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Missing Spanish journalist in Norte de Santander department is likely to have been kidnapped by the ELN guerrilla group

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On May 23 Spanish newspaper El Mundo confirmed the disappearance of their correspondent Salud Hernández-Mora from the El Tarra region in Catatumbo Norte de Santander. El Tarro, which hugs the border with Venezuela, is at the heart of illegal cross border activities and is particularly difficult to access. It is known to be under the control of the national liberation army (ELN) guerrilla group, who finance their operations by extorting businesses in the region, carrying out kidnaps and illegally smuggling oil.

The journalist travelled to the area last week to report on coca cultivation and was last seen on Saturday May 21 in El Tarra. Spanish media sources claim that is suspected that she was taken by the ELN, though the group has yet to make a public announcement. A Spanish national, Hernández-Mora has been based in Colombia for nearly two decades and is well-known for her strong views against guerrilla groups and the ongoing peace process between the government and the FARC.

While negotiations in Havana between the government and the FARC are in the final stages, the ELN guerrilla group continues to pose a threat to peace in Colombia and is yet to enter into official peace talks with the government. This latest incident underlines how the smaller guerrilla group use kidnap as a political and strategic tool, which particularly threatens the safety of business operations in rural areas of the country primed for post-conflict economic development.

Herein MS Risk analyses the current relations between the ELN and the government, the guerrilla group’s strategy around using kidnap as a political and financing tool, and future dynamics as Colombia muddles forward in its attempt to end an armed conflict that has plagued the country for more than 60 years.

The background

At the end of April President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the government would not enter into the previously publicised talks with the ELN if the group did not agree to cease all kidnap activities and release any victims currently being held. The ELN argued that this was not part of the initial negotiation and that the government was doing a u-turn on its previous commitment to enter into preliminary dialogue with the group.

The ELN’s response highlights the group’s political strategy, and in a comminque it refers to key points it wants to discuss with the Colombian state:

  • societal participation in peace building efforts
  • peace-based democracy
  • social, political, economic transformations for peace
  • victims and the end of the armed conflict

According to the group’s communique, edition 528 in their paper Insurrección, discussing kidnap and hostages is the fifth point on the agenda. The communique underlines the group’s refusal to give up kidnap as a political tool, and outlines that the Colombian state must enter into negotiations with the group in the current context. This is a different strategy to that of the FARC, who were prepared to call an official ceasefire when entering into first stage discussions with the government a number of years ago in Havana, Cuba.

Discussions between the state and the ELN are currently frozen, though the government recently sent mediatory to Caracas, Venezuela to engage with ELN representatives to push forward future negotiation plans. However, this latest event is likely to see the government back away from the negotiating table and take a more hard-line stance against the group.

Why kidnap?

Kidnap has always been at the heart of the ELN’s tactical strategy to negotiate with the government, as well as a key financing method. Unlike the FARC, the ELN has always maintained that the group is not involved in drug cultivation or trafficking. As such, extortion and kidnap, are key methods of financing its operations. The ELN’s strongholds tend to be in remote areas that are cut off from many of the state’s formal institutions, which make searching for victims particularly problematic.

According to the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la Nación), the ELN have carried out 4,900 kidnaps in Colombia since the group’s inception in 1969. This is an “official” number and the informal numbers are likely to be significantly higher, noting the lack of reporting around many cases, and the numerous copy-cat kidnaps that take place within the ELN’s wider social network that is not under central command.

The group has always taken a particularly aggressive stance towards business personnel and major corporations, claiming a Robin Hood style rationale of redistributing wealth among communities that have been historically suppressed and excluded from society. They use their revenues from extortion, kidnap and other illegal contributions to support their fighters and maintain their operational capacity.

Recent kidnap cases and dynamics

  • At the end of march 2016, Ramón José Cabrales, a government advisor in Norte de Santander, was released by the ELN after his family paid a significant ransom. The group initially asked for 4000 million pesos (1.3 million USDs) and while the family likely paid significantly below this, the total ransom would still have been a significant injection of revenue for the small guerrilla group.
  • The group use the threat of kidnap in their areas of influence to force companies and personnel to comply with local extortion payments. In April, two bus drivers from Flota Occidetal in Chocó were kidnapped when they refused to pay the extortion fees that the group imposed on all transport companies in the local region.
  • There have been numerous cases when the group has denied direct involvement, such as the kidnap and subsequent release of Melissa Trillo in Santander department this year. While the ELN denied any involvement or knowledge of the incident, it is highly unlikely that another group could carry out a kidnap in areas with a significant ELN influence, without the group being made aware. However, this does example underlines that there are significant copy cat groups, carrying out criminal activities and claiming to be operating on behalf of the ELN network. It is likely that these groups are not operating under the centralised command structure, and would not comply to any official ceasefire arranged between the group and the Colombian state.
  • There is limited official information tracking the identities of all those kidnapped by the ELN, but MS Risk’s analysis underlines that business personnel are particularly vulnerable, specifically those working in the extractives sector, agro-industries and construction in key areas under ELN control. Additionally, there have been numerous kidnaps of  local union leaders, local politicians, business leaders and landowners. The likely kidnap of the Spanish journalist highlights the political drive behind these incidents, as well as financial.

