Like most people in Washington, I slept poorly last night, with several helicopters constantly overhead and the pops of tear gas rounds perhaps 10 blocks or so away. I’ll be consuming a lot of coffee and trying to do my job, but today may not be my most productive day ever.
I have a border-related meeting and will be sitting in on a migration-related conference in the afternoon. Otherwise I’ll be posting some content today, co-writing a funding proposal, and working on another report, while mostly avoiding social media.
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.
What is an “SFAB?”
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.”
Is this a big deployment? Is it new?
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.
Is this about Venezuela?
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 U.S. Embassy says the trainers are helping with “Zonas Futuro.” What are those?
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:
Tumaco, in Colombia’s southwest corner bordering Ecuador and the Pacific, the country’s number-one coca producing municipality;
The Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department in the northeast, near the Venezuelan border, a zone of heavy ELN presence and cocaine production;
The area around the Chiribiquete National Park in Caquetá department, a zone of significant FARC dissident activity;
The department of Arauca, bordering Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, a longtime ELN stronghold; and
The Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department and adjoining southern Córdoba department, a cocaine-producing zone brutally contested by two neo-paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the ELN.
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.
Does it make sense to send an SFAB to Colombia right now?
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.
The operations raised questions surrounding mounting evidence that the Brazilian equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations — the agency at the center of a recent, dramatic power struggle in the Bolsonaro administration — is being leveraged for political purposes
“We must resist the destruction of the democratic order to avoid what happened in the Weimar Republic when Hitler, after he was elected by popular vote … did not hesitate annulling the constitution and imposing a totalitarian system in 1933,” de Mello told other judges
Un militar declaró que un general le dijo que la información llegaba a manos del excomandante del Ejército, general (r) Nicacio Martínez, quien lo niega. La Fiscalía tiene esta información, pero no ha iniciado investigaciones formales
Daniel Coronell, “El Vuelo Fatal” (Los Danieles (Colombia), June 1, 2020).
La relación entre el hoy senador Álvaro Uribe Vélez e Israel Londoño Mejía, cuñado de los narcotraficantes Jorge Luis, Juan David y Fabio Ochoa Vásquez, no se limitó a la venta de un pequeño apartamento
Robinson Salazar, mandatario de ese municipio de Norte de Santander, dice que el Gobierno nacional se está equivocando. Le preocupa que si llegan erradicadores se van a presentar protestas en medio de la pandemia
“Mexico is having a very, very hard time, as you know, with covid, especially along the border,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “Fortunately,” he added, “we have a brand-new wall along there, and the wall is saving us”
El director del JRS de Venezuela, Eduardo Soto*, tiene información de primera mano sobre lo que ocurre en la porosa frontera entre Colombia y Venezuela, con los más de 60.000 mil migrantes —según cifras oficiales— que han regresado al país
I’m at home near downtown Washington, where we slept (tried to sleep) to the constant sound of police helicopters. We went to the George Floyd protests by the White House during the day, and they were peaceful and impassioned. But once night fell, it got rough around town, and we’re just getting information about what happened.
In the morning and early afternoon, I’ve got a couple of internal meetings and a virtual sit-down with security experts around Latin America. I’ll be writing all afternoon and reachable, though replies may not be instantaneous.
I haven’t gotten through all of this yet, but a coalition of media outlets from 14 countries, from Mexico to Colombia to Cameroon to Nepal, has put together a remarkable series of multimedia reports about migrants from far corners of the world transiting Latin America en route to the United States. It’s called Migrants from Another World, it’s bilingual, and I command you to visit it.
El Salvador’s El Farovisited the dangerous border town of Matamoros, Mexico, where thousands of asylum-seeking migrants remain trapped, vulnerable to crime and disease, unable to make their case on the U.S. side of the border. It’s poignant to read this through the eyes of a Central American reporter, as most of those trapped in Matamoros are Central American.
Researchers at the University of Texas’s Strauss Center dug through 30 years of data and found that more migrants have died in the state (3,253 in 22 years), mostly of dehydration, exposure, or drowning, than Border Patrol counts in the entire four-state border region. – Also on migration, and given honorable mention here because it’s audio, not text: National Public Radio’s Latino USA program created a 2-part series about the Trump administration’s crackdown on people seeking protection in the United States. Part one of The Moving Border reports from the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juárez; part two reports from the Mexico-Guatemala border in Tapachula.
The Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA published an infuriating report about persecution and harassment of civil society during the first two months of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown. It’s in English and Spanish.
