Updates from WOLA tagged “Coca”

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

Key Amendments in 2021 National Defense Authorization Act Support Peace in Colombia

July 22, 2020
(AP Photo/Santiago Cortez)

On Tuesday, July 22, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 fiscal year, which authorizes budget appropriations for Department of Defense-related activities. 

The approved bill includes two key amendments about U.S. engagement in Colombia: it prohibits funding to be used for aerial eradication in any way that violates Colombian law, and it requires a report on illegal surveillance of civilians by the Colombian government, and a plan for avoiding the misuse of support for that activity. 

The NDAA still needs Senate approval. The Republican-majority Senate is currently considering its version of the bill, which does not include these Colombian provisions. For several weeks, a House-Senate committee will work to reconcile differences between the two bills; they are likely to finish their work before Fiscal Year 2020 ends on September 30.

The House-approved language underscores rising alarm among members of Congress over Colombian government policies and inaction that are undermining efforts to build peace, address the root causes of the country’s civil conflict, and improve accountability of the security forces.  

The first NDAA amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), prohibits the use of U.S. funds to “directly conduct aerial fumigation in Colombia unless there are demonstrated actions by the Government of Colombia to national and local laws and regulations.” The Iván Duque administration is trying to restart aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia, as part of an aggressive push to intensify coca eradication efforts—an expansion that is being aided by nearly a quarter of billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication.

Aerial fumigation is a counter-drug strategy that brings few benefits (none of them long-lasting), and which carries very high risks of harm to health and the environment. Eradication efforts carried out without input from local communities will likely intensify violence and social protests—a phenomenon that we’re already seeing without aerial spraying. 

The U.S. government shouldn’t support aerial spray programs in Colombia—the fact that the NDAA bill makes this clear is a significant step in the right direction, and should help signal to the Iván Duque government that U.S. Members of Congress recognize the problems and risks of the eradication-heavy approach.  

The second NDAA amendment, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), states that no U.S. intelligence equipment donated to or purchased by the Colombian government should ever be used in illicit surveillance operations. The amendment also orders the Department of Defense to produce a report on recent instances of illegal surveillance of social leaders, journalists, and military officials by the Colombian government, to be published 120 days after the NDAA becomes law. 

The amendment correctly recognizes that U.S. assistance should not, in any way, be linked to military intelligence activities that involve illegally spying on reformers and the free press. It sends a strong message that, with Colombia facing an urgent moment in building peace and security, it’s of critical importance that rogue elements of military intelligence be held accountable.

These amendments to the NDAA cap a few weeks of notable activity in favor of peace and human rights in Colombia in the House of Representatives. A July 6 letter that 94 Members of Congress sent to the Colombian government asks that the Iván Duque administration intensify efforts to implement the 2016 peace accords and protect social leaders. On July 15, the House Appropriations Committee approved language in the State Department and Foreign Operations bill for the 2021 fiscal year that is very supportive of funding initiatives related to Colombia’s historic 2016 peace deal. WOLA enthusiastically applauds the House’s important push to support more effective, rights-respecting drug and security policies in Colombia.

Tags: Coca, Illicit Crop Eradication, Military and Human Rights, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

Letter from Briceño, Antioquia: “Our Community Shows that Coca Substitution Works. Please Continue Supporting Colombia’s Peace.”

July 21, 2020

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.

A farmer cultivates coffee and cassava in a part of Briceño previously dominated by coca.

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.

Source: UNODC

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.

Sincerely,

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

Tags: Antioquia, Coca, Crop Substitution, Demining, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy

As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

July 7, 2020

On July 1, a team of coca eradicators and security forces arrived in the village of Caucasia, in Puerto Asís municipality, in Colombia’s department of Putumayo. In Colombia’s far south along the Ecuador border, Putumayo is where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began. Its first phase in 2000, what the Clinton Administration called the “push into southern Colombia,” expanded military and coca-eradication operations there. Twenty years later, the region’s farmers remain so isolated and abandoned that Putumayo still concentrates tens of thousands of hectares of coca plants.

Dozens or hundreds of Caucasia farmers gathered to protest the eradicators’ arrival. They had been in the midst of negotiations with Colombia’s Interior Ministry on a pilot project to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for assistance. Those dialogues got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia. But forced eradication did not get put on hold: eradicators and police escorts arrived and prepared to pull up the bushes.

Though details of what happened remain elusive, it is clear that the situation grew tense on July 3. Members of the Colombian Police anti-disturbances squadron (ESMAD) opened fire at some distance, killing one of the community members: 56-year-old Educardo Alemeza Papamija. Three others were wounded.

