Updates from WOLA tagged “U.S. Policy”

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

“Peace Colombia”: What’s New About It?

February 25, 2016

(Una versión adaptada de este artículo aparece en español en el portal colombiano Razón Pública.)

We don’t know exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked for when he met with Obama administration officials and members of the U.S. Congress during his early February visit to Washington. Perhaps he requested—or decided not to request—some measures that the U.S. government was not prepared to take, like removing the FARC from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, freeing imprisoned guerrilla leader “Simón Trinidad,” or promising a post-conflict aid package of US$500 million or more.

What Santos did get in Washington were some very strong rhetorical shows of support for the peace process with guerrilla groups (which probably helps him in his domestic debates with the peace talks’ right-wing opponents), and a promise from President Obama to ask Congress for US$450 million in new aid for Colombia in 2017.

This aid package is being called “Peace Colombia.” (Perhaps an unconscious nod to the Colombian civil-society movement of the same name, which sought to promote alternatives to Plan Colombia back in 2000-2001.) It would represent an important increase in aid to Colombia from its current level of about US$325 million.

From the information we have available now, “Peace Colombia” appears to be an important and necessary step, and an improvement over past U.S. approaches in Colombia. But it is also a smaller, and more military-focused, program than it should be. The new package is different than what came before, but not radically different.

Background on U.S. aid to Colombia

Gradual change has been the rule for U.S. assistance since around 2007, Plan Colombia’s most intense moment, when U.S. aid exceeded US$750 million.  At that time, 80 percent of the aid went to military and police initiatives, including the “Plan Patriota” offensive, herbicide fumigation of nearly 400,000 acres, and the launch of a guerrilla encampment-bombing campaign and a “Territorial Consolidation” counterinsurgency plan. Since that point, every year has seen small reductions in the overall aid amount, and small adjustments away from military and police aid toward economic and social aid. Today, the “hard side” of U.S. aid is just barely over 50 percent of the total.

The US$450 proposed for 2017, while larger than this year’s amount, is far smaller than what the U.S. government was providing ten years ago. This sends the unfortunate message that Washington is more generous in times of war than in times of consolidating peace. Still, for the first time, the majority of U.S. aid will go to non-military priorities: to Colombians who do not wear uniforms and carry weapons.

What is in the Peace Colombia aid package?

The vast majority of the proposed aid will go through five programs, or accounts, in the U.S. system of foreign aid. It’s worth looking at these five programs to understand the Obama administration’s post-conflict priorities.

Tags: U.S. Aid, U.S. Policy

Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Frequently Asked Questions

June 23, 2015

(1,754 words, approximate reading time 8 minutes, 46 seconds)

For over 25 years, the Washington Office on Latin America has closely tracked Colombia’s armed conflict and efforts to end it. With the U.S. House of Representatives holding a hearing about Colombia’s peace process tomorrow, here is our assessment of the current moment.

How would a peace accord benefit U.S. interests in Colombia?

In the 12 years between the launch of “Plan Colombia” (2000) and the relaunch of talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas (2012), Colombia tripled its defense budget and increased its armed forces by about 75 percent. A long offensive decreased the FARC’s size by about two-thirds. Today, this means that the FARC still has about 7,000 members and 15,000 support personnel. Though the FARC has no hope of taking power by force, the past 12 years’ rate of reduction promises years of continued conflict.

After 51 years of fighting, negotiation offers a quicker way to end the FARC’s status as a cause of violence and drug production. A peace accord would dissolve a group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as thousands of its members move into legality. This would ease efforts to reduce production and transshipment of U.S.-bound illegal drugs. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance over historically lawless territories that provide safe haven to terror groups and traffickers.

Is a peace accord likely?

Yes, but getting there will be slow. Formal negotiations began two and a half years ago, and could easily take another year. Nonetheless, negotiators at the table are working in a disciplined way with international accompaniment, respecting the ground rules and generating hundreds of pages of proposals and dozens of pages of draft accords.

Negotiators have signed preliminary accords on rural development, political participation for the opposition, reforms to drug policy, and a truth commission. They have taken some steps toward de-escalating the conflict: the FARC is cooperating with the government on initial de-mining projects, and has agreed to turn over any minors in its ranks under the age of 15.


Negotiators announce agreement on a Truth Commission in June.

Still, some of the most difficult questions remain unresolved. Negotiators must find a way to hold human rights abusers accountable while also persuading them to disarm. They still must come to agreement on reparations to victims, the nature of combatants’ disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and the method of ratifying a final agreement.

The negotiations are going on without a ceasefire, amid frequently intense combat. This is a deliberate choice of the Colombian government, which is concerned that the FARC might use a ceasefire to regroup and reinforce itself. President Juan Manuel Santos insists that a bilateral cease-fire must wait until the end of the process. In the meantime, acts of violence undermine public support for the dialogues, and affect the climate at the negotiating table.

