Latin America Brief

Colombia’s Peace Court Charges Former Guerrilla Leaders

The response will indicate the future of the country’s fragile detente.

A man holds a flower and a flag reading “Peace” during the funeral of a man killed by alleged members of an armed group in El Tambo on Aug. 25, 2020.
A man holds a flower and a flag reading “Peace” during the funeral of a man killed by alleged members of an armed group in El Tambo on Aug. 25, 2020. Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief. I’m a Rio de Janeiro-based journalist who covers the region for outlets like Foreign Policy, NPR, and PRX’s The World. For the past eight years, I’ve lived in Brazil, although I grew up in Texas.

With this digest, I’ll be both catching you up on the week’s news and tracing the contours of the debates that will determine Latin America’s future—from geopolitics to business to human rights. I also hope to share some of the region’s tremendous cultural richness and sense of humor.

This week, we take a look at charges against former guerrilla commanders in Colombia’s war crimes court, regional lockdowns, a constitutional shield against abortion in Honduras, and Amazon oil.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


No Justice, No Peace

While headlines may be zeroing in on the latest COVID-19 variants to arise in Latin America, another story—with ramifications for peace and justice in the whole region—took a key step forward this week. After an investigation spanning more than two years, Colombia’s transitional justice court charged eight former guerrilla commanders for crimes they committed during the pre-2016 civil conflict, including kidnapping, homicide, forced disappearance, and sexual violence. Two of the defendants are sitting senators, positions they were granted as part of the peace deal.

Under that 2016 agreement, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels agreed to demobilize and undergo investigation in exchange for concessions such as reduced criminal sentences, physical protection, and seats in Congress. That first concession is what is in play now. The ex-commanders can either recognize the crimes and take a five-to-eight-year sentence or face longer sentences of up to 20 years.

The defendants’ and other political actors’ responses to these charges—part of the first of seven umbrella cases at the war crimes tribunal—will constitute a temperature check on Colombia’s fragile peace process. Though designed to unite the country, it has also been the subject of political polarization.

Although most former fighters have remained demobilized and embraced socioeconomic reintegration and civilian politics (just this week, the group dropped the FARC acronym for their political party and rebranded as Comunes), some split from the peace accord and called for rearmament in 2019, while other FARC dissident groups have remained active for years.

Colombia’s government, for its part, has fallen far short on its commitment to provide legal economic alternatives to joining the FARC in the countryside and to protect both ex-combatants and civil society leaders, who are being killed at an increasing rate as a variety of criminal groups battle for the territory the FARC vacated. A string of rural massacres in recent weeks has made this January the deadliest start to a year since the peace deal was signed, the transitional court found.

International backing has played an important role in Colombia’s post-conflict transition so far. While the Trump administration took steps that ran counter to the peace agreement, Biden administration envoys in Bogotá announced that bolstering the peace process would be among their top priorities, and Colombian social leaders have made direct appeals to the new White House for support.

If the peace process proceeds as designed, it will be among the most comprehensive in the world in its scope of justice, fact-finding, and economic remedies for the root causes of conflict. The economic despair and political inertia that have been obstacles to the transition are stumbling blocks, too, for other societies emerging from conflict, turning their eyes toward Colombia.


The Week Ahead

Monday, Feb. 1: Brazilian Lower House and Senate elect speakers

Wednesday, Feb. 3: Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela participate in OPEC and non-OPEC ministerial monitoring committee meeting

Sunday, Feb. 7: Ecuadorian legislative election and first round of presidential election

Sunday, Feb. 7: Contested deadline for Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to leave power


What We’re Following

The continental COVID-19 battle. From Sunday until at least Feb. 14, 10 of Peru’s 25 districts will enter a strict lockdown that aims to ease pressure on its packed ICUs, echoing measures from the start of the pandemic. On the other end of the spectrum, Mexico continues to spurn lockdowns even at what may be its deadliest point in the pandemic, with both the president and the country’s richest man recently testing positive. South American countries have been subject to new, broad travel bans as other nations aim to block a coronavirus variant first identified in Brazil’s Manaus, which is under scrutiny for potentially higher contagion.