Episodes like this have become very common in 2020, especially since Colombia went into pandemic lockdown. Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank counted 15 confrontations between security forces and farmers between January and April, with 4 civilians killed. Overlapping this count somewhat, during the first three months of COVID-19 response—between late March and late June—Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counted five civilians killed:

  • Alejandro Carvajal, in Sardinata, Norte de Santander, on March 26;
  • Ángel Artemino Nastacuas Villarreal, in Tumaco, Nariño, on April 22;
  • Emérito Digno Buendía Martínez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on May 18;
  • Ariolfo Sánchez Ruíz, in Anori, Antioquia, on May 20; and
  • Salvador Jaime Durán, in Teorama, Norte de Santander, on June 27.

Adding the July 3 incident in Putumayo makes six civilians killed in coca eradication operations since late March. This is the deadliest period since 2017: in October of that year, police accompanying coca eradication operations massacred seven farmers in the village of El Tandil, in Tumaco, Nariño.

The eradication operations have become more aggressive as the U.S. government has prodded Colombia to expand them, while paying much of the bill. “Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150,” Reuters reported last September. Colombia has pledged to forcibly eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020, which would smash its 2019 record of 94,606 hectares.

That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.

While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.

These expanded operations are dangerous for the soldiers and police too: armed groups protect the coca with landmines, booby traps, snipers, and ambushes. The Ideas for Peace Foundation counts 126 members of the security forces or coca eradicators killed during manual eradication operations between 2009 and 2018, and 664 more wounded. Protesting farmers, meanwhile, aren’t always non-violent, and security force members are sometimes injured during protests against eradication.

This, though, is yet another reason for Colombia and its U.S. government supporters to pursue a different strategy: a less violent and confrontational one that might actually reduce the dependence on coca that has led the crop to persist in rural zones for 40 years now. A better strategy would seek specifically to lower the number of Colombian families that plant coca, in most cases for lack of other viable options. Estimates of that number currently range from over 119,500 to over 230,000 families.

An alternative strategy exists, and it was the product of years of intense negotiations. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord had a plan for reducing this number of coca-growing families dramatically. Under the accord’s fourth chapter, over 99,000 families signed voluntary coca eradication agreements, in exchange for promised assistance. That number could have been higher, but the government of President Iván Duque froze the program after taking office in August 2018. The accord’s crop substitution plan, along with its larger efforts to bring a government presence into historically abandoned rural areas, is underfunded, increasingly behind schedule, and not receiving anywhere near the emphasis that forced eradication is getting—especially during the pandemic.

Even in a pandemic, Colombia’s U.S.-backed expanded forced eradication campaign is happening without even food security assistance for the families affected, leaving many hungry after the eradicators depart. In June the Colombian daily El Espectador asked the Defense Minister why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of any help for farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and that eradicating is “our constitutional duty.” We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work: it may yield a short-term decrease in the number of hectares planted with coca, but replanting happens quickly.

This aggressive, cruel, and ineffective model must stop now. Coca eradication should be the product of dialogue with communities, with the goal of bringing a lasting government presence into vast areas of Colombia where people live without one. In the rare instances when that is not possible, eradicators should de-escalate confrontations with communities, seeking to avoid the use of force and the repetition of the sorts of tragedies that Colombia has witnessed six times now since the pandemic began.

And of course, Colombia should resist any effort to re-start eradication by spraying the highly questioned herbicide glyphosate from aircraft. Fumigation not only raises health and environmental concerns that the government has not yet addressed—it is the very opposite of a long-term solution based on having people on the ground to govern territory.

As the main foreign backer of Colombia’s coca eradication strategy, the U.S. government should play a determining role in helping Colombia pursue a more humane, long-term-focused, and ultimately successful strategy. If the United States does not help to change course, it will continue to share the blame for disastrous human rights outcomes like what we are seeing now. And within a few years—when coca-growing families inevitably replant after remaining without formal title to their lands, isolated from markets, and lacking even basic governance—the United States will also share the blame for the current strategy’s foreseeable failure.

Tags: Coca, Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, Putumayo, U.S. Policy

Colombia Pushes Coca Eradication During COVID-19 Pandemic

April 24, 2020

The following April 23, 2020 statement is cross-posted from wola.org. We are alarmed that Colombia is not only going ahead full-throttle with manual eradication operations in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but that eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.

Washington, D.C.—On Wednesday, April 22, in an Indigenous community in southwest Colombia, public security forces killed one person and injured three others who were peacefully protesting a police operation to manually eradicate coca plants. Members of the police eradication team fired into a group of Awa Indigenous people, who were attempting to talk to them about why Indigenous authorities hadn’t been consulted about the planned eradication, as required by law. The death is the second related to manual coca eradication operations since Colombia went into national quarantine in late March.

Even while imposing a strict national quarantine, the Colombian government has launched more intense and aggressive coca eradication operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These operations, which often require the deployment of public security forces without appropriate protective equipment, have sparked long-standing tensions in six Colombian departments. In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 due to the deployment of eradication forces, the aggressive eradication campaign has ignored key elements of the historic 2016 peace accord. 

