Video of recent confrontations between coca-growing communities and government eradication forces, in which several farmers have died.
June 1, 2020
Video of recent confrontations between coca-growing communities and government eradication forces, in which several farmers have died.
June 1, 2020
On May 28 the United States’ embassy caused a commotion in Colombia by posting a brief announcement that “a U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB)” will arrive in early June “to help Colombia in its fight against drug trafficking.” The SFAB should stay home. This is not a time for the United States to be sending dozens of combat advisors and trainers to “post-conflict” Colombia.
On June 1, about 45 or 50 Army personnel departed from their base at Fort Benning, Georgia, for Colombia. They will stay in COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks, then spend about four months in the country.
Their unit, the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, was commissioned in early 2018 and has deployed to Afghanistan, Europe, and Africa. Its sole mission is to train and advise foreign military units, a task that had been heavily up to Special Operations Forces in the past. This will be the first time an SFAB has deployed anywhere in Latin America.
Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told the daily El Espectador, “The purpose is to advise the general staffs” of three regional task forces (discussed below) and the Colombian Army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade, a unit created in 2000 with resources from the Clinton administration’s initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. “It’s a consultative and technical advising role, which will be carried out within the military unit’s installations, not in the field.… The U.S. advisory personnel will not participate in military operations.”
A contingent of 45 or 50 U.S. troops is large, but far from unprecedented in Colombia. A State Department response to a 2010 inquiry, the last time WOLA has received solid numbers on the U.S. military and contractor presence in Colombia, showed that during the 2000s the number of U.S. military personnel there ranged from a low of 91 to a high of 563. As Colombia’s remains one of the largest U.S. diplomatic and security missions in the world, we doubt that the numbers have declined significantly since then. Adding 45 or 50 more to this total is noteworthy, but not earth-shaking.
While many of these U.S. military personnel are probably reporting to work at the embassy in Bogotá, many others are continually visiting Colombian military bases around the country, providing training and advising ongoing operations.
U.S. and Colombian officials are billing the SFAB mission as support for the “Zonas Futuro” territorial governance and counter-drug strategy discussed below. They are also portraying it as the land component of a large ongoing counter-drug naval deployment in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific. As with that deployment, which began in April, observers, mostly on Colombia’s left, see another target or audience: the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Does the SFAB aim to address cocaine flows, help Colombia govern conflictive territories, or send a message to Venezuela? The answer, of course, may well be “all of the above.”
The profile that the U.S. government gives the deployment will tell us whether the SFAB has Venezuela in mind. Over the past 20 years, most such visits have been secretive: due to force-protection concerns and a tendency to classify information, it has been very hard to get information about what U.S. trainers are doing in Colombia. If, though, the SFAB deployment is instead the subject of regular tweets from the U.S. embassy and Southern Command accounts, if reporters are invited to witness training and advising missions and talk to the instructors, then we’ll know that the U.S. government wants to send a message to Colombia’s neighbor. Similarly, in 2020 we’ve seen significant public-affairs efforts promoting the “Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations” naval deployment, “rare access” to a January paratrooper exercise in Tolima, and a March humanitarian exercise in La Guajira.
If Venezuela is the audience, the SFAB may do more harm than good in Caracas. U.S. saber-rattling has so far appeared to increase unity within the Maduro regime and its armed forces. It may also be increasing divisions within the opposition: as WOLA’s Venezuela program has noted, while some in the opposition favor a political solution, U.S. operations embolden hardliners who cling to hope of a military intervention.
The SFAB will “focus its efforts primarily on the ‘Zonas Futuro’ defined by the National Government,” reads the U.S. Embassy announcement. The Zonas Futuro are an initiative spearheaded by the National Security Council of Colombia’s Presidency. Their stated goal is to introduce government presence in five abandoned, violent regions, making up less than 3 percent of Colombia’s national territory, with much armed-group presence and drug production or transshipment.
The five “Zonas” are comprised of parts of:
Defense Minister Trujillo told local media that the U.S. trainers will be accompanying military units in the first three of these zones: Tumaco (the Colombian armed forces’ Hércules Task Force), Catatumbo (the Vulcano Task Force), and Chiribiquete (the Omega Task Force). They will also accompany the Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, which operates throughout the country.
Colombian government security planners interviewed by WOLA say that the goal of the Zonas Futuro is to make possible the entry of the entire Colombian government into these abandoned territories: not just soldiers and police, but civilian service-providers.
That’s a noble goal, and it is also the goal of the 2016 peace accord, the first chapter of which sets out to bring government services into 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 most neglected and conflictive municipalities (counties). Though the presidential Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation, the government of President Iván Duque has voiced a strong rhetorical commitment to fulfilling this first chapter by implementing Territorially Focused Development Plans (Los Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET) in these 170 municipalities. The PDETs have far less of a military component than the Zonas Futuro.