    Future kidnap trends

Kidnapping anywhere in the world – and particularly in this context in Colombia – is not just a criminal activity, but a highly political and complex one. Understanding how it is used as a strategy is essential for assessing future trends in Colombia, particularly in the context of the post-conflict environment. As MS Risk has been discussing in its series on post-conflict economic analysis in Colombia, the likely official end to the armed conflict between the government and the FARC will open up areas of the country to investors that have traditionally been no-go areas since the 1960s. However, the armed conflict will not end by negotiating with the FARC alone and Colombia is likely to face difficult challenges in the coming years as the country implements the peace process and attempts to develop a post-conflict economy.

Opening up key regions to investors is likely to increase the risk of violent illegal activities as groups vie for control, as well as further increasing economic inequality – a key driver of armed conflict in many regions. The Catatumbo region – where Hernandez-Mora disappeared – is one of the government’s key areas to develop its agro industrial projects to offer alternative livelihoods outside of coca cultivation. This is exactly what Hernández-Mora was reporting on before she was taken by guerrillas, underlining the high risk environment in these volatile areas. While the government is visibly trying to paint an optimistic picture surrounding the peace negotiations in Havana, if it is unable to actively engage in such negotiations with the ELN, swathes of the country are likely to remain extremely challenging for both local communities and the international investors the government is aiming to attract.

In general terms, the lack of a bilateral agreement and ceasefire between the Colombian state and the ELN outlines that in the near future the guerrilla group will not give up its key political and financial strategy of carrying out kidnaps. Moreover, current events suggest they might increase their visibility in this field to put pressure on the government to negotiate on their terms. Alongside this, many of the kidnaps and extortions carried out by the ELN are done by their wider network and are not controlled by a central command structure. Even if those names involved in official negotiations called for a ceasefire, it is unlikely that the group’s wider network engaged in criminal activity would follow.

What to watch out for 

The near-end of the armed conflict between the FARC and the government has seen significant discussion around future economic development plans, particularly in post-conflict regions. President Manuel Santos has outlined that two key industries will be the extractives sector and the agro-industries – both of which are controversial areas of business in many parts of the country, and in particular the ELN and the FARC have maintained strong opposition to extractives projects in Colombia, often victimising their workers.

The ELN have carried out numerous kidnaps against those working in the oil and gas sector, particularly personnel involved in extracting and transporting processes. MS Risk maintains that the ELN is unlikely to give up its practice of kidnap and extortion in the near term, which means companies – particularly those entering the market – in the extractives sector, are likely to face continued security threats to local and international workers. Investors looking to develop their operations in Colombia, or enter new markets through government initiatives must carry out effective due diligence at a local level to understand trends between the varying armed groups operating in the region.

For more information please contact MS Risk’s Latin America team:

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Boko Haram Suicide Bombings Increased in 2015

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According to a new report that was published on Wednesday, suspected Boko Haram suicide bombings caused a massive increase in the number of civilian deaths an injured in Nigeria in 2015.

