Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura.This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
Support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign:
In response to the Trump administration’s addition of Cuba to the U.S. government’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states, here is an English translation of a statement published on January 15 by the leaders of the Colombian government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana.
STATEMENT BY FORMER COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT PEACE NEGOTIATORS
In view of the decision by the outgoing U.S. administration to include Cuba on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and the call by Colombia’s ruling party, the Democratic Center, to “review” relations with that country and make “substantive decisions”, we wish to say the following, based on our own experience in Cuba:
During the nearly five years (2012-2016) that the Colombian government delegation was negotiating in Havana with the FARC, we enjoyed the strong support of the Cuban government, which used its best resources to ensure the success of the talks, together with Norway. In a situation that was not exactly one of abundance, Cuba made available to us a multiplicity of houses, conference rooms and—much more importantly—its most experienced diplomats, in Havana and Bogotá, to facilitate the negotiations in the best possible way. We say with total certainty: without Cuba’s commitment and contribution there would have been no peace agreement in Colombia.
During this time, Cuban authorities exercised special vigilance over the FARC delegation, to ensure that their presence in Havana was in keeping with the purposes of the peace process. As a joke, they once told us: “We don’t even let the FARC exercise together, so that no one will think that they’re setting up a camp here”. They always made clear that the FARC was in Havana to negotiate peace, and for nothing else. As representatives of the government of Colombia, despite all the differences that we may have with the regime of Cuba, we are obliged to recognize and thank the generous spirit and the professionalism that Cuba deployed in favor of peace in Colombia.
It is thus an outrage and an act of unequaled state ingratitude with the Republic of Cuba that, in the framework of similar negotiations with the ELN, the government of Iván Duque demanded that Cuba surrender members of that delegation to Colombian authorities. To do so would go against the protocols signed by the government of Colombia and the international guarantors, which called for the return of the ELN negotiators to their places of origin should the talks break down. The fact that the ELN committed an atrocious act of terrorism at the National Police Cadet School in Bogotá—which we condemn most vehemently—and that the government, as is its right, abandoned the negotiation, does not change the terms of what was formally agreed upon by Colombia in the framework of the peace process.
Like the members of the FARC delegation at the time, all members of the ELN delegation were authorized by the Colombian government to participate in the negotiations, and their outstanding arrest warrants had been lifted. The current government preferred to ignore Colombia’s international obligations and to play along with an ideological strategy of the outgoing U.S. administration, which from the beginning had the objective, as was easy to foresee, of putting Cuba back on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
Now the Democratic Center, the ruling party, is calling with characteristic incoherence for “decisions” to be taken against Cuba, forgetting that its leader Alvaro Uribe, when president of Colombia, had asked Cuba to receive an ELN delegation to begin exploratory peace talks. Between 2005 and 2007, there were eight unsuccessful rounds of negotiations in Havana between the Uribe government and the ELN, for which the government authorized as representatives, among others, the ELN’s military commander, Antonio García, and the current head of the delegation in Havana, Pablo Beltrán, as well as countless civil society organizations.
In those same years the ELN kidnapped 236 civilians, according to official figures, and did not release any. And yet the Uribe government probably never thought of demanding the extradition to Colombia of the ELN peace delegation to answer for those acts, because it knew that would mean breaking the rules of the game that allow for negotiations.
What is at stake, then, is not only peace with the ELN or U.S. relations with Cuba, but the very possibility of carrying out peace negotiations. As the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs said a few days ago, if countries that facilitate peace efforts run the risk of ending up designated as sponsors of terrorism, from now on they will think twice before committing to such efforts.
Who would believe that the United States might ask Qatar to extradite the members of the Taliban peace delegation, who are negotiating in Doha, because of the terrorist acts that the Taliban are still committing in Afghanistan today, and which the United States itself is denouncing? In the case of Afghanistan, the attitude of the outgoing U.S. administration has been exactly the opposite: in the agreement it signed with the Taliban, it even committed itself to removing them from the list of terrorist organizations without their having signed any peace agreement with the Afghan government, much less laying down their arms.
Beyond coherence, the heart of the problem is that ideology and partisan interests are being privileged over common sense and international commitments. The Duque government preferred to lend itself to the Trump administration’s ideological agenda, bringing Colombia’s international relations to a new low. Now that the Trump administration is ending its term by attacking its own electoral process and violating its own constitution, it is time for Colombia to turn around and seek a new, more constructive relationship with the United States.
We strongly encourage the incoming administration of President-Elect Biden to review the decision to include Cuba on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries as a result of its facilitation of Colombia’s peace process, and we stand ready to testify about our experience.
Humberto de la Calle, Former Head of Government Negotiating Team Sergio Jaramillo, Former High Commissioner for Peace
Colombian officials are forecasting that within two months, a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones—suspended for public health reasons in 2015—will restart. A major step along the way, a nationwide consultation with communities, is scheduled to start on Saturday.
