The U.S. House of Representatives passes its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military. It includes two amendments relevant to Colombia. One, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State to submit a report assessing allegations that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for illegal surveillance of civilians, including journalistsa and human rights defenders. A second, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places weak limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas.
Rep. McGovern tellsBusiness Insider, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable.…Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”
We’re pleased to share this letter, addressed to the U.S. Congress, from community leaders in Briceño, Antioquia. When Colombia’s government and the FARC were nearing a peace agreement in 2015, they agreed to set up pilot projects in Briceño for coca substitution and landmine removal. As the leaders’ letter explains, it has been both a positive and a frustrating experience. View or download a PDF version.
Briceño, Antioquia, Colombia, July 16, 2020
Dear U.S. Senators, Representatives, and staff:
We write from Briceño, a municipality in the northwestern department (province) of Antioquia, Colombia that has lived through the insecurity of an armed conflict, the violence of the illicit coca economy, and more recently, the hope of a peace process. Our experience as Colombia’s “Peace Laboratory”—the site of pilot projects for humanitarian demining and illicit crop substitution as part of the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas—shows what the peace process can achieve, and what can be lost if we don’t support it.
In the last week, US congresspeople have shown admirable leadership in public messages in favor of the Colombian people: first, a letter to Secretary Pompeo calling for protection for social leaders and, second, the House Appropriations Committee’s report seeking to use U.S. assistance to promote the peace accords’ implementation, and to support coca substitution as the most effective solution to cocaine production and trafficking.
With this letter, we wish to share some of the experience of Briceño in the hope that American legislators may take further concrete steps to encourage the Colombian government to use voluntary substitution as the priority strategy to diminish coca cultivation, and to respect and accelerate the implementation of the peace accords.
From approximately 2000 to 2017, coca dominated our local economy. As distinct from traditional crops like coffee and beans, it offered us four to six harvests a year, a relatively high price, and easy access to markets via armed groups that purchased coca paste in the territory. Nonetheless, coca also brought a wave of violence, as the FARC and paramilitary groups fought for control of the territory and its illicit economy. As in many rural areas of Colombia, civilians suffered the most in the conflict. In Briceño, we measured more than 9,000 acts of victimization (the majority forced displacement, homicide, or threats)—a number greater than the entire local population.
In 2015, a pilot humanitarian demining program, the first collaboration between the Colombian government and the FARC during their negotiations of the historic 2016 peace agreement, came to the hamlet of El Orejón in Briceño. This area, according to official FARC sources, had approximately eight antipersonnel mines for each inhabitant. In 2017, following the signing of the peace accords, Briceño was also declared the site of a pilot program for the substitution of illicit crops, negotiated as the accords’ fourth point. 2,734 families entered the program and pulled out their coca crops with the expectation of help with productive projects and technical assistance, along with a comprehensive land tenure reform, to allow them to transition to a licit economy. With demining and substitution, Briceño took on a leading role as the “Colombian Peace Laboratory,” awakening our hopes for a deeper territorial transformation.
The voluntary substitution agreement promised to provide these families with food security, productive projects, and technical assistance for two years, while simultaneously serving as an example of how to solve the world drug supply problem and transition from coca cultivation to legal economies. Importantly, we participated in the program’s construction, adding our voices to a joint effort involving the government, FARC representatives, and international cooperation. We then made the collective decision to pull out our coca, trusting that the help we need to change our lives would arrive. However, three years later, we are still waiting for the majority of the projects we were promised.
These problems notwithstanding, Briceño is the municipality in Colombia where the substitution program has advanced the most. In addition to the government’s failure to deliver promised resources to the 99,097 families nationwide who signed voluntary substitution agreements, we are concerned that the government has returned to violent and coercive solutions in areas where substitution has not even arrived. These include forced manual eradication, which during the COVID-19 pandemic alone has caused the deaths of six farmers at the hands of the Colombian army, and fumigation with glyphosate from aircraft, which has been prohibited in Colombia since 2015 for its damaging health effects but is on its way to a return with the Trump administration’s strong support.
Despite the problems we have experienced, the example of Briceño shows us that substitution works. In five months, without firing a single weapon, sacrificing a single human life, or creating a single victim, we voluntarily pulled out 99% of the coca in Briceño. And even with the government’s failure to live up to the agreement, UNODC officials certify that beneficiaries haven’t replanted their coca.
We have experienced the alternatives to substitution. In the times of coca, small planes arrived to fumigate our coca fields with glyphosate, which also killed our food crops and poisoned our water. We have experienced forced manual eradication, which brought deaths and injuries from armed confrontations and land mines planted within coca fields. In each case, when our coca crops were left destroyed, we were given no alternatives to change to other livelihoods. In each case, the great majority of farmers salvaged or replanted their coca. Our experience is consistent with the findings of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has documented a replanting rate of higher than 45% in the case of forced manual eradication and higher than 80% for aerial fumigation.
Conversely, according to the same organization, the replanting rate for the voluntary substitution program has been 0.4%. With the productive projects and rural development provided for in the peace accords, Colombia’s coca farmers are willing and able to transition to licit crops. Without them, or with coercive approaches to coca cultivation, we fear the Colombian countryside will be caught up in yet another cycle of violence and illegal production.
