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.
On July 1, a team of coca eradicators and security forces arrived in the village of Caucasia, in Puerto Asís municipality, in Colombia’s department of Putumayo. In Colombia’s far south along the Ecuador border, Putumayo is where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began. Its first phase in 2000, what the Clinton Administration called the “push into southern Colombia,” expanded military and coca-eradication operations there. Twenty years later, the region’s farmers remain so isolated and abandoned that Putumayo still concentrates tens of thousands of hectares of coca plants.
Dozens or hundreds of Caucasia farmers gathered to protest the eradicators’ arrival. They had been in the midst of negotiations with Colombia’s Interior Ministry on a pilot project to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for assistance. Those dialogues got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia. But forced eradication did not get put on hold: eradicators and police escorts arrived and prepared to pull up the bushes.
Though details of what happened remain elusive, it is clear that the situation grew tense on July 3. Members of the Colombian Police anti-disturbances squadron (ESMAD) opened fire at some distance, killing one of the community members: 56-year-old Educardo Alemeza Papamija. Three others were wounded.
Episodes like this have become very common in 2020, especially since Colombia went into pandemic lockdown. Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank counted 15 confrontations between security forces and farmers between January and April, with 4 civilians killed. Overlapping this count somewhat, during the first three months of COVID-19 response—between late March and late June—Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counted five civilians killed:
Alejandro Carvajal, in Sardinata, Norte de Santander, on March 26;
Ángel Artemino Nastacuas Villarreal, in Tumaco, Nariño, on April 22;
Emérito Digno Buendía Martínez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on May 18;
Ariolfo Sánchez Ruíz, in Anori, Antioquia, on May 20; and
Salvador Jaime Durán, in Teorama, Norte de Santander, on June 27.
Adding the July 3 incident in Putumayo makes six civilians killed in coca eradication operations since late March. This is the deadliest period since 2017: in October of that year, police accompanying coca eradication operations massacred seven farmers in the village of El Tandil, in Tumaco, Nariño.
The eradication operations have become more aggressive as the U.S. government has prodded Colombia to expand them, while paying much of the bill. “Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150,” Reuters reported last September. Colombia has pledged to forcibly eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020, which would smash its 2019 record of 94,606 hectares.
That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.
While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.
These expanded operations are dangerous for the soldiers and police too: armed groups protect the coca with landmines, booby traps, snipers, and ambushes. The Ideas for Peace Foundation counts 126 members of the security forces or coca eradicators killed during manual eradication operations between 2009 and 2018, and 664 more wounded. Protesting farmers, meanwhile, aren’t always non-violent, and security force members are sometimes injured during protests against eradication.
This, though, is yet another reason for Colombia and its U.S. government supporters to pursue a different strategy: a less violent and confrontational one that might actually reduce the dependence on coca that has led the crop to persist in rural zones for 40 years now. A better strategy would seek specifically to lower the number of Colombian families that plant coca, in most cases for lack of other viable options. Estimates of that number currently range from over 119,500 to over 230,000 families.
An alternative strategy exists, and it was the product of years of intense negotiations. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord had a plan for reducing this number of coca-growing families dramatically. Under the accord’s fourth chapter, over 99,000 families signed voluntary coca eradication agreements, in exchange for promised assistance. That number could have been higher, but the government of President Iván Duque froze the program after taking office in August 2018. The accord’s crop substitution plan, along with its larger efforts to bring a government presence into historically abandoned rural areas, is underfunded, increasingly behind schedule, and not receiving anywhere near the emphasis that forced eradication is getting—especially during the pandemic.
Even in a pandemic, Colombia’s U.S.-backed expanded forced eradication campaign is happening without even food security assistance for the families affected, leaving many hungry after the eradicators depart. In June the Colombian daily El Espectadorasked the Defense Minister why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of any help for farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and that eradicating is “our constitutional duty.” We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work: it may yield a short-term decrease in the number of hectares planted with coca, but replanting happens quickly.
This aggressive, cruel, and ineffective model must stop now. Coca eradication should be the product of dialogue with communities, with the goal of bringing a lasting government presence into vast areas of Colombia where people live without one. In the rare instances when that is not possible, eradicators should de-escalate confrontations with communities, seeking to avoid the use of force and the repetition of the sorts of tragedies that Colombia has witnessed six times now since the pandemic began.
And of course, Colombia should resist any effort to re-start eradication by spraying the highly questioned herbicide glyphosate from aircraft. Fumigation not only raises health and environmental concerns that the government has not yet addressed—it is the very opposite of a long-term solution based on having people on the ground to govern territory.
As the main foreign backer of Colombia’s coca eradication strategy, the U.S. government should play a determining role in helping Colombia pursue a more humane, long-term-focused, and ultimately successful strategy. If the United States does not help to change course, it will continue to share the blame for disastrous human rights outcomes like what we are seeing now. And within a few years—when coca-growing families inevitably replant after remaining without formal title to their lands, isolated from markets, and lacking even basic governance—the United States will also share the blame for the current strategy’s foreseeable failure.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime and Colombia’s National Police release their estimates of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia in 2019. The report finds a 9 percent reduction in coca-growing from 2018 to 2019, from 169,000 hectares to 154,000 hectares, but a 1.9 percent increase in cocaine production, to an estimated 1,137 metric tons of pure cocaine. Coca cultivation decreases most in Caquetá, Antioquia, Nariño, Bolívar, and Putumayo, while increasing in Norte de Santander and Valle del Cauca.
Coca-growing farmers confront a forced eradication operation, begun on May 26 and carried out by the military’s Omega Joint Task Force, Narcotics Police, and Police Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD) personnel in Tercer Milenio, Vistahermosa municipality, Meta. The security forces wound at least six farmers, some of them seriously. An Army statement alleges that the farmers were obligated to resist by FARC dissidents (“Gentil Duarte’s” group). The National Coordinator of Cultivators (COCCAM) contends that campesinos in this community had repeatedly voiced their desire to substitute their crops voluntarily.