Honorable Congressmen of the Republic of Colombia Honorable Members of the Congress of the United States of America Social organizations defending human rights and environmental rights
Re: Urgent call for non-reactivation of glyphosate fumigation in Colombia.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Elementa DDHH, Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo, La Red en Movimiento, Corporación Viso Mutop, and Consultoría para los derechos humanos y el desplazamiento (CODHES), write to express deep concern about the imminent reactivation of glyphosate fumigations in Colombia, ignoring the guidelines given by the Constitutional Court in Ruling T-236 of 2017, as well as the historical and documented serious impact on health and the dire consequences in terms of the environment and forced migration in the country.
The national government of Colombia, through various mechanisms, has expressed its determined interest to reactivate glyphosate fumigations for crops of illicit use; a decision motivated, in part, by pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump within the framework of the war on drugs.
Despite the various stages that must be carried out based on the guidelines given by Colombia’s Constitutional Court regarding an eventual reactivation of fumigations, like modifying the Environental Management Plan (PMA) and carrying out hearings with communities, these have not been fulfilled, since campesino and indigenous communities and civil society organizations have not been able to participate in virtual hearings with the government. On the contrary, the national government, through the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, announced in October of this year that aerial spraying will be resumed to combat drug trafficking.
Glyphosate spraying has been shown to be risky to human health, to negatively affect ecosystems, to threaten indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and their sacred territories, as well as the campesino economy and its efforts at alternatives to coca cultivation. The consequences in terms of food insecurity and the loss of productive capacity in rural areas have generated massive displacement within and outside of Colombia, with humanitarian impacts widely documented since 2000 by international organizations and governments of neighboring countries.
Glyphosate was classified by the WHO in 2015 as probably carcinogenic, and has been proven to cause death in animals essential to the preservation of the ecosystem, as well as in nearby water sources. Likewise, by affecting other non-illegal crops, it puts the food security of communities at risk and increases economic precariousness in these regions, thus generating forced internal and cross-border displacements and conflicts between public forces and the population, affecting the legitimacy of the state in these territories. All these consequences show how aerial spraying with glyphosate is a practice that leads to violations of the right to life, integrity and dignity of the population living in these regions, since it has also been proven to be correlated to respiratory diseases and miscarriages.
In addition, the Final Peace Agreement between the National Government and the former FARC-EP guerrilla group, which is part of the constitutionality bloc, in Point 4 on “Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs”, agreed to a Comprehensive National Program of Substitution of Illicit Crop Use -PNIS, which incorporates voluntary eradication and plans for immediate family care, which would be hindered and affected by the reactivation of glyphosate fumigation. It should be noted that glyphosate spraying has proven to be unsustainable over time, since it does not offer economic alternatives to the cultivating families, and its use is followed by a high percentage of replanting—the opposite of the case of voluntary substitution, for which it has been demonstrated that very few families return to illicit crops.
As if the adverse effects of glyphosate were not enough, the return to these practices makes even less sense when analyzing these methods’ effectiveness compared to their economic costs, since according to figures given by UNODC and the government itself, eradicating a hectare of crops with glyphosate costs 80% more than complying with a family’s voluntary crop replacement plan. In fact, the total estimated cost of carrying out voluntary crop substitution processes with 80,438 families is 2.8 trillion Colombian pesos, while between 2005 and 2014, 79.9 trillion were spent on aerial spraying with glyphosate.
For this reason, community, ethnic, human rights and environmental rights organizations reject the reactivation of glyphosate fumigation and call on the Congress of the Republic of Colombia, the Congress of the United States, and interested organizations to support alternatives to eradication and glyphosate fumigation, taking into account the innumerable scientific and community contributions that demonstrate the serious effects in terms of human and environmental rights, as well as the ineffectiveness of the war on drugs.
We share as an annex to this communication a brief but profound analysis of the serious consequences on the rights to life, integrity and dignity of the population in case of reactivation of glyphosate spraying in the country.
WOLA – The Washington Office on Latin America Elementa DDHH Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida del Putumayo Red en Movimiento: investigación y acción en migraciones La Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el desplazamiento (CODHES) Corporación Viso Mutop
 Red en Movimiento: Investigación y acción en migraciones is a network of academics from different universities and social organizations in Colombia that seeks to make a social and political impact on the public agenda and opinion around the phenomena of migration in the city and the country. It is integrated by researchers, professors and activists from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Universidad de Los Andes, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Universidad Externado de Colombia, and Universidad Santo Tomás.
 Today there is a complaint against the Colombian state before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the use of glyphosate that led to a campesino woman’s miscarriage. Meanwhile Monsanto (through its parent company Bayer) has been compelled by US courts to pay damages on several occasions for the causal relationship between the use of Roundup (a herbicide whose main component is glyphosate) and the development of cancer in several people, some of the most emblematic of whom are the cases of Dewayne Johnson, Edwin Haderman, and Alva and Alberta Pillod.