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has reported that the number of fatalities and injures increased 190 percent last year from the previous year while the use of human suicide bombers rose 167 percent during the same period. AOAV reported in “Unacceptable Harm – Monitoring Explosive Violence in 2015” that of the 3,048 deaths recorded in 84 incidents in Nigeria in 2015, 2,920 were civilian casualties, or 96 percent of the total, noting that this made Nigeria the fourth worst-hit country in the world for deaths and injuries from conflict in 2015, behind Syria, Yemen and Iraq, with Afghanistan in fifth. The London-based non-profit group has stated that the increase was part of a global trend that had seen a rise in civilian casualties from “explosive weapons” for the fourth consecutive year. “Explosive weapons” include artillery shells, landmines, air strikes, improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide attacks. While Boko Haram only rarely claims responsibility for attacks, there is no other group in the country known to employ suicide bombers as a tactic. The report disclosed that assuming the Islamists were behind the attacks, “then it would make them the most prolific user of suicide bombings recorded by the AOAV in 2015.” Over the past year, Boko Haram has increasingly used suicide bombings in its insurgency, which began in 2009. In particular young women and girls have become a favoured method of inflicting maximum civilian causalities in northeastern Nigerian as well as in neighboring states in the Lake Chad region. AOAV has reported that 923 civilians were killed or injured in neighboring Cameroon and Chad in eighteen incidents that were reported in 2015. Boko Haram’s use of guerrilla-style tactics has long made it difficult to combat, even though President Muhammadu Buhari maintains that the group has been “technically” defeated. On 26 April, the military warned the public in a statement that “fleeing remnant terrorists have laid landmines on stretches of farmland.” The statement further disclosed that “these latest tactics of the terrorists is a grand design to cause fear and panic among the farmers as well as the local populace,” It noted that efforts are currently underway to “neutralize” the mines. It also advised people to be wary of “strange or suspicious objects” in the soil. The latest warning risks complicating further the return of many of the over 2.6 million people displaced by the violence, amidst concern about food shortages and post-conflict reconstruction costs.

According to the AOAV report, a total of 43,786 deaths and injuries were reported worldwide in 2015 as a result of the use of explosive weapons – up two percent from 2014. Civilian deaths accounted for 33,307 or 76 percent of deaths. Over the past five years, AOAV has recorded a total of 188,331 deaths and injuries across the world.

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Increase in coca cultivation in Colombia signals changing trends in post-conflict political economy

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When it comes to Colombia and the US’ bilateral relationship, coca cultivation remains a hot – and controversial –  topic. Indeed, one of the main objectives of Plan Colombia was to reduce coca cultivation, often with methods that were opposed by local communities. Washington continues to closely monitor the crops cultivated in Colombia and if there are any noticeable changes, the US tends to be pretty vocal on the topic. Therefore, it is little surprise that the recent attention gained in national and international media around the increasing number of hectares dedicated to coca cultivation was sparked by a statement made by the US Ambassador in March. However, it is necessary to analyse what the recent uptick in production tells us about the changing patterns of illicit economic activity in Colombia, particularly in the context of the move towards a post-conflict environment, following the ongoing peace process between the government and guerrilla groups (FARC and the ELN).

According to the US Embassy’s report, the figures produced by the Whitehouse’s National Office on the Control of Drugs showed that between 2013-2015 the number of hectares of coca cultivated increased by 42%. This means that despite the ongoing well-funded fight against drugs, Colombia has once again become again the number one cocaine producer in the world.

While these numbers could point to failing policies in the fight against drug cultivation, closer analysis underlines that the rise has more to do with changing patterns in the areas being cultivated. Since May 2015 the Colombian government has prohibited the use of spraying glyphosate to eradicate crops, and has instead favoured other methods – likely less effective, if less harmful – such as manual eradication. The reason behind the reforms are primarily driven by the noted effects of glyphosate on the health of those living in such areas, and the government’s changing strategy to tackle illicit cultivation in the country by encouraging investment, rather than further alienating local populations. What the figures do tell us are that the areas where cultivation has increased are likely to present some of the most pressing challenges in the coming years, because beyond coca they are breeding grounds for other illicit economic activities.

Since October 2015 the new anti-drugs policy has reformed the previous strategy on crop eradication. One of the six key points includes substitution cultivation and voluntary eradication to incentivise planting other types of crops and productive initiatives. As our analysis on the passing of the Law on zones of rural, economic and social development (Zidres) outlined, part of the post-conflict strategy is to develop agricultural and agroindustrial initiatives in the country. Many in rural areas such as North Santander region or Orinoquía -where anti-drug policies are being implemented- are, at the same time, places of interest for economic agroindustrial projects. The potential connection between these new projects and drug eradication methods is likely to be a big concern for future investors and the government.

According to the figures released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2015, during the year 2014 most of the coca cultivation areas were in the south of the country, in particular in Caquetá, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo and Catatumbo. The report also underlines that coca cultivation remains dominant in the regions it has traditionally thrived, rather than spreading to other areas. However, these areas are now also home to other illicit economic activities – most notably, and of likely concern to international companies in the extractives sector, illegal mining. Moreover, the growing number of hectares used for coca cultivation are primarily concentrated in areas of increased activities of BACRIM (organised crime groups), guerrillas and other organised crime groups.

