Tag Archives: colombia

Ten Years in Colombia

It’s more or less ten years to the day from when I stepped off the plane having decided to move my life to Colombia. It had been a rollercoaster ride up until this point, near death experiences, the life of a freelance vagabond and journeyman journalist and plenty of tall tales to share over a drink or two. I was prepared for Colombia, or so I thought, after seven years on the highways and byways of the Americas. Certainly, Colombia was not foreign to me with a work trip to the Pacific for WWF in the late 1990s under my belt and various other visits prior to my move in 2007.

La Paz

Ten years ago I would never have taken this photo. Ten years in Colombia

So, as I sit here at my desk in my Bogotá apartment, I move from one opinion to another about my life in Colombia, perhaps displaying all of the loyalty of a brood parasite. I am not Colombian, I will never be a Colombian and I will continue to be infuriatingly punctual to almost any appointment. Some things you just cannot shed. But, I live here, have a Colombian family, own a business, pay taxes and therefore, have the right to share an educated opinion on the goings on in my adopted homeland.

I realize that this narrative stream of consciousness reeks of creeping narcissism. It’s our need these days to convert from “being”, to always filling time with “doing”. It’s as if our society is on course for a precipitated catastrophe due to our all-out hedonistic quest for self-exploitation and relevance.

Which brings me neatly to the subject matter of my doomsday entry reflecting on how life has changed after ten years in Colombia. Not only life has changed, but I have changed too, of course. Everything is a spectacle today. We are all armchair activists, although this was momentarily lifted when we marched the streets to push for Colombia’s Peace 2.0 after the plebiscite referendum was rejected back in 2016. The peaceful demonstrations long now resigned to our collective imagination we are back to believing the illusion of a digital reaction making a difference. To quote President Trump: “Wrong!” Virtual hordes are one thing, but the actual physical presence of thousands of people united for a just cause and flooding the streets and present, demonstrates a much stronger social cohesion.

Ten years in Colombia

“Wrong!” Ten years in Colombia

Studying Colombia, the politics and the country’s culture transports me through periods of naïve optimism, paralyzing pessimism and punctuating my days with academic prophecies of potential outcomes. That it has now been reported that the contracts for the construction of the Zones of Concentration organized to receive the FARC guerrillas across the country were fed out as political favours to companies with no business in this field has left me disillusioned. What of this now? And so, we mobilize on Facebook, Twitter and all of the other platforms in what is then declared as an unstoppable social movement proving that this “democratization of the debate” will herald a new way of thinking and will enforce a new degree of transparency on those insistent on manipulating further an already corrupt system for personal gain.

Ten years ago, I would never have spoken out so vehemently against unjust behaviour. Back then it was simply a reflection of the “Colombian condition” and normal conduct here. And yet, our moral outrage is designed to bring about change but without a physical presence it is presented with a feeble social cohesion. And before I continue, remember that these outbursts of indignation are spread on platforms which are all owned by someone. These owners all have an agenda too. There is no democratization of the debate.

Let me clarify this. I use twitter almost religiously and this allows me to replicate what I want to read. That’s why I am led to believe that my side will win the Brexit vote, the Yes vote in the Plebiscite and bury Trump in the elections.

“As is so often the case in a foreign country, even in one that starts to feel like home, the compiled differences in language and life experience isolate you, making you hyper aware to minute details.” wrote Nolan Peterson in Newsweek.

So, ten years in and with no plans on going anywhere else, unless of course the dream job pops up and permits us to transfer en famille to Rio de Janeiro, part of the package is to grapple with the local politics in all of its complex morass of intrigue. And once you come to terms with this, remember then that the act of governing itself is an act of marketing. Political opinion polls are equivalent to market research and…we are no longer active agents but passive consumers. Just like what is today known as” Public Relations” would have been referred to as “Propaganda” in the past.

1984 Graffiti in Bogotá. Ten years in Colombia

An older generation of gents in suits found conversing in downtown Bogotá speaks of an “impoverished” culture. But they are mistaken as this is to bow to an extremely bourgeois definition of the concept itself. If there’s a message to be delivered or a lesson to be learnt from a reflection on ten years, it’s that you must be adaptable to different forms of eclosion which are today’s cultural expressions and demonstrations.

Peaks and troughs, ups and downs but they have been rewarding, these past ten years in Colombia.


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The Power Vacuum in a Post Farc Colombia

On Saturday, the local and international press reported that the final group of FARC guerrillas, numbering around 300 combatants, from Frentes 3, 14 and 15 arrived at Agua Bonita, Caquetá, bringing to an end the massive mobilization of men and women from their clandestine camps deep in the Colombia jungles and voluntarily arriving at the 26 UN zones of concentration around the country.