 Source: – UNODC. 2020. Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops – PNIS (report n° 21). Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/colombia/2020/Mayo/INFORME_EJECUTIVO_PNIS_No._21.pdf and Response of the Directorate for the Substitution of Illicit Crops to a freedom of information request of the House of Representatives. October 2018.
WOLA’s Adam Isacson had a conversation this week about peace and security in Colombia with Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador. That newspaper posted an edited transcript of the interview to its site on the evening of November 26. Here’s a quick English translation.
“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson
For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.
Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.
The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.
Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?
They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.
Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?
If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.
You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.
Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.
WOLA has been following the peace process.
As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.
And with regard to crop substitution…
It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.
Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?
The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.
How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?
We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.
The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.
Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?
Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.
I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.
Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?
I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.
Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.
Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?
For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.
In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?
Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.
The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill this morning. And two weeks ago, a Congressional Research Service report revealed new data about Defense Department assistance.
The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. This table depicts the White House’s February request and the House and Senate versions of the bill. The two chambers’ amounts don’t differ widely.
Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total.
2020 transfer of aid from Central America: we’ve heard it from legislative staff, but the only document we can cite right now is coverage of an October 2019 announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Colombia’s El Tiempo.
Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.
As though the Cold War never ended, Donald Trump has accused Joe Biden of being a “communist” during the election campaign.
The accusation is ridiculous: Biden is part of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; in 2000 the human rights community criticized him for vigorously supporting the military component of Plan Colombia. And of course Biden is strongly opposed to Nicolas Maduro.
But we know that Trump doesn’t care about the truth. On October 10 he tweeted, “Joe Biden is a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS (…) Biden is supported by socialist Gustavo Petro, a major LOSER and former M-19 guerrilla leader. Biden is weak on socialism and will betray Colombia.”
That same day, the president-candidate congratulated Alvaro Uribe upon being freed from his house arrest and said that he was “an ally of our Country in the fight against CASTRO-CHAVISMO!”
In an October 12 speech in Florida, Trump said: “My opponent stands with socialists and communists.… The last administration also negotiated the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels. They surrendered to the narco-terrorists. They surrendered, totally gave up to them, and that caused illicit drugs all over this country. Joe Biden even received the endorsement of Colombian socialist Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M19 Guerrilla organization. And he took it, because you know why? he didn’t know who the hell it was. He said, ‘I’ll take it. I’ll take whoever. And they said, no, he’s a bad guy, Joe. He’s actually a bad guy.’”
During his campaign, Trump has released Spanish-language videos targeting the Hispanic community:
A Spanish-language video from his campaign entitled “Castrochavismo,” repeating what he said in his speech.
In another video from August, Mercedes Schlapp thanks Gustavo Petro for making it clear that he supports Biden. Schalapp is a right-wing activist from a Florida Cuban-American family. Her husband heads the American Conservative Union, one of the country’s leading far-right think tanks.
The Latino vote in Florida, a decisive vote
Why does Trump use the word “Castrochavismo,” invented in Colombia by Uribismo? The answer is: Florida.
In the semi-democratic U.S. system, a candidate can be president even if he doesn’t have a majority of votes, if he wins a majority of states—as Trump did in 2016 and Bush did in 2000. It takes 270 electoral votes to be elected, and Florida represents 11% of that number.
Trump has no chance of being re-elected on November 3 if he does not win the state of Florida and its 29 electoral votes.
For Trump, the polls show a possible humiliating defeat due to his failed response to COVID-19 and a host of political and personal offenses. That’s why Joe Biden has a nationallead of more than 10 percentage points. In Florida, a somewhat more Republican-leaning state than average, Biden has a smaller lead of 3 or 4 points.
Florida, in turn, is a state where elections are often very close, so the vote of the Latino community—approximately 2.4 million voters—is a really decisive factor.
Biden has an important, but not huge, advantage in the Latino community: 54% to 43%, according to a survey released by St. Pete Polls on October 12, which gave Biden a 49-47 advantage among all voters in the state.
To win in Florida, Trump has to decrease the number of Latinos voting for Biden. And this is not impossible: Even though Biden has a two-to-one margin in national polls of Latino voters, that population in Florida tends to be more to the right.
The Colombian Right in Florida
In Florida, Cuban Americans are the largest ethnic group of Latino voters, followed by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and, in fourth place, Colombians. The Venezuelan community is also growing rapidly.
Unlike Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans are more likely to have upper-middle class origins. To emigrate, they generally had enough money to pay for a plane ticket and hire an immigration attorney. Many fled from leftist regimes, like Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Others, like the Colombians, fled kidnapping, extortion, and insecurity during the FARC’s zenith.
Many members of that population are frightened off by any odor of communism or socialism. Their right-wing views are strengthening thanks to Miami radio programs, extremist publications inserted into newspapers, and messages or memes shared on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social networks.
The results of the 2018 Colombian elections and the 2016 plebiscite show a trend toward uribismo among Colombians in the United States who are eligible to vote in Colombia. In the United States, Duque won the first round in 2018 with 71% of votes, and the second round with 85%, while “No” won the 2016 plebiscite with 62%.