In the operation that led to the death of one Indigenous community member and three wounded in southwest Colombia, the government had failed to consult with the community prior to the operation. Additionally, in many of the other municipalities targeted in the last month, the Colombian government has systematically failed to deliver payments and other productive project support for crop substitution programs as laid out by Chapter 4 of the peace accords. 

The Duque administration’s push to intensify coca eradication has largely responded to an aggressive pressure campaign from the Trump administration. Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force. 

Beside increasing coca eradication operations during the nationwide lockdown, Colombia has seen no slowdown in the pace of attacks and threats against social leaders, including those who are advocating for implementation of the peace agreement’s illicit crops chapter. On April 22 alone, three people at a local community council in southwest Nariño department were killed by dissident fighters from the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group; another social leader, who formed part of the leftist Marcha Patriótica political movement, was killed in Cauca department; and two more were killed elsewhere in Cauca. Various Afro-Colombian communities in Cauca and Chocó department have also expressed concern about eradication operations and threats by armed groups in their area. According to Colombian think tank Indepaz, at least 71 social leaders were killed during the first three months of 2020; at least another dozen have been killed since Colombia’s national quarantine began. 

The Colombian government needs to rigorously and promptly investigate the killings of social leaders, securing convictions for those who carried out and those who ordered the crime. Additionally, instead of a drug policy that emphasizes forced eradication of coca, the Colombian government should uphold its commitments in the 2016 peace agreement and promote rural land reform, sustainable development, and the establishment of state presence in coca cultivation areas. Finally, given the number of leaders from farmers’ association the National Agrarian Coordinator (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) and the Marcha Patriótica who have faced violent attacks and threats, all armed actors—including FARC dissident groups and government forces—should avoid involving civilians in armed conflict.

Tags: Coca, Drug Policy, Human Rights, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy, WOLA Statements

Forced Coca Eradication Operations amid the COVID-19 Crisis: Letter to the Colombian Government

April 1, 2020

On March 30, 2020, the Action for Change (Acciones para el Cambio – APC) coalition published a letter addressed to the Colombian government urging it to stop forced coca eradication operations amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. The letter encourages the government to instead enforce quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus among vulnerable farmer communities.

Despite calls to follow quarantine measures, the Government of Colombia has continued forced coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. These operations, the letter states, violate voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities within the framework of the peace accord.

The letter also highlights the increased use of force and violence against farmers and condemns the murders of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Here is the English text of the letter:

THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION CALLS ON THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT TO SUSPEND FORCED ERADICATION OPERATIONS DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS TO GUARANTEE THE RIGHTS OF RURAL POPULATIONS

The COVID-19 pandemic places the Colombian State in a unique situation, in which it must implement rigorous measures to contain the spread of the virus and guarantee its citizens the right to life, health, and survival.

Despite the measures implemented by the national government to address the emergency, several organizations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo have denounced intensified forced coca eradication operations, specifically in municipalities where collective agreements were signed under the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). To date, the national government has not fully complied with these agreements. Such noncompliance, coupled with uncertain isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days caused a number of violations to rural populations’ rights.

Amid the national quarantine on March 19, Marco Rivadeneira was assassinated in the Nueva Granada territory, located in Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo. Marco was a prominent leader who promoted the substitution of crops in the department and sought alternatives for those who had been left out of crop substitution programs. According to data from the Coordinator for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM), Marco Rivadeneira’s murder raises to 60 the total number of people killed for leading crop substitution processes in Colombia. Three days after that, on March 22, the arrival of state forces was denounced, as they began to fumigate coca crops with glyphosate using manual spray pumps.

According to public complaints from the COCCAM and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales, Ambientales y Campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC), since March 23 in Caquetá, members of the National Army have carried out forced eradication operations using force and gunfire against farmers. Despite the public health crisis, these operations are occurring in the Palestina, Inspección Unión Peneya territory in Montañita municipality.

Finally, according to information from the Peasant Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) and the COCCAM, Alejandro Carvajal was killed by members of the National Army in the context of forced and violent eradications last Thursday, March 26. This assassination occurred in the territory of Santa Teresita, La Victoria, which forms part of Sardinata municipality in Norte de Santander. The National Army has already assumed responsibility for said killing. 

Faced with the aforementioned context, the APC coalition urges the Colombian government to:

  1. Investigate the incidents and punish those responsible for the killings of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Additionally, investigate and punish the members of the National Army who use threats and force against rural populations in Catatumbo, Caquetá, and Putumayo.
  1. Implement the mandatory, preventative measures ordered by the President and suspend forced eradication efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rural population is already at risk and its right to health and food security needs to be guaranteed.
  1. Respect and advance compliance with voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities.

