Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Colombia

Dangerous times in Colombia

It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials start pushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.

A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begetd them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.

These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.

Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police were ignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.

You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).

Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.

With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.

As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.

They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.

There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.

Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”

These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.

Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.

When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”

Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.

This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.

Think about that. Already, many Colombian analysts are sounding alarms about mounting authoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.

A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.

New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

What does its aggressive coca eradication campaign tell us about Colombia—and about the United States?

Over the next few weeks I expect to use this space to think some things through in a series of bite-sized but connected posts. I’m going to start with the reality of forced coca eradication and the Colombian government’s larger plan for the millions who live in rural zones where illicit crops and armed groups predominate.

One such zone especially got me thinking: the Guayabero River region in Meta and Guaviare departments, in south-central Colombia about 200 miles south, and 20 hours’ drive, from Bogotá. (I’ve been near here—but not quite this far south—when working on this 2009 report.) In early June and again in early August, this zone saw strong confrontations between coca-growing farmers and security forces.

Strong images from June 4 in the Guayabero region.

The main military unit operating in the Guayabero is the Omega Joint Task Force, which has received heavy U.S. assistance since its founding in 2003. Its current commander (who has threatened legal action against local human rights groups) holds degrees from both the National Defense University in Washington and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (which means he probably speaks English better than I do). Omega is one of four units specified to be receiving assistance from a four-month, fifty-three-person detachment of U.S. military trainers that arrived in Colombia at the beginning of June.

The Omega Task Force isn’t accused of killing anyone in these confrontations, but local campesino groups and national human rights groups have leveled some very troubling allegations of rough and aggressive treatment of farmers at the soldiers’ hands. I’ll summarize those in another post.

Omega in the Guayabero is just one example among many of a more combative approach to forced coca eradication this year, and especially since the pandemic lockdown began in March. I discussed this trend in a post in early July, but it’s time to dig deeper.

Here are the points I want to explore over the next few weeks. The outline may change as research accumulates and thoughts evolve.

Forced coca eradication has been notably rougher and more aggressive this year.

There have been many more denunciations of aggressive behavior in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. While coca farmers aren’t models of nonviolence either, the security forces have the guns and the option whether to escalate or de-escalate. Where armed groups are forcing some coca farmers to protest against their better judgment, that should be another reason to de-escalate.

Eradication is larger in scale this year.

Too much is being guided right now by a single, short-term number: hectares of coca planted in Colombia. The U.S. government is pushing Colombia to cut that number by half in 2023, and Bogotá is pursuing some record eradication targets in order to get there. The number of eradication teams has grown sixfold, much of it with U.S. funding.

Eradication is happening with the participation of U.S.-aided armed forces units.

Joint Task Force Omega in the Guayabero is a key example. The U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade that arrived in June is also accompanying military units in two other major coca-growing zones, Catatumbo and Nariño, as well as the nationwide mobile Army Counternarcotics Brigade created with funds from the original 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package. As eradication operations grow more aggressive, U.S.-aided units’ behavior requires especially tight scrutiny.

Eradication is happening uncoordinated with food security or any other economic assistance—even in a pandemic.

Colombia’s defense minister has acknowledged this, as have officials with whom I’ve recently spoken. Leaving coca farming families hungry is not only cruel, it would seem to be a recipe for rapid re-planting. Perhaps it makes sense if the goal is to meet an eradication goal just for 2020, future be damned. But it makes no sense if the goal is to achieve permanent reductions in planting, or to integrate these abandoned territories into the rest of the country.

Farmers are caught in the middle.

With no land titling, no government presence, no access to credit, and no farm-to-market roads, coca—an easily transportable product that for years has sold at a reliably steady price—is farmers’ best, and often only, option. Armed groups in some cases require farmers to plant it, and there’s no government nearby to prevent that. Armed groups in some cases are forcing farmers to protest eradication. Campesino leaders, especially those leading coca substitution projects, are being killed in shocking numbers.

Depite all this, when eradicators show up in a territory, who bears the brunt of the security forces’ aggressive behavior? The farmers.

Some past efforts tried to establish a state presence, to uphold farmers’ organizations, and to integrate communities into the national economy. Right now, these are underfunded at best, or stalled or abandoned at worst.

Examples in the past 10 years include the National Territorial Consolidation Program, the Land Restitution Law of 2011, and the 2016 peace accords’ rural reform and crop substitution chapters. None of these efforts is thriving right now.

Trying to reveal the “real agenda” behind this means exploring the Colombian elite’s split personality.

This is where I’d like to conclude this series of posts. Colombia’s elite seems to show two very different faces to communities in rural areas, including coca cultivators. The same probably applies to the urban poor.

The first face—that of “consolidation,” “stabilization,” land restitution, and the peace accords’ commitments—says to communities, “you can stay where you live.” Even if they don’t see the rural smallholder model as the most efficient approach, they’re willing to direct resources, and in some cases to foster participation.

