On July 1, a team of coca eradicators and security forces arrived in the village of Caucasia, in Puerto Asís municipality, in Colombia’s department of Putumayo. In Colombia’s far south along the Ecuador border, Putumayo is where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began. Its first phase in 2000, what the Clinton Administration called the “push into southern Colombia,” expanded military and coca-eradication operations there. Twenty years later, the region’s farmers remain so isolated and abandoned that Putumayo still concentrates tens of thousands of hectares of coca plants.
Dozens or hundreds of Caucasia farmers gathered to protest the eradicators’ arrival. They had been in the midst of negotiations with Colombia’s Interior Ministry on a pilot project to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for assistance. Those dialogues got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia. But forced eradication did not get put on hold: eradicators and police escorts arrived and prepared to pull up the bushes.
Though details of what happened remain elusive, it is clear that the situation grew tense on July 3. Members of the Colombian Police anti-disturbances squadron (ESMAD) opened fire at some distance, killing one of the community members: 56-year-old Educardo Alemeza Papamija. Three others were wounded.
Episodes like this have become very common in 2020, especially since Colombia went into pandemic lockdown. Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank counted 15 confrontations between security forces and farmers between January and April, with 4 civilians killed. Overlapping this count somewhat, during the first three months of COVID-19 response—between late March and late June—Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counted five civilians killed:
- Alejandro Carvajal, in Sardinata, Norte de Santander, on March 26;
- Ángel Artemino Nastacuas Villarreal, in Tumaco, Nariño, on April 22;
- Emérito Digno Buendía Martínez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on May 18;
- Ariolfo Sánchez Ruíz, in Anori, Antioquia, on May 20; and
- Salvador Jaime Durán, in Teorama, Norte de Santander, on June 27.
Adding the July 3 incident in Putumayo makes six civilians killed in coca eradication operations since late March. This is the deadliest period since 2017: in October of that year, police accompanying coca eradication operations massacred seven farmers in the village of El Tandil, in Tumaco, Nariño.
The eradication operations have become more aggressive as the U.S. government has prodded Colombia to expand them, while paying much of the bill. “Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150,” Reuters reported last September. Colombia has pledged to forcibly eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020, which would smash its 2019 record of 94,606 hectares.
That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.
While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.
These expanded operations are dangerous for the soldiers and police too: armed groups protect the coca with landmines, booby traps, snipers, and ambushes. The Ideas for Peace Foundation counts 126 members of the security forces or coca eradicators killed during manual eradication operations between 2009 and 2018, and 664 more wounded. Protesting farmers, meanwhile, aren’t always non-violent, and security force members are sometimes injured during protests against eradication.
This, though, is yet another reason for Colombia and its U.S. government supporters to pursue a different strategy: a less violent and confrontational one that might actually reduce the dependence on coca that has led the crop to persist in rural zones for 40 years now. A better strategy would seek specifically to lower the number of Colombian families that plant coca, in most cases for lack of other viable options. Estimates of that number currently range from over 119,500 to over 230,000 families.
An alternative strategy exists, and it was the product of years of intense negotiations. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord had a plan for reducing this number of coca-growing families dramatically. Under the accord’s fourth chapter, over 99,000 families signed voluntary coca eradication agreements, in exchange for promised assistance. That number could have been higher, but the government of President Iván Duque froze the program after taking office in August 2018. The accord’s crop substitution plan, along with its larger efforts to bring a government presence into historically abandoned rural areas, is underfunded, increasingly behind schedule, and not receiving anywhere near the emphasis that forced eradication is getting—especially during the pandemic.
Even in a pandemic, Colombia’s U.S.-backed expanded forced eradication campaign is happening without even food security assistance for the families affected, leaving many hungry after the eradicators depart. In June the Colombian daily El Espectador asked the Defense Minister why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of any help for farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and that eradicating is “our constitutional duty.” We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work: it may yield a short-term decrease in the number of hectares planted with coca, but replanting happens quickly.
This aggressive, cruel, and ineffective model must stop now. Coca eradication should be the product of dialogue with communities, with the goal of bringing a lasting government presence into vast areas of Colombia where people live without one. In the rare instances when that is not possible, eradicators should de-escalate confrontations with communities, seeking to avoid the use of force and the repetition of the sorts of tragedies that Colombia has witnessed six times now since the pandemic began.
And of course, Colombia should resist any effort to re-start eradication by spraying the highly questioned herbicide glyphosate from aircraft. Fumigation not only raises health and environmental concerns that the government has not yet addressed—it is the very opposite of a long-term solution based on having people on the ground to govern territory.
As the main foreign backer of Colombia’s coca eradication strategy, the U.S. government should play a determining role in helping Colombia pursue a more humane, long-term-focused, and ultimately successful strategy. If the United States does not help to change course, it will continue to share the blame for disastrous human rights outcomes like what we are seeing now. And within a few years—when coca-growing families inevitably replant after remaining without formal title to their lands, isolated from markets, and lacking even basic governance—the United States will also share the blame for the current strategy’s foreseeable failure.