Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

Podcast: Demining sacred space in Colombia’s Amazon basin

June 25, 2020

This is the June 24, 2020 edition of WOLA’s podcast.

Tom Laffay is an American filmmaker based in Bogotá, and is a recipient of the inaugural 2020 Andrew Berends Fellowship. In 2018, his short film, Nos están matando (They’re killing us), which exposed the plight of Colombian social leaders, reached the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in Geneva.

This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.

In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat. The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Audio, Demining, Indigenous Communities, Podcast, Putumayo, Video

WOLA Urges U.S. Congress Representatives to Sign a Letter to the Secretary of State

June 16, 2020

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) urges members of Congress to sign a Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being circulated by Representatives James McGovern (D-MA-2) and Mark Pocan (D-WI-2).

The letter brings to light the difficult circumstances faced by social leaders in Colombia. The U.S. Congress representatives include specific demands in their letter: protective measures for social leaders; thorough and transparent investigations of their murders; cracking down on paramilitaries and their drug trafficking networks; holding Colombian Army intelligence members accountable for illegal spying on journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians; and vigorously implementing the peace accords. The U.S. Congress representatives also urge the United States to work alongside rural communities to sustainably replace coca crops, rather than returning to ineffective policies of aerial spraying and forced eradication.

Please contact your U.S. Congress representative to sign on. You have an opportunity to help hold Colombian institutions accountable for a near quarter-century track record of direct assaults against a vibrant civil society. The letter will only make a significant impact if it is backed by as many representatives in Congress as possible. So send a message now!


  • Find out who your representative is here
  • Visit their website.
  • Go to their “Contact” page. 
  • Click on the “Email” option. 
  • Fill out the contact information. 
  • Paste this sample email into the appropriate box. See sample message here.

It will only take two minutes of your time. Do it so that the people organizing for an entire country’s better future don’t have to worry about laying down their lives for the cause. 

Below please find the text of the letter.

Dear Secretary Pompeo, 

As the coronavirus pandemic exposes and magnifies existing problems in each of the countries it ravages, we are particularly concerned that it is affecting the safety of Colombia’s brave human rights defenders and social leaders who are putting their lives on the line to build lasting peace. 

We write to ask you to urge the Duque Administration to recommit to implementing the historic 2016 peace accords and protecting Colombia’s endangered human rights defenders whose vulnerability has only increased during the COVID-19 quarantine. 

Colombia is now the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of the peace accords – a loss of committed and valiant civic leaders that Colombia cannot afford. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked. This appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders. 

For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira.  He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and poor farming communities like the San José de Apartadó peace community continue to suffer and are even more vulnerable from the unchecked presence of illegal armed actors in their territories.

Marco Rivadeneira was one of 23 social leaders killed between March 15 and April 24, during the first weeks of Colombia’s pandemic lockdown.  According to the Colombian NGO, Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ, in the first three months of 2020, 71 social leaders and defenders were killed in Colombia. 

To stop this tragedy, we ask you to urge the Duque Administration to:

– Improve protection of human rights defenders and social leaders, starting with effective investigations of attacks and threats against them, identifying those who ordered these crimes and publicly presenting the outcomes of these investigation. 

– Develop a road map for protection in consultation with defenders in the guarantees working group, including for pandemic-related challenges such as the need for personal protective equipment.

– Fund and implement collective protection measures with differentiated ethnic and gender approaches in consultation with communities through the National Protection Unit. Collective measures agreed to with Afro-descendant and indigenous communities’ authorities must be guaranteed. The self-protection mechanisms of the San José de Apartadó peace community and similar humanitarian zones should be respected, including the support provided by international accompaniers, even during the pandemic. 

– Dismantle the paramilitary successor networks involved in drug trafficking, which fuel much of the violence against human rights defenders and social leaders. The government must honor its commitment to regularly convene the National Commission of Security Guarantees, which was established by the accords to develop and implement plans to dismantle illegal groups and protect communities, social leaders, and ex-combatants. 