The Colombian community in the United States sometimes supports Democratic candidates, but has an affinity with the Centro Democrático party. That is why Trump’s campaign uses the label “Castro-Chavismo” and accuses Biden of being a communist.
Uribe behind the scenes
Journalist Tim Padgett has investigated this direct connection between the Centro Democrático and the Trump campaign: how else would Trump know about the existence of Gustavo Petro, an “Obama-Biden-Santos pact,” or the word “Castro-chavista”?
Padgett says that the key moment was a dinner for Alvaro Uribe with Senator Marco Rubio and House member Mario Diaz-Balart, both legislators from the Cuban-American Republican right. According to Juan Pablo Salas, a Colombian analyst, “Before Alvaro Uribe came to Miami in 2016, nobody would have attempted to accuse Joe Biden of being a communist. Now it’s not only possible, it’s having success….. Alvaro Uribe really moved the ball.”
Although it is not clear who has transmitted Uribe’s messages from Colombia to Florida, it seems that Schlapp, Democratic Center Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal, and Juan David Velez, the congressional representative for Colombians abroad, are key figures.
Response and consequences
Biden’s supporters in Florida’s Colombian and Venezuelan communities have tried to counter the Republican attacks. They have endured abuses in social media and in their communities, but insist that Trump’s authoritarianism is tantamount to what made them flee their home countries.
We will see in November if that argument proves effective and convincing. Meanwhile, Biden continues to do well in the polls.
If Biden wins, relations between Colombia and the United States will remain close and cordial. Washington has invested heavily in maintaining this bilateral relationship in a region of strategic importance. But some members of Biden’s team, who have complained of Uribe’s interference in the campaign against him, would likely loosen ties between the two countries.
While the U.S.-Colombia relationship would remain close, the relationship between Biden and Duque and the Centro Democrático would be distant. Juan Gonzalez, an advisor to Biden, says, “I actually think that relationship between President Obama and President Uribe was sometimes complicated.” The same could happen between Biden and Duque.
An example of this “cordial but distant” tone was seen in June 2009, when President Uribe visited Washington. When Uribe and Obama received journalists in the Oval Office, Colombian journalist Natalia Orozco asked both of them about Uribe’s ambition for a second re-election. Obama said that while it was an internal Colombian issue, “We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us and that after eight years, usually the American people want a change.” Obama hit Uribe’s aspirations hard.
That willingness to stay distant from the Centro Democrático, and even to damage its agenda, may be characteristic of a Biden administration.
Although Biden has a high probability of winning, what might happen with the Colombian-American vote in Florida is uncertain. In that state, the outcome will be a major test of whether uribismo’s cold-war throwback strategy of “Castro-chavismo” can be exported to other contexts. And therefore, whether it might be replicated in Colombia’s own 2022 presidential elections.
A Google search for appearances of “Colombia” during the first six months of 2020 at house.gov, the domain of the U.S. House of Representatives, yields no more than 20 meaningful results. Most of those were brief mentions of the country’s record coca cultivation levels, or the impact of Venezuela’s crisis.
While the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, the Democrats won the majority of the House in the 2018 elections. Since then, the House has spoken little about Colombia. But surprisingly, over the last few weeks, it has made statements about Colombia’s peace process, its social leaders, and its military espionage scandals.
On July 6, 94 Democratic legislators signed a letter expressing their concern about these issues.
Days later, the 2021 foreign aid budget bill passed the full House. This bill, and its accompanying narrative report, do much to move U.S. assistance to Colombia in a more pro-peace, pro-human rights direction.
It appropriates $458 million in new assistance for Colombia in 2021, of which less than $200 million would go to the country’s police and military forces. By contrast, the Trump White House had requested, in February, $413 million, of which more than $250 million would go to the armed forces and police.
It lists specific purposes for which U.S. aid should be used, placing implementation of the peace accord at the center, along with a greater presence of civilian state institutions in ungoverned zones. It calls for greater attention to victims, small farmers, women, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, as well as coca substitution “as agreed to in the peace accord.”
It conditions fumigation, freezing 20 percent of the State Department’s $189 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds until the Department certifies that Colombia’s coca reduction strategy “is not in violation of the 2016 peace accord.”
As in past years, it adds human rights conditions holding up 20 percent of $38.525 million in one of the main military aid programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), until the Department certifies that Colombia’s justice system is holding gross human rights violators accountable; that the Colombian government is taking effective steps to protect social leaders and ethnic communities; and—in a new measure—that the Colombian government “has investigated and is taking steps to hold accountable” officials involved in illegal surveillance of civilians, “including the use of assets provided by the United States for combating counterterrorism and counternarcotics for such purposes.”
Two Amendments About Colombia
In addition, on July 21, the House passed 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, including budget guidelines. This is perhaps the only major bill likely to pass through both chambers and become law before the November election. The NDAA includes two amendments on Colombia.