Somos Defensores, the coalition of Colombian groups that performs careful documentation of attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders, published its annual report covering 2019. It found a decrease in murders of social leaders in 2019—though not as deep a reduction as the government claims—but an increase in other forms of attack and intimidation. One suspects, tragically, that the organization’s 2020 interim reports will show a renewed increase in murders.
U.S. immigration officials admitted during a federal court hearing Wednesday that they are not conducting COVID-19 testing on every detainee who gets transferred from one detention center to another, saying they don’t have enough tests
Las comunidades tienen incertidumbre por su presente inmediato ¿qué puede quedar para el campesinado con esta situación? Tener que desplazarse a otros pueblos porque no hay soluciones a esta crisis humanitaria
El Gobierno en realidad no está cumpliendo exactamente con el contenido de lo pactado en Cuba, podría dejar a muchas víctimas sin su derecho a la verdad y, de paso, le pone una lápida encima al ya moribundo proceso de diálogo con el ELN
The discovery of large amounts of cocaine in cargo shipped from Honduran and Guatemalan ports has revealed the difficulties in securing maritime shipping operations on the northern stretch of Central America’s Caribbean coast
US Customs and Border Protection, which oversees border wall construction, is painting approximately 450 feet of new border wall in San Luis, Arizona, using a “coal tar epoxy,” in an effort to assess the operational benefits
During the first month, the so-called Bolivarian Fury, following calls made by Nicolás Maduro himself, went on a wave of harassment against the homes of social leaders and members of the political opposition, as well as people critical of the regime
I’ve got two border-related meetings on the calendar this afternoon, and a long-ish list of small tasks to complete. I doubt I’ll get any big projects done today, but should be reachable during much of the morning if needed.
Maria Teresa Ronderos, “Migrants From Another World” (Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística, Animal Politico (Mexico), May 28, 2020).
Every year thousands of people expelled from Asia and Africa cross Latin America looking for the north like swallows disoriented by an altered climate. Along the way, the already painful journey of these extraordinary human beings is made unnecessarily difficult by almost all governments
En el informe “Exhumando Justicia y Verdad”, el Movice detalla cómo las alianzas del Bloque Héroes de los Montes de María de las Auc con políticos, empresarios y Fuerza Pública posibilitaron la desaparición de personas que pueden hallarse en 15 fincas y 18 cementerios
En su más reciente informe, Somos Defensores señala que los asesinatos contra líderes sociales disminuyeron en 2019, pero no en la cantidad que afirma el gobierno nacional, y advierte que se incrementaron otras agresiones que no son tenidas en cuenta por las autoridades
El secretario de Frontera y Cooperación Internacional para Norte de Santander, Víctor Bautista, advirtió que de no establecerse un manejo conjunto en la frontera colombo-venezolana, la crisis del COVID-19 “nos puede explotar en las manos”
The letter signed by five key House leaders overseeing immigration cited a May 18 ProPublica/Texas Tribune story that found the U.S. government has aggressively begun to rush the deportations of unaccompanied children in its care to countries where they have been raped, beaten or had a parent killed
Javier Ignacio Mayorca, “Desapariciones” (Tal Cual (Venezuela), May 28, 2020).
En los cuatro meses de 2020, las cifras de personas desaparecidas en Venezuela se han disparado de forma inexplicable ¿Gente que se va sin decir adiós o policías fuera de control?
This podcast, WOLA’s first to focus on Venezuela since January, features Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s director for Venezuela, and David Smilde, a WOLA senior fellow specializing in Venezuela. (Dr. Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.)
This situation report covers a lot of ground. Ramsey and Smilde explain the current humanitarian situation in Venezuela, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic likely to come, along with the effect of sanctions. The discussion moves on to alternatives, like what it would take to bring the country’s ever-worsening crisis to a political solution. This brings up the role of external powers like Russia, China, Iran, and the United States. Ramsey and Smilde unpack the current state of U.S. policy, which at the White House level is heavily driven by Florida electoral politics. They note that the Trump administration’s mixed messages are inadvertently dividing a Venezuelan opposition that is already in a bad moment after a botched mercenary invasion at the beginning of May.
Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde co-manage WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Also mentioned in the podcast is a May 2020 paper that both co-authored in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which explores the recent history and theory of negotiation efforts in Venezuela, as well as prospects and necessary conditions for a negotiated solution today.
I’ve written two articles for other publications in the past two days: one on Colombia and one on militaries during COVID-19. I don’t know when they’re coming out, but I think they turned out well. This morning I’ll be writing a book review, recording a podcast about Venezuela, “attending” a strategy meeting and a webinar about the border, and “meeting” my new intern. I’ll be able to communicate after all of that, likely mid-to-late afternoon.