FARC guerrillas arrive in their zone of concentration. Image provided by El Espectador newspaper

This effort took over three weeks and 36 different operations as 6,900 members of the FARC moved to their new homes to disarm, demobilize and slowly…reintegrate into society. The process of creating and registering IDs for these people has begun.

And while the images of this “revolutionary migration” have generated spine-tingling moments and hope for many Colombians. There is a sinister and altogether avoidable issue which is most troubling. Who is now in control?

With the departure of the FARC, formerly the de facto authority in these outlying, overlooked and it’s reasonable to say, areas abandoned by the Colombian state, there is now a startling power vacuum.

On February 10, some 96 families were displaced from their homes in the towns of Tibú and Teorama in the department of Norte de Santander.

153 members of the Wounaan Nonam people in Santa Rosa de Guayacán displaced from their homes on February 11 to the pacific port city of Buenaventura.

In 2016 more than 70 human rights defenders and community activists were assassinated. In 2017, this chilling figure could well increase.

And while Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had promised thorough military presence in each of the problem areas where the FARC would leave a significant power struggle for control of strategic transshipment routes and coca producing regions, it appears that on the ground, far from Bogotá, the reality is strikingly different.

Where are the increased patrols, increased military presence in the regions and confrontations to keep the paramilitary, Bacrim, post-paramilitary and armed gangs at bay?

Now, the Colombian state and the powers that be can never have been accused of paying too much attention to outlying Colombia, unless of course it is for some financial gain. In fact, historically the State’s activities have hardly been profligate in outer Colombia.

Which begs the question, is the Colombian Government completely blind to the regions or is it ignoring the countryside on purpose to protect financial interests in the regions through a new and increased reign of fear? Is there a tacit approval by the State for the post-paramilitary and their presence in areas of high value?

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2017, Colombia’s Year of the Morrongo

I know, I know, I have been circulating this word for a few weeks now – Morrongo, but it’s the best, if not the only way, to spew out a gristly morsel of what lays ahead of us here in Colombia in 2017. This is Colombia’s Year of the Morrongo, or can I say…we are going to face a great deal of Morrongismo?


Etiqueta a un que creas morrongo


Tune in to my short intro podcast No 169 about the Year of the Morrongo on Colombia Calling.

First and foremost:

Tourism and Travel

I have addressed this issue on prior occasions on this website, but, this is as good a time as any to reignite the debate. Colombia, and rightly so, has been listed by Bloomberg, NatGeo, Lonely Planet, CNN and others as the place to visit in 2017. And, Colombia will benefit from this, speaking from my perspective as a small business owner here, the reservations for my little Casa Amarilla in Mompos have been through the roof, allowing us to improve and lathe down issues and perhaps even embark on further refurbishment and restorations.

The word is out about Colombia and about time too. With the Peso currently riding at 3000 to the US Dollar, hopefully all of this positive press and the favourable exchange rate can convert into more visitors from our neighbours to the north. And beyond Cartagena too! Just the mere mention of the peace agreement with the FARC after so many years should do the trick as a headline to entice more travelers down.

Where Colombia needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps or fall in to a Morrongo trap of saying that we offer top end and then deliver something significantly average.


Luxury travel and service

Just because we’re awesome and Colombia is incredible, breathtaking and surprising and every superlative available (infuriating too!), the tourism industry is not yet ready for the top-end and luxury market. And before I am trolled within an inch of my existence and end up looking like the skinless cadaver on “that” Robbie Williams music video – there are hotels, restaurants and travel agencies which do make the grade and admirably so. But, overall, we are not there.

Let’s keep on improving and not be drawn in to believing our own hype and that which is kindly written about us. We have to grow together, see the big picture and get it right in a steady and sustainable growth plan. And let’s not dupe our visitors either, explain the situation, clarify what Colombia is really about and sell them the real deal.


The Economy

You’ll have been on holiday or dead if you missed that a Tax Reform was passed – cynically some might add – on December 23 as we were all deep into Christmas mirth and not thinking of 2017. This tax reform is obviously needed, however, does it and will it address the country’s economy in the way we need it to? I don’t know. I suppose time will tell but for the moment VAT has now been increased from 16% to 19% and those evading paying their taxes are set to serve jail time. If a new reform is required in 2019, I think we’ll be able to class this one as a failure. The country needs to make up the shortfall from the drastic collapse in the oil market…and is banking on the “post conflict” period to encourage further foreign direct investment.