SIGNED

THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Caqueta, Catatumbo, Coca, coronavirus, Illicit Crop Eradication, Putumayo

U.S.-Colombia Anti-Drug Plan Pushes Failed Policy of Aerial Fumigation

March 6, 2020

Here’s the text of a press release posted this morning to wola.org. (Versión en español) And below, a 2-minute video from Adam Isacson, WOLA’s director for defense oversight.

Washington, D.C.—On March 5, the United States and Colombian governments reaffirmed a bilateral agenda aimed at halving the cultivation and production of coca in Colombia by 2023. The announcement, which reflects growing alarm about record-high rates of coca cultivation and cocaine production, pushes an anti-drug strategy that includes the aerial herbicide spraying of coca-growing zones from spray aircraft dispensing the herbicide glyphosate. This policy risks causing serious harm: it may push some of Colombia’s poorest citizens deeper into poverty, generate violence and unrest, harm the environment, and detrimentally impact efforts to implement Colombia’s 2016 peace accords.    

“It’s clear that the United States is pushing for aerial fumigation, and that they’ve found a willing partner in Iván Duque,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “What both countries are ignoring is the lack of evidence supporting aerial fumigation as an effective long-term drug control strategy. The plan also ignores the very real possibility that restarting fumigation will result in grave consequences for communities in vulnerable situations.”

For public health reasons, Colombia suspended a U.S.-backed aerial fumigation program in 2015, after 21 years and 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) sprayed. But from 1994 to 2015, mass campaigns of aerial fumigation in Colombia were the cornerstone of U.S. drug policy in the region. It took at least 13 acres of spraying (some estimates go as high as 32 acres) to reduce coca-growing by one acre—and years of evidence showthose gains were not permanent. In areas absent of government presence, with no farm-to-market roads, land titles, or even basic security, replanting happens quickly after spraying, even if there is an initial reduction in coca acreage. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in 2018 found that coca farmers had adopted easy ways to counter mass campaigns of aerial spraying. 

“Aerial fumigation is a short-term tactic with no long-term results, like losing weight on a crash diet only to gain it again,”said Isacson. “The regions where families plant coca need basic government services: roads, food security, an effective police force. Sending police and contractors to anonymously spray herbicides from overhead is the direct opposite of what those government services should look like.”

The potential costs of aerial fumigation are significant. Past WOLA research in the region has documented how aerial fumigation displaces ethnic communities and destroys food security. Another concern is social discord in coca-growing areas: about 120,000 Colombian households currently make a living from growing coca, earning an average of $130 per month. There is also the question of environmental harm and potential health damage, as a growing number of studies point to a potential link between glyphosate and forms of cancer. A 2015 literature review published by the World Health Organization found that glyphosate, the chemical used in aerial fumigation, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  

“The accords already provide for crop substitutions, economic opportunities in rural areas, and social development. The Duque government needs to uphold these commitments, not restart a failed and risky aerial spraying program,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes at WOLA. “Rather than pressure Colombia to fumigate, the United States should instead encourage President Duque to quit dragging his feet on the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating. We have this historic opportunity to provide avenues for economic and social development thanks to the 2016 peace accords, and both President Duque and the United States are ignoring it,” added Sánchez-Garzoli. “Instead, they want to bring back fumigation. Imagine, for some of the people living in these regions, a police plane dropping glyphosate on their communities could be the first evidence of state ‘presence’ they see since the accords were signed in 2016.” 

Adam Isacson explains why we can’t spray our way out of Colombia’s coca cultivation challenges.

Tags: Coca, Drug Policy, Illicit Crop Eradication, U.S. Policy

Notes on the Colombian Government’s Draft Decree to Restart Coca Fumigation

January 8, 2020
A National Police OV-10 plane sprays herbicides over a coca field in Colombia. [AP/WWP file photo]
Image from the State Department’s website.

On December 30 Colombia’s Ministry of Justice issued a draft decree that would allow it to re-start a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones. This program used aircraft to spray more than 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015.

In 2015, a UN World Health Organization literature review found that glyphosate, the herbicide used in the program, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In 2018 and 2019, two California juries gave large awards to three U.S. plaintiffs who claimed a link between heavy use of glyphosate and cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the coca spraying program in late 2015, but took years before replacing it with any other effort, like alternative livelihoods or manual eradication. As a result of this and other factors, coca cultivation increased dramatically in Colombia. By 2017, more than 119,500 families were making a living off of the crop.

Now, the government of Iván Duque is bringing fumigation back. The U.S. Department of State quickly put out a brief statement celebrating Colombia’s decision.

The decree is 20 pages long, and lays out some of the review, consultation, and complaint processes that should apply to a renewed fumigation program. We’d been expecting this document since July 18, 2019, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling, modifying a 2017 decision, softening the requirements that the government would have to fulfill in order to start fumigating again.

What happens next?