Are the talks in a rough patch?

Yes. The FARC had declared a unilateral cease-fire effective December 20, 2014, which brought an approximately 85 percent reduction in guerrilla offensive actions (though guerrilla “fundraising” activities, like extortion and narcotrafficking, continued). The ceasefire was not reciprocal: though the government halted aerial bombings of FARC targets in March, the guerrillas complained of frequent military ground attacks.

On April 15, FARC fighters attacked a military column encamped in a rural town in southwestern Colombia, killing 11 soldiers. The guerrillas refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and the government responded by resuming aerial bombings, including three raids in May that killed over 40 FARC members. The FARC revoked its cease-fire on May 22, and has since carried out a steady campaign of attacks on civilian economic infrastructure. Attacks on oil pipelines and power lines are causing environmental damage and blackouts.


The aftermath of the April 15 FARC attack.

What does public opinion say?

The guerrilla offensive has dangerously drained support for the talks. In late February, during the guerrillas’ unilateral cease-fire, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup poll found 72 percent of respondents supporting the government’s decision to negotiate with the FARC. For only the second time since the talks started, Gallup found a majority—53 percent—optimistic that an accord might be reached. Two months later, those numbers fell to 57 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

Would a ceasefire help?

Some analysts contend that the guerrillas are deliberately seeking to anger Colombians, in the belief that President Santos might agree to a bilateral cease-fire to save the peace process. This is a miscalculation: public fatigue with the peace process makes it more likely that the government might walk away from the talks completely.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises, U.S. Policy

The Extradition Issue

March 20, 2015
FARC leader “Simón Trinidad” at the federal maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.

(1,956 words, approximate reading time 9 minutes, 46 seconds)

“I don’t believe that any guerrilla is going to turn in his weapon only to go and die in a U.S. jail,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in early March. “It will be up to me to propose to the U.S. authorities some solution to this issue, which is complex and difficult, but has to be resolved.”

President Santos has much to discuss. Outstanding requests to extradite FARC guerrilla leaders to the United States could stand in the way of a final peace accord.

We have never seen a full list of U.S. courts’ indictments of FARC leaders (some of them may still be sealed), nor have we ever spoken to a U.S. official who could cite an exact number of outstanding extradition requests. But the following indictments are in the public record, and the number is large: they involve at least 60 living, at-large FARC members.

  • Six were indicted in 2001 for the 1999 killing of three U.S. indigenous rights activists in Arauca. (At least one of these six is now dead.)
  • Three were indicted in 2002 for narcotics and for kidnapping two U.S. oil workers in Venezuela. (At least two of these three are now dead.)
  • One was indicted in 2002 for the 1998 kidnapping of four U.S. citizen birdwatchers. (This individual, Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” is now a FARC negotiator in Havana.)
  • Two were indicted in 2004 for a 2003 grenade attack on a Bogotá bar, which injured five U.S. citizen customers.
  • Fifty were indicted in 2006 to face narcotics charges. (Several—we don’t know how many—are now dead, or captured and extradited. Some are on the guerrilla negotiating team in Havana.) This mass indictment was made possible by the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, which established the federal crime of “narco-terrorism,” or trafficking drugs to fund terrorist activity. This change in the law now applies worldwide: U.S. officials no longer need to prove that an individual intended to traffic drugs to the United States.
  • Eighteen were indicted in 2010 for their role in holding three U.S. defense contractors hostage between 2003 and 2008, and murdering their plane’s U.S. citizen pilot. (At least one of them, Dutch-born Tanja Nijmeijer, is part of the FARC delegation in Havana. Some others have been captured and extradited.)

U.S. authorities have also sought to extradite leaders of Colombia’s pro-government paramilitary groups to face narcotrafficking charges. In May 2008, then-President Álvaro Uribe extradited 14 of them at once, although all were participating in a negotiated demobilization and transitional justice process. As of February 2010, 30 ex-paramiltaries had been extradited to the United States.

FARC leaders have made clear that they will not let that happen to them. They will not agree to demobilize without a solid guarantee that the Colombian government will not extradite them to the United States for crimes committed before the signing of a peace accord.

The U.S. government cannot offer this guarantee. Once extradition requests are issued, it is almost impossible to call them back. The indictments listed above come from grand juries, presided by judges, and the U.S. government’s executive branch cannot interfere in the actions of the judicial branch. (While the President has the constitutional power to pardon individuals before a case goes to trial—as President Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon after Watergate—such pre-trial pardons are exceedingly rare.)

The prosecutors in these cases may technically be part of the executive branch, working for the President, but they have wide-ranging independence to avoid any appearance that their work is politicized. (Witness the political firestorm that raged in 2007 when the Bush administration sought to fire and replace several U.S. attorneys.) Their superiors cannot force them to drop their cases for the good of “peace in Colombia.”