Crude logic. The major European lenders BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, and ING announced they will phase out trade financing for crude oil from the Ecuadorian Amazon due to environmental concerns. Last August, activist groups reported the banks were breaking their own sustainability commitments with financing for drilling in the region totaling $5.5 billion over 11 years.

Smoke rises from forest fires in the community of Quitunuquina, near Robore in eastern Bolivia, on Aug. 28, 2019.

Smoke rises from forest fires in the community of Quitunuquina, near Robore in eastern Bolivia, on Aug. 28, 2019. Aizar Raldes/AFP/Getty Images

Deforestation snapshot. Across the entire Amazon biome—which spans nine countries—21 percent more old-growth forest was cut or burned down in 2020 than the previous year, the nongovernmental organization Amazon Conservation estimates. Brazil had the most deforestation, while Bolivia had the highest year-on-year increase. At this rate, the forest will reach a tipping point on the path to becoming a savannah in 10 to 20 years, said University of São Paulo scientist Carlos Nobre.

Fernández at La Moneda. Despite ideological differences between Argentina’s center-left President Alberto Fernández and Chile’s center-right President Sebastián Piñera, Fernández made the first official visit of his presidency to Chile this week. Fernández called for a reversal to the current “disintegration in the region,” and the leaders signed cooperation agreements including plans for a submarine cable that will link South America and East Asia.

Sugar patent. Colombia’s artisanal mills that produce the solid golden sweetener known as panela (piloncillo in Mexico) have united in legal challenges against what they say is an international attempt to patent their centuries-old knowledge. The controversy shows the difficulty patent offices face in recognizing technologies from other countries and languages, as this New York Times piece discusses: “To patent a humble staple like panela struck Colombians as absurd, like patenting café con leche.”  


Question of the Week

In recent months, several Latin American countries submitted updated decarbonization commitments under the Paris agreement, adjusting their plans to be more ambitious. Which of the following countries has launched a national strategy for green hydrogen (made with electricity from renewables) and mapped out reductions based on using green hydrogen in its new pledge?

A) Chile
B) Colombia
C) Costa Rica
D) Uruguay

Scroll down for the answer.


In Focus: The Green Wave

Thousands of women hold green scarves demanding the decriminalization of abortion in Buenos Aires on Feb. 19, 2020.

Thousands of women hold green scarves demanding the decriminalization of abortion in Buenos Aires on Feb. 19, 2020. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Argentina’s decriminalization of abortion, passed by Congress last month, comes into effect. Argentine abortion rights activists say they hope their “green wave”—named for the movement’s signature green bandanas—spurs similar liberalizations elsewhere in Latin America. In a region with powerful protections for religion, it has also already fueled backlash. In less than a month since Argentina’s historic vote, legislatures in Chile and Honduras have demonstrated the regional tension.

In Chile, where abortion in cases of rape, fetal inviability, and when a mother’s life is at risk was legalized in 2017, a congressional committee has begun debating a bill that would decriminalize the procedure in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. It faces an uphill battle in the current Congress, but this year’s constitutional drafting process and general elections could shift the country’s power dynamics.

In Honduras, meanwhile, home to a total abortion ban, legislators quickly approved a constitutional amendment to require a three-quarters majority to ever legalize the procedure. Hundreds of international groups, including a U.N. panel and the European Parliament, condemned the move. Currently, one in four Honduran girls become pregnant before the age of 19, according to the U.N., and gender-based violence is among the main factors pushing women and girls to flee the country.

Given the continuation of grassroots campaigns, abortion seems likely to increasingly appear as a topic of debate in the elections that will take place in nine Latin American countries in 2021.


And the Answer Is…

A) Chile

In its Paris accord update, Chile mapped a possible scenario in which it would fuel 71 percent of its cargo shipping with green hydrogen by 2050. By 2040, it aims to be one of the top three green hydrogen exporters in the world. The government is putting up part of the funds for a new $265 million clean technology institute, which it hopes will shave down the price of green hydrogen to make it cost-competitive by 2030.


That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at newsletters@foreignpolicy.com. You can find older editions of Latin America Brief here. For more from Foreign Policy, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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