The draft decree is now undergoing a 30-day citizen comment period. Then, it will go to Colombia’s National Drug Policy Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes), a grouping of ministers, the police chief, the chief prosecutor, and the inspector-general, which must then vote to re-start the program. That vote probably won’t happen until at least March or April. The Colombian journalism website La Silla Vacía sees the process going on for months more:

Several more steps await: that the final decree be issued; that the Defense Ministry formally present a spray program, adjusting to this decree’s requirements, before the National Drug Policy Council; that this Council approves it; and that the Ministry obtains an environmental license for that program. All of that will take several months, and probably most of the year.

The Court’s requirements

Though it loosened restrictions on a new spray program, the Constitutional Court still requires that:

  • The regulations governing spraying come from a different agency than the one charged with spraying.
  • The regulation must be based on an evaluation of health, environmental, and other risks. That evaluation must be “participatory and technically sound,” and must happen continuously.
  • Newly emerged risks or complaints must receive automatic review.
  • Scientific evaluations of risk must be rigorous, impartial, and of high quality.
  • Complaints about health, environmental, or legal crop damage must be processed in a “comprehensive, independent, and impartial” way that is “tied to the risk evaluation.”
  • “Objective and conclusive” evidence must demonstrate “absence of damage to health and the environment,” though the Court says that absence doesn’t need to be total.

Limits on spraying

The draft decree excludes from aerial spraying “natural parks of Colombia, whether national or regional; strategic ecosystems like páramos, wetlands as defined by the Ramsar convention and mangroves; populated centers; settlements of populations; and bodies of water.” According to Colombia’s Semana magazine, “researchers consulted…calculate that 70 percent of illicit crops are located in territories where aerial fumigations aren’t viable” under the decree’s definitions because “they are protected zones, because prior consultation is required, or because they are out of the planes’ reach for logistical reasons.”

Oversight, evaluation, and complaints

As in the past, Colombia’s National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate, a heavy recipient of U.S. assistance, would manage the new spray program. The draft decree gives crucial oversight and approval responsibilities to three small agencies elsewhere within the Colombian government.

  • The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), within the Agriculture Ministry, will be charged with processing and adjudicating complaints about the inadvertent spraying of legal crops. It must do so within 15 days, though the decree allows very wide latitude for postponements. (During the past spray program, people whose legal crops suffered damage from fumigation had to go to the Anti-Narcotics Police, which approved only a small single-digit percentage of compensations. Police usually responded that “we didn’t spray there that day,” “there was coca mixed in with the legal crops”—which many farmers denied, or “the zone is too insecure to evaluate the alleged damage.”)
  • The National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA), an Environment Ministry entity established in 2011, will approve aerial eradication projects, perform initial studies, and monitor their environmental impact, while processing complaints about environmental damage.
  • The the National Health Institute (INS), an entity within the Health Ministry, will monitor the human health impact of aerial eradication, carrying out continual evaluation of health risks, while processing health complaints.

These agencies seem quite small, with sporadically updated websites. In some cases they will have to depend on the National Police for logistical support necessary to perform their oversight work. Their capacity to handle a large docket of complaints and monitoring requests is far from assured.

Participation and consultation

The decree states that the Anti-Narcotics Police must “announce to local and regional authorities, as well as to the citizenry in general, the initiation of spray activities.” This announcement must explain complaint and evaluation mechanisms, and use local media. After spraying in an area, the Narcotics Police must “guarantee participation spaces with local authorities and with the citizenry in general, in which comments, complaints, and suggestions may be expressed.” Conclusions of these “participation spaces” will be included in the Anti-Narcotics Police’s monthly report to the ANLA.

What the peace accord says

Semana notes that the Constitutional Court had “immovably” required the Colombian government to build a spraying policy “that complies with what was established by the FARC peace accord,” adding that “the expression ‘peace accord’ isn’t mentioned even once in the decree’s text.” The peace accord (section 4.1.3.2) limits aerial spraying only to cases in which communities have not agreed to crop substitution, and where manual eradication is “not possible.”

In cases where there is no agreement with the communities, the Government will proceed to remove the crops used for illicit purposes, prioritising manual removal where possible, bearing in mind respect for human rights, the environment, health and well-being. If substitution is not possible, the Government does not waive the instruments that it believes to be most effective, including aerial spraying to ensure the eradication of crops used for illicit purposes. The FARC-EP consider that in any case of removal this must be effected manually.