The Zonas Futuro territories are entirely located within PDET territories. The government is implementing the PDETs slowly, though, with funding levels that aren’t keeping up even with their 15-year timeframe. In the subset that are Zonas Futuro, the idea is to speed up implementation, with a big military presence at the outset, which implies offensive operations against the armed groups currently located there.
We can surmise, then, that the U.S. SFAB trainers deployed to the “Zonas Futuro” will be advising the Colombian military task forces’ offensive operations. These are likely to come with intensified forced coca eradication.
The decision to send a contingent of several dozen military advisors to Colombia right now is misguided.
The Zonas Futuro aren’t the first time that Colombia has attempted to bring governance to historically neglected regions in a planned, sequenced fashion: this has been tried a few times in recent decades. Past efforts have tended to run aground when the civilian part of the government fails to show up.
If anything, then, the U.S. government should be helping Colombia to avoid a repeat of that by contributing to the buildup of civilian government capacities in the “Zonas Futuro” (and the PDET zones as a whole). Instead, tragically, the focus is once more on the military component.
The SFAB will be working in areas where Colombian government coca eradicators have already killed three people, two farmers and an indigenous person, since February. If the “Zonas Futuro” seek to win the population’s buy-in to establish a functioning government presence, the experience of coca eradication this year is making that goal ever more distant. U.S. funding and pressure is encouraging Colombia to intensify ground-based eradication, adding new eradication teams and entering new territories. As this happens, we’re hearing more reports of wantonly aggressive behavior from security forces, the opposite of a “hearts and minds” campaign.
Worse, the U.S. deployment is tantamount to a public endorsement of forcibly eradicating smallholding families’ crops in a way that is completely unlinked to basic food security support for those who lose what was their only, very modest, source of income. After the eradicators leave, families go hungry. We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work. And now it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic, which adds a vicious new layer of cruelty. El Espectador asked Defense Minister Trujillo why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of food security assistance to farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and eradicating is “our constitutional duty.”
Still worse, the SFAB trainers are arriving at a time when the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus has been revealed to be keeping illegal dossiers of personal information about judges, journalists, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and even some fellow officers. It’s far from clear right now that there will be judicial accountability for this behavior. Sending 45 or 50 new U.S. trainers in the midst of this tense climate makes for very poor optics. It looks like a pat on the back.
It’s shocking, in fact, that the United States is sending trainers at all at a moment like this. As our cities become battlegrounds over severe and unaccountable human rights violations at home, as a torture-endorsing U.S. President makes daily statements escalating the violence, what can the U.S. trainers’ message be to their Colombian counterparts right now? “Do as we say, not as we do?” In fact, we have no visibility over the messages about human rights that U.S. personnel will convey behind closed doors in the far-flung headquarters of Colombia’s military task forces.
This is no time for U.S. forces to be advising offensive military operations elsewhere, with our own house in such disorder and with Colombia’s military taking alarming steps backward on human rights. The SFAB needs to come home.
June 1, 2020
Juan Carlos Garzón of the Fundación Ideas para la Paz looks at the mid-year, mid-pandemic state of Colombia’s coca eradication campaign, for which he predicts no lasting success.
May 29, 2020
Saura and Johana tell how they came back to their lands in Catatumbo and how, after subscribing to the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS), they began to grow food where there were once coca crops.
May 28, 2020
Socorro attends the Rural Alternative School (ERA) of San José del Guaviare.
May 21, 2020
Ariolfo Sánchez Ruiz, a campesino opposing an Army-led eradication operation in Anorí, Antioquia, is detained and killed by soldiers, according to local campesino organizations.
May 20, 2020
A court in Nariño orders a halt to virtual online consultations with communities in remote areas to discuss the environmental impact of renewed aerial herbicide eradication of coca. The court was responding to a complaint filed by communities fearful of being fumigated with herbicides without proper consultation. In order to restart the U.S.-backed fumigation program, Colombia’s Constitutional Court had required the environmental licensing agency ANLA to consult with communities on an eradication plan. COVID-19 had made those consultations impossible to carry out in person, so the agency had sought to perform them over internet, even though many of the affected rural communities have little or no internet access. The court’s order may delay the reinitiation of fumigation, originally expected for mid-2020.
May 18, 2020
Security forces kill Digno Emérito Buendía, a coca-growing campesino, during an eradication operation in the rural zone of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander. Three other campesinos are wounded.
