests, filled notebooks with pages of heady poetry and moved through life with a fearlessness that made her parents proud — if also nervous. At 14, she devoted herself to opposing construction of a large silver mine planned for a town nearby.

    Topacio formed her own anti-mining youth group, wrote protest songs and toured the country talking about the environmental risks she believed the mine posed to her community.

The teenager’s efforts were not popular with everyone. Although some in the community worried chemicals used at the mine might contaminate nearby rivers, threatening the corn and coffee fields that have long been the region’s lifeblood, others said it would bring needed jobs and tax revenue. The community was split and violence was coming.

Topacio’s father, Alex, knew that speaking out could put the family in peril. Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists, with at least 120 killed in 2016 alone, according to the nonprofit Global Witness.

But Topacio convinced him that it wasn’t a choice but an obligation to oppose the mine. His father had left him land that was uncontaminated; it was up to him to pass on clean land to his children. So, he joined his daughter in the fight.

Controversy came to her community in 2010 when a Canadian mining company, Tahoe Resources, bought the El Escobal silver deposit for more than half- a-billion dollars. Located on about 250 acres of former farmland in a small town called San Rafael las Flores, just a few miles from Mataquescuintla, El Escobal had never been mined but was believed to contain one of the world’s largest caches of silver, along with deposits of gold, lead and zinc.

As Tahoe sought a license from the Guatemalan government that would allow it to start pulling ore from the earth, some locals fought back. They complained the environmental impact report commissioned by Tahoe didn’t adequately assess all the risks to the region, and that the company hadn’t properly consulted with community members.

It was 2012 when Topacio went to her first protest — a demonstration outside the mine entrance organized by the local Catholic diocese. It transformed her, said her mother, Irma Pacheco. Topacio said the people she met were deeply principled.

Soon, Topacio had persuaded her parents to join “the resistance,” as locals called the anti-mining effort. Although the idea made her father nervous, he was well suited to bucking the local establishment. Growing up, he had often fought off bullies unnerved by his long hair and taste for black clothes and heavy metal music that carried a strong political message.

Ahead of a 2012 referendum in Mataquescuintla that asked locals whether they supported the mine, Topacio and her father traversed the countryside on behalf of the “no” campaign. They were successful: More than 98 percent of voters said they opposed it. Tahoe executives argued that the votes were nonbinding, and the mining project had supporters in high places.

In April 2013, Minera San Rafael, Tahoe’s Guatemalan subsidiary, was granted a 25-year exploitation license. Mining could officially begin. In the nearby communities, it was the most violent spring many had experienced since the bloody civil war.

In May, Guatemala’s then-president, Otto Perez Molina, moved to quell the instability that mine officials complained was disrupting their business. Citing the threat of terrorism and criminal groups, Perez declared a “state of siege” in the communities near the mine, deploying thousands of troops and temporarily suspending constitutional rights in the region. Several prominent anti-mining activists were arrested.

Topacio’s parents were growing wary of the threat of worsening violence, but she pressed them to keep fighting. They looked on in awe when she approached the Mataquescuintla mayor to ask for money for her youth group, and he agreed.

Topacio told her family she felt more comfortable when they were together in public. “If we’re attacked,” she said, “we’ll die together.” On April 13, 2014, Topacio performed with her marimba band at a local festival. Her mother, who was pregnant at the time, went home because she wasn’t feeling well. A little after 9:30 p.m., the teenage girl and her father started walking to their car to head home. Unknown gunmen sprang from behind and opened fire. A few hours later, Topacio was dead.

Her father slipped into a coma that lasted several days, but he eventually regained consciousness. The next year, after leaving an event celebrating the anniversary of his town’s anti-mine referendum, he was attacked again, this time with a carload of three other activists. They all survived.

Why they were targeted remains a mystery. Police investiga-tions into both attacks have yielded nothing. Impunity for killings is normal in Guatemala, where the justice system has been crippled by a lack of resources and corruption. At the national level, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has led important efforts against graft, including a 2015 investigation that led to the resignation and jailing of Perez, the president who had ordered troops to the communities around the mine.

Topacio’s parents believe the shooting was connected to their activism, but they acknowledge that in a violent country such as Guatemala, it could have been something else — a grudge, a case of mistaken identity, or just an echo of Guatemala’s violent past.

Topacio was buried in a colorful hilltop graveyard, alongside her grandparents. Her legacy continues to grow. There’s a mural of one of her drawings on a wall downtown that shows a young woman with wings and the earth splitting open, spilling butterflies.

Operations at the mine were halted in 2017. In July, the company’s license was temporarily suspended after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that the company should have consulted with the indigenous Xinca people. Then a group of protesters armed with stones and machetes set up a roadblock on the main highway into town, preventing mining vehicles from passing. The suspension has delivered a massive financial hit to Tahoe, which listed no silver output and a loss of $8.4 million in the third quarter of 2017. Tahoe Vice President Hofmeister said the company hopes it can comply with the necessary legal requirements and resume production.

