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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Drug Policy

The trashing of a once useful State Department report

Every March, the State Department publishes an annual report, required by law, providing a global survey of what countries around the world are doing to reduce supply and demand for illicit drugs. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) is a bit of a drug-war relic, but it contains a lot of information unavailable elsewhere, such as how much drugs countries seized, and what U.S. aid to their counter-drug forces looks like.

The INCSR gets rewritten every year. While a lot of the same phrasing reappears, you can tell a lot about the U.S. government’s posture by looking at what has changed. A prime example is the report’s discussion of the growth in Colombia’s coca crop, which the U.S. government estimates as increasing from 80,500 hectares in 2013 to 209,000 hectares in 2017.

This paragraph, which appears each year, has undergone a radical metamorphosis from the Obama to the Trump administrations. Once a useful if partial analysis of the phenomenon, it is now hot garbage.

March 2016 report:

Several factors contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia in 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements have been urging coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that Colombian government post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, empirical evidence demonstrates that counter-eradication tactics have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To hamper aerial eradication efforts coca growers: (1) shift fields to areas off limits to aerial eradication, including national parks and indigenous reserves; (2) plant smaller fields in areas where aerial eradication is permitted, to impede coca detection and aerial eradication; and (3) prune coca plants after being sprayed to prevent full absorption of the herbicide and save the plant for future harvests. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and significantly slow eradication operations by requiring extensive counter-IED detection efforts; and (3) plant fields in remote areas, requiring increased effort to detect, access, and eradicate fields. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2015 as compared to 2008. In mid-2015, however, the Colombian government announced a plan to dramatically increase the number of Colombian National Police (CNP) personnel devoted to manual eradication operations by about 100 percent to approximately 2,650, and to increase the number of manual eradicators by about 40 percent to approximately 1,050.

Here, State posits four reasons for the increase in coca-growing. (1) The peace accord, whose draft pointed to rewards for coca growers; (2) coca-growers’ resistance to aerial eradication; (3) coca-growers’ resistance to manual eradication; and (4) cuts to Colombia’s manual eradication budget.

As noted in a 2017 report, I would add a drop in the price of gold, which caused a big switch from illicit gold-mining to illicit coca-growing; a big weakening of the Colombian peso against the dollar, which made it look like coca’s farm-gate price was jumping; and declining Colombian spending on alternative development.

March 2017 report:

Several factors have contributed to the overall surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2014. First, widespread reporting indicates that FARC elements urged coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that the Colombian government’s post-peace accord investment and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantities of coca. Second, the Colombian government reduced eradication operations in areas controlled by the FARC to lower the risk of armed conflict as the parties negotiated a final peace accord. Third, counter- eradication tactics employed by coca growers have significantly reduced the effectiveness of coca eradication efforts. To combat manual eradication, coca growers: (1) employ blockade techniques to prevent eradicators from accessing fields; (2) place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around eradication operations to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and slow eradication operations; and (3) plant fields in areas less accessible to eradication efforts, including national parks, indigenous areas, and remote areas. Finally, Colombia’s manual eradication budget has declined by two-thirds since 2008, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in the number of manual eradicators in 2016 as compared to 2008.

In 2017 the “resistance to aerial eradication” argument goes away, which makes sense since the glyphosate-spraying program was suspended, due to health concerns, in October 2015. The recently signed peace accord gets blamed for a second phenomenon: the government soft-pedaling forced eradication to avoid disrupting the Havana dialogues. (I’ve talked to people in the Santos government who deny this, though the 2016 eradication figure, 18,000 hectares, was historically low.) The rest remains the same.

March 2018 report:

Several factors contributed to the surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2013, including the end of aerial spraying and indications that FARC elements urged farmers to plant coca, purportedly to take advantage of the Colombian government’s peace accord coca crop substitution program. Furthermore, counter-eradication tactics employed by coca growers have impeded the government’s manual eradication efforts, including blocking eradicators from accessing fields; placing improvised explosive devices in coca fields to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and slow eradication operations; and planting fields in inaccessible areas, including national parks, indigenous areas, and remote regions.

Colombia’s suspension of aerial fumigation gets blamed in this year’s report, even though the report two years earlier detailed several ways that coca-growers had acted to make spraying less effective. The peace accord is again blamed for creating a perverse incentive, but the report doesn’t repeat the charge that the Santos government abstained from eradication to avoid harming the negotiations. The “reduced eradication budget” argument disappears because Colombia ramped up manual eradication in 2017.

March 2019 report:

Several factors contributed to the surge in coca cultivation in Colombia since 2013, including: the end of aerial spray of glyphosate on coca; a crop substitution program that created perverse incentives for coca growers to grow more coca; and the failure of the FARC to comply with the illicit drug provisions of the peace agreement. Drug traffickers employ effective counter- eradication tactics such as protests and the use of improvised explosive devices in coca fields to kill, injure, and demoralize eradicators and to slow eradication operations.

This is the most contentious and poorly documented—we could say, “the Trumpiest”—edition of the report. It blames the peace accord’s entire crop substitution program for incentivizing coca-growing, even though the program caused the UN-verified voluntary eradication of 35,000 hectares of coca by the end of 2018. It claims that coca increased because the FARC cheated on its peace accord commitments: this is an explosive charge, but the report neglects to specify what commitments the FARC reneged on, or whether it is referring to all demobilized guerrillas or to the 10-20 percent who have retaken arms as “dissidents.”

Finally—and ominously, if you care about good analysis—it’s no longer “coca-growers” who take measures to resist manual eradication: it’s “drug traffickers.” At least 119,500 Colombian families live off the coca crop right now. For the State Department, these people are now drug traffickers. Language matters.

Over the course of the Trump administration, we’re seeing a relatively credible and careful report morph into a political document that we can no longer rely on as an accurate depiction of what is happening.

This change in the INCSR report’s language dovetails with President Trump’s and Ambassador Kevin Whitaker’s verbal attacks on the Colombian government this month for “not doing enough” about drugs. It raises the likelihood that, in September, President Trump will “decertify” Colombia as a partner in the drug war, placing Colombia on a small list of uncooperative countries that includes Venezuela and Bolivia.

That was once unthinkable because it would be so counter-productively stupid, given Colombia’s demonstrated willingness to do nearly everything the U.S. government asks on drug policy, trade policy, and Venezuela. But we live in counter-productively stupid times. At the rate we’re going, by next year this discussion of Colombia’s coca crop will probably just be 280 characters ending with “Sad!”

Restarting Aerial Fumigation of Drug Crops in Colombia is a Mistake

Colombia’s Constitutional Court met today to discuss the government’s plans to reinstate aerial spraying of coca. President Iván Duque was the first to address the high court; he asked the justices to “modulate” their past rulings to allow more spraying.

I just posted an analysis of this to WOLA’s website. It addresses a series of questions:

  • Why did coca cultivation increase so much?
  • Is glyphosate dangerous?
  • What restrictions did Colombia’s Constitutional Court put in place in 2017?
  • What do the peace accords call for?
  • What do US officials say?
  • Is aerial spraying effective?
  • What other options are there?
  • How else could we measure success?
  • Is crop eradication effective in any form?

Read the whole thing here.

