Peace talks with FARC remain stalemated over the amnesty issue. Public opinion demands that the most notorious FARC killers and kidnappers be prosecuted and punished. FARC leadership refuses to accept this, despite the risk that the government could offer amnesty to FARC men who will accept it and continue attacking the holdouts. This would weaken FARC and make it more likely that the holdouts would die violently, rather than serve some time in jail. Noting this, the smaller ELN (about a third the size of FARC) has said it will only begin peace talks if they have assurances that there will be amnesty for all. Meanwhile ELN is still quite violent and is concentrating its attacks (and extortion efforts) on the oil industry and electricity producers.
Despite the delays in signing peace deals because of the amnesty issue, the army is already planning for operations after FARC and ELN are gone. The military is making preparations to retrain and redeploy to go after the large criminal gangs that have long been a feature of Colombian life. It is taken for granted (as it has happened before) that some former members of FARC and ELN will violate their amnesty by joining criminal gangs to engaging in illegal activities. They may no longer wear a uniform (which most armed members of FARC and ELN do) but will still be armed, dangerous and often well organized.
Satellite photos show that land used to grow coca (the raw material for cocaine) increased 39 percent in 2014 versus 2013. That is still 35 percent less than the peak set in 2007. This increase is believed to be largely because illegal gold mining had lost its popularity (because of lower prices) and many of these rural miners returned to coca growing. But there is another problem. Accusations that the herbicide (Roundup) used to kill coca plants causes cancer has led to growing protests in rural areas and the government is considering halting the spraying, even though there is no proof to back up the accusations. This will encourage some drug gangs to return to Colombia.
Meanwhile the mess next door is not getting any better. Venezuela’s radical socialist government is facing elections at the end of the year that polls indicate it will lose. Recent opinion surveys show that only 30 percent of voters are willing to keep the current socialist government and that 80 percent disapprove of how the government is handling the economy. Public protests are getting more violent and if the government tries to rig the elections there could be open rebellion. The government is trying to suppress criticism via the Internet, arresting and prosecuting those who do so and can be identified. There is a lot more criticism on the Internet, especially about the corruption. The theft by government employees and their cronies (businesses and gangsters) has always been there, but has gotten worse and more noticeable as the economy crumbles. Many of the biggest offenders are government officials and they control the security forces and judges. The government continues to speak ominously about opponents (which is now the majority of Venezuelans) scheming to stage a coup. This justifies still more arrests and prosecutions. Meanwhile more people with skills (from mechanics to engineers and medical specialists) are leaving. In fact even the less skilled and unskilled are leaving as well.
There are growing electricity shortages and some government workers are now only showing up six hours a day. There are rolling blackouts that are expected to get worse. It appears that inflation is now over 200 percent and unemployment over 20 percent, with underemployment (mainly of people with government make-work jobs) even higher. Food shortages are getting worse, in large part because Venezuela imports most of its food and those imports are down by nearly half compared to a year ago. That’s because the world price for oil is down by half and the government simply does not have the money.
Most key people in the Venezuelan government now accept that they have a problem but there is deadlock over how to deal with it. Many senior officials fear that if they lose power they will be prosecuted for crimes (especially corruption and drug smuggling) committed while they were in power. This has caused gridlock in the government. That leaves revolution, which most Venezuelans don’t want but if the privation and suppression of protestors gets too bad that will be the only option.
Meanwhile the government has not been able to halt the growing smuggling as criminal gangs, in cooperation with corrupt officials, divert imported food so it can be smuggled into Colombia or Brazil and sold there. Price controls in Venezuela make food and other items much cheaper to buy than the market prices prevailing in neighboring countries. Smugglers point out that is often more profitable to smuggle Venezuelan food into Colombia than to move Colombian cocaine into Venezuela. Importing is also corrupted, with government officials the biggest offenders in exploiting the official (far below the black market) exchange rate between dollars and the local currency.
May 9, 2015: In the northeast (Cubara, near the Venezuelan border) ELN gunmen ambushed an army patrol and killed two soldiers.
May 8, 2015: Because of continued low oil prices the government GDP growth estimates were again adjusted downward, from 3.6 percent to 3.1. About 18 percent of GDP comes from oil exports.
April 30, 2015: The former head (2007-8) of the national intelligence agency (DAS) was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allowing her subordinates to spy on Colombians who were not criminal suspects. Another senior official from that period was also convicted. Earlier this year the military announced the results of its investigation into unauthorized spying efforts (the Andromeda ring) by government intelligence agencies. This became an issue in 2014 when it was found that a number of military personnel were spying on the peace talks with FARC and passing data on to journalists and politicians unauthorized to receive this stuff. The military identified 25 officers and troops responsible and has punished them. Five were dismissed from the military and the others were reassigned. The investigation concluded that the information involved was legally collected but was not distributed properly.
April 28, 2015: Ten soldiers (seven active duty NCOs and three retired ones) were arrested and charged with stealing army weapons and ammo in 2012 and selling these items to gangsters and leftist rebels (FARC). In a separate investigation a supreme court judge was charged with corruption. The supreme court was long believed free of corrupt practices but now that is no longer the case. The government is willing to change the way judges at all levels are selected and how they operate in order to reduce the corruption.
April 25, 2015: In the southwest, during a clash with FARC rebels, a soldier was killed.
April 22, 2015: The government has allowed a Chinese ship carrying illegal weapons to leave and continue on to Cuba. Back in February Colombian police found over a hundred tons of explosives and components for assembling cannon shells on a Chinese freighter that was stopping off on its way to Cuba. The cargo of weapons was not on the ship manifest and the ship was interned and the captain arrested until the issue could be sorted out. China insisted the cargo was legal. Colombia is still holding the ship captain for further investigation and possible prosecution.
April 20, 2015: FARC said it would ignore recent clashes with soldiers and continue its ceasefire. In return it wants the army to not attack FARC bases and personnel. The government has not joined the ceasefire and reports there have been nearly twenty clashes involving FARC in so far this year. Because of continued clashes the military recently resumed its air attacks on FARC camps, something it suspended on March 10th. FARC insists that all these ceasefire violations were either accidents or FARC personnel defending themselves. Meanwhile ELN, the smaller version of FARC, is not observing a ceasefire and still active. Some 80 percent of the violence so far this year has been because of ELN activity.
April 17, 2015: In Cuba peace talks between the government and FARC resumed.