Coca cultivation has directly aided guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and other armed groups in financing their activities in Colombia in recent decades. The continued prevalence of coca underlines that despite the ongoing peace process taking place between the government and guerrilla groups, narco-trafficking and other illicit activities are likely to remain a key challenge in many regions.

In particular, it should be noted that:

  • While the new policies tackling drug cultivation can be considered a triumph for many local communities in the south of the country, who had suffered greatly from the previous eradication methods, the increase in cultivation alongside other illicit activities will continue to directly affect the local social and environmental climate (eg illegal mining and logging). Moreover, the heavy presence of armed groups in the south, alongside the plans for reconstruction and development in these regions, points to the potential for armed conflict to continue at a localised level, even if Colombia is technically entering into a “post-conflict” state.
  • The change in anti-drug policy also opens up the possibility to invest in the areas where coca is grown. Such investment is likely to pose significant challenges when assessing narco-trafficking routes in the country, the demobilisation of the FARC, the role that illegal mining now plays in areas with high levels of coca cultivation and in particular the change in dynamics between local and national institutions,  armed groups and local populations in each region. A few years ago former president Alvaro Uribe attempted to increase the presence of the state in such areas where coca was cultivated and control local populations. However, the measures saw coca cultivation move to increasingly remote rural areas where there was little state presence and armed groups moved, expanding narco-trafficking routes. This serves as an example of how trying to impose state control in rural areas, without negotiating with armed groups with a presence in the region, can have unintended implications. In particular, with the likely demobilisation of FARC, these efforts may enable the expansion of the areas of influence of other armed groups.


The Colombian government’s push to develop agroindustrial projects, alongside substituting coca for other productive crops, is aimed at tackling the social and local economic development issues in regions where armed groups have historically been their most prolific. However, the model could proffer explosive political and social consequences, when combining the development projects, alongside anti-drug policies, and the continued presence of demobilised guerrillas and other organised criminal groups in the same region.

Rafael Pardo, the Minister for post-conflict has outlined that substitution cultivation plans will be inherent with the peace policies that are being implemented in the country. However, the increase in coca cultivation outlines the continued threat that organised criminal activity will have for future investors in these regions, even if the country is no longer in a state of armed conflict. Importantly, it should be noted that where coca cultivation takes place, so too does arms trafficking, labs for processing the coca to cocaine, and other illicit trades that armed groups have traditionally derived their income from. In particular investors looking at agricultural and mining projects are likely to face hostility from the unregulated illegal sectors operating at a local level. The rise in illegal mining in regions of coca production also poses severe social and environmental impacts, which have negative implications in terms of trust and reputation for extractive companies potentially interested in working in these areas.

These regions have historically had a limited state presence and many local industries are often in some way associated with organised criminal or guerrilla groups operating there. Foreign companies looking to make the most of investing in Colombia’s post-conflict economic opportunities, must be sure to carry out detailed local due diligence. However, the substitution cultivation plans do offer companies the possibility to also support local farmers, and cooperatives, to increase productivity and offer rural regions access to larger economic markets. Understanding the local dynamics and supporting local communities will be key for building successful operations in Colombia ahead.

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Ugandan Police End House Arrest of Opposition Leader After Election Results are Confirmed By Top Court

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On Friday 1 April, Ugandan police ended a six-week-long house arrest of an opposition leader that was imposed after he claimed that recent presidential elections were rigged.

Second-placed Kizza Besigye, who rejected the results of the 18 February election won by veteran President Yoweri Museveni, has been forcibly kept inside his home in the capital Kampala for 43 days. He has said that his detention was designed in order to block him from gathering evidence of fraud in what he called a “scandalous” election. On Friday, Ugandan police chief Kale Kayihura stated that he has “…given directive that the deployment of police outside Besigye’s home be withdrawn forthwith.”

While the police chief provided no explanation why the house arrest was being lifted, it comes just a day after the country’s Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge to the election result and upheld Museveni’s fifth-term victory. With Besigye unable to submit a legal challenge, third-placed Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who won just over one percent of the vote, filed the suit that was rejected in court on 31 March.

Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, was declared the winner with 61 percent of the vote. He has rejected claims that his victory was won through cheating and fraud. A long-standing opponent of the president, Besigye has been frequently jailed, accused of both treason and rape, teargased and hospitalized over the years, however this was the longest period he had ever been under house arrest. On Friday, Kayihura warned that “we expect Besigye to respect the law, to stop causing trouble for people going about their private businesses,” adding, “ He must respect the law. If he veers off, the police is there to protect people and their property.”

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Controversy around ZIDRES law points to potential risks for investors in the agroindustrial sector in Colombia

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A number of members of Congress have taken out a lawsuit against the recent passing of the Zidres law (Spanish abbreviation: developing agricultural areas of interest for rural, social and economic development), underlining the potential significant challenges that this recent economic initiative will face in Colombia. Since early conversations around the law in Congress, NGOs such as Oxfam, CODHES,  the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, and others have voiced their outright opposition to its passing. However, Zidres is a key focus of the current government and its aims to increase investment in rural regions, particularly profiting on the likely signatory of the peace process with the FARC later this year.

One of the key elements of the law, and what is causing the most controversy, is that to fulfil its requirements, companies will have to present their projects to the Ministry of Agriculture. However, it is the companies themselves who are responsible for taking into account considerations around sustainable environmental issues, security, and the participation of local communities and individual landowners in the zones that they are keen to develop. Companies will have to navigate the complex legal challenges around who has the property rights for the areas included in any project proposals, in ways that may contradict or endanger already existing local and regional land claims or usages. Three points are worth keeping in mind to understand the potential risks posed by these projects.

  • Firstly, the legal model aims to implement initiatives that would create partnerships between companies and local communities, whereby the latter would then have a stake in the project by working on it, receiving technical training and access to credit to buy land. However,  based on this provision it also underlines that local communities could end up losing their autonomy to such companies, who would have executive control over the projects and by defacto the land they operate on.
  • Secondly, the law lays out that territory considered to be national property and marked as wasteland, can be used within these economic projects on the condition that the land rights remain with the state and are not transferred to the company who develops the project on the land. However, those against the law argue that this contingency allows companies – including foreign investors – access to the rights of large of swathes of national lands. The law also states that local communities could gain access to land rights on these “wasteland” areas, and reclaim the rights to them. Moreover, local communities who take part in the initiative can incorporate their land rights into the project, if they want to. At a practical level, such processes over land rights are not only deeply confusing to navigate, but open the door for possible processes of land accumulation. This is particularly problematic in rural Colombia and was one of the key drivers of the 50-year armed conflict. As such this controversial element of the law presents significant political and social tensions, both at a local and federal level.
  • Thirdly, all projects from the Zidres law are likely to be in areas with heightened social and political tensions. According to the Colombian Notary and Registry office, the lands that can be used in the project will be distributed across 5 regions: La Guajira, Chocó, Norte de Santander, la Orinoquía y la Amazonía. This is another challenge as these are critical areas in current conflicts between local communities, varying other factions and the complex dynamics of the internal armed conflict. This is highlighted by an analysis study carried out by Verdad Abierta using data from the UN and other social organisations in the country. The study outlines that guerrilla groups and criminal organisations have a presence in all these regions, and there are already claims for collective land redistribution under the “local farmer/community reserve zones” and other areas of agricultural production for self-consumption. The new law does not explicitly recognise such zones, and opens them for future project development. This could cause significant tensions for companies when entering the local market, and is likely to create operational challenges as local organisations, and armed groups, react with hostility to their arrival.

    “What to watch out for”

At its core the Zidres law offers the potential for national and multinational companies to invest in a number of agroindustrial projects across the country. However, it is crucial that companies and organisations interested in participating in these joint initiatives move with care, carrying out thorough due diligence at a local level into the potential impacts any investment could have in these regions. Though the law has been declared unconstitutional, the national government under President Santos has underlined their commitment to pushing forward with the initiatives to tackle agroindustrial development in the country.

In the context of the expected signatory of the peace process between the government and the FARC later this year and the changing rural environment to one of post-conflict, it’s important that foreign companies looking to invest in opportunities in rural Colombia monitor two key areas. On the one hand, it is paramount to develop good relations with communities and local organisations that live and work in the project regions. Each community has a different historical and social claim and use of the land. It is important to respect social and political processes behind them to not put these communities in a vulnerable position, which would likely only hinder any long-term progress of the project.

On the other hand, companies must be fully aware of the illicit activities of armed groups in the region. Some may attempt to use the land rights issues to increase their property titles and then make financial gains by re-selling this land, or offer services that could put pressure on local communities living in these regions. In particular, future investors will have to carry out significant due diligence at a local level to understand the dynamics armed groups may play in any future investment, and ensure they are fully compliant with international and Colombian laws, to protect their ability to operate in a peaceful environment.

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