New piece at Razón Pública

Many thanks to Hernando Gómez Buendía, Daniela Garzón, and the staff at Colombia’s Razón Pública for inviting me to submit a column about last week’s meeting between Trump and Colombian President Iván Duque.

If you prefer Spanish, el artículo, titulado “La reunión de Duque con Trump: entretenida pero improductiva,” se puede leer aquí.

Below is the version I wrote in English before having Google Docs translate it, then fixing the translation, then sending it to Razon Pública whose staff added important improvements.

Duque’s meeting with Trump was entertaining, but achieved little

Seven weeks into his presidency, Iván Duque had his first chance to meet the United States’ flamboyant, unpredictable president, Donald Trump, outside the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. They spoke together with reporters for a while, and it was colorful.

While Duque kept his comments to policy questions, Trump let him know that if he fails to reduce cocaine supplies, he’ll be “just another president of Colombia.” He mocked Venezuela’s military for scattering after a drone-mounted bomb exploded in President Nicolas Maduro’s vicinity in August. After questions about North Korea and Iran, Trump turned to Duque and reminded him that Colombia is not a great power: “you can worry about drugs and do a great job, but you don’t have to worry about Iran and various other places.”

We know that the presidents spoke at length about drug policy and about the crisis in neighboring Venezuela. Both leaders, political conservatives, no doubt agreed on basic principles. Their governments still probably lack clarity, though, on next steps for dealing with either coca or Venezuela. Other topics, though, got little attention, including the issue that headed the agenda only a short time ago: how to consolidate peace.

A harder line on coca

In February, when Juan Manuel Santos was still in the Palace of Nariño, Trump shared his core opinion of countries, like Colombia, that produce illicit drugs that U.S. citizens consume:

[T]hese countries are not our friends. You know, we think they’re our friends and we send them massive aid. And I won’t mention names right now, but I look at these countries, I look at the numbers we send them — we send them massive aid and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us. So I’m not a believer in that. I want to stop the aid.

Indeed, the White House has sought to cut aid to Colombia by about 35 percent during each of the past two years. It has failed, as the Republican-majority Congress has refused to go along with the cuts.

For now, Trump seems to think that Colombia’s new president might be different. Unlike last year, this year’s White House memo on major drug-producing and transit countries did not threaten to “decertify” Colombia, despite U.S. estimates measuring an 11% rise, to 209,000 hectares, in Colombia’s coca crop in 2017.

We don’t know what Duque told Trump that he would do to reduce Colombia’s coca crop. The Colombian president says he favors a mix of strategies, among them aerial herbicide fumigation from drones or aircraft. Duque probably told Trump he intends to step up forced eradication, and perhaps to reinitiate the use of aircraft-sprayed glyphosate, within the restrictions laid out by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.

Next steps, though, aren’t clear. U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal in August that seven or eight of the spray planes that operated before the fumigation program’s 2015 suspension remain in Colombia, and could be made operational “in a few months.” But at a time of reduced foreign assistance budgets, there may be an expectation that Colombia pay most of the cost. At its height in the mid-2000s, the spray program cost the U.S. government US$200 million per year, making up fully one-third of all military and police assistance at the time. Today, all aid to Colombia totals US$450 million, and Trump wants to cut it. So Bogotá would probably have to find money to pay for a new spray program.

Also unclear is how Colombia might deal with the likely wave of violent confrontations that might accompany an increase in manual eradication. What is clear, though, is that President Duque seized his moment with Trump to display his credentials as a drug-policy hardliner. He praised an “amazing declaration” on drug-policy principles that the U.S. government brought with it to the General Assembly sessions, expecting other countries to sign on. Duque also touted “something very important, Mr. President”: his decree of the previous week outlawing the possession of a “personal dose” of drugs, reversing earlier governments’ tentative step toward reform.

Tough talk on Venezuela

In their public appearance, Trump had clearly been coached to avoid endorsing a military intervention in Venezuela. A year ago, Trump caused an uproar throughout the region by saying he would not “rule out a military option” for resolving the country’s political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis. During Trump’s appearance with Duque, reporters tried to goad him into saying something similar. He did not take the bait: “I don’t want to say that. I don’t like to talk about military. Why should I talk to you about military?”

He did, however, back the idea of a military coup inside Venezuela. “It’s a regime that, frankly, could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that.”

There’s increasing support, in the United States and elsewhere, for the idea of external actors helping internal opponents unseat Maduro’s regime. But there is zero consensus on how to do that successfully, and how to avoid making things worse even if it succeeds. For his part, Duque sat quietly by while Trump and his chief of staff, John Kelly, compared the Venezuelan military unfavorably to U.S. Marines.

The Colombian president seems to prefer the route of diplomatic isolation and encouragement of opposition elements in Venezuela. He has led the effort to denounce Venezuela at the International Criminal Court. When a reporter asked about six countries’ denunciation before the Court, issued this week, Trump had no idea what the question was about.

Trump said that the United States would help defend Colombia against any possible aggression from Venezuela. This appears to be a genuine security guarantee. Similar words were uttered by Vice President Mike Pence and, in an El Tiempo interview last week, by Ambassador Kevin Whitaker.

Missing: Peace

A reporter asked the presidents, “Are you going to talk about FARC and ELN, the peace process?” A startled Trump replied, “Are you asking me that question? We’re going to be talking about everything.” He said nothing more about an issue of central importance to governance and security in Colombia, while Duque repeated his conditions for re-starting talks with the ELN.

Neither president voiced a word of concern about the wave of killings of social leaders in Colombia, even as the organization Somos Defensores issued a chilling report finding a 34 percent year-on-year increase in such murders during the first six months of 2018.

Again in two months

Trump and Duque will meet again at the end of November; the U.S. president is scheduled to spend an entire day in Colombia en route to the G-20 Summit in Argentina. Unless something unforeseen happens in Venezuela, we can expect more colorful statements, continued lack of clarity about next steps, and further endorsement of hardline policies.

One thing to keep in mind during these meetings: Donald Trump is the head of state, but Iván Duque is talking only to part of the U.S. government with responsibility for Colombia policy. Duque is also talking to the weakest U.S. president in memory.

If Trump had his way, U.S. aid to Colombia would be slashed. But congressional appropriators blocked that. If Trump had his way, Colombia would no longer be a “friend” because it produces drugs and “laughs at us.” But U.S. diplomats and military officers have maintained the relationship largely unchanged. If Trump had his way, the United States may have already knocked out the Maduro government, even without a plan for what happens next. But cooler heads everywhere have stopped that.

On many policy questions, it’s as though the White House is a far right-wing NGO lobbying the rest of the government to carry out its agenda. It often fails, because much of what this NGO proposes is manifestly against the U.S. national interest. When that NGO can act autonomously, it can cause a lot of harm and human suffering, as 3,000 Central American migrant families found a few months ago. But otherwise, the checks and controls are working: and they are very likely to be stronger if, as polls predict, the Democratic Party opposition wins a majority of at least one house of Congress in the United States’ November 6 legislative elections.

Last Month’s U.S. Government Reports Relevant to Latin America

Ouch, this statement did not age well.

This is William Brownfield, then the assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement affairs, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 2, 2017:

Tranche one in this four-stage Colombian strategy was the southwest. Down in Tumaco and the province of Nariño. We are unable to support that because the FARC has, in a sense, captured the alternative development part of that. The next step is going to be up in Antioquia. That’s further to the north and slightly to the west, but still central Colombia.