– edited from an article by Kate Linthicum in the Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2018
PeaceMeal, March/April 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

A child survivor’s tale of massacre in Guatemala

When Oscar Ramirez was just three years old, his piercing green eyes helped save him from death. A soldier, who was in the military unit that wiped out his family and slaughtered his entire Guatemalan village, spared the child and raised him as his own. When Oscar learned the truth about his past in 2011, he was already more than 30 years old.

Oscar survived the murders in December 1982 of his mother, his five sisters, two brothers and 200 other inhabitants of Dos Erres, a hamlet in the Guatemalan jungle. His family members were among the more than 200,000 people killed or “disappeared” in Guatemala’s brutal civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996.

Now, a documentary executive-produced by Steven Spielberg tells his story more than three decades after the massacre. “This is the most fascinating story I ever heard,” said director Ryan Suffern, a 39-year-old American who worked for two-and-a-half years on “Finding Oscar,” a poignant account of a search for truth and redemption in a country once torn apart by civil war.

The movie interviews various subjects who for decades investigated what happened during two unspeakable days, including a prosecutor who tracked Oscar down and revealed to him the story of his past.

The massacre in Dos Erres was carried out at the hands of the “Kaibiles,” a special army unit trained by the U.S. military to combat communism — part of a scorched earth campaign waged by then-president Efrain Rios Montt to wipe out a perceived threat from rebel guerrillas.

In 2013, Rios Montt, a former general, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide, but Guatemala’s highest court overturned the ruling because of a “procedural error.” A new trial was scheduled for January 2015, but it was judged that the then 90-year-old was no longer able to understand the charges against him because of dementia.

A U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission documented 669 massacres during the civil war in Guatemala, the overwhelming majority at the hands of the state during the dictatorship of Rios Montt and his successor, Oscar Mejia Victores, who governed from 1983 to 1986.

Only a handful of Kaibiles have been convicted in connection with the massacre, but each received a sentence of more than 6,000 years in prison.

The narrative of exactly what happened in Oscar's village was painstakingly pieced together over time through testimonies from relatives, survivors, forensic experts, a courageous prosecutor, and even some ex-Kaibiles who received immunity in exchange for their testimony.

After years of searching, in 2011 the prosecutor, Sara Romero, finally tracked down Oscar, who was living as an undocumented immigrant in the Boston suburbs, and revealed his story to him. The young man traveled to Guatemala the following year and met his biological father, a peasant who survived because he was away from the village at the time of the massacre.

Oscar has since legalized his status, obtaining a U.S. refugee visa, and is now living his version of an American immigrant dream with his wife Nidia and his four children.

Following its American debut, “Finding Oscar” will be seen in Guatemala. “It’s so important to be able to publicly show this film in Guatemala,” the director said, calling it an “acknowledgment” that massacres took place.

– edited from an article by Laura Bonilla, Agence-France Presse, April 8, 2017
PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

New violence threatens Colombia’s revised peace accord

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — With the ink barely dry on Colombia’s revised peace accord with leftist rebels, new violence has emerged that could complicate the agreement’s implementation. In 10 days, five activists have been killed and a number of others attacked in separate incidents. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but authorities suspect the attacks are being carried out by criminal groups that formed in the wake of the demobilization of right- wing militias nearly a decade ago.

The catalyst for the latest killings is the new peace deal signed by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel leader Rodrigo Londono in Bogotá on November 24. The killings of activists sympathetic to the FARC cause began even before the peace deal was signed. An original deal was narrowly defeated in a popular referendum in October.

The new accord to end 52 years of civil war in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy was put together in just over a month, after the original pact was narrowly and unexpectedly defeated in an October 2 referendum for being too lenient on the rebels. Despite widespread relief at an end to conflict, many among Colombia’s largely conservative residents are angry because, like the original agreement, the new document offers no jail time for FARC leaders who committed crimes like kidnapings and massacres, and it allows them to hold political office.

The government and FARC had met in Cuba for the last four years, negotiating to end the region’s longest-running conflict that has killed more than 220,000 and displaced nearly seven million in the Andean nation. The signing ceremony marked a six-month countdown for the 7,000-strong FARC to abandon weapons and form a political party.

The accord needs to be ratified by Congress, where President Juan Manuel Santos has strong majority support. In the five days following the deal’s endorsement by Congress, FARC rebels will demobilize. They will move to temporary quarters in designated rural zones and remain there for six months, handing over their weapons under the supervision of a special United Nations mission.

Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his peace efforts, wants to get the deal in place as quickly as possible in order to maintain a fragile, bilateral ceasefire. But opposition leader and former President Alvaro Uribe, who spearheaded the push to reject the original accord and wanted deeper changes to the new version, is furious that Santos will ratify the new deal in Congress instead of holding another vote. His surrogates have indicated that they will oppose the deal however they can, worrying some observers that mayors loyal to the hard-line ex-president will resist implementing it in their jurisdictions.