How will the economy be affected in a Morrongo fashion? Peace does mean investment, of course it does, or at least it will encourage some investment, but please don’t sell it as the whole package! Temper those expectations Messrs. Santos, Cardenas and co please! There will be economic growth over time.


The “Post Accord” or “Post Conflict” or perhaps “Post Peace” situation

I added that last term ironically, but if you want to use it…then I claim it now! Don’t hate me for saying this but there is never going to be a true “peace” in Colombia as we from the northern hemisphere interpret the term. Colombia can try to imitate a Scandinavian nation but will come off as a pale imitation at best. Like Panda Cola to Coca Cola. Things are going to be tough here in Colombia, there is already a heady game of misinformation underway between all sides about how the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of the FARC is meant to take place. Expect more of this to occur in coming months, and in particular, watch out for “fake news” or better yet, dumb ass news meant to outrage us and cover up the real dramas damaging to the government.

Who is being Morrongo now? While Colombia and President Santos continue to enjoy the fortunes cast on a country and an individual for the Nobel Prize, nothing is being done to eradicate the systematic, calculated and unhindered assassinations of leftist community leaders across the country.



2017 is a campaign year. We know the identities of most of those in the running for the top job in 2018. The worst kept secret, so badly kept in fact that it was never secret is the inevitable run at the Presidency by current VP Vargas Lleras. One wouldn’t bet against him in any contest since he has been travelling the length and breadth of the country ostensibly on VP duties and using the opportunity to advance his position. You could say that ever since he was discharged from hospital he has been on an unofficial presidential campaign trail. The machinery behind his campaign is pretty formidable. That slap delivered to his driver in public came too early to damage his chances overall.

Claudia Lopez, a progressive business-like senator threw her hat into the ring early in January and while she may be popular amongst urban liberals, her image and name don’t hold much sway in the regions. Who will be the Uribista candidate…I suppose there’ll be a tussle between the former presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and the former Attorney General Alejandro Ordoñez. We can also expect the popular and efficient (housewives’ favorite for his mildly Byronic appearance) Governor of Antioquia and former Mayor of Medellin Sergio Fajardo to pitch in with a bid too. The former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro will  call out to the populists from his balcony but I fear the wind will be sucked from the sails of his political ship by the popularity of Claudia Lopez.

Morrongo? All of them of course! Ordoñez, Lopez, Vargas Lleras, Fajardo, Petro and beyond are all capable of being Morrongo in the battle for the presidency. As Colombians say, a Morrongo is capable of throwing a stone and then hiding their hand to avoid capture. A Morrongo will express shock and outrage at corruption but will endorse corrupt regimes or businesses and on the examples go.


So, here’s to 2017 the year of the Morrongo in Colombia.

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Disarray and Uncertainty in Colombia after Peace Deal Rejected

Top-level negotiations take centre-stage but the real victims remain in the countryside

As Colombia stumbles from tumultuous fanfare on the international stage to national political disarray in the space of two weeks, the population is left mulling what could have been against an uncomfortable backdrop of uncertainty, polarization and an attitude of radical Pyrrhonism towards the ruling political elite. Oh, and there was a Nobel too!


President Santos signing peace on September 26. This agreement was rejected in the referendum on October 2

On September 26, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lauded the peace agreement in white at the Cartagena Convention Centre and the twitter-sphere was replete with good-natured jesting at the expense of FARC commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri alias “Timochenko” who perhaps reacted with all too realistic panic when an air force Kafir soared overhead in premature celebration. By 5.30pm on October 2 once the final results of the plebiscite referendum were made clear, there was no such witticism and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was left mulling over where it all went wrong. All roads in Colombia, it appears, lead to former President Alvaro Uribe.

With the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC guerrillas), for now, now occupying the moral high ground with regards to the possibilities of renegotiating the peace accords and the right-wing Uribista Democratic Centre party moving from spoilers to significant political protagonists, everything is on the line. What we are party to in the Colombian media is not perhaps the most telling barometer for a successful outcome to any future renegotiated peace agreement as all discussions are being held at the top-level between high-ranking political actors in government, members of the Government’s negotiating team and the FARC Secretariat.

On Sunday night after the results, Timochenko declared, in a brief statement from Cuba, that his organization will to continue its commitment to peace though he did not present any clear strategy. President Santos’ televised offering, most notable due to its delay in coming an hour and a half after the unanticipated outcome, was very much in the same vein: “I will not give up and will continue to strive for peace until the last-minute of my mandate,” he said, adding that a bilateral cease-fire between the two sides remains in place. The president later stated that this ceasefire will only extend to as far as October 31, but can be prolonged.