There, we are trying to work specifically an arrangement whereby the government will work directly with the campesinos themselves, the individual farmers. And we have told the government we will support alternative development. We will provide INCLE funding—generously provided by the United States Congress to the Department of State and INL—and we will support alternative development there.

We will then, ladies and gentlemen, have a test. We’ll see how it worked in the southwest [Tumaco], with the FARC largely running the process, and how it works up in Antioquia with the FARC out of the process. And then we’ll reach some conclusions. What works best?

Brownfield throws down the gauntlet. Within the framework of the peace accords, the Colombian government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos can carry out its own coca strategy in Nariño. The Americans will do things their own way up north in Antioquia. And we’ll see what works best.

On September 19, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its department-by-department estimates of coca growing in Colombia. And Nariño comes off looking a lot better than Antioquia. Here are the numbers:

  • Colombia, nationally, saw a 17 percent increase in coca cultivation.
  • Nariño, which the U.S. government avoided, saw a 7 percent increase: less than the national average. In Tumaco, Nariño, the municipality (county) that has more coca than any other—and thus a key focus of the Santos government’s efforts—coca declined by 16 percent.
  • Antioquia, on the other hand, saw a 55 percent increase.

Assistant secretary Brownfield’s “test” was not off to a good start in 2017. Who knows, maybe 2018 will be different; the so-called “Plan Antioquia” was also just getting going. But the UN’s 2017 numbers show that coca really did stop increasing, or even start reducing, in the areas where the Colombian government managed to get it together enough to implement crop substitution, in line with Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord.

In those areas, the UNODC reports, the peace accords’ National Substitution Program (PNIS) managed to enroll 54,027 families in voluntary coca substitution by the end of 2017. By June 2018, this had risen to 77,659 families. In areas where the PNIS got going, covering 14 percent of coca-growing territory, 2017 saw an 11 percent reduction in crops.

The UN data, troubling as they are, show that things are far more complicated than “let’s have a test.” They especially underscore the importance of keeping commitments made to the tens of thousands of families who signed up to eradicate their coca voluntarily. UNODC Colombia Director Bo Mathiasen adds that there are currently 119,500 families growing coca in Colombia: about half a million people in a country of 50 million. A successful coca-control strategy, then, would measure success in number of families instead of number of hectares.

The Past Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of September 9-15)

ELN Talks Remain Suspended

In his August 7 inaugural speech, President Iván Duque said that he would take 30 days to decide whether to continue peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. That period has expired, and Duque did not end the talks—but he has suspended them pending the ELN’s renunciation of kidnapping and release of all captives.

ELN fighters freed nine captives over two releases in September. On the 7th, guerrillas in Arauca released three soldiers whom they had taken on August 8. On September 11 in Chocó, they released three policemen, a soldier, and two civilians taken on August 3 from a boat on an Atrato River tributary. The Duque government did not negotiate these releases’ protocols; the ELN performed them unilaterally in coordination with the Catholic Church, the government’s independent Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría), and the International Committee of the Red Cross. “This did not imply any negotiation with the national government,” insisted the Duque government’s peace commissioner, Miguel Ceballos.

While Ceballos and President Duque recognized this gesture, they said there is more to do: they count 10 more individuals who remain in ELN custody. “There were 20 on the list,” Ceballos said, “later there was one liberation in Arauca, and later three more. If we take away the three in Chocó, 10 remain.” Of the ten, one has been a hostage since April 2002; two were taken in 2011, and one in 2012. The ELN has offered no responses about these captives, if they are even still alive.

“The door is not necessarily closed” to peace talks with the ELN, Ceballos told El Tiempo. But Duque’s demands for changed ELN behavior, including a cessation of kidnapping and all other hostilities, may be more than what some ELN commanders might agree to. “I want to be clear,” President Duque said this week. “If we want to build a peace with this organized armed group, they must start with the clearest show of goodwill, which is the suspension of all criminal activities.”

Still, Ceballos told El Espectador the ELN may be flexible. “I think the ELN is understanding things, because if not, this process of liberation of kidnapped people would not have begun. I believe that in these 30 days a space of understanding has been achieved beyond the need for the formal structure of a [negotiating] table. These have been 30 days in which no armed actions have been presented. There’s a dynamic here.”

The Peace Commissioner added that, should talks re-start, the Duque government may seek to alter the negotiating agenda agreed with the Santos government, which has been criticized for imprecise language that has made it difficult to implement. “President Duque said it in a very clear way in Amagá (Antioquia), last Saturday,” he said. “Any future scenario would need a credible agenda and specific timeframes; that necessarily implies the consideration of adjustments.”

Gen. Montoya, Former Army Chief, Appears Before the JEP

Gen. Mario Montoya, who headed Colombia’s army from 2006 to 2008, appeared before the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), the transitional justice system set up by the peace accord. The retired general denied any guilt for human rights crimes. Montoya is the highest-ranking officer to appear before the JEP so far, though another retired general, Henry Torres Escalante, has already appeared in relation to a case of extrajudicial executions.

Montoya resigned in November 2008, amid revelations that members of the Army had killed thousands of civilians, then presented them falsely as combat kills in a criminal effort to boost body counts and earn rewards for battlefield performance. Montoya allegedly pressured subordinates to rack up body counts and produce “rivers of blood” in counter-guerrilla operations, thus creating an environment that rewarded extrajudicial executions, making him emblematic of what Colombians call the “false positives” scandal.

Montoya decided in July to submit to the JEP rather than the regular criminal justice system, where some cases against him had been stalled since 2016. The highly decorated, U.S.-trained general denies any wrongdoing, lawbreaking, or knowledge of his subordinates’ criminal behavior. Though most defendants enter the JEP to confess crimes in return for reduced non-prison sentences, Montoya intends to challenge any charges against him. Should the JEP find him guilty anyway, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in regular prison.

During his initial hearing in the JEP’s Definition of Legal Situations Chamber, Montoya and his lawyers heard a listing of accusations and investigations against him that had been filed in the regular justice system. Cases included a few dozen “false positives” victims, as well as the “Operation Orion” military offensive in Medellín’s western slums, in October 2002 when Montoya headed the local army brigade, which killed several civilians and benefited from open support of paramilitary groups. Relatives of “false positives” victims attended the hearing.

Montoya’s defense lawyer argued that the general cannot be held responsible for the “false positive” crimes committed when he headed the Army, since the murders took place in units several levels below his command. In the end, Montoya’s hearing had a disappointing outcome: as defense lawyers challenged the standing of some of the victims involved, Magistrate Pedro Díaz suspended the session and put it off for a later date.

FARC Party Holds Conference Marked By No-Shows

News coverage took stock of a “National Council of the Commons,” a meeting of the new FARC political party’s leadership, in Bogotá the week earlier. The “Council” sought to bring together 111 delegates whom the ex-guerrilla membership had elected a year ago, to make decisions about the party’s future.