Kristian Herbolzheimer, an analyst at London-based, peace-building consultants Conciliation Resources, stated, “Powerful sectors remain opposed to the peace process and will try to boycott it through killings, as we have seen these past days. It is relatively easy for violent spoilers to derail the peace process through violence. This can be done by either targeting social leaders, FARC members, or civilians and putting the blame on FARC.”

For Colombians, the recent attacks are a reminder of para-military violence that many hoped was consigned to the past. The last time the FARC attempted a foray into politics, they were met with political violence from right-wing militias. Then, in a process concluded nearly a decade ago, a federation of right-wing militias called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, supposedly demobilized. But in their place have risen criminal gangs who control the drug trade and whose opposition to the peace deal may have more to do with profits than ideology. Colombia’s leftist guerrillas and right-wing militias have long relied on the lucrative cocaine trade to fund their political ambitions.

While the government has been pumping in resources to defeat these groups, with a joint military and police campaign dubbed Operation Agamemnon launched in early 2015, leftists across the country have continued to face persecution. This is raising doubts about the government’s ability to implement the deal with FARC nationwide.

– edited from Reuters and Christian Science Monitor
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Child soldier now seeking another path as Colombia tries peace

CALDAS, Colombia — The fragile peace agreement in effect in Colombia leaves behind thousands of rebel fighters who were raised since childhood to carry out armed conflict. In government rehabilitation centers throughout Colombia, minors tell similar stories of being spirited away to camps by rebels. Now they face a future for which they are thoroughly unprepared.

Mélida was only 9 years old when guerrilla fighters lured her away with the promise of food as she played on the floor. The guerrillas took her to a distant camp. Mélida’s father, Moisés, a traditional healer of the Amazon’s Cubeo group, was away at the time and did not return to their village for another month. He quickly went to the guerrilla camp and told the rebel commander, “I came for my daughter. He said she wasn’t there.”

In the camp, Mélida had been renamed Marisol and began her schooling on the history of communism and the FARC. She also learned how to make landmines. Years later, FARC rebels passed through her village and mentioned Mélida to her family. “They said she had died in an attack,” her father recalled. “After that, I just forgot about her. I thought it was best to forget.”

In reality, a commander in his 40s had taken an interest in her. One day, when she was 15, he said, “Give me a kiss.” She said, “I don’t know how.” “Then I’ll teach you,” he said. The commander forced her into a relationship and she was later given a birth control implant in her arm.

At 16, she asked the commander if she could visit her family. She was surprised when he agreed. Carrying a pistol and grenade, she made her way back home. The village from which she had been abducted was abandoned. “I told the first person I saw that I was Mr. Moisés’ daughter, and they said I couldn’t be because that daughter was dead,” she said.

Her father turned her in to the military the next day because, he explained, “I wanted to buy a motorcycle.” After a moment he added, “They never gave me the reward I was promised.”

After two weeks, Mélida was taken to a government rehabilitation center for indigenous youth who had left the FARC. Daily classes and chores, meant to adjust them to civilian life, were new to her. Other requirements, like another birth control implant, reminded her of the FARC.

Mélida began building a new relationship with her father, but it remains strained. Even communicating was a challenge because she had lost some fluency in her indigenous language, Cubeo.

At night, Mélida began sneaking out of the center with a man named Javier, whose mother was a cook there. He was nine years older than Mélida, but the two soon realized they were falling in love. Javier’s mother, Dora, was teaching Mélida to cook and clean, taking on a mother’s role. One day, Mélida’s birth control implant failed and she became pregnant. Dora pulled Mélida aside and told her, “Now you have something to fight for that’s not the revolution.” Her daughter, Celeste, was born last year.

Dora worries Mélida might return to the guerrillas. “She is a good mother and puts her daughter first,” Dora said. “But she also tells me she is bored and doesn’t like this life. And I tell her: ‘If you want to leave, then leave. But think of the girl. Leave Celeste with me.’ ”

– edited from an article by Nicholas Casey in The New York Times, April 27, 2016
PeaceMeal Nov/December 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Guatemala arrests 14 former officials for war-era crimes

Guatemala on January 6 detained 14 ex-military officials, including the brother of a former president, for forced disappearances and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest period of its 36-year civil war. Among the captured was 83-year-old Manuel Benedicto Lucas, a former top general and brother of ex-President Romeo Lucas, and Byron Barrientos, who was minister of the interior from 2000 to 2004.

Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war pitted a succession of right-wing governments against leftist insurgents and led to nearly a quarter-million deaths. A U.N.-backed truth commission said the armed forces carried out more than 80 percent of human rights abuses during the conflict. Over the past decade, the Central American country has begun prosecuting crimes from its civil war past, including massacres of women and children.

Testimonies from victims helped officials locate 558 skeletons in a secret cemetery inside a military zone and connect them to the accused, said state prosecutor Orlando Lopez.

– edited from Reuters, January 6, 2016
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2016

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)