Updates from WOLA tagged “Counter-Terrorism”

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

An outdated interpretation of counter-terror law has painted U.S. Colombia programming into a corner. The way out is simple.

March 11, 2020
The Humanicemos website uses a lot of the same mission language as U.S. government documents. But U.S. officials can’t even buy its members a cup of coffee.

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Humanicemos is a non-governmental organization dedicated to clearing landmines in Colombia. Its personnel are former combatants from the FARC guerrillas, who demobilized after the signing of a 2016 peace accord and are now embarking on new lives. It gets support from the UN and the European Union, and works with Colombian government agencies.

This sounds like the sort of feel-good group that the U.S. government would want to support. But it does not support it. In fact, for U.S. officials, the members of Humanicemos are untouchable.

In January, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano writes at JusticeInfo, Angela Orrego of Humanicemos reported to a Bogotá hotel to participate in a 2020 planning meeting of groups working on de-mining.

But when Orrego and two of her colleagues from Humanicemos, one of those organizations created to destroy landmines, arrived, another government official barred them from entering.

“I’m very sorry,” she told them. The meeting was partially funded by the U.S. State Department, she explained, and that meant they could not participate.

At issue is a U.S. law prohibiting “providing material support to terrorists” (18 U.S. Code Sec. 2339A). Though it demobilized nearly three years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and all of its members are still considered to be terrorists. As a result, it is a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any FARC party members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

As currently interpreted, the prohibition doesn’t apply to former FARC members who demobilized individually and have in some way renounced membership in the FARC political party. Individual demobilized receive some U.S. support through the Colombian government’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency.

The rest, though—the thousands of former FARC members who maintain some identity related with the FARC political party, like Ms. Orrego—are frozen out. It is illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

This “material support” statute—or rather, the way it’s being interpreted right now—is more than an annoyance. It’s becoming an obstacle to U.S. interests in Colombia. The State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID all place a high priority on supporting “stabilization” in Colombia. That’s the term they and the Colombian government use to describe introducing a functioning government presence, with basic services and security, in vast ungoverned rural areas where coca and armed groups thrive. In these areas, thousands of former FARC members circulate freely today. Many have a strong interest in the goals of stabilization, which overlap closely with the first chapter of the peace accord (“rural reform”).

This means that today, U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are frequently running into engaged former FARC members, with bizarre results. In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told WOLA staff of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have had a sandwich or drink provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.

The FARC ceased to exist as an armed group in August 2017, after handing in 8,994 weapons and more than 938 arms caches to a UN mission. “Of 13,202 ex-combatants accredited before the accord’s signing,” the Colombian Presidency’s High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation reported last month, “12,940 remain committed to their reincorporation.” While some estimates of ex-guerrillas’ desertions from the peace process run as high as 830, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of former FARC members continue to be engaged with the process. That their mere presence can halt or water down U.S. support for important stability and demining efforts is an absurdity. 

“The FARC are still part of the terrorist list,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a Colombian newspaper in February, “because, as we know, there are some dissident groups still involved in narcotrafficking and violence.” The dissident groups are a big challenge. Their approximately 2,400 members, scattered across about 23 groups, either refused to demobilize, abandoned the process later, or are new recruits. Their numbers are growing.

But the dissident groups aren’t the ex-FARC. In fact, they are one of the main threats to the security of ex-FARC fighters who have renounced violence. To date, about 186 demobilized FARC members have been killed. Of 93 cases for which Colombian government investigators have been able to attribute responsibility, FARC dissidents are the likely killers in 36—that is, 39 percent of cases. It makes no sense, as Ambassador Goldberg did last month, to conflate FARC party members who’ve renounced violence with the FARC dissidents who are attacking them. They don’t belong on the same list.

If this is truly the reason why peace process-respecting former guerrillas remain on the terrorist list, there’s an easy remedy that doesn’t necessarily even require removing a group called “FARC” from the terrorist list. The U.S. government just needs to reinterpret the existing statute in a way that distinguishes between dissident groups and demobilized guerrillas. If the current interpretation has painted U.S. programming into a corner, then that interpretation needs to be updated for the reality of Colombia in 2020.

That would mean screening out from U.S.-funded programs not everyone who is considered a FARC party member or affiliate, but instead only:

  • The few dozen ex-guerrillas who are wanted by U.S. courts for drug trafficking or kidnapping;
  • Those facing serious and specific accusations of war crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian government’s system of war crimes tribunals;
  • Those on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list; and
  • Those credibly alleged to be continuing to engage in illicit activity.

The number of individuals meeting these criteria is a small percentage of the total universe of non-dissident ex-guerrillas. For the rest, there should be no other barrier to participation in U.S.-funded programs. The remaining rank and file, trying to build a peaceful life and contribute to Colombia’s reconciliation, must lose their “untouchable” status.

Three years is enough: it is past time to realign the statute’s interpretation to match up with Colombia’s reality. And Congress should communicate to the State Department, in any way appropriate, that it does not object to this common-sense adjustment.

Tags: Counter-Terrorism, U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy