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.
On April 9, WOLA sent a letter to the Colombia mission of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with ample suggestions to support peace and human rights in Colombia. Before the annual consultation between USAID and U.S. civil society, WOLA informally surveys organizations, experts, academics, activists, and others partners in Colombia about U.S. cooperation in the region. We did the same for the 2021 consultation and solicited input from more than 50 entities, including groups receiving USAID assistance and many who do not receive funding. This input is not a scientific survey. Rather, it is a summary of the impressions we received combined with WOLA’s suggestions due to our long history of monitoring U.S. funding to economic, social, peace, and human rights matters in Colombia.
The document outlines optimism for continued peacebuilding with cooperation from the Biden administration and also highlights current obstacles. Topics include transitional justice, maintaining the independence of the justice system, protection of social leaders and communities, illicit crop substitution and alternative development plans, economic renewal after the pandemic, and migrant and refugee rights.
The original Spanish letter is here. The translated English letter is here.
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
The creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish) as part of the 2016 Peace Treaty between the Colombian State and the guerrilla group FARC has seen its work much criticized over claims from certain powerful factions that it has a hidden agenda to free former FARC leaders and imprison senior military commanders.
Investigations carried out by the JEP have been a major success of the peace agreement and the process that followed. But most of the right-wing section of governing party Centro Democrático have been working to cut its funding and complicate the implementation of the peace deal.
Founded on the principle of transitional justice, the JEP works by recognizing accountability for past crimes from the conflict and establishing alternative sentences. This does mean some powerful people – politicians, businesspeople, and landowners – may feel threatened because its investigations may reveal their past connections to both official and nonofficial repression unleashed upon trade unionists, peasants, politicians, and civilians in the name of defeating the FARC.
Ariel Avila, from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, states that as transitional justice moves forward ‘victims will be more at risk. As ex guerrilla members, military officers, parapoliticians, begin to tell the truth, they will inform on those who supported them, those who benefitted from the war, people who, for the most part, are within the scope of legality’.
Hostages and human rights violations
The JEP recently accused seven FARC leaders for promoting kidnapping as a systematic practice and inflicting human rights violations on hostages, and also announced it will investigate and prosecute state security forces for war crimes, as the Colombian army stands accused of allegedly murdering at least 6,402 innocent civilians under what is called ‘false positives’ – counting them as guerrilla fighters to give the impression they were winning the war against the FARC.
Almost 80 per cent of those crimes were committed between 2002 and 2008 when right-wing political leader Álvaro Uribe was president and, since the JEPs’ creation in 2017, he and some of his followers – known as ‘Uribismo’ – along with Iván Duque’s current government have been persistently critical of the body.
This has led the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to express concern about ‘persisting public statements questioning the suitability of the JEP and their staff, and about the legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace’, and the damage being done to the JEP was revealed in a detailed report from 14 senators of different opposition parties in the Colombian Congress, led by Senator Juanita Goebertus (Green Alliance Party).
The main targets of the attacks by the government and Uribistas are the reforms in the rural sector, voluntary coca crop eradication, and the implementation of transitional justice, which the peace treaty committed the government to achieve. Returning land to thousands of peasants displaced by violence would reverse gross inequalities in land distribution, as would the political strengthening of local communities.
But rural elites strongly oppose these moves and the state has been largely absent in these rural areas, contributing to a rise in illegal mining, illicit crops, and now the killings of social leaders and ex-FARC guerrilla combatants. The president of the JEP recently claimed ‘a social leader is killed every 41 hours’ and, according to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists along with other local groups, these killings are being committed by hit men, FARC dissidents, organized crime, and even members of the armed forces.
Most cases are not being solved and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights indicates most government investigations focus on the material authors of the crime, not those who gave the order. Human Rights Watch says that, because of such state shortcomings, investigations and prosecutions are facing significant hurdles particularly with regard to the ‘intellectual authors’ of many killings.
Rural communities under pressure from criminals
OHCHR estimates 513 human rights defenders and 248 former FARC combatants were killed between 2016 and the end of 2020 but this is disputed by the government. Many of those who died had accepted the peace agreement, committing themselves and their communities to stop harvesting coca in exchange for receiving state financial assistance and shifting to producing legal goods. But Duque’s government, believing alternative crops do not work, froze the scheme alleging a lack of funds.
This put communities under renewed pressure from organized crime and guerrillas to produce coca again, an option made easier by the ban on the coca fumigations which were used by the US government between 1994 and 2015 to keep crop levels down and reduce drug production.
Fumigations were ended in 2015 by the Colombian Supreme Court due to evidence that the crop spraying harmed the environment as well as human and animal health, but the risk of cuts to aid and loans from the Donald Trump US administration recently pushed Duque to try and lift these restrictions.
They also consider stabilization to be too dependent on the military, and various experts also consider this approach to be inefficient and a poor substitute for the lack of a proper state presence in rural Colombia.
Now with the change of administration in the US, Joe Biden has already expressed interest in the protection of human rights and appears less likely to be supportive of restarting fumigation as well as any ongoing resistance of the Colombian government to the peace agreement, especially as key Democrats in the Obama administration and Congress supported the negotiation and approval of the peace deal and many are now in the Biden administration.
The trick for Duque now – and Uribe – is to successfully balance their own partisan policy preferences with the country’s need for long-term military, strategic, and economic ties to Washington.
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
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.
A summary of a more detailed scientific study of risks to reproductive health posed by glyphosate, the herbicide that the U.S. and Colombian governments wish to resume spraying from aircraft over coca-growing areas.
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.
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.”