The first, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report assessing allegations, revealed by Revista Semana in January and May, that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition.” That report must detail:
Any use of U.S.-provided assistance for such activities;
Colombian security forces’ involvement in illegal intelligence gathering between 2002 and 2018;
An assessment of the full extent of such activities, including identification of units involved, relevant chains of command, and the nature and objectives of such surveillance or intelligence gathering”;
Steps that U.S. diplomatic, defense, or intelligence agencies took to respond to misuse of assistance;
Steps that the Colombian government took in response to misuse of U.S. assistance; and
The adequacy of Colombian military and security doctrine and training for ensuring that intelligence operations are in accordance with human rights standards.
The second amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas. Though it will probably not block any U.S. aid for aerial glyphosate spraying, it is noteworthy that a high-profile Congresswoman expresses concern about the issue. A spokesperson toldBusiness Insider that aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians.
The amendments prospered in significant part because of Rep. McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful committee that meets each evening to approve (rule “in order”) amendments to be debated during the next day’s proceedings. Rep. McGovern is the member of the House who has most closely followed Colombia from a pro-peace and pro-human rights perspective. He toldBusiness Insider on July 27, “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.”
In the days following the amendments’ passage, McGovern appeared in numerous Colombian media outlets, includingEl Tiempo, El Espectador, andSemana. His message was quite critical of the current direction of U.S. policy, and voiced strong dismay at the Colombian military’s human rights abuses and the excesses of forced coca eradication undertaken by the Duque administration.
Two Incompatible Stances
It is clear that the Trump administration and the House have completely different priorities in Colombia today. The White House brings up record numbers of hectares of coca, and upholds Colombia as a partner and an ally in diplomatic efforts against Venezuela. In contrast, the House condemns slow implementation of the peace accord and the human rights abuses covered up by the Colombian government.
While Democrats are increasingly reluctant to accept these realities, very few Republicans today openly defend a militarized approach in Colombia. In the 1990s, a group of Republicans in Congress pressured the Clinton administration to increase military aid and fumigation in Colombia. In contrast, no Republican in Congress today advocates something similar with such force.
As a human rights advocate, I’ll give some credit to my own community: we are a solid group of experts and activists who have been working together since the 1990s to give higher priority to peace and human rights in U.S. policy toward Colombia. We have deep detailed knowledge, and a lot of institutional memory. Strategically minded donors have helped maintain this installed capacity, and when opportunity strikes, we can seize it.
What will happen in the next elections?
The next steps are in the Senate, where the 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has yet to be drafted. There, the Appropriations Committee will probably reveal its bill after the August legislative recess. It will not become law before the November election. The NDAA, meanwhile, may pass after conciliation between the House version and the Senate version, which does not include the McGovern or Ocasio-Cortez amendments.
The Colombian government appears to have been blindsided by the House Democrats’ July barrage. We’ve seen an angry note from Ambassador Francisco Santos to some of the signers of the 94-person letter, repeating the Duque administration’s talking points—which leave out key information—defending its protection of social leaders and rejecting concerns about peace accord implementation.
That letter’s brusque tone indicates that the Duque government has decided to continue refraining from engaging the increasingly progressive Democrats. With public opinion running strongly in the Democrats’ favor 13 weeks before major elections, adhering mainly to the Republican Party seems like a strategic error.
This past July, in a powerful show of force, 94 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo outlining grave concerns about the status of Colombia’s peace process.
The letter’s message, and the sheer number of signatories on it, sent shockwaves through Colombia. Shortly thereafter, in an interview in The Hill, Colombian President Iván Duque responded to congressional alarm by dismissing it as a product of U.S. electoral politics. His cavalier response underscored the point of the letter: Colombia’s peace is disintegrating because the Duque administration is failing to protect those working to sustain it.
The social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders doing the grassroots work of building peace in Colombia’s marginalized communities are being systematically targeted and assassinated. More than 400 social leaders have been killed since the signing of the peace accords, including 170 so far this year according to Colombian NGO Indepaz. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose data the Colombian government prefers, has identified a lower number of social leaders killed this year—but pending deaths that need verification, it notes a potential 70 percent increase in murders in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.
Among those killed this year is Marco Rivadeneira. He was assassinated while promoting voluntary coca substitutions programs—a key facet of the peace accords and a shared goal of the United States and Colombia—in a community meeting. His relentless efforts to implement these programs in Putumayo, a region where cocaine trafficking groups dominate, earned him credible death threats. He requested help from Colombia’s National Protection Unit, an agency that protects threatened social leaders. He never received it.
Four months after Marco Rivadeneira’s murder, no one has been brought to justice. What’s more, the Duque administration has engaged in policies that undermine Mr. Rivadeneira’s work. Rather than protect and support the 99,097 Colombian families who have signed up for voluntary coca substitution programs, the Duque administration is trying to restart an ineffective aerial eradication program that could decimate the health and sustenance of entire communities. Many of these communities are earnestly interested in voluntary eradication, but live without basic services.