The second face—that of paramilitarism, “mega-projects,” impunity for social leader killings, refusal to govern territory, and nakedly favoring large landholders—says to communities, “we don’t want you here.” (Or perhaps, “the free market doesn’t want you here”—a message as old as the British Enclosure Movement of the 1700s, and nothing unfamiliar to residents of declining factory towns and poor urban neighborhoods in the United States today.)

Forced, aggressive coca eradication without any food or economic aid? That’s solidly an example of that second face.

The U.S. government supports both faces of Colombia’s elite, to an extent that approaches split-personality disorder. Its aid programs have helped dozens of rural communities to remain where they are and to obtain land ownership, and some military aid programs helped improve Colombia’s overall human rights record. But it also supports aggressive forced eradication and (as we saw in documents released this week) has been too slow or quiet in its response to paramilitarism, social leader killings, and serious human rights abuses.

I’ll be digging more into these questions over the next several weeks.

Top Defense Official in 2004: Backing Paramilitarism “Goes With the Job”

For nearly 20 years, when uniformed U.S. military deploy to Latin America, the U.S. Southern Command has required that they carry a little card reminding them of “the five ‘Rs’ of human rights”: to “recognize, refrain, react, record, and report” if they hear of, or witness, a human rights violation.

Higher up in the Pentagon, though, standards have been lower.

The National Security Archive just revealed a 2004 memo from Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon (George W. Bush’s first term). It’s a series of bullet points addressing the suspicious past of Colombia’s then-president, Álvaro Uribe.

Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia [the department that includes Medellín, between 1995 and 1997],” Rodman informs Rumsfeld. But he brushes it off: “It goes with the job.

“Goes with the job?” The AUC, at the time, was on the Bush administration’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Bush administration had in fact added the AUC to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations on September 10, 2001. At the time, AUC leaders were sending hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States. The AUC grew rapidly in size and strength in Antioquia while Uribe was governor, committing massacres including one that destroyed the village of El Aro in 1997—a crime for which Colombia’s Supreme Court recently called Álvaro Uribe to provide testimony. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the paramilitaries committed the majority of extrajudicial killings and massacres in Colombia’s conflict, according to the government’s National Center for Historical Memory.

Assistant Secretary Rodman was not ignorant about Colombia. In August 2001, he had a long exchange with reporters about an initiative for which he was playing a lead role: the new Bush administration was reviewing U.S. policy toward the country with an eye to allowing Colombia’s military to use counter-drug aid to fight its armed conflict.

No U.S. official would ever, during Uribe’s presidency, have said publicly that the Colombian president—a Bush administration favorite—had links to the paramilitaries. In private, Rodman’s blasé attitude about a group that was killing thousands of civilians per year—a listed terrorist organization, no less, during the war on terror’s most intense moment—flies directly in the face of the uniformed U.S. military’s publicly stated attitude toward human rights in Latin America, going back to the 1990s.

Southcom’s “five ‘Rs,’” if truly observed, would have required evidence about Uribe’s dealings with the paramilitaries to have been recognized, reacted to, recorded, and reported, while U.S. officials should absolutely have refrained from shrugging it off as something that “goes with the job.” The exact opposite happened.

A succinct evaluation of Colombia’s President Duque at the midpoint of his presidency

On August 7, Iván Duque completes two years as president of Colombia, with two left to go. I’ve seen a lot of midterm evaluation analyses in Colombia’s press. Most are largely negative: Duque has had a bumpy ride, and he’s governing from the center-right with the support of a party dominated by the ultra, populist right.

Daniel Samper, writing at Los Danieles, gave what I think is the fairest, most succinct evaluation of Iván Duque and his “mediocre” presidency so far. Here’s an English excerpt.

The evaluations I have read of Duque’s mid-term mandate are mostly unfavorable. Mediocre commentator that I am, I declare myself incapable of delving into all government issues and efforts. That is why I choose an evaluation formula worthy of a waiting room magazine. Here goes:

The good. Duque is not rowdy, like Uribe, or a cheater, like Santos; he belongs to the category he’s-basically-a-good guy, something that cannot be said of the other two … He does a good job in sectors such as technology and infrastructure … He fosters interesting productive projects … He has had gestures of solidarity with Venezuelan exiles … He has faced up to the virus …

The bad. He torpedoes peace [accord implementation] … He has not been able to manage or clean up the Army … The environment and culture are absent from his concerns … He does not know the value of self-criticism … Cronyism and companionship are his misguided guide to choosing personnel, so he has empowered unprepared, vain, immature and insecure officials … He designed a tax reform for the wealthy … He brought his personal religious fervor into the public arena … He kneels before the United States on many issues including the failed war on drugs …

The terrible. The abandonment of social leaders and environmentalists, the everyday drumbeat of diverse murders … His disastrous international policy, managed through phantoms and mediocre people, which worsened the relationship with Venezuela, broke bridges with a loyal ally like Cuba and betrayed Latin American interests.

