Colombia: Petro vows to tackle violence, illegal mining

August 25, 2022
President Gustavo Petro. Photo: USAID/Flickr

Since Gustavo Petro was sworn in as Colombia’s president on August 7, the left-wing leader and his government have been extremely productive.

Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian land defender, lead the country’s first progressive government.

The government’s top priority is to bring about a lasting peace.

“The concept of human security means that success lies not in the number of dead,” Petro said, “But in substantially reducing deaths, massacres and increasing substantially people’s liberties and rights.”

Armed conflict for almost 60 years caused about 450,000 deaths between 1985 and 2018 and displaced more than 8 million people.

During the conflict between the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla force, right-wing paramilitary groups and security forces, many human rights defenders and progressive social leaders were killed.

Colombia accounts for 29% of all documented murders of environmentalists, with most of the killings taking place in rural areas, particularly in the southwest, where Indigenous communities are trying to defend their land.

Peace accords were signed in 2016, but former President Iván Duque subverted them after coming to power. Since then, more than 1300 social leaders and signatories to the accords have been killed.

The United States strongly supported the previous right-wing government. The US provided nearly US$10 billion in aid, ostensibly to fight the so-called war on drugs under Plan Colombia.

Most of that money went to Colombia’s security forces, which have been implicated in many extra-judicial killings and indiscriminate shootings of unarmed people.

In his inaugural address, Petro spoke of bringing about “true and definitive peace”, making it clear that his government is ready to negotiate with the ELN — Colombia’s last active guerrilla force — and other dissident groups.

Peace talks between the ELN and the previous government ended in 2019 after the ELN set off a car bomb at a police academy in Bogota, killing more than 20 cadets.

Peace talks

Soon after the ELN's request for new peace talks, a joint letter signed by dozens of rightwing paramilitary forces, drug cartels, and criminal gangs called for a ceasefire to negotiate terms for peace.

Colombian foreign minister Álvaro Leyva Durán recently went to Cuba to restart peace negotiations with the ELN. A meeting between the representatives of both sides took place in Havana.

National peace commissioner Danilo Rueda said the government will take the necessary “judicial and political steps” to make peace talks possible with ELN.

It remains to be seen whether this will include lifting arrest warrants for ELN negotiators living in exile in Cuba since the 2019 car bombing.

The previous right-wing government had requested that the Cuban government extradite the exiled negotiators.

The Cuban government refused to do so, arguing that to agree to extradition would be inconsistent with diplomatic protocols and would compromise Cuba’s status as a neutral nation in the conflict.

This led to the Donald Trump administration redesignating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.

“We believe that the ELN has the same desire for peace as the Colombian government,” Rueda said. “[We] hope that they are listening to the many voices in different territories who are seeking a peaceful solution to this armed conflict.”

Petro appointed new commanders of the police and military based on the selection criteria of “zero corruption, [and] zero violation of fundamental rights”.


Ending the bloodshed and dispossession of the past six decades is only one of the urgent matters being addressed by the new government. Other pressing issues include addressing massive socioeconomic inequality, racism and human rights abuses; addressing climate change; ending government corruption and maladministration; and reestablishing relationships with Venezuela and Cuba.

Petro said Colombia’s armed forces would dynamite every dredge being used to mine gold illegally.

“This new mining policy implies that the small, traditional miner can obtain long-term concessions granted by the State, which will allow him to develop his activity in a sustainable manner without affecting the environment,” Petro said.

Colombia’s hydrocarbon agency ANH approved a regulatory overhaul for oil and gas drilling rights, prioritising carbon neutrality.

Another priority for the government is addressing the operations of drug cartels and other organised crime syndicates.

The prohibitionist approach of the previous government failed, which Petro publicly acknowledged.

The government has introduced a bill to legalise recreational marijuana. The medicinal use of cannabis and its derivatives has been legal in Colombia since 2015, subject to strict guidelines for dispensaries.

“It is time to accept that the war on drugs has been a complete failure,” Petro said.

Leftist senator Gustavo Bolivar said, “We will never achieve peace in Colombia until we regulate drug trafficking.”

The new government has moved quickly on the international front.

As a sign of solidarity, Colombia donated skin tissues to Cuba to help in the recovery of patients affected by a fire in the Cuban city of Matanzas.

The government has sought to normalise relations with Venezuela.

The US — which has seven military bases in Colombia used to mount operations to destabilise Venezuela’s left-wing government — is closely monitoring the new developments in Colombia.

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