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.