May 18, 2020
Caption: “In Toribio, Cauca, through a military control operation in the area, troops from the 12th Ground Operations Battalion destroyed a seedbed with 2,000 coca plants belonging to the Dagoberto Ramos mobile column [FARC dissident group].”
May 12, 2020
In Anorí, Antioquia, Mirian tells how PASO Colombia’s Contingency Plan To Support Ex-coca Grower Families enabled her to receive the first formal payment of her life.
May 8, 2020
Troops from the Army’s 4th Brigade eradicate coca in Antioquia department.
May 3, 2020
The Defense Ministry launches the “second phase” of its 2020 manual coca eradication effort. 76 mobile eradication teams, each made up of 21 civilians and 42 security-force members, are to deploy around the country.
May 1, 2020
Nancy tells how she has implemented her leadership and gender-related insights in the municipal nursery of Anorí, Antioquia.
April 30, 2020
The following April 23, 2020 statement is cross-posted from wola.org. We are alarmed that Colombia is not only going ahead full-throttle with manual eradication operations in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but that eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.
Washington, D.C.—On Wednesday, April 22, in an Indigenous community in southwest Colombia, public security forces killed one person and injured three others who were peacefully protesting a police operation to manually eradicate coca plants. Members of the police eradication team fired into a group of Awa Indigenous people, who were attempting to talk to them about why Indigenous authorities hadn’t been consulted about the planned eradication, as required by law. The death is the second related to manual coca eradication operations since Colombia went into national quarantine in late March.
Even while imposing a strict national quarantine, the Colombian government has launched more intense and aggressive coca eradication operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These operations, which often require the deployment of public security forces without appropriate protective equipment, have sparked long-standing tensions in six Colombian departments. In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 due to the deployment of eradication forces, the aggressive eradication campaign has ignored key elements of the historic 2016 peace accord.
In the operation that led to the death of one Indigenous community member and three wounded in southwest Colombia, the government had failed to consult with the community prior to the operation. Additionally, in many of the other municipalities targeted in the last month, the Colombian government has systematically failed to deliver payments and other productive project support for crop substitution programs as laid out by Chapter 4 of the peace accords.
The Duque administration’s push to intensify coca eradication has largely responded to an aggressive pressure campaign from the Trump administration. Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.
Beside increasing coca eradication operations during the nationwide lockdown, Colombia has seen no slowdown in the pace of attacks and threats against social leaders, including those who are advocating for implementation of the peace agreement’s illicit crops chapter. On April 22 alone, three people at a local community council in southwest Nariño department were killed by dissident fighters from the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group; another social leader, who formed part of the leftist Marcha Patriótica political movement, was killed in Cauca department; and two more were killed elsewhere in Cauca. Various Afro-Colombian communities in Cauca and Chocó department have also expressed concern about eradication operations and threats by armed groups in their area. According to Colombian think tank Indepaz, at least 71 social leaders were killed during the first three months of 2020; at least another dozen have been killed since Colombia’s national quarantine began.
The Colombian government needs to rigorously and promptly investigate the killings of social leaders, securing convictions for those who carried out and those who ordered the crime. Additionally, instead of a drug policy that emphasizes forced eradication of coca, the Colombian government should uphold its commitments in the 2016 peace agreement and promote rural land reform, sustainable development, and the establishment of state presence in coca cultivation areas. Finally, given the number of leaders from farmers’ association the National Agrarian Coordinator (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) and the Marcha Patriótica who have faced violent attacks and threats, all armed actors—including FARC dissident groups and government forces—should avoid involving civilians in armed conflict.
April 24, 2020
An update on armed-group activity and illicit economies in the conflictive region of Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border.
April 21, 2020
Emilse, from Caquetá, tells how after eradicating her coca plants, she joined with several neighbors to grow food and develop productive animal breeding projects.
April 20, 2020
Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo says that the government is forging ahead in the fulfillment of Constitutional Court-mandated requirements for the re-starting of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones.
April 16, 2020
A regularly updated collection of official security, defense, and counter-drug statistics. (Link at mindefensa.gov.co)
April 1, 2020
On March 30, 2020, the Action for Change (Acciones para el Cambio – APC) coalition published a letter addressed to the Colombian government urging it to stop forced coca eradication operations amid the COVID-19 public health crisis. The letter encourages the government to instead enforce quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus among vulnerable farmer communities.
Despite calls to follow quarantine measures, the Government of Colombia has continued forced coca eradication operations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo. These operations, the letter states, violate voluntary substitution agreements signed with farmer communities within the framework of the peace accord.
