“Operation Orion V,” a Colombian-led, multinational naval drug interdiction operation inaugurated on April 1, comes to an end. “Orion V” was launched alongside “Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations, a U.S.-led, multinational naval drug interdiction operation also inaugurated on April 1. The U.S. operation continues. U.S. Southern Command lists 26 participant countries in Orion V, including the United States and Colombia.
On May 12, the Department of State notified Congress that Cuba and other countries were certified under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act as “not cooperating fully” with U.S. counterterrorism efforts in 2019. This is the first year that Cuba has been certified as not fully cooperating since 2015. In its statement, the State Department referred to Cuba’s denial of Colombia’s request for the extradition of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) leaders who are stranded in Havana after broken-off peace talks, and the presence of fugitives wanted by U.S. authorities who have lived in Cuba for decades. These politically motivated charges, aimed at pleasing U.S. political constituencies, undermine existing U.S.-Cuba security cooperation as well as the possibility of peace negotiations in Colombia and potentially elsewhere.
The sanctions attached to the “non-cooperation” designation—a prohibition on the sale or export of defense equipment and services to the designated country—do not have practical consequences for Cuba, since U.S. embargo regulations already prohibit the sale of defense-related equipment and services. However, this designation further poisons the diplomatic atmosphere between Cuba and the United States.
Designating Cuba as “non-cooperative” might be one step short of returning the country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (Cuba was officially removed from the list in 2015). The rationale cited by the State Department for labeling Cuba as “non-cooperative” is similar to the justifications previous administrations invoked for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.
Since Cuba’s removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, the U.S. government and Cuba have deepened security cooperation on issues of mutual interest for mutual benefits. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in the signature of a memorandum of understanding on law enforcement issues, where both governments committed to expanding operational collaboration on counter-terrorism, illicit drug traffic, cybercrime, and cybersecurity, among other issues. In addition, both governments established specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases including counterterrorism.
The most recent public technical meeting took place in January of 2018 between the Cuban Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State, who highlighted the importance of cooperation in these areas and agreed to continue the technical meetings in the future.
One of the factors cited by the State Department for Cuba’s 2015 removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list was Cuba’s critical role in the successful peace talks between the Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In May 2018, Colombia’s government, the ELN guerrilla group, and the government of Norway asked Cuba to host peace talks between Colombia and the ELN, which had been taking place in Ecuador. Cuba and Norway were serving as “guarantor countries” for those talks, aimed at ending a conflict that began in 1964.
In April 2016, at the outset of the talks, all involved —including Colombian government representatives—signed a set of protocols. These stated clearly that, should the ELN talks break down, the ELN’s negotiators would not be arrested—they would have 15 days to leave Cuba and receive safe passage back to Colombia. However, President Iván Duque’s administration, which took office in August 2018, was much more skeptical about peace talks. In January 2019, the ELN set off a truck bomb on the premises of Colombia’s National Police academy, killing 22 people and forcing an end to the negotiations. After that, the Colombian government did not honor the protocols governing a breakdown of talks. It demanded that Cuba turn over the ELN’s negotiators for arrest, later formally requesting their extradition. Cuba would not do that, and the guerrilla negotiators remain stranded in Cuban territory. The ELN leaders themselves continue to demand to be allowed to leave Cuba, as detailed in the protocols that Colombia’s government signed.
The communities where the ELN operates have consistently pleaded with the Colombian government to engage in exploratory peace talks with the guerrilla group, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These recent actions by the U.S. and Colombian governments disregard the security and well-being of afro-colombians, indigenous, and rural farmers who have no alternative but to deal with the negative implications of illegal groups like the ELN that operate in their territories. Rather than create obstacles to consolidating peacemaking efforts, the Colombian government should be taking all possible steps to create the conditions needed to reinstate dialogue and work towards establishing a durable peace.
It sends the message that if a state agrees to host peace talks, and doesn’t violate its word, that state could still face severe consequences for its contribution to global peace and security. In Colombia, as reprehensible as the ELN’s actions were, this sends a perverse message to any group that might decide to enter into a future peace process with the government.
Ultimately, this step by the Trump administration undermines ongoing cooperation on national security and law enforcement cooperation between Cuba and the United States, while undercutting effective international diplomacy.
The U.S. State Department adds Cuba to its list of “Countries Certified as Not Cooperating Fully With U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts,” for the first time since 2015. This listing, while not as severe as that of the State Department’s “terrorist-sponsoring states” list, carries strong symbolic weight. The main reason cited for Cuba’s addition to the list: its refusal to turn ELN negotiators over to Colombian justice in January 2019, after a guerrilla bombing of Colombia’s police academy brought an end to peace talks that the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) had been carrying out in Havana. Santos government negotiators had signed protocols for those talks stipulating that, should they break down, the ELN negotiators would be allowed to return to Colombia. The Duque government rejected those protocols and demanded the extradition of the ELN negotiators, who remain in Havana. The State Department finds that Cuba’s honoring of the protocols “demonstrates that it is not cooperating with U.S. work to support Colombia’s efforts to secure a just and lasting peace, security, and opportunity for its people.”
High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos celebrates the U.S. government’s addition of Cuba to the “not cooperating fully” list, calling it “a huge support from the U.S. government to the Colombian government’s, President Duque’s and the Foreign Ministry’s insistent request that these people be turned over to Colombian justice.” He tellsEl Espectador, “The United States doesn’t recognize the protocols.”
On May 14, in response to Ceballos’s comments in support of the U.S. move, the FARC suspends its participation in the joint body for verification of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation (Commission for the Follow-up, Promotion and Verification of the Implementation of the Final Agreement, CSIVI), demanding that the government clarify its position about Cuba’s status as a guarantor country. Cuba’s representative also refuses to attend a meeting of the CSIVI.
On May 16 the former chief government negotiator during the FARC peace process in Havana, Humberto de la Calle, publishes a column lamenting the U.S. government’s move, defending Cuba’s honoring of the protocols, and criticizing Ceballos’s statements.
On May 20, Norway’s ambassador to Colombia, John Petter Opdahl, tellsEl Tiempo that Cuba acted correctly in honoring the protocols for the end of the ELN negotiations. Norway and Cuba served as the two guarantor countries for the ELN talks, as well as the 2012-16 FARC process.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General toldEl Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
Colombian Gen. Juan Carlos Correa, who heads U.S. Southern Command’s J-7/9 Directorate (Exercises and Coalition), talks with Southcom Commander Gen. Craig Faller about how the U.S. combatant command works with militaries around the region.
Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.
Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.
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.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Ministry of Justice submit an extradition request to the United States for Salvatore Mancuso, the former maximum leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group. The government of Álvaro Uribe extradited Mancuso and 13 other paramilitary leaders to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges in 2008; Mancuso is about to complete his U.S. sentence.
Colombia announces the launch of Operation Orion V, a multi-national naval drug interdiction effort in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Orion 5 includes the participation of at least 17 countries, officials say. At the White House, President Donald Trump announces a tandem operation involving the U.S. Navy and partner nations in the same maritime space. Opposition legislators voice concern that Colombia may be participating in an operation meant to put military pressure on neighboring Venezuela.
Since 1997, John Otis has been reporting from Colombia, covering the Andes, for many news outlets. You may recognize his voice as National Public Radio’s correspondent in the Andes, or seen his many recent bylines in the Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of a highly recommended book about aspects of the conflict, Law of the Jungle (2010).
Here, John talks about some of the many changes he has seen in both Colombia and Venezuela during his tenure. The conversation also covers Colombia’s peace process, the difficulty of explaining the country’s complexity, and some places and people who’ve left very strong impressions over the years.
Caption: “La @DefensoriaCol acompaña en el aeropuerto El Dorado de Bogotá la llegada de 64 personas deportadas de Estados Unidos. Se busca, en compañía de sus familias, garantizarles sus derechos en las actuales circunstancias de cuarentena y un pronto reencuentro con sus seres queridos.”
Maximum AUC paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso is to be released from U.S. custody after 12 years. This report looks at Mancuso’s deeds, the “Justice and Peace” demobilization process, and the views of AUC victims exiled in Canada.
This is the day when Salvatore Mancuso, former top leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network, is scheduled to have been released from federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. He was extradited to face drug trafficking charges in May 2008. Mancuso, 55, was likely transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention; it is not clear whether he is requesting U.S. asylum or will be returned to Colombia, or whether COVID-19 is delaying his return.
Here’s a new Colombia-related installment in WOLA’s podcast series. A conversation with Alex Fattal, whose 2018 book “Guerrilla Marketing” tells the story of the Colombian military’s employment of advertising campaigns to convince guerrillas to demobilize during the country’s armed conflict. His work explores the overlap between national security, global capitalism, and “branding.”
Tweet, translated, reads: “Members of Joint Task Force Bravo, Colombian military forces, Colombian Civil Defense, volunteers from Fundación Universitaria Juan N. Corpas and from Universidad Nacional de Colombia fly about 3 hours per day in Chinook helicopters to reach remote regions of La Guajira with the medical mission of “Ejercicio Vita” [a joint U.S.-Colombian military exercise in La Guajira].
Humanicemos is a non-governmental organization dedicated to clearing landmines in Colombia. Its personnel are former combatants from the FARC guerrillas, who demobilized after the signing of a 2016 peace accord and are now embarking on new lives. It gets support from the UN and the European Union, and works with Colombian government agencies.
This sounds like the sort of feel-good group that the U.S. government would want to support. But it does not support it. In fact, for U.S. officials, the members of Humanicemos are untouchable.
In January, Andrés Bermúdez Liévano writes at JusticeInfo, Angela Orrego of Humanicemos reported to a Bogotá hotel to participate in a 2020 planning meeting of groups working on de-mining.
But when Orrego and two of her colleagues from Humanicemos, one of those organizations created to destroy landmines, arrived, another government official barred them from entering.
“I’m very sorry,” she told them. The meeting was partially funded by the U.S. State Department, she explained, and that meant they could not participate.
At issue is a U.S. law prohibiting “providing material support to terrorists” (18 U.S. Code Sec. 2339A). Though it demobilized nearly three years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, remain on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and all of its members are still considered to be terrorists. As a result, it is a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any FARC party members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.
As currently interpreted, the prohibition doesn’t apply to former FARC members who demobilized individually and have in some way renounced membership in the FARC political party. Individual demobilized receive some U.S. support through the Colombian government’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency.
The rest, though—the thousands of former FARC members who maintain some identity related with the FARC political party, like Ms. Orrego—are frozen out. It is illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.
This “material support” statute—or rather, the way it’s being interpreted right now—is more than an annoyance. It’s becoming an obstacle to U.S. interests in Colombia. The State Department, the Defense Department, and USAID all place a high priority on supporting “stabilization” in Colombia. That’s the term they and the Colombian government use to describe introducing a functioning government presence, with basic services and security, in vast ungoverned rural areas where coca and armed groups thrive. In these areas, thousands of former FARC members circulate freely today. Many have a strong interest in the goals of stabilization, which overlap closely with the first chapter of the peace accord (“rural reform”).
This means that today, U.S.-supported stabilization efforts are frequently running into engaged former FARC members, with bizarre results. In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told WOLA staff of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.
In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have had a sandwich or drink provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.
The FARC ceased to exist as an armed group in August 2017, after handing in 8,994 weapons and more than 938 arms caches to a UN mission. “Of 13,202 ex-combatants accredited before the accord’s signing,” the Colombian Presidency’s High Counselor for Stabilization and Consolidation reported last month, “12,940 remain committed to their reincorporation.” While some estimates of ex-guerrillas’ desertions from the peace process run as high as 830, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of former FARC members continue to be engaged with the process. That their mere presence can halt or water down U.S. support for important stability and demining efforts is an absurdity.
“The FARC are still part of the terrorist list,” U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a Colombian newspaper in February, “because, as we know, there are some dissident groups still involved in narcotrafficking and violence.” The dissident groups are a big challenge. Their approximately 2,400 members, scattered across about 23 groups, either refused to demobilize, abandoned the process later, or are new recruits. Their numbers are growing.
But the dissident groups aren’t the ex-FARC. In fact, they are one of the main threats to the security of ex-FARC fighters who have renounced violence. To date, about 186 demobilized FARC members have been killed. Of 93 cases for which Colombian government investigators have been able to attribute responsibility, FARC dissidents are the likely killers in 36—that is, 39 percent of cases. It makes no sense, as Ambassador Goldberg did last month, to conflate FARC party members who’ve renounced violence with the FARC dissidents who are attacking them. They don’t belong on the same list.
If this is truly the reason why peace process-respecting former guerrillas remain on the terrorist list, there’s an easy remedy that doesn’t necessarily even require removing a group called “FARC” from the terrorist list. The U.S. government just needs to reinterpret the existing statute in a way that distinguishes between dissident groups and demobilized guerrillas. If the current interpretation has painted U.S. programming into a corner, then that interpretation needs to be updated for the reality of Colombia in 2020.
That would mean screening out from U.S.-funded programs not everyone who is considered a FARC party member or affiliate, but instead only:
The few dozen ex-guerrillas who are wanted by U.S. courts for drug trafficking or kidnapping;
Those facing serious and specific accusations of war crimes before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian government’s system of war crimes tribunals;
Those on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list; and
Those credibly alleged to be continuing to engage in illicit activity.
The number of individuals meeting these criteria is a small percentage of the total universe of non-dissident ex-guerrillas. For the rest, there should be no other barrier to participation in U.S.-funded programs. The remaining rank and file, trying to build a peaceful life and contribute to Colombia’s reconciliation, must lose their “untouchable” status.
Three years is enough: it is past time to realign the statute’s interpretation to match up with Colombia’s reality. And Congress should communicate to the State Department, in any way appropriate, that it does not object to this common-sense adjustment.
Washington, D.C.—On March 5, the United States and Colombian governments reaffirmed a bilateral agenda aimed at halving the cultivation and production of coca in Colombia by 2023. The announcement, which reflects growing alarm about record-high rates of coca cultivation and cocaine production, pushes an anti-drug strategy that includes the aerial herbicide spraying of coca-growing zones from spray aircraft dispensing the herbicide glyphosate. This policy risks causing serious harm: it may push some of Colombia’s poorest citizens deeper into poverty, generate violence and unrest, harm the environment, and detrimentally impact efforts to implement Colombia’s 2016 peace accords.
“It’s clear that the United States is pushing for aerial fumigation, and that they’ve found a willing partner in Iván Duque,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “What both countries are ignoring is the lack of evidence supporting aerial fumigation as an effective long-term drug control strategy. The plan also ignores the very real possibility that restarting fumigation will result in grave consequences for communities in vulnerable situations.”
For public health reasons, Colombia suspended a U.S.-backed aerial fumigation program in 2015, after 21 years and 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) sprayed. But from 1994 to 2015, mass campaigns of aerial fumigation in Colombia were the cornerstone of U.S. drug policy in the region. It took at least 13 acres of spraying (some estimates go as high as 32 acres) to reduce coca-growing by one acre—and years of evidence showthose gains were not permanent. In areas absent of government presence, with no farm-to-market roads, land titles, or even basic security, replanting happens quickly after spraying, even if there is an initial reduction in coca acreage. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in 2018 found that coca farmers had adopted easy ways to counter mass campaigns of aerial spraying.
“Aerial fumigation is a short-term tactic with no long-term results, like losing weight on a crash diet only to gain it again,”said Isacson. “The regions where families plant coca need basic government services: roads, food security, an effective police force. Sending police and contractors to anonymously spray herbicides from overhead is the direct opposite of what those government services should look like.”
The potential costs of aerial fumigation are significant. Past WOLA research in the region has documented how aerial fumigation displaces ethnic communities and destroys food security. Another concern is social discord in coca-growing areas: about 120,000 Colombian households currently make a living from growing coca, earning an average of $130 per month. There is also the question of environmental harm and potential health damage, as a growing number of studies point to a potential link between glyphosate and forms of cancer. A 2015 literature review published by the World Health Organization found that glyphosate, the chemical used in aerial fumigation, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
“The accords already provide for crop substitutions, economic opportunities in rural areas, and social development. The Duque government needs to uphold these commitments, not restart a failed and risky aerial spraying program,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Director for the Andes at WOLA. “Rather than pressure Colombia to fumigate, the United States should instead encourage President Duque to quit dragging his feet on the full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating. We have this historic opportunity to provide avenues for economic and social development thanks to the 2016 peace accords, and both President Duque and the United States are ignoring it,” added Sánchez-Garzoli. “Instead, they want to bring back fumigation. Imagine, for some of the people living in these regions, a police plane dropping glyphosate on their communities could be the first evidence of state ‘presence’ they see since the accords were signed in 2016.”