– Effectively investigate, prosecute, and present results about these paramilitary and criminal networks through the Attorney General’s special investigative unit.  We welcome the new agreement between the Colombian Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia to train prosecutors and investigators in aggressively addressing these human rights crimes.  It is critical the State end impunity in the murders, disappearances, assaults and threats against human rights defenders, social leaders, land rights and environmental activists, journalists, trade unionists and other defenders.

– Swiftly hold accountable Colombian Army intelligence members, including at the highest ranks, who ordered and carried out mass surveillance on 130 journalists (including U.S. reporters), human rights defenders, political leaders, and military whistleblowers. The U.S. should also ensure that U.S. security and intelligence assistance does not assist, aid or abet such illegal surveillance, now or in the future.

– Vigorously implement the peace accords, including by adequately funding the transitional justice system, fully implementing the Ethnic Chapter, delivering on commitments for protection for ex-combatants and productive projects to reintegrate them into civilian life, and honoring commitments for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition for victims of the conflict. 

We urge you, Mr. Secretary, to ensure that all agencies of the United States speak with one clear voice to condemn these ever-escalating murders and to press the Duque Administration to take the necessary steps to identify and prosecute the intellectual authors of these crimes and dismantle the criminal structures that protect them.  

Finally, we urge you to continue to provide valuable U.S. assistance to Colombia to implement the peace accords, provide humanitarian assistance for Venezuelan refugees and refugee receiving communities, and address the health and food security crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The U.S. should also take advantage of opportunities provided by the peace accords to carry out sustainable and lasting eradication of illegal crops by working with communities to replace coca with legal livelihoods and by dismantling trafficking networks.

Thank you for your attention to these important concerns in this difficult time.

Tags: Human Rights, U.S. Congress

16 International and Colombian Civil Society Organizations Denounce the Military’s Murder of Indigenous U’wa Leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar

June 11, 2020

On June 2, 2020, EarthRights and 15 other international and Colombian civil society organizations, including WOLA, published a statement condemning the murder of Indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of the ancestal U’wa territory.

Joel Aguablanca Villamizar was murdered on May 31, 2020 in the Department of North Santander during a Colombian military operation against fronts of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN). The Indigenous community has adamantly stated that their leader had no link to the armed group.

The militarization of the territory has had a detrimental impact on the indigenous U’wa population. The organizations demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future.

Below is the text of the statement:

Human rights organizations condemn the murder of indigenous U’wa leader Joel Aguablanca Villamizar and the militarization of ancestral U’wa territory

Washington D.C, June 2, 2020: Last Sunday, indigenous leader Joel Aguablana Villamizer was murdered by the Colombian army in the Chitagá municipality of Norte Santander, Colombia. Joel was an indigenous leader and education coordinator for the U’wa Association of Traditional Authorities and Cabildos (ASOU’WA). The army murdered Joel as part of a mission to capture Darío Quiñonez, alias Marcial, third leader of the Efraín Pabón Pabón Front and commander of the Martha Cecilia Pabón Commission of the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earthrights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa issued the following statement in response:

“In carrying out this operation, the Colombian National Army and the ELN did not respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law, threatening the life and security of the U’wa civilian population, including five minors.

“The military operation that resulted in Joel’s murder was carried out in close proximity to the U’wa United Reservation, which is part of the U’wa Nation ancestral territory. This highlights the impacts that the Colombian government’s fight against armed forces still has on the indigenous U’wa population. The U’Wa have been declared an endangered group by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.

“The organizations below stand in solidarity with the U’wa voices who denounced this heinous act and who stated that ‘[they] are not going to allow this unfortunate situation to be considered a false positive for the Colombian State, since the murdered U’wa brother was never linked to the ELN insurgent group (A​ SOU’WA Communiqué​).’

