Dispatches from the Field: Visit to the Caquetá Department and Meetings with Civil Society and Women’s Organisations
On Friday (9 February), the second day of the Council’s visiting mission to Colombia, the delegation traveled to the southern Caquetá department to visit a former territorial area for training and reintegration (TATR) called Agua Bonita. Council members then returned to Bogotá, where they met with representatives of civil society and women’s organisations.
Members appreciated the field visit and these meetings, as it afforded them the opportunity to see the reality on the ground and—as one permanent representative said—to hear directly from actors “at the heart of the peace process”. Some commented that it is one thing to hear in the Council chamber about the reintegration of former combatants and about threats posed to social leaders and human rights defenders, but that seeing for themselves the conditions that these individuals face is a different experience that provides a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the situation.
Visit to the Agua Bonita TATR
Agua Bonita is one of the 24 former TATRs where some former combatants relocated following the signing of the 2016 Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace between the government of Colombia and the former rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). Agua Bonita, with a population of 520 people, is home to 191 peace signatories and their families.
To visit Agua Bonita, Council members flew from Bogotá to the city of Florencia and then travelled nearly two hours by car in difficult terrain on roads that were too narrow for buses. The journey showed members the remoteness and difficult access to some TATRs, which complicates the residents’ ability to obtain public services. In their interactions with community representatives in Agua Bonita, members were shocked to hear that the nearest health facility is located four hours away, and some children need to walk for an hour to reach school. Upon hearing the latter fact, one permanent representative was so surprised that he asked his interlocutor twice to make sure that he had heard correctly.
In addition to TATR community representatives, Council members interacted with representatives of national and local authorities—including the Director of the Agency for Reintegration and Normalization (ARN), Alejandra Miller Restrepo, and Caquetá’s governor, Luis Francisco Ruiz—and with Pastor Alape, a member of the Comunes party, which is comprised of former FARC-EP members. Miller described the government’s work in promoting the reintegration of former combatants, noting that this process is comprised of four tracks: economic, social, political, and security. Ultimately, she said, the reintegration process is not only technical in nature, but is an effort to achieve non-repetition of the conflict by promoting “a dignified life” for former combatants.
Council members discussed the different reintegration tracks with their interlocutors and were able to see how they are promoted in Agua Bonita, which is apparently considered a positive example compared to other TATRs. It was emphasised that lack of security guarantees hinders progress on the other tracks. One community representative described Agua Bonita’s experience as “bittersweet”, noting that, through cooperation with the government, it has been able to escape the fate of other TATRs, whose residents have been displaced due to threats by armed groups. Security concerns continue to affect Agua Bonita, however, in light of continued activities by armed groups such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and Segunda Marquetalia in the Caquetá department.
Several interlocutors emphasised social reintegration as a key factor in achieving a dignified life for former combatants, including by facilitating access for them and their families to education, health, and other public services, as well as by promoting reconciliation through community dialogues. During their tour of Agua Bonita, Council members were able to see examples of productive projects pursued by ex-combatants in the TATR as part of the economic track, which was described as “fundamental” to the ex-combatants’ transition to civilian life.
Council members also received a presentation from representatives of the humanitarian demining organisation “Humanicemos”, which is comprised of former combatants—the first such organisation—that has contributed to its employees’ economic and social reintegration. Members seemed impressed with the organisation’s work and asked its representatives many questions, showing particular interest in how “Humanicemos” manages to locate mines, considering Colombia’s vast mountainous terrain. The representatives explained that they work with communities which are usually aware of where mines have been placed. The conversation revealed the unique technical knowledge of the former combatants, who are familiar with the improvised explosive devices used by the FARC.
Pastor Alape noted that the situation in Agua Bonita and other TATRs shows the need for state presence in the so-called “deep Colombia”. One community representative described feeling abandoned by the state and called the Council a “buoy” for former combatants, noting that its sustained attention, as demonstrated by its visit to the country, continues to shed light on issues of concern.
Meeting with Civil Society
Upon returning to Bogotá, members met with a group of approximately 20 representatives of several civil society organisations, including those supporting victims and peasants, as well as members of academia and think tanks.
Several speakers lamented the low levels of implementation of the 2016 accord, particularly its gender and ethnic chapters, with some arguing that the administration of President Gustavo Petro Urrego has prioritised dialogue efforts with armed groups operating in the country as part of his “total peace” policy, leaving the 2016 agreement “in second place”. Others welcomed the dialogue efforts with armed groups, while emphasising that the ceasefire protocols with the ELN and the dissident group of the former FARC-EP that identifies itself as the Estado Mayor Central Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (EMC FARC-EP) should include more measures to prohibit violations of international humanitarian law.
A common theme in the speakers’ statements was the need to increase state presence in rural areas, including through a bottom-up process involving the communities. Similarly to the interlocutors in Agua Bonita, these representatives highlighted that the process should not only focus on increasing military presence, but also on facilitating access to education and health. Insecurity and lack of economic opportunity, it was argued, fosters desperation among young people, increasing their vulnerability to recruitment by armed groups. Several speakers also highlighted the need to facilitate reparations for victims, noting that the issue has been stalled since the previous administration of Iván Duque Márquez.
Meeting with Women’s Organisations
One of the liveliest sessions of the day was a working dinner with representatives of women’s organisations, including some from conflict-affected areas like the Chocó department and organisations representing groups such as Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and rural women. In the centre of the conference room, the representatives set up a unique display symbolising the diversity of the women whose voices they wished to share with Council members. A representative of an organisation from the Valle del Cauca performed a native ritual at the meeting’s outset.
Some participants shared moving testimonies about the risks they face as women social leaders and human rights defenders. One representative noted that she receives constant threats on her life and that her car was stolen because of her advocacy work. Another representative said that in 2019, she and other women from her community in the Catatumbo department worked together to release their children from the ranks of armed groups, noting that they reached out to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for help since they did not trust that the government would assist in this.
Many of the speakers highlighted the importance of accelerating implementation of the 2016 agreement and of applying a gender lens to each chapter, while also considering the diverse needs of women from different communities. One participant argued that the accord’s implementation is a building block of “total peace”, as armed groups operating in the country will not want to commit to peace if they see that ex-FARC combatants continue to be killed after laying down their arms.
Several speakers underscored the importance of strong female representation in dialogue efforts with the ELN and the EMC FARC-EP. “We do not want to only be consulted, we want to be decision-makers”, stated one representative in this regard. It was also argued that ceasefire agreements with these groups should include prohibitions on attacks, including sexual violence, against women civil society representatives as well as on the recruitment of children.
Council members engaged actively with the representatives, asking them about such issues as the challenges to the reintegration of female former combatants; Colombia’s national action plan on the implementation of resolution 1325 of 31 October 2000 on women, peace and security (WPS)—which has been developed but yet to be adopted by the government; and ways to address violence against women. Some members expressed their strong support for the WPS agenda, welcoming in this regard the fact that the visiting mission to Colombia was being co-led by three women permanent representatives (Guyana, Switzerland, and the UK).
One permanent representative described the testimonies that were shared throughout the day as “stories of both pain and resilience”. Many members apparently felt encouraged after hearing their interlocutors’ continued expressions of strong political will to pursue peace despite the many hardships that they face.