Marco Rivadeneira’s story is a microcosm of peace in Colombia today.
Social leaders are pushing for voluntary coca substitution programs in regions controlled by cocaine traffickers. They’re seeking land, labor, and environmental rights in communities where extractive industries like mining operate. They’re finding justice for the millions of human rights abuses committed during Colombia’s 52-year conflict. Every day, their work directly challenges the power of violent interests in Colombia.
The Duque administration can support the work of social leaders by prioritizing the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal. It can better protect them by bringing those responsible for ordering attacks against social leaders to justice. Instead, the Duque administration is undermining them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, threatened social leaders have reported that their government-provided protective details have withdrawn, leaving them exposed to credible danger. Last year, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office launched 753 active investigations into threats against social leaders; only three resulted in convictions.
The Duque administration has also made social leaders’ work more difficult. Institutions tasked with uncovering human rights abuses during the Colombian conflict and guiding the truth and reconciliation process face drastic budget cuts. A critical development vehicle designed in conjunction with impacted communities—called Development Plans with a Territorial Focus—is operating at a fraction of its cost.
The reality on the ground is clear: since signing its historic peace accords, Colombia’s grasp on peace has never felt so tenuous.
The 94 members of Congress who signed the letter to Secretary Pompeo expressed legitimate alarm about peace in Colombia. The U.S. House of Representatives was right to act on that concern by generously funding peace implementation in the 2021 Foreign Operations appropriation, and by including amendments in the National Defense Authorization Act to defund aerial fumigation operations in Colombia and investigate reports of illegal surveillance by Colombian military forces.
It is critical that the United States Congress take a further step. It must proactively work with the Colombian government to aggressively protect social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders. Without their grassroots work securing land reform, labor rights, environmental rights, and justice, peace in Colombia is not possible.
On July 23, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), alongside the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and 22 other international and local civil society organizations, published a report entitled, Protect Colombia’s Peace.
The report outlines the current challenges of Colombia’s peace process, including: the obstacles to fully reintegrating ex-combatants, despite advances; the very partial implementation of the ethnic chapter and gender provisions; the increasingly dire situation of human rights defenders; the halting implementation of rural reforms; the return to drug policy solutions that are not sustainable and undermine the accords; and the impact of the Venezuelan refugee crisis on Colombia.
The U.S. and the international community can play a critical role in catalyzing support for a sustainable peace, only if they boldly encourage compliance with the 2016 peace accords.
Key recommendations in the report advocate for U.S. aid and stronger diplomacy to call on the Colombian government to implement the peace accord’s ethnic chapter and gender provisions, ensure justice for the victims of the armed conflict, protect human rights defenders, advance sustainable drug policy and rural reforms to reach Colombia’s small farmers and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, end abuses by the Colombian armed forces, and dismantle the paramilitary successor networks.
The U.S. government’s diplomatic efforts in Colombia helped pave the way for peace, and this wise investment should not be wasted.
Read the full report in English here. Read the executive summary in English here.
Protejan la paz en Colombia: Nuevo informe con recomendaciones claves para la política estadounidense
El 23 de julio, el Grupo de Trabajo de América Latina (LAWG), junto con la Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) y otras 22 organizaciones internacionales y nacionales de la sociedad civil, publicaron un informe titulado, Protejan la paz en Colombia.
El informe describe los desafíos actuales del proceso de paz en Colombia que incluyen: los obstáculos para lograr la plena reintegración de los excombatientes, a pesar de los avances; la muy incompleta implementación del capítulo étnico y las disposiciones de género; la situación cada vez más difícil de los defensores de los derechos humanos; la vacilante implementación de las reformas rurales; el regreso a las soluciones de políticas de drogas que no son sostenibles y debilitan el acuerdo; y el impacto de la crisis de los refugiados venezolanos en Colombia.
Los Estados Unidos y la comunidad internacional pueden desempeñar un papel fundamental para catalizar el apoyo a una paz duradera, solo si actúan con determinación para impulsar el cumplimiento del acuerdo.
Las recomendaciones claves en el reporte abogan por la cooperación de Estados Unidos y una diplomacia más fuerte para pedirle al gobierno colombiano que implemente el capítulo étnico y las disposiciones de género del acuerdo de paz, garantice la justicia para las víctimas del conflicto armado, proteja a los defensores de los derechos humanos, promueva una política de drogas sostenible y reformas rurales para alcanzar a los campesinos y las comunidades afrocolombianas e indígenas de Colombia, ponga fin a los abusos de las fuerzas armadas colombianas y desmantele las redes sucesoras de los paramilitares.
Los esfuerzos diplomáticos del gobierno de los Estados Unidos en Colombia ayudaron a allanar el camino hacia la paz y esta sabia inversión no debe desperdiciarse.
Lea el informe completo en español aquí. Lea el resumen ejecutivo en español aquí.
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.