“We are concerned and outraged at the frequency of events such as this one. According to the Catatumbo Peasant Association (Ascamcat), with the death of Joel Aguablanca there have already been three cases of extrajudicial executions in the department of Norte Santander in 2020 (​El Tiempo, 2020​).

“We demand that authorities investigate and punish those responsible in a timely manner and implement the necessary measures to prevent other senseless murders from occurring in the future. Likewise, we will bring the situation to the awareness of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. EarthRights is currently supporting the U’Wa in a long-standing land rights case at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights”


  1. Almáciga (Spain)
  2. Alma y Corazon (USA)
  3. Amazon Watch (USA)
  4. Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) (Regional-Americas)
  5. Colombia Human Rights Committee (USA)
  6. Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (Colombia)
  7. EarthRights International (Amazon)
  8. Indigenous Environmental Network (USA)
  9. Mujer U’wa (USA)
  10. Perifèries del món (Spanish State)
  11. Rainforest Action Network (USA)
  12. Rete Numeri Pari (Italy)
  13. University of California Irvine Community Resilience Projects (USA)
  14. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) (USA)
  15. Wayunkerra Indigenous Women’s Initiative (Switzerland)
  16. Yaku (Italy)

Tags: ELN, False Positives, Indigenous Communities

International Civil Society Organizations Reiterate Recommendations to President Duque About Humanitarian Situation in Chocó

June 1, 2020

In May 2020, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), alongside six other civil society organizations who form part of the Chocó Mission Space, reiterated recommendations in a statement to President Iván Duque about the humanitarian situation in Chocó. It reemphasizes previous recommendations that were made to the government following a July 2019 Observation Mission to the Chocó subregion of Middle Atrato.

The organizations continue to express deep concern with the human rights situation in this region of Chocó, following the recent news of a new incursion in the region by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC), an illegal armed group from the Urrao municipality in Antioquia.

The statement outlines nine different recommendations that are directed at the National Government, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Protection Unit, the Ministry of Defense, diplomatic corps assigned in Colombia, and international organizations in general.

Below please find an English version of the letter.

Bogotá, May 2020

President of the Republic of Colombia

and the Ministry Cabinet members Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez Castañeda, Presidential Advisor for Human Rights
Alicia Arango Olmos, Minister of the Interior
Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Minister of Defense
Miguel Ceballos Arévalo, High Commissioner for Peace

With a copy to: Carlos Alfonso Negret Mosquera, Ombudsman; Francisco Barbosa Delgado, Attorney General of the Nation; Fernando Carrillo Flórez, Attorney General of the Nation;

And to the diplomatic corps attached to Colombia and international organizations: Swedish Embassy; German Embassy; Belgian Embassy; Canadian Embassy; Spanish Embassy; French Embassy; Italian Embassy; Norwegian Embassy; Netherlands Embassy; Swiss Embassy; Delegation of the European Union in Colombia; Office in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Subject: Concern about the high risk faced by ethnic-territorial communities and the ASOREWA, FEDEOREWA and COCOMACIA organizations in Chocó, Middle Atrato subregion.

Dr. Iván Duque Márquez,

Please receive a respectful greeting from the signatory organizations. In July 2019, this group of international civil society organizations, with presence and agendas for peace and human rights in Colombia, carried out an Observation Mission on the humanitarian and human rights situation faced by Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in the subregion of Middle Atrato Chocano. The results of the observations were included in our Chocó Mission report, presented in October last year in Bogotá before embassies and representatives of the United Nations system, and in February 2020 in the city of Quibdó.

As a result of the mission and the recommendations made by ethnic-territorial organizations to international organizations to continue their accompaniment to the territories, the participating organizations make up the Chocó Mission Space (a coordination space) with three initial objectives: i) follow-up on the recommendations resulting from the report, ii) reiterate and continue to put the humanitarian crisis situation in Chocó on the national and international public agenda, and iii) continue accompanying strategic actions by ethnic-territorial organizations.