The bad news. Two years of his period still remain.

The good news. If Duque changes the course of his administration, gets out from under his perverse godfathers [a reference to Uribe and his circle], governs with the best, and really seeks peace—even with the ELN—he would take the first steps toward a better country. As the mute person said, we’ll talk in two years.

As many as six civilians have been killed during coca eradication operations amid the pandemic

Every couple of weeks, we get another alert that someone has been killed in Colombia by security forces carrying out coca eradication operations. Those operations are happening under U.S. pressure to go faster, and with lots of U.S. funding, even in the pandemic. And they’re getting more aggressive and violent.

Last Friday, someone else was killed in Putumayo. That appears to be the sixth civilian death since the COVID-19 lockdown began. So I wrote and distributed this commentary on WOLA’s Colombia Peace site.

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.

Read the whole thing there.

Colombia’s military: worse than we thought

The Army reported that 118 cases of sexual violence are under investigation. All involve uniformed personnel who are part of the Armed Forces. The most striking thing about that number is what it does not say: it does not speak of the silenced cases, it does not speak of results, it does not speak of reparation for victims and communities, it does not speak of a state commitment against these crimes, it does not speak of an understanding of the complexity of the problem. Why didn’t we know about this before? Why, nine months after the rape of an indigenous girl, neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor the Army have been able to find those responsible and apply exemplary punishments? Why, moreover, do they insist on the discourse of bad apples?

From a very strong editorial in Colombia’s daily El Espectador about what, as revelations continue to mount, we can only describe as a culture of tolerating rape—including rape of children—in the country’s armed forces.

WOLA Podcast: Demining sacred space in Colombia’s Amazon basin

Nice to have a podcast coincide with a short film’s debut on the New Yorker website. Congratulations to Tom Laffay for this piece of work. The WOLA podcast page is here.

Tom Laffay is an American filmmaker based in Bogotá, recipient of the inaugural 2020 Andrew Berends Fellowship. In 2018, his short film, Nos están matando (They’re killing us), which exposed the plight of Colombian social leaders, reached the halls of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations in Geneva.

This film was commissioned by The New Yorker and supported by The Pulitzer Center.

In this edition of WOLA’s podcast, Laffay discusses his new short film, Siona: Amazon’s Defenders Under Threat. The New Yorker featured it on its website on June 25, 2020. Laffay follows Siona Indigenous leader Adiela Mera Paz in Putumayo, Colombia, as she works to demine her ancestral territory to make it possible for her people displaced by the armed conflict to return. Though the armed conflict with the FARC may have officially ended, the Siona people not only face post-conflict risks, they also face threats from extractive companies. In the episode, Laffay describes the history of the Siona people and their territory, their relationship with yagé, and the courageous work undertaken by leaders like Adiela Mera Paz.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

2 videos in which I talk about U.S. troops in Colombia

Earlier today I joined Colombian Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino on Ariel Ávila’s El Poder program, on the YouTube channel of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. The subject was the recently announced deployment of a contingent of U.S. military trainers.

Later, I joined Daniel García Pena and Laura Gil for a discussion of the same subject hosted by the Colombian NGO Planeta Paz.

I cringe watching myself speak Spanish, but the subject matter is important. And my high-def webcam has turned out to be a good pre-quarantine investment.

Bring the Trainers Home: This Is No Time for U.S. Military Personnel To Be Advising Offensive Operations in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org / versión en español)

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.

WOLA Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

It’s not every day you get to record a podcast with a member of Congress. I enjoyed sitting down virtually this morning with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Colombia. He was fired up about the outrageous recent scandal involving U.S.-aided army intelligence units spying on Colombian reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, and others.

He calls here for a suspension of U.S. military aid and a much clearer U.S. commitment to implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accords and protecting its threatened social leaders.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file. The text from WOLA’s website is after the photo (from 2017 in Cauca).

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.

McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.

We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.

He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

At wola.org: A New Scandal Underscores Colombia’s Stubborn Inability to Reform Military Intelligence

Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.

Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.

Here’s what I came up with. The whole 4,000-word (but not boring!) commentary is at WOLA’s website.

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.

Semana has a long record of revealing malfeasance in the security forces. The last five covers are from the past twelve months.

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.

Continue reading at WOLA’s website.

WOLA Podcast: “These moments of social resistance are never moments. They have long histories.”

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.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Illegal Surveillance by Colombia’s Military is Unacceptable

Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.

In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. 

Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.

The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation. 

Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.

Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.

In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.  

While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists. 

Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.” 

That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.

Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership. 

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

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