Government blames Nariño violence on court-ordered freeze in coca eradication
A firefight between anti-narcotics police and members of the “Óliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 14 police wounded in a rural zone of Tumaco, Nariño, not far from the Ecuador border, as they sought to raid a cocaine laboratory on August 20.
This is part of a worsening climate of violence in Nariño’s Pacific coast region, in Colombia’s far southwest, which is one of the country’s busiest and most fought-over drug trafficking corridors. The same municipalities host coca fields, processing laboratories, and coastal transshipment points. Just north of Tumaco, in the “Telembí Triangle” region, fighting between various armed groups, most of them ex-FARC dissidents, has displaced over 21,000 people—a large part of the population—so far this year.
Reporting from El Tiempomentions fighting between three factions of ex-FARC dissidents, mostly derived from former Tumaco-area FARC militia members who did not demobilize: the “Óliver Sinisterra,” whose highest profile leader, alias “Guacho,” was killed in 2018; the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico; and more recently members of the Putumayo-based “Comandos de la Frontera,” a group made up of former guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and organized crime. The latter group is apparently aligned with the “Segunda Marquetalia,” the dissident faction founded by former chief FARC peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other top ex-FARC leaders.
All the armed groups “are looking to control coca crops and production,” a “church spokesperson who knows the region” told El Tiempo. “Everyone here has a Mexican ally, from a cartel, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano is blaming increased violence on a court ruling. In May 2021, in response to a judicial appeal (tutela) from the Nariño Pacific Human Rights Network, which represents several Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities, the Superior Tribunal of Pasto prohibited all coca eradication—including that done by manual eradication teams—until the government engages in prior consultation with affected communities. The court ordered the Interior Ministry to carry out consultations within 100 days, with a possible 60-day extension. It is not clear how much progress the Ministry has made, if any, on consultations with residents of these remote, poorly governed zones.
Since May, then, coca eradication has been on hold in much of 10 municipalities along coastal Nariño. This includes Tumaco, which ranks second in coca acreage among Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. Nariño, however, has seen a decline in coca cultivation, from nearly 42,000 hectares in 2018 to 30,751 in 2020, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Long the number-one coca-growing department, Nariño has been surpassed by Norte de Santander (see the Venezuela discussion above). About one-fifth of Nariño’s coca is planted in indigenous reserves, the UNODC estimates.
Molano, the defense minister, calls the result of the court order “a case of national security,” adding that “denying the possibility of manual eradication in 10 municipalities of Nariño has had an impact on the increase in homicides and forced displacements in that area.”
The communities themselves, though, blame a near-total absence of government presence, including security and other basic services. “We have been negotiating with the governments in power for almost 26 years, and we have not been able to get roads we need to transport our legal products,” a leader of Nariño’s Juntas Comunales La Cordillera organization toldEl Tiempo. “We have no roads, we have no schools. We want to substitute [coca], but they do not present us with options.” Community leaders note that the government is badly behind on payments promised to those who voluntarily eradicate their coca, in the framework of a program set up by the 2016 peace accords.
Unable to eradicate coca in coastal Nariño, “the authorities have opted for a path that, paradoxically, is the one that many experts recommend because of its effectiveness: attacking other links, such as inputs or capital for the purchase of coca leaf and coca base,” reads an El Tiempoeditorial. It is not clear how energetically the government is pursuing these alternative measures, though, or whether they could possibly be enough to substitute for state presence in a climate of worsening combat between guerrilla dissidents and other armed groups.
Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.
March 26, 2021
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. The White House Washington, DC
Dear President Biden,
We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated. It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.
Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.
Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.
Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.
Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.
They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste.
These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:
Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.
In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.
This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.
Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do.
Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.
This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.
It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.
Center for International Environmental Law
Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
Colombia Human Rights Committee
Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
Drug Policy Alliance
Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
Latin America Working Group
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
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.