One of the elements of the context observed by the Mission in July 2019, which also defines the regional dynamics, is the permanent presence of illegal armed actors in the territory.

On this occasion, we write to you to express our deep concern of the events that are aggravating the humanitarian and human rights situation in this region of Chocó, and to alert you of the recent news of a new incursion by the illegal armed group called the Gaintanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) from the Urrao municipality (Antioquia) to the Vigía del Fuerte municipality through the Arquía River basin. We are concerned about the high risk that this presence implies for the Middle Atrato subregion communities that form part of the ethnic-territorial organizations ASOREWA, FEDEOREWA and COCOMACIA.


Between January 2018 and the current date, the Ombudsman’s Office has issued a total of 21 Early Imminence Alerts for 14 municipalities in the Chocó department. We highlight the following elements described in the recent early alerts that account for a situation of increasing risk in the face of the expansion of different illegal armed actors:

  • The civilian population of the municipalities of Bojayá and Medio Atrato (Chocó) and Vigía del Fuerte (Antioquia) are at risk “due to the persistence violations of Human Rights and infractions of International Humanitarian Law.”
  • The expansion of the ELN and the AGC in Bojayá “has led to the intensification of armed actions with serious repercussions on the rights to life, liberty, personal integrity and security, civil and political liberties and breaches of IHL”, which increases the probability of direct affectations and victimizing acts against the population and ethnic authorities.
  • High risks in the municipalities of Frontino and Urrao (Antioquia) against the possible expansion of illegal armed actors towards the Pacific coast. The “limited, comprehensive state presence in the sub-regions of the Middle Atrato Chocoano, west and southwest Antioquia […] has fueled an increase in disputes over territorial and social control between the AGC and the FGO of the ELN.”
  • In the current year, the Office of the Ombudsman warns “about the impact that the actions of illegal armed actors are having in different parts of the national territory, in the context of the health emergency derived from the COVID-19 pandemic”, with impacts “especially burdensome for those communities where there are gaps in institutional presence […] reflected, among others, in health systems with deficient – or nonexistent – infrastructure and provision for the care of possible cases of infection.”
  • In relation to the AGC “they continue to expand and/or consolidate their control in some sectors of the Pacific” where disputes over territorial control are fought with the ELN and dissident factions of the FARC-EP.

The continuous upsurge in the armed conflict and the increasing presence (territorial, social and cultural control) by illegal armed groups have been denounced in various public pronouncements by social, ethnic-territorial organizations and the Catholic Church in the region.

In September 2018, the ethnic-territorial organizations and the Dioceses that have jurisdiction in the Chocó department alerted in a public document delivered to the High Commissioner for Peace, Legality and Coexistence, about the continued presence and action of illegal armed groups, highlighting various infractions to IHL and human rights such as the forced recruitment of children and adolescents, antipersonnel mines installations, extortion, theft, all of which the communities are victims. This situation has been exacerbating to date.

One year later, on November 17, 2019, the Diocese of Quibdó, COCOMACIA, the Inter-Ethnic Forum of Solidarity Chocó, FEDEOREWA and the Indigenous Working Group of Chocó, within the framework of the delivery of the bodies of the Bojayá massacre, sent an open letter to the President of the Republic, Iván Duque Márquez, about the imminent risk of a new massacre in the municipality of Bojayá, requesting that it comply with and implement the Peace Agreement, in a timely and comprehensive manner, specifically in relation to the ethnic chapter and to provide constitutional guarantees to the Afro and Indigenous people of Bojayá.

On January 2 of the current year, the Inter-Ethnic Truth Commission of the Pacific Region – CIVP – denounced the arrival of some 300-armed people from the AGC illegal group to the Pogue community in the Bojayá municipality.