Colombian Politics

Let’s talk about peace. Seen near the Universidad Pedagogica in Bogota

The victims of the 52-year armed conflict – who, for the first time, had their voices heard in a peace dialogue –  are inconsolable and bereft of hope after the voting swung in favour, albeit marginally 50,2 per cent to 49,8 per cent representing a difference of 55,853 votes, of the No campaign. Some blame can be apportioned to Hurricane Matthew causing voters on the Caribbean coast to stay at home.

“We feel that the urban population doesn’t understand the reality and the needs to end this conflict. It was a huge opportunity for us and we missed it,” said Leyner Palacios, a survivor of the massacre in Bojayá, Choco where in May 2002, 119 people lost their lives when a FARC cylinder bomb landed on the church where townspeople were sheltering during a battle between the guerrilla and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, right-wing paramilitaries).

It’s important to note that voter turnout was only 37% (revealing a worrying abstention rate of some 22 million citizens), and that those regions of the country which have suffered most from the guerrilla activities (the zonas rojas) and therefore where there were most victims, overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to the peace agreement, in spite of its perceived imperfections. This included towns and regions previously strafed by violence and massacres such as Ovejas, El Salado, Bojayá, Toribio, Barbacoas, Apartado, La Macarena and Buenaventura to mention just a few of the more recognized locations.

While Colombians who backed the “No” campaign are celebrating the victory of democracy it’s hard to accept this argument since the final argument appears to be a popularity contest and three-way contest between President Juan Manuel Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe and a profound and widespread mistrust of the FARC and the nation’s staid political system.

“The negotiation should not end up being between Santos and Uribe, and neither between Uribe and the FARC,” said Dr. Silvia Mantilla of Colombia’s National University and expert in Migrations and Conflict. “The negotiation should be between all of the aforementioned and the populations of the peripheries of our society which voted Yes, they want peace. These are the people who live day-to-day in the conflict and who suffer deaths amongst their number. Between these people and those in the centre of the country, there is a huge gulf, a historical debt owed over their rightful lands, lands which need to be redistributed and these are the victims which we have to compensate,” continued Dr. Mantilla.

the distant countryside in the department of Caqueta is still heavily militarised

the distant countryside in the department of Caqueta is still heavily militarised

With merely 37 per cent of eligible voters turning out and under 51 per cent of those being the winning side, there is still a long way to go before concluding that it was true democracy. And so, as Colombia’s political landscape is in disarray as President Santos and his team scramble to protect what has been achieved with the FARC. The Government negotiating team was sent post-haste to Havana on October 3 to discuss events with their guerrilla counterparts while President Santos called upon all political parties to attend a meeting at the Palacio Nariño but Sen. Uribe’s Democratic Centre party – the referendum’s winners – has declined to attend suggesting that they too are improvising on this unexpected Plan B. Se. Uribe then agreed to some face time with President Santos three days later on October 5. Interestingly no mention has been made by Sen. Uribe on his declaration in July when the plebiscite vote was approved by the constitutional court by 7-2 that the process was “illegitimate”.

“With today’s result we know that our challenge as a political movement is even bigger,” Timochenko said on Sunday. The task ahead is nothing short of immense. How the terrain has changed since those almost halcyon days in the southern Llanos de Yari in September when the FARC was celebrating their 10th and presumably final conference as a military outfit.

If what is being revealed is nothing new in that Colombians neither trust the democratic process nor their politicians, then what of the rank and file of the guerrillas who have been assured of a positive exit to 52 years of conflict by the leaders? Middle-ranking guerrillas are particularly concerned that if they hand over their weapons, their top brass won’t be there to protect them.

At the location of the FARC’s 10th Conference in Yari, an area traditionally a bastion for the FARC rearguard dating back to the group’s emergence in the 1960’s, also referred to as Tranquilandia in some circles given that in the 1980s the Medellin cartel under Pablo Escobar would operate here with impunity in the production of their cocaine for exportation. It seemed appropriate that the FARC should congregate here for the conference and to discuss demobilization and the intricacies of the peace accords with their members. Top ranking combatants from the FARC’s Frente 1 – active in the departments of Guaviare and Vaupes – were in attendance, although notably absent was the holdout to the peace agreements Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández alias ‘Iván Mordisco’ and his splinter group numbering some 90 people. Mordisco is reportedly sacking FARC camps, stealing any money found and re-investing it into further cocaine trafficking.

Mordisco and his men have made the headlines for their dissidence during the peace dialogues as in December 2015 they broke the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, in July of this year they declared through a communique that they would not be complying with the agreements reached and during the plebiscite vote on October 2 they are believed to be responsible to an attack on the voting station in Miraflores, Guaviare.