The letter also highlights the increased use of force and violence against farmers and condemns the murders of Marco Rivadeneira and Alejandro Carvajal. Here is the English text of the letter:
The COVID-19 pandemic places the Colombian State in a unique situation, in which it must implement rigorous measures to contain the spread of the virus and guarantee its citizens the right to life, health, and survival.
Despite the measures implemented by the national government to address the emergency, several organizations in the Catatumbo region and the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo have denounced intensified forced coca eradication operations, specifically in municipalities where collective agreements were signed under the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). To date, the national government has not fully complied with these agreements. Such noncompliance, coupled with uncertain isolation measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, has in recent days caused a number of violations to rural populations’ rights.
Amid the national quarantine on March 19, Marco Rivadeneira was assassinated in the Nueva Granada territory, located in Puerto Asís municipality, Putumayo. Marco was a prominent leader who promoted the substitution of crops in the department and sought alternatives for those who had been left out of crop substitution programs. According to data from the Coordinator for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM), Marco Rivadeneira’s murder raises to 60 the total number of people killed for leading crop substitution processes in Colombia. Three days after that, on March 22, the arrival of state forces was denounced, as they began to fumigate coca crops with glyphosate using manual spray pumps.
According to public complaints from the COCCAM and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental and Peasant Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales, Ambientales y Campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC), since March 23 in Caquetá, members of the National Army have carried out forced eradication operations using force and gunfire against farmers. Despite the public health crisis, these operations are occurring in the Palestina, Inspección Unión Peneya territory in Montañita municipality.
Finally, according to information from the Peasant Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) and the COCCAM, Alejandro Carvajal was killed by members of the National Army in the context of forced and violent eradications last Thursday, March 26. This assassination occurred in the territory of Santa Teresita, La Victoria, which forms part of Sardinata municipality in Norte de Santander. The National Army has already assumed responsibility for said killing.
Faced with the aforementioned context, the APC coalition urges the Colombian government to:
THE ACTION FOR CHANGE (ACCIONES PARA EL CAMBIO – APC) COALITION
April 1, 2020
Ariel Ávila explains the stubborn persistence of coca cultivation in Colombia.
March 30, 2020
March 26, 2020
On March 25, over 21 international civil society organizations signed a letter calling on the Government of Colombia to investigate the assassination of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader from Putumayo, Colombia. Social leaders like Rivadeneira – who strive to fully implement the 2016 Peace Accords – continue to be targeted for working valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities. Sadly, Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where he was discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.
The letter urges the Colombian government to effectively investigate and prosecute the assassinations of social leaders, especially amid the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also calls on the U.S. government to vigorously support the Peace Accord implementation in Colombia. You can read the English version of the letter below. (Versión en español).
International Civil Society Organizations Call for the Colombian Government to Investigate Killing of Marco Rivadeneira and to Protect Human Rights Defenders
March 25, 2020
We are grieved to learn of the death of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader in Putumayo, Colombia. Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where Rivadeneira and other community members were discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.
Rivadeneira was a human rights defender, a promoter of the peace accords, and a proponent of voluntary coca eradication efforts in his rural community. He was a leader of the Puerto Asis Campesino Association and a representative to the Guarantees Roundtable (a process intended to protect human rights defenders). Rivadeneira was also the representative of his region for the national network of 275 Colombian human rights groups known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Coordinación and its members are close partners of many of our organizations.
This killing “underscores once again the lack of security guarantees for the work of human rights defenders and the lack of political will on the part of the Colombian government to dismantle the criminal structures and paramilitary organizations that continue to attack social leaders and those who defend peace in the countryside,” as Coordinación asserts. The Coordinación urges the government to act decisively to ensure that “enemies of peace” do not use the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 virus to continue to exterminate social leaders.
107 social leaders were assassinated in 2019, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia. One out of three human rights defenders killed in 2019 (documented by Frontline Defenders) was from Colombia. 2020 has started off with a wave of violence against them.
We urge the Colombian government to ensure this crime is effectively investigated and prosecuted and to communicate what steps are being taken to bring the perpetrators to justice. We also urge the Colombian government to provide effective guarantees for human rights defenders, social leaders, and those working to build peace in Colombia. This starts with the vigorous implementation of the 2016 peace accords in Colombia, including convoking the National Commission of Security Guarantees to create and implement a plan to protect communities and social leaders at risk.
We urge the U.S. government to vigorously support peace accord implementation in Colombia. This includes adhering to the drug policy chapter of the accord which mandates working closely with farming communities to voluntarily eradicate and replace coca with government assistance, rather than returning to ineffective and inhumane aerial spraying programs.
Colombia must not lose more leaders like Marco Rivadeneira who have worked so valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities.
March 25, 2020
March 19, 2020