In particular, we want to highlight the most recent events in the Middle Atrato subregion that occurred during the quarantine that was decreed by the National Government on March 24 due to the COVID-19 health emergency. There have been two confrontations between illegal armed groups in the Bojayá municipality. Likewise, on April 15, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – OCHA – reported the massive displacement of at least 393 Embera indigenous people and almost 1,000 people confined in eight affected communities. Since last April 27, the arrival of around 200 armed men belonging to the AGC has been recorded in the collective Afro and Indigenous territories in and around the Arquía River basin. These facts account for the continuity and exacerbation of the dynamics described above.

These dynamics of violence affect in different ways the different populations and ethnic-territorial organizations mentioned above. In the three follow-up reports to the Chocó Humanitarian Agreement NOW!, there is an alert of the high-level risk for women, girls, adolescents and the LGBTIQ community of being victims of sexual and gender-based violence, in the context of the armed conflict, due to the presence of illegal armed actors such as the ELN and the AGC.

Gathering the background and pronouncements of civil society set forth in this letter, in a respectful manner, we reiterate the recommendations included in our report that continue to be relevant:

  1. To the National Government: implement the protection and prevention measures from the Peace Agreement for communities and human rights defenders, including those concerning the dismantling of successor groups to paramilitarism, such as the National Commission for Security Guarantees, the Special Unit of Investigation of the Prosecutor’s Office, the strengthening of the Early Warning System of the Ombudsman’s Office, and collective protection measures.
  2. To the National Government: to recognize, respect, and integrate into the institutional response the points contained in the Humanitarian Agreement NOW! as a valid proposal from civil society organizations to put limits on the war and generate humanitarian relief in the Chocoano territory.
  3. To the National Government: apply and follow up on the recommendations made by the Ombudsman’s Office in Early Imminence Alert No. 017-19 and in Early Alert No. 027-19 of 2019.
  4. To the National Government: to prioritize the actions of civil institutions, bearing in mind that the militarization of the territory would put the civilian population at high risk of being trapped in armed conflict.
  5. To the Ministry of the Interior and the National Protection Unit, in fulfillment of their functions, to provide adequate protection to the civilian population facing the serious humanitarian crisis in the territory immediately. Build and apply prevention and collective protection plans for social leaders and communities associated with ethnic-territorial organizations. 
  6. To the Ministry of the Interior, to urge national, departmental and local entities to carry out actions to assist the civilian population, build and implement prevention and collective protection plans for leaders and social leaders and communities associated with ethnic-territorial organizations.
  7. To the Ministry of Defense, guarantee respect for international humanitarian law, especially the principles of distinction and proportionality.
  8. To the diplomatic corps assigned in Colombia and international organizations, within the framework of their functions and mandates, to follow up on the case of the affected communities, requesting the National Government to fulfill its obligations to protect and guarantee human rights and to move forward the commitments in the 2016 Peace Agreement.
  9. To the diplomatic corps assigned in Colombia and international organizations, according to their mandates and functions and when health conditions allow it, to carry out a mission to verify the situation of human rights and the protection of communities and social leaders in Chocó.

We respectfully request a meeting space where you can discuss the specific measures taken to address the serious at-risk situation.

Thank you very much for your attention.


Coordinator SweFOR Colombia
Cra. 19 # 39b – 56, Barrio La Soledad. Bogotá D.C.

Head of Strategic Advocacy
SweFOR Colombia
Telephone: (57) 320 261 2679

English PDF
PDF en español

Tags: Armed Groups, Chocó

Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia

June 1, 2020

Lea en español

On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.

What is an “SFAB?”

On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country. 

Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.

Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”

Is this a big deployment? Is it new?

A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.

While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations. 

Is this about Venezuela?

U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.” 

The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.

If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.

The U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?

The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.

The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:

  • Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
  • The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
  • The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
  • The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
  • The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.

Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.

Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers. 

That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.

The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.

We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.

Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?

The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.

The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up. 

If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.

The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.

Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”

Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.

It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.

This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.

Tags: Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, Stabilization, U.S. Policy, Venezuela Crisis, Zonas Futuro