Tags: Coca, Illicit Crop Eradication

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process: Week of September 16-22

October 1, 2018

UNODC Publishes Its 2017 Coca Cultivation Estimate

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime published an executive summary of its 2017 estimate of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia. The UN agency has usually produced this document, in complete form, in June or July of each year. Among the latest report’s most notable findings:

  • Coca cultivation increased by 17 percent in Colombia between 2016 and 2017, growing from 146,000 to 171,000 hectares. (A hectare is about two and a half acres.) In June, the U.S. government publicized its own estimate for 2017, finding an 11 percent increase to 209,000 hectares. According to Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, the UN figure is “the official statistic that the Colombian government works with.”
  • 64% of the increase was concentrated in four departments: Antioquia, Putumayo, Norte de Santander and Cauca. Nearly all coca is grown in municipalities where coca was grown a decade ago.
  • The department with the most coca is still Nariño, as has been the case every year since 2006. Nariño makes up 27% of all Colombian coca cultivation, but the crop increased by only 7% there in 2017.
  • Tumaco, a giant municipality (county) in southwestern Nariño, remains the number-one coca-growing municipality in the country. However, coca cultivation declined by 16% in Tumaco last year.
  • The department of Guaviare saw the largest decrease, shrinking 28% from 6,800 to 4,900 hectares. Guaviare, along with Tumaco, has been a main focus of crop-substitution efforts within the framework of the peace accord. In Meta, another department that saw a lot of crop substitution, coca increased 2%.
  • The areas where the Colombian government has managed to get crop-substitution programs up and running comprise 14% of coca-growing territories. But in those territories, cultivation fell 11% in 2017.
  • 33% of coca crops were detected in “isolated areas, 10 km away from any populated center.”
  • 34% of coca crops were detected in areas that were covered by forests in 2014.
  • Probably due to increased supply, prices crashed in 2017. Coca leaf prices fell 28%; cocaine paste fell 14%, and cocaine fell 11% inside Colombia. This isn’t entirely supply and demand: local circumstances, like changes in armed-group control, may be more important factors in some areas.
  • Colombia’s cocaine exports were worth about US$2.7 billion in 2017. Colombia’s coffee exports totaled about US$2.5 billion. Only oil and coal produced more export revenue.
  • All cocaine base produced in the country was worth US$1.315 billion. All coca leaf was worth US$371 million.
  • In the ten municipalities (counties) with the most coca crops, the coca leaf market adds up to US$302 million. These counties’ combined municipal budgets were US$196 million.
  • 5% of coca was planted within national parks, and another 27% within 20 kilometers of a national park.
  • 10% was planted within indigenous reserves. 15% was planted in land belonging to Afro-Colombian communities.
  • 16% of coca was planted within 10 kilometers of a border, mainly those with Venezuela and Ecuador.
  • The National Comprehensive Substitution Program (PNIS), the voluntary crop-substitution program set up by the FARC peace accord, had enrolled 54,027 families by the end of 2017. By June 2018, that had climbed to 77,659 families.
  • Mainly because the bushes have had time to grow taller than they used to be, their yield—the amount of cocaine that can be produced from a hectare of coca—has increased by one third since 2012. As a result, Colombia’s potential cocaine production grew from 1,053 tons in 2016 to 1,379 tons in 2017.
  • Processing that much cocaine required that 510 million liters of liquid precursor chemicals, and 98,000 tons of solid precursors, be smuggled in to very remote areas.
  • “When we talk about coca growers,” UNODC Colombia Director Bo Mathiasen told El Espectador, “we talk about there being today about 119,500 households that depend on that. If we estimate that each family has four members, we are talking about almost half a million Colombians, just those involved with crops.” That is 1% of Colombia’s population of about 50 million.

Asked whether the increase in coca-growing was “a failure of the peace agreement,” Mathiasen replied that Colombia’s government over-promised to coca-growing families.

It’s an agreement with promises that had no basis. They promised more than they could fulfill. The Government does not have the money to fulfill the prior commitments. There was a lack of realistic communication about the resources that were available and what could be delivered. This caused the campesinos to think that if they planted more coca, they could have subsidies and be part of the substitution program.

Mathiasen also criticized the simultaneous implementation of crop substitution and crop eradication, two strategies that “work with different timeframes.” He cautioned against relying too heavily on renewed fumigation of coca with the herbicide glyphosate.

The United Nations does not have an opinion either in favor or against the use of glyphosate, and I must add that it is widely used in agriculture in Colombia and in many countries. The effectiveness of forced eradication has limits. Yes, the plant is done away with, but replanting has historically been high in eradication zones where there is no program of social and economic intervention going hand-in-hand. If you want a more sustainable outcome over time you have to combine forced or voluntary eradication with investment programs to develop these territories.

President Iván Duque said that in coming days, “he would present a new plan to combat drugs that would ‘strengthen our air, sea and land interception capacity’ and ‘dismantle completely the supply chain, both precursors and product,’” the New York Times reported, adding that “so far, he has provided no details.”

Interviewed by El Tiempo, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker reiterated his support for glyphosate-spraying, despite a California jury’s August ruling that a gardener who contracted cancer was entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from Monsanto, the company that produces most glyphosate herbicide sold in the United States.

I have always said, and I maintain, that the use of glyphosate is safe and effective. It can be a very important tool in the fight against narcotics as part of eradication, which is only one aspect of a comprehensive program. Evidently there was a jury decision in California, and you have to respect that. But that decision does not change the science at all, and the science is clear.