In the end, 29 of the 111 did not appear. Five have resigned their posts. Seven offered excuses for being unable to attend. Another 17, though, gave no reason for their absence. That number includes:

  • Luciano Marín alias Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator during the Havana peace talks. Márquez left Bogotá and abandoned the Senate seat that awaited him in April 2018, after the arrest of Jesús Santrich, a close Márquez associate and fellow negotiator. Santrich is wanted in extradition by a U.S. federal court in New York on charges of conspiring to send cocaine to the United States. Until June or July, Márquez—a hardliner on the FARC’s left flank who was the top vote-getter when the membership chose delegates last year—abandoned the demobilization site where he had been staying in the southern department of Caquetá. He blamed nearby “military operations” and concerns for his security. His whereabouts are now unknown. It is not clear at the moment whether he intends to continue participating in the peace process.
  • Hernán Darío Velásquez alias El Paisa, the former head of the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero mobile column, disappeared around the same time as Márquez; he was managing the Caquetá demobilization site where Márquez had been staying.
  • Henry Castellanos alias Romaña, who led FARC units that kidnapped hundreds in a region just south of Bogotá, had been managing a demobilization site in Nariño but has also gone clandestine.
  • Fabián Ramírez, a former top leader of the FARC’s Southern Bloc.
  • Zarco Aldinever” and “Enrique Marulanda,” who managed the demobilization site in Mesetas, Meta.
  • Iván Alí,” who ran a site in Guaviare. (Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos said that he met with “Alí” days before his disappearance, and that the FARC leader had told him “he was going to [the remote eastern department of] Vichada and that communication would be difficult.”)
  • Albeiro Córdoba,” who ran another site in Guaviare.
  • Manuel Político,” who ran a site in Putumayo.

Most of the missing 17, points out La Silla Vacía, come from the former guerrilla group’s Eastern and Southern blocs, where were its strongest militarily at the time the peace accord was signed.

Most members of the Colombian Congress’s Peace Committee visited Caquetá September 10 to seek information about the missing leaders. Sen. Iván Cepeda, a close supporter of the FARC peace process, said that people “very close” to Márquez and “El Paisa” told them that the two men remain committed to the peace process, and in fact are still in Caquetá. Both, however, fear being extradited capriciously, Cepeda said, adding that both had heard spurious rumors about pending arrest warrants. The Colombian government, Cepeda said, needs to find a way to keep “extradition from becoming a sort of detonator for the end of the peace process.”

Some of the missing leaders sent messages insisting that they remain in the peace process. A letter from “Romaña” appeared in which he reiterated his will to honor his demobilization commitments. Fabián Ramírez also sent a letter affirming his continued participation, though he expressed deep mistrust as a result of Santrich’s arrest. Ramírez said that, along with 100 other ex-guerrillas, he was seeking to set up a new, safer demobilization space with the goal of preventing their defection to dissident groups.

The disappearances are a sign of deepening internal divisions within the FARC. These were laid bare in a strongly worded letter from former Southern Bloc leader Joaquín Gómez and high-ranking ex-commander Bertulfo Álvarez. It accuses maximum leader Timoleón Jiménez and other Bogotá-based FARC bosses—most of whom have turned out to be political moderates—of “spiteful and vengeful lack of leadership.” The letter accused Jiménez of “dedicating himself to defending the bourgeois order with surprising and unexpected zeal.” The letter’s authors, who run the demobilization site in La Guajira, cited health reasons for their absence from the Bogotá meeting.

FARC Senator Victoria Sandino blamed security concerns for many of the no-shows, and denied that the FARC is dividing.

“No, there is a debate. Many people make criticisms within the party, but none will make criticisms like ‘oh no, let’s go back to guns, let’s create another party.’ No. There are internal political debates, but those debates aren’t about separating. There are some comrades who are critical of [accord] implementation, but I guarantee that in these debates none, absolutely nobody, has expressed the idea that the way out of here is to return to arms. No one.”

In the end, the FARC “Council of the Commons” agreed to set up an executive committee to prepare for October 2019 local elections, with regional representatives including Joaquín Gómez. They decided that going clandestine for security concerns was acceptable behavior, but established procedures to kick out renegade members.

U.S. Officials Visit, Speculation Over a Return to Coca Fumigation Increases

On September 11 the White House issued an annual memo to the State Department identifying major illicit drug producing and transit countries, and highlighting which of these are “decertified”—subject to aid cuts and other penalties—for failing to cooperate with U.S. counter-drug strategies. As in past years, Venezuela and Bolivia were decertified.

Last years’s memo included controversial language stating that President Trump “seriously considered” adding Colombia to the decertified blacklist because of sharply increased coca and cocaine production. This year’s document did not repeat that threat, but called out Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan for “falling behind in the fight to eradicate illicit crops and reduce drug production and trafficking.” The U.S. government estimated that Colombia’s coca crop increased 11 percent in 2017, to a record 209,000 hectares.

The certification memo’s release coincided with a visit to Bogota from the deputy director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, James Carroll, and the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Karl Schultz. According to El Tiempo, in a meeting that lasted over an hour, the two officials told President Duque that, under normal circumstances, the White House would have decertified Colombia:

“During the meeting the White House’s envoys told Duque that the amount of coca planted in Colombia, more than 200,000 hectares, was enough for the country to be decertified.

“However, they clarified that they understand that this is an ‘inherited’ problem [for the recently inaugurated president], which comes from previous years. In that sense, they expressed the Washington government’s confidence in the policies that Colombia is going to implement to eradicate crops and counteract the cartels who carry the drug to their nation.”

Duque told the U.S. officials he plans to respond with a mix of strategies, referring to “a principle of integrality” (comprehensiveness), rather than putting all focus on forced coca eradication. That mix, however, may include a return to eradication through aircraft-based spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, reviving a U.S.-backed program that Colombia carried out on a massive scale between 1994 and 2015. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended aircraft-based spraying in 2015 after some studies pointed to a possible link between glyphosate and cancer; officials also argued that spraying had proved to be ineffective.

Duque, however, may bring it back. “Fumigation can happen if some protocols are complied with,” he said. “In the comprehensive policy that we want in the fight against illicit crops, these protocols should be reflected in such a way that any action is upheld by the Court’s guidelines.”

The president refers here to 2015 and 2017 decisions by Colombia’s Constitution Court, its highest judicial review authority, which placed significant restrictions on coca eradication via aerial glyphosate spraying. Any future fumigation must avoid nature reserves, indigenous reservations, and campesino reserve zones—sites that host a significant portion of current cultivation. Spraying can only proceed after an “objective and conclusive” scientific study showing a lack of health and environmental damage. Colombia’s National Drug Council (CNE), a decision-making body incorporating several ministries and agencies, must agree on a set of regulations to govern future spraying, in a process that includes ethnic communities’ participation, and these regulations must be passed as a law. An ethnic representative must be added to the CNE. Colombia must undergo prior consultation with ethnic communities in areas where it plans to spray, although the Court allows spraying in the absence of consent if the CNE issues a finding.

Duque’s government includes some aggressively enthusiastic backers of renewed glyphosate fumigation. “I don’t see any alternative to using herbicides,” Defense Minister Guillermo Botero said in August. “You have to use it because the world is not going to accept us swimming in coca. …Glyphosate is used in Colombia since time immemorial.” Added Francisco Santos, the new ambassador to the United States: “Fumigation is essential. The Constitutional Court must understand that it must return, because we are facing a social, economic and national security emergency. It has to come back, understanding the restrictions.”