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
The House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee finished work on the 2021 State Department and Foreign Operations bill on July 9. In addition to offering some language very supportive of peace accord implementation, the narrative report accompanying the bill provides a table explaining how the House appropriators (or at least, their strong Democratic Party majority) would require that this money be spent.
The table above shows how the House would spend the 2021 aid money, and how it fits in with what the Trump White House requested, and what aid has looked like since 2016, the year before before the outgoing Obama administration’s “Peace Colombia” aid package went into effect.
If the House were to get its way, less than $200 million of the $458 million in 2021 U.S. aid to Colombia would go to the country’s police and military forces. However, the bill must still go through the Republican-majority Senate, whose bill may reflect somewhat more “drug war” priorities. A final bill is unlikely to pass both houses of Congress until after Election Day.
2020 transfer of aid from Central America: we’ve heard it from legislative staff, but the only document we can cite right now is coverage of an October 2019 announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Colombia’s El Tiempo.
Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.
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 Espectadorasked 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.
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 6, 2020 — Today, Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA), Chairman of the House Rules Committee and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Mark Pocan (D-WI), Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led a group of 94 Members of Congress urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press the Colombian government to commit to peace and stop the escalation of violence against Colombian human rights defenders.
Since a 2016 peace accord brought an end to decades of conflict in Colombia, over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered, including 153 in only the first six months of 2020. 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 is not the first time Congress has demanded the U.S. and Colombian governments protect human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia. Yet the assassinations continue to mount, and the pandemic has made them even more vulnerable. Enough is enough. Whatever the Colombian government thinks it’s doing, it’s simply not getting the job done. It should spend less time downplaying the statistics, and more time providing protection and, more importantly, hunting down, arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning those who order, carry out, and benefit from these murders. That’s what the peace accord calls for, and nothing less will do,” said Congressman McGovern. “The brutal murders of those working for peace and basic human dignity in Colombia is not only a tragedy for Colombians, it hurts all people around the world who care about human rights. The United States has an obligation speak out and demand an end to this unrelenting violence.”
“Three years after a historic peace accord was signed, human rights defenders, union leaders, land rights activists and indigenous leaders continue to face violence as the Colombian government looks the other way,” said Congressman Pocan. “Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of these peace accords. Secretary Pompeo must condemn this violence and urge the Colombian government to safeguard the lives of these defenders, prosecute the intellectual authors of these attacks and dismantle the structures that benefit from this violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these leaders more vulnerable to attack, and we must ensure U.S. assistance to Colombia is used to ensure these peace accords are implemented—not continue to allow these acts of violence to occur with impunity.”
Violence appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders who are being murdered in their homes and workplaces, out of the public eye and with impunity. Before the pandemic, large-scale demonstrations had taken place throughout the country demanding protection for human rights defenders and community leaders as Colombia confronts the greatest number of assaults and killings in a decade.
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.
This letter follows on recent revelations of illegal surveillance by military intelligence of journalists, human rights defenders and judges; the rape of an indigenous girl by several Colombian soldiers, reflecting a pattern of abuses by the military; and an in-depth memorial by El Espectador daily newspaper citing the names of 442 human rights and social leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accord.
The Members’ letter was also backed by several prominent human rights organizations which advocate for peace and social justice in Colombia.
“The peace accords offer Colombia a roadmap out of a violent past into a more just future. But there are no shortcuts. The Colombian government and international community must recommit to full implementation. Not one more human rights defender should lose their life while peace founders,” said Lisa Haugaard, Co-Director of the Latin America Working Group.
“Social leaders are the most important people in bringing peace and democracy to Colombia. The United States, which is Colombia’s top donor, must do everything it can to stop the systematic killing of social leaders and ensure justice on cases of murdered activists. A consolidated peace in Colombia is in the best interest of the United States, and social leaders are how we achieve that peace,” said Gimena Sanchez, director for the Andes, at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Until the government of Colombia adopts a security policy that prioritizes the protection of the lives and rights of indigenous and community activists, particularly in the former conflict areas, the promise of the peace accords for peace and justice will remain illusory,” said Mark Schneider, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The full text of the letter can be downloaded here. A copy of the letter translated into Spanish is here.
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.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota
Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,
We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers. As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.
This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services. In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rightsreport, targeted killings and forced disappearances. In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters. In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda. In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists. In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.
The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy. The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings. For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone. This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy. It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders. The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.
We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”
As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves: What can ensure that this never happens again?
At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:
Support the creation of an independent group of experts under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and recommend steps to achieve justice and non-repetition.
Press for a thorough review of military doctrine and training to ensure that it promotes a proper understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society, including the role of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, and an independent judiciary. While the written doctrine was revised during the Santos Administration, clearly improvements to doctrine are not being followed. The review should seek an accounting for the too-frequent episodes of senior military behavior that contradicts this revised doctrine. Such a review must have input from Colombian human rights defenders and judicial experts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Urge the Colombian government to provide all necessary protection measures, agreed upon with the targeted individuals and organizations, to ensure their physical and psychological integrity, as well as that of those around them.