Government Won’t Name an ELN Negotiating Team Until Conditions Met

In a statement, the ELN’s negotiators in Havana called on the government to re-start frozen peace talks, citing its release of nine captives during the first half of September. The Duque government announced that it would not name a new negotiating team until the ELN releases all hostages. The government has a list of ten individuals who remain in ELN captivity. It is unclear whether all are alive, and the guerrillas have not addressed their cases.

This week the ELN released Mayerly Cortés Rodríguez, a 16-year-old whom guerrillas had kidnapped in Chocó. By holding a minor, government High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos said, the ELN “broke all the rules.” The ELN’s Chocó-based Western War Front stated that it was holding Cortés not as a hostage, but “to clear up her collaboration with the Marines,” accusing her of providing intelligence to the local unit. The commander of Colombia’s Pacific Naval Force (Marines are part of the Navy) insisted that it does not seek intelligence from minors.

The ELN talks remain stalled. “It’s evident that neither the government nor the ELN wants to be seen as the one slamming the door on the peace process, but neither of the two parties wants to be the one that gives up the most to restart the dialogues,” El Tiempo’s Marisol Gómez observed.

Elsewhere in Chocó, combat between the ELN and Army displaced about 80 indigenous people from the Murindó River reserve.

FARC Dissident Leader “Guacho” is Wounded, Military Says

A military offensive against FARC dissident groups has intensified in Nariño, along what may be Colombia’s busiest cocaine production and trafficking corridor. Last week, troops killed alias “David,” commander of the United Guerrillas of the Pacific dissident group. This week, special forces reported wounding his rival, Walter Arízala alias “Guacho,” commander of the Oliver Sinisterra Front dissident group.

Though born in Ecuador, Guacho rose through the FARC’s ranks in Narino over 15 years, becoming deeply involved in narcotrafficking. He refused to demobilize in 2017, then became one of the two or three most-wanted armed-group leaders in Colombia earlier this year, after he staged attacks on government forces in Nariño and across the border in Ecuador, and then kidnapped and killed two Ecuadorian reporters and their driver. The tragedy of the El Comercio journalists was front-page news in Ecuador for weeks.

On September 15, at a site in the northern part of Tumaco further from the border, a joint unit seeking to capture Guacho was closing in, but was detected by the dissident leader’s innermost security ring. During the resulting firefight, troops shot a fleeing Guacho twice in the back, but his men helped him to escape.

Though Colombian and Ecuadorian troops reportedly did not coordinate, Ecuador’s military and police strengthened security on their side of the border with the aim of preventing Guacho from crossing. There were no new reports about the guerrilla leader’s condition or whereabouts during the rest of the week.

Semana magazine, claiming that Guacho’s influence in Nariño had been declining, reported that the guerrilla leader “is fleeing with the last of his bodyguards, and the search continues.”

Three Mining Company Geologists Killed in Antioquia; Guerrilla Dissidents Blamed

A group of armed men burst into a mining company camp in the predawn hours of September 20 in Yarumal, Antioquia, opening fire and killing Laura Alejandra Flórez Aguirre, Henry Mauricio Martínez Gómez, and Camilo Andrés Tirado Farak. The three were geologists carrying out explorations for Continental Gold Mines, a Canadian company.

No group has claimed responsibility. Colombian authorities told the media that dissident members of the FARC’s 36th Front are very active in Yarumal. Precious-metals mining has been a principal income stream for organized crime groups here and in many parts of the country.

In the nearby municipality of Buriticá, Continental Gold is building what El Espectador calls “the first large-scale subterranean gold mine in Colombia,” which is to begin operation in 2020 and produce an average of 253,000 ounces of gold per year over 14 years.

Accord Implementation Budget Appears Insufficient

Colombia’s Comptroller-General’s Office (Contraloría) sent a new report to Congress on expenditures to implement the FARC peace accord. It concludes that, over the next 15 years, the government will need to come up with about US$25 billion to fulfill the commitments made in the accord. Most of the resources needed would go to the accord’s first chapter on rural development.

The Treasury Ministry has estimated a 15-year cost of accord implementation at 129.5 trillion pesos, or about US$43 billion. The Contraloría sees a need for an additional 76 trillion pesos, which

would represent 0.4% of annual GDP that would be added to the fiscal deficit projected for the coming years. These calculations could increase to up to 1.1% of GDP if we add the additional costs of covering all the municipalities with scattered rural territories as contemplated in the Final Agreement, and the reparation measures in the public policy of attention to victims.

The Contraloría report found that the government spent 6.9 trillion pesos (about US$2.3 billion) in 2017 on activities related to the FARC peace accord.

El Espectador meanwhile notes that Colombia’s defense budget has increased during the post-accord period, growing 8 percent from 2017 to 2018.