Coca and Eradication Four Years into Colombia’s “Post-Accord” Phase 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Four years after the signing of a historic peace accord, hundreds of thousands of Colombian families continue to rely on the coca crop. The government, with U.S. support, has already broken its annual record for forced eradication, during the pandemic, and little of it has been coordinated with food security or rural development assistance. Now, a revival of a controversial aerial herbicide fumigation program is looming.
How are coca cultivating communities responding? How does all of this relate to the peace accord? What might happen if fumigation restarts? What are the costs of eradication, both financially and in terms of rights? Will pursuing the same strategies pursued during the past 30 years really yield a different result? What happened with the peace accords’ crop substitution program? What would a better coca policy look like? How should the new U.S. administration adjust its assistance programs?
WOLA, Elementa, CODHES, the Instituto Pensar of the Universidad Javeriana, the Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, and the Corporación Viso Mutop look forward to addressing these topics on Wednesday, December 9, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (U.S. eastern and Bogotá time).
Event Details: Wednesday, December 9 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST
Nancy Sánchez Méndez Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, Mocoa, Putumayo
Adriana Muro Elementa DDHH, Colombia-México
Adam Isacson WOLA, Washington D.C.
Pedro Arenas Corporación Viso Mutop, Bogotá
Marcela Ceballos Instituto Pensar, Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá
Simultaneous interpretation will be available.
Afro-Descendant Rights in the Americas: The Perspective of Transnational Activists in the U.S. and the Region 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. Friday, 11 December 2020
In May 2020, the video of George Floyd’s unjust death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota was widely circulated, as the world confronted the unprecedented COVID-19 health crisis. Outrage over Floyd’s death and that of many other African Americans at the hands of the police fueled protests across the United States. The health crisis, its economic fallout, and the limited capacity of countries to fully respond revealed how structural inequities, racism, and the economic order can lead to serious consequences for Afro-descendants in the region.
While such inequities are historic, the multiple crises led to conversations on racism, police brutality, and the state of human rights for Afro-descendants. Racism and abuses are long-standing in the Americas, yet do not receive the same level of global scrutiny. The U.S. Black Lives Matter movement and its antiracist efforts became the forefront of discussions on these matters. While globally less known, numerous resistance and civil rights movements in the Americas work to advance Afro-descendant rights, fight racism, and push for justice and equality. These transnational networks woven over the years provide mutual solidarity among peoples of the African diaspora in the region.
In March 2019, WOLA organized a daylong conference to take stock of the rights of Afro-descendant communities from a regional perspective. During that engagement, activists and academics examined these issues within the framework of the UN International Decade on Afro-descendants. Join WOLA on December 11 at 9:00 a.m. EST, as we continue this conversation integrating the developments affecting the African diaspora in the U.S. and region in the past year. Darryl Chappell, President and CEO of the Darryl Chappell Foundation, will moderate this upcoming conversation with key activists that for decades have done transnational work on the rights of Afro-descendants in the United States and across the Americas.
Event Details: Friday, December 11, 2020 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. EST
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) releases its annual survey of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia in 2019. It finds that 154,000 hectares of coca were planted in Colombia that year, a decrease of 15,000 hectares from 2018. It estimates that this coca was used to produce 1,137 tons of cocaine, up from 1,120 in 2018.
The UNODC’s annual survey of coca cultivation finds a modest reduction in 2019, steady cocaine production, less cultivation in Tumaco and more in Catatumbo, now the country’s largest coca-producing region. (Link at unodc.org)
Caption: “Más de 15.000 matas de coca fueron erradicadas por tropas del Batallón de Infantería N.°9 Batalla de Boyacá, unidad de la #Brigada23 en el municipio de Cumbitara, #Nariño atacando de forma directa el fenómeno del narcotráfico.”
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
Citing testimonies and evidence from contractor personnel, Semana magazine reports that forced manual coca eradication teams may have been inflating and exaggerating their results, measured in land area, by as much as 30 percent.