Dissident Leader “David” Killed in Nariño

The Defense Ministry announced that a military-police operation killed Víctor David Segura Palacios, alias “David,” the chief of one of the two main FARC dissident groups operating in Nariño, Colombia’s largest coca and cocaine-producing department. Soldiers arrived at 2:00AM on September 8 at a house where “David” was staying; he and his sister, who allegedly handled his group’s finances, were killed in an ensuing shootout.

A former member of the FARC’s Nariño-based Daniel Aldana mobile column, David refused to demobilize, along with his brother Yeison Segura, alias “Don Y.” The dissident group they formed, the “United Guerrillas of the Pacific” (GUP), recruited former FARC militias along Nariño’s coast and took over cocaine trafficking routes. After “Don Y” was killed in a November 2016 firefight with former FARC comrades, “David” assumed command.

Defense Minister Guillermo Botero told reporters that the GUP had grown to control 4 percent of Colombia’s cocaine exports. The Nariño governor’s office said that the group has control or influence in at least 10 of the department’s 64 municipalities (counties).

For the past year, David had been the main rival of Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Front (FOS), a Nariño-based FARC dissident structure that gained region-wide notoriety after it kidnapped and killed three Ecuadorian journalists in early 2018. David blamed Guacho for his brother’s death, and the two groups had been battling for control of cocaine routes, and of urban neighborhoods in Tumaco, all year.

“According to various reports,” notes InsightCrime, the rival GUP and FOS are both “associated with Mexican drug trafficking organizations, who will have an interest in maintaining the steady passage of cocaine out of the country.” La Silla Vacía reports that, “According to the Police, during recent months David already had contacts with the [Mexican] Jalisco New Generation cartel (while Guacho, according to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, is one of the links of the Sinaloa cartel), and had an Interpol Blue Notice.”

David’s death is the largest battlefield result against guerrilla dissidents or organized crime so far in President Iván Duque’s 6-week-old government, but it is unlikely to reduce violence in Nariño. Citing sources in Colombia’s Navy and the Tumaco ombudsman’s office, La Silla counts 12 other major armed or criminal groups active in “post-conflict” Nariño besides the GUP, “like Guacho’s dissident group, the Gulf Clan [paramilitary successor group], the ELN which has tried to enter the south of Nariño, and other groups of lesser national impact like La Oficina [paramilitary successor], La Gente del Orden [ex-FARC militias], Los de Sábalo, and, more recently, the so-called ‘Stiven González’ front.”

In-Depth Reading

Last month’s U.S. government reports relevant to Latin America

  • Mexico – Evolved Seasparrow Missiles (Washington: Defense Security Cooperation Agency, August 9, 2018).
    The President must notify Congress of any pending Foreign Military Sale of defense articles or services exceeding $50 million, of design and construction services exceeding $200 million, or any major defense equipment exceeding $14 million.
  • Southwest Border Migration FY2018 (Washington: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, August 7, 2018).
    Every month since May 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported the number of unaccompanied, undocumented children and family-unit members apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border during the previous month.
  • Southwest Border Security: CBP Is Evaluating Designs and Locations for Border Barriers but Is Proceeding Without Key Information (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, August 6, 2018).
    As the Trump administration seeks to build a border wall based on prototypes constructed in 2017, GAO concludes that Customs and Border Protection “doesn’t have complete information for prioritizing barrier deployments in the most cost-effective manner.”
  • Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, July 30, 2018).
    A regular CRS overview of Honduran politics and bilateral relations with the United States.
  • Most Complaints about CBP’s Polygraph Program Are Ambiguous or Unfounded (Washington: Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, July 26, 2018).
    Though only 28 percent of applicants for positions at CBP passed polygraph tests between 2013 and 2016, the inspector-general found that 96% of complaints about the process were unfounded or ambiguous.

Video: “The Origins of Cocaine” book event

Here is video of yesterday afternoon’s WOLA event with Paul Gootenberg and Liliana Dávalos of Stony Brook University. They’re the editors of The Origins of Cocaine, a new book that finds a striking overlap between today’s South American coca-growing areas and the zones where governments carried out failed development and colonization projects 50 years ago. I wrote an epilogue to the book looking at the present moment.

The discussion was lively and well informed. Paul is a historian, and Liliana is an evolutionary biologist, which made for a novel combination.

Most new cocaine production is not U.S.-bound (unless the law of supply and demand is broken)

Dig up all the U.S. government’s estimates of how many tons of cocaine are produced in the Andes, from the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports.

Then look at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s purity-and-inflation-adjusted estimates of how much the average gram of cocaine costs on U.S. streets. (Table 7.5 here.)

That data, graphed out, looks like these:

In basic economics classes, you quickly learn the law of supply and demand: when something is more plentiful or demand for it decreases, the price goes down. When it becomes scarcer or demand increases, the price goes up.

That’s barely happening here. Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. government’s estimate of South American cocaine production shot up 113 percent. In Colombia, the source of about 92 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States, cocaine production increased 268 percent.

With that much more illegal product headed our way, you’d expect U.S. street prices to fall sharply between 2012 and 2016. And they did fall—but not sharply. The estimated price of a gram of cocaine dropped only 15 percent over those four years.

What’s going on here? It’s possible that both supply and price estimates are wildly inaccurate. It’s also possible that most of the new cocaine supplies are headed to other countries, like Europe, Brazil, even China.

The White House contended in a press release Monday that increased cocaine supply “directly relates” to increased demand. “The number of new cocaine users in the United States has increased by 81% since 2013,” it reads, “and overdose deaths involving cocaine have more than doubled during that same timeframe.” Most of that increase in overdose deaths (66 percent of cases in 2015) involves combining cocaine with opioids.

These worrying indicators are still lower than the 268 percent supply increase from Colombia. Prices would have to drop more than 15 percent to entice that kind of an increase in users.

The most likely explanation, then, is that most of the new worldwide cocaine supply is not coming to the United States. The new UNODC World Drug Report, released this week, estimates that North America accounts for 34 percent of the world’s cocaine market—that’s down from “about half” in the agency’s 2000 report.

24 years of coca and eradication in Colombia

Over the years I’ve been inadvertently building a big collection of “graphs that need periodic updating, which makes them more complicated.”

This one depicts coca cultivation in Colombia, and efforts to eradicate it, since 1994. There are two measures of coca cultivation, from the United States and the UN. Eradication has mostly occurred through aerial spraying of herbicides (which stopped in 2015) and through manual uprooting or spraying of plants.

New U.S. data came out yesterday, with a stern scolding from the White House. The UN hasn’t issued its 2017 estimate yet, but local media have reported 180,000 hectares last year.

This chart tells quite a story if you stare at it long enough. But my main takeaways are:

  • Aerial herbicide fumigation—the cruelest of the strategies because it anonymously dumps herbicides over small farmers’ legal crops and homes while leaving behind no government presence—is able to reduce coca cultivation from “insanely high” to “moderately high” levels, after which growers adjust and bring cultivation back up to “high” levels.
  • Manual eradication seems to correlate more strongly with reductions in coca growing, and it requires at least some on-the-ground government presence. But it’s dangerous for the eradicators, generates conflict with communities, and growers replant if the government disappears once the eradicators vacate the area.
  • What hasn’t been tried is actually having a functioning government presence on the ground providing public goods (security, roads, land titles) necessary for a legal economy to exist. The FARC peace accord offers one version of a blueprint for how to make that work, and has improved security conditions, for now. But with the accord’s critics waiting to take power on Colombia’s August 7 inauguration day, that blueprint’s future is in doubt.

A fatal dose is smaller than Abe Lincoln’s head





From DEA’s December 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment. From GAO’s April 2018 report on synthetic opioids.

Here are similar photos from U.S. government reports, the left from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2016 and the right from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2018. They show estimates of a lethal dose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that contributed to more than 19,000 U.S. overdose deaths in 2016.

The 2018 photo appears to show even less of the drug (2 milligrams), I don’t know whether that was deliberate. But the point is, it’s incredibly potent: 50 times stronger than heroin. First responders saving victims, and law enforcement agents and their dogs seizing smuggled fentanyl, must wear protective gear to keep from touching it.

It’s mostly produced in China, but Mexico is a major trafficking corridor, as GAO explains.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations act as the country’s primary conduit for Chinese fentanyl destined for the United States, purchasing bulk shipments and trafficking it—either alone or mixed with other drugs like heroin—across the U.S. border along established drug routes.… The illicit nature of these smuggling operations makes it difficult to quantify the volume of fentanyl flowing from Mexico to the United States. U.S. law enforcement agencies suggest that fentanyl may also be produced in Mexico with precursor chemicals sourced from China.

Like all other drugs smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border except for marijuana (which is declining), fentanyl is overwhelmingly taken via the ports of entry: the legal openings in the border through which vehicles, cargo, and pedestrians pass under the scrutiny of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The drug is small in volume and crosses hidden in vehicles or carried by pedestrians. Building a border wall would make no difference in fentanyl trafficking patterns.

Coca in Colombia: what are the options?

Revised 9:00AM on 4/29/18: I added two more options to the table based on a suggestion from Twitter user @gabrielvc.

Colombia’s government, faced with record-high levels of coca cultivation, is considering using drones to spray herbicides over the fields.

This is less indiscriminate and risky to public health than spraying from aircraft, a program the U.S. government paid for between 1994 and 2015. It’s safer for the eradicators, who would be less vulnerable to snipers, ambushes, landmines, and booby traps in the fields.

But ultimately even a billion-dollar swarm of drones wouldn’t solve Colombia’s coca problem. Here’s a really simplified matrix I threw together today illustrating why, by looking at all the main options.

As you can see here, in my view, only one of the options promises to bring coca cultivation under control in the long term. That’s the one where Colombia actually governs its territory effectively with a minimum of corruption or abuse. That’s the hardest of these options to pursue, and the least immediately rewarding. But all of the others are just partial fixes.

Here it is at Google Sheets.
And here’s a PDF version, which is probably easier to read.

(This matrix leaves out the “legalize cocaine” option, which isn’t a near-term possibility. Because the drug is more addictive than most, legalization advocates confront a widespread belief that legalized use would carry too high a social cost.)

“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”

Here’s an English translation of a long and wide-ranging exchange with journalist Cecilia Orozco, which ran in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper this morning. It was a good opportunity to explain (and vent about) the current state of U.S.-Colombian relations.

If you prefer Spanish, haga clic aquí.

“Colombia doesn’t know which Trump it will have to face”: Adam Isacson

October 28, 2017 – 9:00 PM
Cecilia Orozco Tascón

Interview with Adam Isacson, a senior official at WOLA, an influential civil-society organization in Washington that promotes human rights on the continent. Isacson, a scholar of Colombian conflicts, talks about the United States’ “hostile tone” with Colombia since Trump’s arrival in the White House, the way the domestic right wing influences that government against Santos’s administration, and that false information it spreads to discredit the peace agreement.

Q: Despite the friendly letter Trump sent President Santos in recent hours, several signs from Washington would indicate that relations between the United States and Colombia are not, today, so sincere and in solidarity. Do you agree with this perception?

I would go further and say that the bilateral relationship has reached its worst moment since the government of Ernesto Samper. It’s not as serious as 1998—nobody’s going to revoke the visa of any top government official—but after almost 19 years of hardly any U.S. public criticism of Colombia, today there is a steady stream of scoldings, expressions of impatience, and of public distancing from the peace policy. The disagreements have ideological roots: a hard-line government has come to power in Washington, one very much in tune with the Colombian right. But the hostile tone comes from the President himself, who is also disrespecting allies elsewhere around the world, from NATO to Australia to Mexico.

Q: Do you think President Trump’s change of tone is sincere when he writes President Santos, in the last hours, in the following terms: “The United States is ready to support you in your counternarcotics efforts (and) simultaneously I am working diligently to combat internal consumption”?

I imagine that letter was written after several weeks of witnessing the negative result of the quasi-decertification language of September 13. It must have been obvious to them that the binational relationship was damaged and, perhaps, the words of the now-retired Bill Brownfield were the last straw. Diplomats must have insisted on making a conciliatory gesture. It’s important that it reaffirmed co-responsibility in drug policy, but Colombia does not know which Donald Trump it will have to face at any time. He can easily go on the attack again the next time he talks about the country.

Q: The most frustrating episode for the Santos government with respect to Trump was the quasi-decertification of the country due to the growth of hectares cultivated with coca leaf. He didn’t flunk Colombia, but he threatened to. Is that report a preamble to decisions that Washington may make soon, or is it pressure designed for the medium and long term?

Beyond a group of officials close to Trump, that statement was frustrating for everyone. Saying “we almost put Colombia in the same category as Venezuela” is a slap in the face and a serious strategic error. I was happy to read that, in a recent interview with El Tiempo, the former Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador in Colombia Bill Brownfield shared this assessment. That interview indicates that the hostile language came directly from the White House and not from the State Department. But from whom in the White House, if General Kelly (chief of staff, former commander of the Southern Command) knows and admires Colombia? It may be, rather, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), with whom Trump consults U.S. policy regarding Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia. Senator Rubio, in turn, frequently consults with Álvaro Uribe. Anyway, ultimately nobody believes that he will decertify Colombia. It’s another empty threat, like the “military option” for Venezuela, forcing Mexico to finance a wall or throwing “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Q: As you mention it, the Trump government may be close to the most conservative Colombian politicians. Since this group is the opponent of the Santos administration and the peace accord, is it possible that the American officials who make decisions in Washington are influenced by these domestic figures?

Yes. There is a sector of the Republican Party (and some Democrats too) that receives much of its information about Colombia via the opposition. But sometimes these critical perspectives also come from the Colombian community in the United States, which, like many diasporas, is more conservative than the population that lives in the country. That’s normal, it always happens. The problem arises when this information includes false information such as “the transitional justice mechanism is composed of people from the FARC who will submit the military to kangaroo courts” or that “stopping the fumigation of illicit crops was agreed in the peace accord.”

Q: After that first “barely scraping by” certification warning, the DEA published another report on the same subject: coca crops. Does that insistence imply that the United States is pressuring Colombia to abandon manual eradication and instead reactivate aerial spraying?

The DEA report is annual and its purpose is to report its production and trafficking estimates, which follow the same trendline as those of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But at least the DEA report doesn’t blame the crop increase on the peace agreement—a distortion of reality that’s heard a lot in Washington—and reports on other serious factors that affect the phenomenon, such as the Gulf Clan [Colombia’s largest organized crime group]. Both the Obama administration—less noisily—and the Trump administration have said they would prefer aerial fumigation in Colombia: despite the evidence, many officials view this method as an “indispensable tool.” But they’re not seriously pressing the Santos administration to start it again. The real pressure may fall on the next administration [which takes power in August 2018].

Q: Colombian officials are between a rock and a hard place: on one hand, Washington demanding results on decreasing crops. And on the other, the peasant populations who want to collaborate with eradication but only if they’re offered an alternative means of subsistence. Is there a third way that respects the rights of peasants and that simultaneously makes eradication effective?

No solution exists that, first, manages to reduce crops in the short term and, second, maintains those reductions permanently. It’s either the first or the second: choose one. Obviously, the Trump administration is much more interested in the first: short-term reduction. But if eradication happens without establishing a government presence that can provide basic services, what will happen? There will be replanting almost immediately. The National Comprehensive Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), from the fourth chapter of the peace agreement, is also short-term if it is carried out without that basic state presence. Substituting crops for two years is fine, but what happens when those two years expire, but governance and services aren’t in place? The result would be the same: replanting. A long-term strategy is urgent. However, I believe—as former assistant-secretary Brownfield has said—that this year’s eradication will lead to a reduction in next year’s coca measures. I hope that this gives Colombia space to work on longer-lasting strategies free from constant scolding.

Q: What could be a sustainable strategy over time? It seems impossible…

A long-term strategy means that the government arrives in areas so abandoned that inhabitants go months or years without seeing any non-uniformed state representatives. Disarming the FARC was a good first step, because the government can now arrive in those areas without having to conquer territory. Reintegrating the FARC is crucial to maintaining this security, but that effort is lagging badly behind. The second step is to initiate large investments in the countryside, investments foreseen in the first chapter of the Agreement and in the programs of the Territorial Renewal Agency (ART). This implementation is also moving at a snail’s pace, and with very little budget. Once there is progress in these areas, eradication and substitution of crops can be done with some hope of long-lasting effects. But unfortunately, due to the pressures generated by the coca bonanza and Washington’s messages, Colombia is starting out with the last step.

Q: Do the increase in the use of police force against the civilian population and, despite this, the continuous increase in the number of hectares, show the failure of manual eradication and, along with that, of the pacts foreseen in the peace agreement?

It’s too early to judge the performance of the peace agreement pacts, whose implementation has barely begun. But the use-of-force episodes are symptomatic of what happens when forced eradication happens without the government offering even basic services to the population. People tend to resist going hungry. The most notorious example of this happened in Bolivia at the beginning of the century. There, the so-called Dignity Plan, supported by the United States, drastically increased forced eradication. And yes, there was a temporary reduction in coca. But also a movement of rejection that brought Evo Morales to national notoriety and then to the Presidency. Without the Dignity Plan, who would Evo Morales be today? Probably the head of a cocalero union, leading a social movement with little influence outside the far-off Chapare region.

Q: The United States also intends to reduce its economic assistance to Colombia, and if it is consistent with the general policies of the Trump administration, there will also be cuts in technical assistance, logistics, etc. Do these purposes indicate that the U.S. government might gradually withdraw its support for the peace accord and for the Santos government beyond the diplomatic words it sends?

The Trump government has sought to cut off both military and economic assistance to the entire world. For Colombia, its request to Congress for 2018, released in May, sought to reduce it from US$391 to US$251 million. (Approximately US$50 million more goes through the Defense budget). But the Republican majority in Congress has rejected that proposal, since they’re not completely following the “America First” slogan. The House decided to give US$336 million, and the Senate held the “Peace Colombia” package at 2017 levels, at US$391 million. Congress has not finished working on the aid budget for 2018, but the figures make clear that it is more interested in the peace accord’s success than the White House is.

Q: It has been reported in several media that Ambassador [Kevin] Whitaker’s replacement may be Joseph MacManus. If this appointment happens, would it be a demonstration that the United States is going to be more or less cooperative with Colombia and its peace accord?

Joseph MacManus has been a career diplomat since 1986, and diplomats usually conceal their personal political beliefs and serve the incumbent president. I don’t know him, because he has only spent a few years of his career working on Latin American issues. To some extent, his appointment is a relief: it had been rumored that the White House intended to appoint a “political” ambassador, that is, an ally from outside the professional diplomatic corps, someone who is a true believer in Trumpism. It may turn out that MacManus has such personal proclivities, but on the other hand, he was also a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they led the State Department in the Obama administration. That’s why some right-wing media outlets have reported opposition to MacManus from the most conservative quarters of the administration. We’ll see.

Q: But on the other hand, El Espectador reported what the web site The New American* described this as a “scandalous push to install MacManus as U.S. ambassador to Bogota…”

The New American is a small digital publication with a strong pro-Trump line, one of the right-wing outlets that seeks to block MacManus for being, in their opinion, too attached to the Obama administration. That group is pushing for Trump to name someone more “pure” in “America First” ideology. But in fact, the appointment of a hardliner is not likely to succeed because it would need Senate approval. And there, although the Republicans have 52 of 100 seats, a number of senators are now anti-Trump—among them the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker—and they would never vote for an ambassador with those attributes.

“Nobody should lose their life”

Q: The conflicts between peasants and the security forces are happening repeatedly. The situation in Tumaco, where there were several deaths, is symptomatic. Are Colombia and the United States responsible for this tension, whose pressure to reduce crops may have caused a rush to show results?

There’s a pattern here that I find extremely serious. In March, the United States and Colombia agreed on a six-point plan to reduce crops. The fifth point was “a strategy to deal with the political realities of coca growers’ protests driving away eradicators.” Since then, in public forums, former Secretary Brownfield complained several times about eradication being frustrated by protests. “This is absurd,” he said in mid-September. “The government must give the Police and Army clear authorities and rules of engagement.” I imagine that, privately, the messages were stronger. My suspicion is that these pressures created an environment conducive to episodes like that of Tumaco. Instead of “you have to clarify your procedures for the use of force,” the message that was heard seems to have been “you have to hit the protesters harder.” No one, neither a coca-grower nor a security-force member, should lose his life to the pursuit of an ephemeral statistic of fewer hectares.

“The Colombian right has a semi-direct line to the White House”

Q: A few months ago there occurred a social incident that was minor but not unimportant: the ex-presidents Uribe and Pastrana, opponents of Santos and the peace accord, may have cordially greeted Trump at Mar-a-Lago days before the latter received a visit from the Colombian head of state. What does that meeting mean to you?

Media reports indicate that Senator Rubio played a role in arranging that meeting. It’s a good example of how the Colombian right has established a semi-direct line to the White House to be heard on policy issues regarding their country.

Q: If the Trump administration were to withdraw its support for the peace accord altogether, how much do you think that would affect the success of the process in Colombia?

It would be very serious. The United States financed Colombia’s war a hundred times more generously than any other country. That’s why its political support for peace is so important. Withdrawing that support would take away an important source of legitimacy from the accord. Even now, the absence of a special envoy to Colombia (of the Trump government for accord-related matters) has left an important vacuum.

Honduras went zero-for-100 in 2016

“The number of inbound flights to Honduras allegedly trafficking cocaine dropped 30 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to estimates from the United States government,” reads a letter to the New York Times editor, published yesterday, from the Honduran Presidency’s minister and adviser for strategy and communication.