Urge the Colombian government to purge all intelligence files, whether of state security forces or other organizations, collected on human rights organizations, finally addressing the long-standing demand by human rights organizations, unfulfilled for nearly a quarter century.
Urge the Colombian government to reveal publicly the full extent of illegal intelligence operations targeting civil society activists, politicians, judges, and journalists, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives.
The administration should direct DNI, CIA, NSA and DIA to inform congressional intelligence, armed services and foreign relations and foreign affairs committees of their conclusions on the full extent of illegal Colombian intelligence operations, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives. The administration should direct the same agencies to inform these congressional committees whether and when the U.S. government learned of these actions by the Colombian military and intelligence services and whether U.S. intelligence agencies cooperated with their counterparts even after learning of those actions.
Investigate whether recipients of U.S. training and/or equipment participated in ordering or implementing these illegal activities and immediately suspend individuals and units involved from receiving U.S. training and equipment, per the Leahy Law.
Suspend all U.S. support for Colombia’s military and intelligence services if the Colombian government does not immediately suspend and promptly investigate and prosecute officials who ordered and executed these illegal activities and conduct the thorough review and rewriting of military doctrine and training mentioned above.
If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end. Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York Colombian Studies Group, The New School International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights Latin America Working Group (LAWG) Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) Oxfam America Presbyterian Peace Fellowship School of the Americas Watch United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
On May 12, the Department of State notified Congress that Cuba and other countries were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015. In its statement, the State Department referred to Cuba’s denial of Colombia’s request for the extradition of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) leaders who are stranded in Havana after broken-off peace talks, and the presence of fugitives wanted by U.S. authorities who have lived in Cuba for decades. These politically motivated charges, aimed at pleasing U.S. political constituencies, undermine existing U.S.-Cuba security cooperation as well as the possibility of peace negotiations in Colombia and potentially elsewhere.
The sanctions attached to the “non-cooperation” designation—a prohibition on the sale or export of defense equipment and services to the designated country—do not have practical consequences for Cuba, since U.S. embargo regulations already prohibit the sale of defense-related equipment and services. However, this designation further poisons the diplomatic atmosphere between Cuba and the United States.
Designating Cuba as “non-cooperative” might be one step short of returning the country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba was officially removed from the list in 2015). The rationale cited by the State Department for labeling Cuba as “non-cooperative” is similar to the justifications previous administrations invoked for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.
Since Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, the U.S. government and Cuba have deepened security cooperation on issues of mutual interest for mutual benefits. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in the signature of a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement issues, where both governments committed to expanding operational collaboration on counter-terrorism, illicit drug traffic, cybercrime, and cybersecurity, among other issues. In addition, both governments established specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases including counterterrorism.
The most recent public technical meeting took place in January of 2018 between the Cuban Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, who highlighted the importance of cooperation in these areas and agreed to continue the technical meetings in the future.
One of the factors cited by the State Department for Cuba’s 2015 removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list was Cuba’s critical role in the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In May 2018, Colombia’s government, the ELN guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host peace talks between Colombia and the ELN, which had been taking place in Ecuador. Cuba and Norway were serving as “guarantor countries” for those talks, aimed at ending a conflict that began in 1964.
In April 2016, at the outset of the talks, all involved —including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These stated clearly that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was much more skeptical about peace talks. In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police academy, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government did not honor the protocols governing a breakdown of talks. It demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves continue to demand to be allowed to leave Cuba, as detailed in the protocols that Colombia’s government signed.
The communities where the ELN operates have consistently pleaded with the Colombian government to engage in exploratory peace talks with the guerrilla group, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These recent actions by the U.S. and Colombian governments disregard the security and well-being of afro-colombians, indigenous, and rural farmers who have no alternative but to deal with the negative implications of illegal groups like the ELN that operate in their territories. Rather than create obstacles to consolidating peacemaking efforts, the Colombian government should be taking all possible steps to create the conditions needed to reinstate dialogue and work towards establishing a durable peace.
It sends the message that if a state agrees to host peace talks, and doesn’t violate its word, that state could still face severe consequences for its contribution to global peace and security. In Colombia, as reprehensible as the ELN’s actions were, this sends a perverse message to any group that might decide to enter into a future peace process with the government.
Ultimately, this step by the Trump administration undermines ongoing cooperation on national security and law enforcement cooperation between Cuba and the United States, while undercutting effective international diplomacy.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General toldEl Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.
Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.
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.
Since 1997, John Otis has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).
Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.
Here’s a new Colombia-related installment in WOLA’s podcast series. A conversation with Alex Fattal, whose 2018 book “Guerrilla Marketing” tells the story of the Colombian military’s employment of advertising campaigns to convince guerrillas to demobilize during the country’s armed conflict. His work explores the overlap between national security, global capitalism, and “branding.”