FARC Remains on U.S. Terrorist List

The U.S. Department of State released its annual report on international terrorism on September 19. This report includes and updates the Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The FARC—recognized as a political party today in Colombia—remains on that list.

“Colombia experienced a continued decrease in terrorist activity in 2017, due in large part to the November 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC),” the report reads, citing the disarmament, demobilization, and reincorporation process that the ex-guerrillas underwent last year. Still, a footnote in the report explains that the FARC remains on the terrorist list because the party’s ties to increasingly active guerrilla dissident groups are “unclear”:

The FARC remains a Foreign Terrorist Organization under the Immigration and Nationality Act. However, the Colombian government classifies FARC dissidents as criminals. While the ideological motivations of such groups and ongoing connections with demobilized FARC are unclear, we have included acts of violence by FARC dissidents in this report.

Although the UN verification mission and other observers fault both the Colombian government and the FARC for the slow pace of ex-guerrillas’ reintegration programs, the State Department report places all the blame on the FARC. It essentially faults the ex-guerrillas for insisting on collective reintegration, instead of accepting the government’s standard individual reintegration offer:

The Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), formerly the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR), is the implementing arm of this process. Delays in implementing the program, caused by the refusal of FARC leadership to permit members to actively and effectively participate, increased the prospects that some ex-combatants would return to engaging in criminal activities.

Asked by a reporter why the FARC party remains on the list, State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales offered no specifics.

I’m not going to be in a position to comment on any internal deliberations that may or may not be taking place. What I can tell you is that the statutory standards for getting on the FTO list or getting off the FTO list are very clear, and it – we apply the standards that Congress has given us consistent with the evidence in front of us, and we do that regardless of the organization or country.

Interviewed by El Tiempo, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker insisted that Washington would push for the extradition of any wanted FARC members believed to have committed crimes after the peace accord’s December 2016 ratification. “Any effort, by any actor or institution, to limit extradition, affects U.S. interests.”

Whitaker criticized a Constitutional Court finding that appears to give the transitional justice system (JEP) the power to review evidence against those wanted in extradition for alleged post-accord crimes, like FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich. The way extradition works, he said, is that the requesting country evaluates the evidence.

The Ambassador also rejected the idea that wanted individuals should first remain in Colombia to provide victims with truth and reparations. “I don’t accept the mistaken idea that if there is extradition, then there can be no truth. In the case of the paramilitaries extradited a decade ago, we have set up 3,000 hearings, including victims, prosecutors, magistrates, etcetera. There has been every opportunity to clarify the truth. So both can be done.”

President Duque Meets UN Mission Chief

Jean Arnault, the chief of the UN verification mission that just had its mandate extended for another year, met with President Iván Duque. Arnault’s mission is overseeing the reintegration and security of FARC ex-combatants, which have moved forward but faced setbacks and obstacles over the past year.

Appearing publicly with the President, Arnault said, “I encourage you to continue with a difficult process, full of obstacles and still very fragile. We encourage you to continue not only for the sake of Colombia, but also for the sake of the international community.” Duque said that the government remains committed to “the people who have genuinely bet it all on demobilization, disarmament, reintegration and non-repetition, can make a transition to coexistence and a life of legality.”

Arnault said that Duque’s six-week-old government was in the midst of a “useful reflection” about its ex-combatant reincorporation policy. Duque and Arnault agreed that finding productive projects for ex-combatants was a priority. These projects, Duque said, “had to incorporate more than 10,000 people in the process, but today do not exceed 100 people.” The President and the mission chief agreed that future reintegration projects should benefit entire communities, not just the ex-guerrillas.

In response to a written request from FARC party leader Rodrigo Londoño, Duque’s government named its representatives to the Commission of Follow-up, Impulse and Verification (CSIVI), the government-FARC mechanism meant to oversee implementation of the peace accord. They are Emilio José Archila, the High Counselor for the Post-Conflict; High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos; and Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez.

Meanwhile, one of the highest-profile demobilized guerrilla leaders, Luciano Marín alias Iván Márquez—the guerrillas’ lead negotiator during the Havana peace process—remains missing. FARC leaders insist that Márquez has not abandoned the peace process, that he has “clandestinized” himself out of concern for his security.

Márquez is free to roam the country pending his eventual transitional-justice trial for war crimes. But he now faces calls to clarify his situation.

  • The Congressional Peace Committee, which recently traveled to the demobilization site in Caquetá that Márquez abandoned in June or July, published a letter calling on him to “unequivocally reiterate your commitment to this process very soon.”
  • During the week of September 9, the transitional-justice system (JEP) called on Márquez and 30 other former FARC commanders to submit a written statement that each remains committed to the process and intends to comply with the peace accord. The JEP demanded a response within ten business days. Márquez’s lawyer may have bought some additional time by submitting an official information request to the JEP about its demand.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Coca, ELN Peace Talks, Extradition, Illicit Crop Eradication, Transitional Justice, U.S. Policy, Weekly update