But what happens when flights or boats suspected of bringing drugs to Honduras do make landfall? The news isn’t good.

Here’s the State Department’s March 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Boldface is mine:

The Honduran military, however, made few improvements in 2016 to increase overall capabilities to degrade and disrupt illicit trafficking. In the domain of maritime interdiction, no interdictions were recorded despite 100 actionable events supported by U.S. authorities. Many factors contribute to the low success rate in suppressing international narcotics trafficking off the Honduran coast.… Corruption further impedes progress, as trafficking organizations have infiltrated some military units in active drug corridors such as the Gracias a Dios Department and along the northern Caribbean coast.

Some troubling/horrifying excerpts from the Honduras IG report

It’s taken me 2 1/2 months, as it was one task among many. But I’ve now given a close read to all 400 pages of the report on DEA activities in Honduras that the State and Justice Departments’ inspectors-general put out on May 24. It discusses three incidents in 2012 involving an elite DEA team assigned to interdict drug traffickers in rural Honduras, an effort called “Operation Anvil.” In all three there was loss of life. In the worst incident, four innocent civilians were killed, including two pregnant women.

Mistakes happen in tense situations, and the right thing to do is admit them, take care of the victims, and figure out how to keep something like that from happening again. Yet the report details a shameful, pathetic pattern in the DEA’s and State Department’s efforts to get to the bottom of what happened, to keep Congress and the U.S. ambassador informed, and to attend to the victims.

So much of this report rewards a close read. But here are some quotes that stood out to me, in the order they appear. Highlighting is mine.

Honduras was OK with active-duty Guatemalan Air Force pilots running law-enforcement missions over its territory

To carry out interdictions, Operation Anvil included the temporary relocation to Honduras of [redacted] INL helicopters stationed in Guatemala, which were flown by U.S. contractor pilots employed by DynCorp International (DynCorp) and co-pilots from the Guatemalan Air Force. (Page 9)

“Not if.”

According to the Country Attaché and the Assistant Regional Director, Ambassador [Lisa] Kubiske and her representatives were privy to discussions concerning the security concerns implicit in the planned drug interdiction missions. The Assistant Regional Director told us that the Ambassador would often state, “If there’s a shooting…,” and DEA officials would interrupt her and state, “[N]ot if. There will be several fatalities here. There will be shootings.” (Page 16)

Top diplomat would not have approved Operation Anvil

John Feeley, who was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), told us that he did not become involved in Operation Anvil until shortly before the May 11 shooting incident took place. However, he said that based on his experience in other countries, he would not have approved the concept of operations for Operation Anvil had he been the Chief of Mission because the risk of an officer losing his life was too great. (Page 16)

Herding and controlling the “Hondos”

The initial drafts contained a provision near the end of the order stating that the Honduran TRT [National Police Tactical Response Team] would be the “supported command,” that arrests and seizures would be conducted in accordance with local law, and that FAST [DEA Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team] would provide an advisory role to the Honduran TRT. During this early drafting phase, the FAST Team Leader told FAST and INL officials that “[e]ach FAST Agent will be assigned X number of Hondo’s to herd/control.” (Page 18)

State/INL runs a foreign assistance program—the largest military-police aid program active in Latin America. It’s not supposed to be paying for a DEA operation.

[A]n INL [State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs] attorney raised concerns with INL officials that the language in the CONOPS [Concept of Operations for Operation Anvil] reflected an operation that could not be supported with INL funds: “…It has been the Department’s long-standing policy not to provide operational support with foreign assistance funds, but if we are going to provide it, we need to be clear that the support is for Honduras law enforcement. INL is not authorized to be DEA’s air taxi, and host nation involvement must be real and not simply a fig leaf.” (Page 18–19)

DEA officials responsible for Central America opposed these operations, but were overruled by DEA leadership in Washington

The [DEA] Assistant Regional Director [for North and Central America] told the OIGs [Office of Inspector General] that she and RD [Regional Director Joseph] Evans recommended against Operation Anvil and the use of FAST. She said that interdictions are very difficult and dangerous, and she did not believe the planned interdiction effort was going to improve the situation in Honduras. She said she believed the focus instead should have been on training Honduran prosecutors and professionalizing the police force. (Page 20)

“That’s just not the way it’s going to happen.”

The [DEA] Assistant Regional Director told the OIGs that RD [Regional Director Joseph] Evans had raised his and her concerns about the operation with DEA Headquarters, and they were effectively overruled. In addition, she said that she thought the notion of DEA leading from behind, as stated in the Ambassador’s e­ mail, was unrealistic. She said that in the event of violent confrontations with the DTOs [drug trafficking organizations], which she expected, the idea that armed DEA agents would wait for the Hondurans to take the lead was not practical. “That’s just not the way it’s going to happen.” (Page 24)

They didn’t. Speak. Spanish.

During Operation Anvil, there were approximately [redacted] FAST personnel on each interdiction mission, plus at least one medic. The Bravo and Delta Team Leaders told us that they were both conversant, but not fluent, in Spanish. With respect to their team members, it appears that none of the Bravo and Delta Team members were fluent in Spanish, but half of the Bravo team members and only one Delta team member were conversant to different degrees. (Page 25)

No training on use-of-force, but…

Training materials and other documents provided to the OIGs do not indicate that FAST and the TRT provided training or instruction to the other on their respective deadly force policies. The OIGs were provided with a FAST training PowerPoint slideshow the FAST agents viewed prior to leaving for Honduras. The slideshow did not include a description of the Honduran use of force policy; however, it did include a slide describing the sexually transmitted diseases prevalent in Honduras. (Page 30)

They knew that they had probably wounded or killed people. But they didn’t bother to help them. (This might be the most monstrous revelation in the report.)

[T]he facts in this chapter demonstrate that no effort was made, or even considered, to search for and render aid to the people who may have been injured. We found that at a minimum the FAST members on Helicopter [redacted] who witnessed the encounter on the river knew or should have known that there would be individuals injured. We found no evidence that Honduran authorities were contacted by FAST or TRT during or immediately following the interdiction to render aid to any injured. This was a flaw in both the planning and the execution of the operation, regardless of whether the officers believed at the time that the people in the passenger boat may have been innocent bystanders or suspected targets of the operation. (Page 80)

The U.S. Ambassador was stonewalled by DEA and State/INL.

The SID [State Department Diplomatic Security Special Investigations Division] Agent told us that the Ambassador looked to SID to investigate these incidents because “she asked DEA for information. Get nothing. She asked INL for information. Get nothing. So she asked that we look into it and give her … what transpired.” (Page 217)

“Brownfield was not happy about the initial findings because of their potential to create problems for INL.”

According to notes taken at the meeting, AS [Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield inquired as to why DEA was not cooperating with the [State Department Diplomatic Security, or DS] investigation and stated that he felt that DS was as much to blame for the impasse as DEA. According to the DS participants in the meeting, AS Brownfield was not happy about the initial findings because of their potential to create problems for INL. They also told the OIGs that Brownfield expressed his opinion that DS should not be involved in the investigation at all and that he compared the dispute to a juvenile competition. (Page 229)

Congratulations to both agencies’ inspectors-general for a courageous, thorough report.

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