The Peace Agreement represents a unique opportunity for the Colombian people to take an important step in the fight against the drug problem, extreme poverty, and armed conflict. Our example demonstrates that we can transform our territory, but the accords and specifically the agreed upon times must be respected. The danger of not living up to the agreement is evident in the multiple threats, displacements, and deaths that social leaders have suffered the implementation of the peace accords and particularly the Covid-19 pandemic. We appreciate the recent messages from the American Congress in support of the Colombian people. We know the influence on Colombian politics of the statements and economic aid that reach us from the US. We ask that you use this power to support the peace process, voluntary substitution, the victims of armed conflict, and our social leaders in the following ways:
Help Colombia, through USAID, to fully fund and meet its commitments to the crop substitution program.
Urge the Colombian government to promptly fulfill its commitments to families like those in Briceño who entered the voluntary substitution program, including the guarantee of a comprehensive implementation including access to land, licit markets, and structures of community participation.
Direct, through USAID, special social and productive projects to accelerate rural development in territories that have been declared peace laboratories, where locals pulled out their coca three years ago and are still awaiting the next phases of the process of substitution.
In all messaging to the Colombian embassy and to U.S. diplomats, stress the importance of protecting local social leaders and making sure the masterminds of their hundreds of killings are brought to justice.
De-fund forced eradication, and specifically de-fund any forced eradication that is not coordinated with assistance to help affected farmers transition to legal crops.
Fund USAID-led efforts that work with Colombia, with the meaningful participation of local leaders, to increase civilian government presence and basic services in long-abandoned areas of rural Colombia where coca thrives.
Jhon Jairo Gonzalez Agudelo Coordinator of the Association for Victims’ Effective Participation, Municipality of Briceño
Richard Patiño President of ASOCOMUNAL, Briceño
Menderson Mosquera Pinto Coordinator of the Association for Victims’ Effective Participation, Department of Antioquia
Alex Diamond Researcher and Doctoral Student in Sociology, University of Texas at Austin
Pedro Arenas Director, Observatory of Crops and Cultivators Declared Illicit, Occdi Global Corporación Viso Mutop
One of the FARC’s five senators, Griselda Lobo Silva alias Sandra Ramírez, is named the second vice-president of the Senate for the chamber’s 2020-21 term. Lobo was the partner of maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, who died in 2008. Ex-president and then-senator Álvaro Uribe praises Lobo for her “coherence.” Two days later, the senator ignites controversy by denying that the FARC recruited minors.
Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the International Institute on Race and Equality, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), Colombia Human Rights Commission (CHRC), and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) for an online forum.
The inclusion of an Ethnic Chapter, as well as women’s, LGBT+, and gender rights issues in the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was not only historic, but a model for future peace accords globally. Now, in its fourth year of implementation, while the Colombian government has made progress in some areas, challenges remain in terms of implementing certain commitments in a timely, comprehensive way.
On June 16, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame published its fourth comprehensive report on the peace accord. As part of its formal role as an independent arbiter of Colombia’s peace deal, the Kroc Institute uses data collection and analysis, based on a wide array of quantitative and qualitative variables, to assess where Colombia is advancing in implementing the peace accord commitments and where challenges still remain. The Ethnic Commission, composed of leaders from Afro-Colombian and Indigenous territories and civil rights groups, also released its most recent report on the implementation status of the Ethnic Chapter.
Join us to learn more about the findings of these reports and updates from experts on women’s rights, gender, and LGBT+ provisions. U.S.-based organizations including LAWG, WOLA, and others will share a collective set of recommendations for U.S. policy towards Colombia entitled, “Protect Colombia’s Peace.”
For the international civil society organizations that subscribe to this statement, the critical remarks made about the commissioners of the CEV, and in particular its president, Father Francisco de Roux S.J., are unacceptable. The Commission’s work has been criticized by members of the government party and a former minister of defense and ambassador who, in opposition to the Peace Agreement, insist on disqualifying the judicious and responsible work that the Commission has carried out as one of the temporary and extrajudicial components of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No repetición, SIVJRNR).
Since its 2017 constitution, the CEV has been developing an independent, rigorous exercise to reveal the truth of the profound pain produced by the long armed conflict suffered by Colombia.
From the perspective of the conflict’s victims, the CEV is weaving pathways, building methodologies, creating spaces, generating dialogues, and receiving reports and testimonies from throughout the country and abroad in order to clarify the truth and thus contribute to the end of the armed conflict in Colombia.
We are convinced that only Truth is the guarantee for the noncontinuity and non-repetition of the armed conflict in Colombia. The peace commissioners have demonstrated their commitment to this purpose and, from diversity and difference, have assumed their work with depth and dedication. Their honor is and will be the guarantee that will preserve such Truth in favor of Colombia’s peace.
We encourage the Commission to continue its work and look forward to the fruits of its labor with hope. We encourage all citizens of the country and abroad, regardless of their ideologies, to join forces so as not to let this process be mistreated, ideologized, or politicized by the interests of a few who reject the transformational force of the truth.
The Rastrojos, a remnant of what had been a larger post-AUC paramilitary group, massacres seven people in rural Tibú, Norte de Santander. The attack displaces 400 people. Meanwhile an armed group’s explosive on the roadside between Cúcuta and Tibú kills two soldiers and wounds eight more. The violence highlights a worsening conflict between the Rastrojos and the ELN for control of border crossings between Colombia (Tibú, Puerto Santander, and Cúcuta municipalities) and Venezuela.
For security reasons, Colombia’s government helps to relocate an entire settlement of demobilized FARC guerrillas from the Román Ruiz post-conflict demobilization site (ETCR) in Ituango, Antioquia, to the neighboring municipality of Mutatá, several hours’ drive away, where the government has rented new land. Twelve members of the ETCR had been killed in the site’s vicinity since the FARC demobilized. The Gulf Clan and Caparros paramilitary groups are active in Ituango, as are dissident members of the FARC’s old 18th Front.