Extradition requests are issued by the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs. This Office’s mandate doesn’t include bringing peace to Colombia or achieving general U.S. foreign policy objectives. Its job is to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice. So these indictments and extradition requests aren’t going anywhere.

Within these constraints, it’s up to another part of the U.S. government—the Department of State, and if necessary the President—to decide whether a country’s non-fulfillment of an extradition request affects its relations with the United States.

Often, when U.S. diplomats consider the larger context, non-fulfillment of extradition requests has no effect at all on the bilateral relationship. This was the case when Colombia’s Supreme Court held up the extradition of paramilitary leader Daniel Rendón alias “Don Mario” in 2010. Nor did the U.S.-Colombia relationship suffer in 2011, when the Santos government extradited wanted Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled to his home country—with which President Santos was seeking to repair troubled relations—instead of to the United States.

Tags: Extradition, U.S. Policy

Washington Names a Special Envoy. What Can He Do?

February 23, 2015

On February 20, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Bernard Aronson, the United States’ first special envoy to the Colombian peace process. This is a welcome move.

Since talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas began in 2012, U.S. support has been consistent, but distant. Its usual manifestation has been public declarations of U.S. backing—a general statement every two months or so—from a high-ranking official. But with Aronson’s appointment, a senior official will be engaged with the process on a full-time basis. U.S. support for the talks is likely to take a qualitative leap forward.

A Colombian Request

The move, Secretary Kerry said, is the result of a direct request from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

“In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process.”

What prompted President Santos to make this request in December is unclear. Timing was a likely factor: the FARC’s quick November 30 release of a captured Colombian general, and its mid-December declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, gave fresh momentum to the talks, leaving a clear impression that they had moved to a more advanced phase. President Santos no doubt calculated that a more explicit show of U.S. backing was appropriate at this stage. But it is uncertain what additional roles or duties he wishes U.S. diplomats to fulfill at this time.

A change in U.S. posture

Even six months ago, in our interactions with U.S. officials, the idea of a special envoy to the peace talks didn’t quite fail the “laugh test,” but was certainly viewed as premature. A series of recent events—Santos’s reelection victory, the captured general’s release, the ceasefire, steps toward de-escalation of the conflict—changed that calculation.

Changed U.S.-Cuban relations

The December 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba also likely made the idea of a special envoy more practical. It eased, both politically and diplomatically, the presence of a U.S. government representative in Havana on a mission unrelated to the bilateral relationship with Cuba.

A qualified envoy

Bernard Aronson served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George H.W. Bush (41) administration. There, he oversaw a shift away from the Reagan administration’s opposition to negotiations in El Salvador, toward a stance of support for UN-brokered peace talks.

The choice of Aronson is, on balance, smart. He is experienced with U.S. support for peace negotiations in Latin America. And, since he served in a Republican administration (though himself active in Democratic politics), he has more credibility with Republican legislators, whose support is important as they now control both houses of Congress.

Aronson’s efforts were vital to encouraging El Salvador’s rightist government to stay at the negotiating table. But he is not a reserved, conciliatory career diplomat. Álvaro de Soto, the UN official who mediated the El Salvador peace talks, described Aronson as “browbeating me” about issues like negotiation deadlines and imposing a cease-fire, and criticized his State Department for the impatience with which it approached the talks and occasionally undercut his work. Investigative journalist Juanita León, meanwhile, points out that Aronson’s private-equity firm, which he founded in 1996, has investments in oil extraction projects in Putumayo and Meta, two conflictive zones with a heavy FARC presence.

The FARC is delighted

In Havana, guerrilla negotiators quickly issued a statement “hailing” Aronson’s appointment as U.S. special envoy. They voiced a view that more direct U.S. involvement in the peace process is “a necessity, given the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia’s political, economic, and social life.”

Tags: U.S. Policy

U.S. Congress Supports Peace in Colombia

April 18, 2013

Earlier today, 62 members of the U.S. Congress sent a bipartisan letter led by Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA) and Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling for a U.S. policy that emphasizes peace, development, and human rights in Colombia. Since October 2012, the Colombian government has been in negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to end the decades-long conflict. The letter urges the Department of State to continue supporting the peace process and encourage the parties to remain at the table until an accord is reached.  The letter emphasizes that truth and justice, and participation by victims and attention to their needs, is essential to achieve a lasting peace.  The United States can promote the realization of peace by continuing its support for rule of law programs, advocating for the rights of victims, ending the culture of impunity, and assisting with the implementation of Colombia’s Victims and Land Law.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) applaud the bipartisan letter and thank the signatories for their commitment to ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict. As longstanding advocates for peace in Colombia, WOLA and LAWG affirm that only by including victims and marginalized populations, such as Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, in the construction and implementation of peace will Colombia be able to address the roots of its conflict and achieve a just and lasting peace. 

To read the complete letter with signatories, please click here.

Tags: U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy