US warns of “risks by external actors” ahead of Colombia elections

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During a two-day visit to Bogotá, and first as U.S Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland outlined concerns by the government of President Joe Biden that Colombia faces “risks by external actors and authoritarians,” as well as “cybersecurity threats to propagate lies and stories that are not of Colombian origin.” Nuland’s statements during a press conference with President Iván Duque also highlighted strong bilateral efforts to “defeat the toxic cocktail of terrorism, violence, drugs, and crime.”

Nuland’s visit also included a U.S.-Colombia Strategic Security Dialogue to discuss regional security, democratic institutions, and economic ties. “We have shared intelligence information, national security information, where any foreign influence, or attempted influence, can be identified in our electoral process,” stated President Duque. Nuland also warned that the U.S is observing closely any “external manipulation of the electoral process.”

Without mentioning specific countries by name or those “who do not wish our democracies well,” recent allegations by the Colombian government that Russia is engaging in a military build-up with Venezuela’s Armed Forces, and charges by the country’s Defense Minister Diego Molano, of “foreign intervention” along the Colombia-Venezuela border, once again, signals a new low in deteriorating Russia – Colombia relations.

The Russian Embassy in Colombia slammed Molano’s charges last week and summoned a high-level meeting with the country’s Foreign Ministry. After what appeared to be tense one-on-one between Vice-President Martha Lucía Ramírez, who is also the country’s Foreign Minister, Russian Ambassador Nikolay Tavdumadze lowered tensions by confirming that there “isn’t the smallest risk that military cooperation between Russia and Venezuela, could lead to Russian military equipment being in the hands of illegal armed groups, present on the border.”

To this, Ramírez responded: “The Russian ambassador has expressed to us that no military cooperation of Russia with Venezuela will ever be used for any military action against Colombia, nor any country in Latin America, nor to affect the stability of the region.”

As Colombia and Russia wrestle over security issues concerning the porous 2,600 km long border with Venezuela, Nuland’s visit cemented the U.S’s stance that “Colombia is one of our closest allies in the region at this critical moment in our shared history.”  The U.S Government also pledged an additional US$8 million to Colombia’s National Police to “strengthen human rights and training of officers.”

The additional funds demand “accountability for those who abuse human rights, and identifying corruption within the police force,” said Nuland in the presence of National Police Chief General Jorge Vargas. “This is a great transformation to protect the rights of Colombians, a great transformation of the National Police to guarantee the freedom of people,” added General Vargas.

The actions of the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Riot Squad, ESMAD, came under scrutiny during the three-month long protests of the National Strike – Paro Nacional – for use of excessive force against protestors. According to a December 15, 2021, report released by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCRH) and Mayoralty of Bogotá, “there are reasonable grounds to believe police officers were responsible for at least 28 of the deaths, with members of the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) involved in at least 10.”

The report also claims that “Non-State actors are believed to have killed 10 people, while there is insufficient information to determine the likely perpetrators of eight further deaths.” The UN also details “disproportionate use of force to disperse peaceful protests and blockades.” Blockades in which protestors targeted Medical Missions and disrupted food supply shipments as the country was grappling with a third wave in COVID-19 cases and deaths. A government commission, basing its data from the Ministry of Health, placed direct blame on the Strike Committee for an estimated 30,000 avoidable deaths from COVID-19 during the mass protests.

The National Strike Committee announced Friday, another round of nationwide mobilizations for March 3, and at a critical moment as the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, driven by the Omicron variant, decelerates in the country. The National Strike Committee, ex-FARC’s Comunes Party, union leaders, social and indigenous movements are all backing the presidential campaign of the left-wing progressive candidate Gustavo Petro.