If, as feared, the political negotiations between President Santos and members of the Democratic Centre party prolong, there are several ominous possibilities which could occur according to Adam Isacson and his team at the Washington Office on Latin America. Since the referendum was rejected, FARC guerrillas are “technically fugitives,” and their transfer to the 28 zones of concentration for 180 days and disarmament observed by the UN is now on hold. “Without verification and concentration, the ceasefire may become unstable.” And if these guerrillas, mainly middle and low-ranking members, feel that the Government won’t keep their end of the deal, then there’s the possibility of a “disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a state employee for the Colombian government based in Guaviare and with contact with the FARC’s dissident Frente 1 suggested that they may be another way forward in how Mordisco and his men are dealt with before their numbers can balloon and they control completely the lucrative cocaine transshipment routes to Brazil and Venezuela.

“The FARC members keen on supporting the peace agreement signed in Havana, and seeing the threat presented by dissident groups, have suggested that Mordisco and his men are now potentially subject to a guerrilla tribunal and will be expelled from the FARC or potentially executed,” he said.

Certainly, if this is the case, then there is a proven desire from middle and high-ranking FARC combatants to exit the conflict through negotiated means.


One of the FARC’s biggest fears is that the government will not be able to protect them from paramilitary groups. Additionally, members of the guerrilla could defect to the Bacrims

But, there remain further risks should a disintegration of the FARC occurs. Not only are there reports surfacing that various newly formed criminal gangs or Bacrims such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – formed out of the former right-wing paramilitary groups such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, Aguilas Negras and Urabeños – are offering large sums of money to guerrilla members to join their number. And not least, there’s the issue of Colombia’s second guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or ELN) which numbers around 2,500 combatants. The ELN may be significantly smaller in size than that FARC but, its members are strategically positioned around the country and continue to cause major damage to infrastructure, in particular in oil-producing and complicated regions of the country such as Arauca and Norte de Santander.

The ELN reportedly has already been recruiting dissident FARC members and moving into traditional FARC territory such as in the department of Meta. Now that FARC guerrillas are all but certain about their future, it is not unlikely the ELN ranks will swell with FARC members worried about the government’s ability to see through their promises, the continued political uncertainty they face and the very real threat of reprisals attacks and killings at the hands of paramilitary groups. Peace talks with the ELN, which have been fractured at best, even through the exploratory stages, are set to go ahead soon.

Colombia’s volatile political dynamic, which had abated somewhat during the final months of the peace dialogues, has flared up to expose the fundamental problems which continue to afflict the country. The plebiscite vote, which exposed President Santos’ vanity and complacency has provided the kiss of life to a political party, the Democratic Centre, which was at risk of an early demise in the event of the Yes vote winning, has now been granted a new and powerful lease of life.

peace in Colombia

San Juan Lozada, Meta. This overlooked town voted overwhelmingly in favour of peace

What is happening in the Colombian countryside as this uncertainly continues? What the FARC wants is to be able to abandon guerrilla struggle without having its members massacred and the possibility to defend its policies via legal means. The Colombian state wants to end the armed conflict in order to create better conditions for economic investment, particularly in the countryside, including potentially attracting foreign capital.

President Santos is an extremely unpopular president, criticised both from the right by Sen. Uribe, but also from the left by the trade unions, student, farmer and social movements which have been mobilising against his policies of austerity and privatization. In this context many would have been rightly skeptical about his promises in the peace agreement.

Wide layers of the Colombian masses want a solution to their pressing problems of access to land, poverty, education, healthcare, housing, state violence, inflation, impunity of the paramilitary and army violation of human rights. They looked at Santos’ record on all those issues and couldn’t bring themselves to come out to vote.

President Santos wanted to use the referendum to receive personal legitimacy but it backfired. It is Sen. Uribe and his Democratic Centre party which have benefited. The accords have been rejected, Colombia is polarized and a peace process which included the victims of the conflict has been shot down. A viable deal can be resurrected but how to do so without compromising the guerrilla, creating a power vacuum in the countryside in traditional guerrilla territory, risking a breakup of the FARC’s more fractured Frentes in a move for self-preservation and complicating matters further by creating a situation where there is no defined central chain of command with whom to negotiate.

Now, it appears that serious decisions need to be made and as has been the practice in Colombia, those at the top will make them regardless of what the most-needy require. For now, there’s no notion of a return to war, but, the unease remains. The Santos administration must do several things. First, it must control the renegotiation agenda, and most of the deal should not be reopened, of course, the only issues which should be addressed are those which have been thorny to the No campaign. This is easier said than done when the President has a weak mandate and is unpopular. How long will the FARC wait?

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