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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Human Rights

Nueva Trova artists speak out

Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés were mainstays of Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” folk-pop musical movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Their melodies were influenced by the Beatles, but their lyrics and political positions were solidly supportive of the Castro regime. Rodríguez (who had a 1991 greatest hits album compiled by David Byrne), in particular, has staunchly supported the Cuban government’s policies over the years.

It’s notable, then, to see both of them used their Facebook accounts to criticize the government’s crackdown on the young people who went out to protest since July 11. Silvio Rodríguez called for the release of non-violent protesters, and more dialogue and “listening.” Milanés posted: “It is irresponsible and absurd to blame and repress a people who have sacrificed and given their all for decades to sustain a regime that in the end only imprisons them.”

Good for them.

Human rights conditions and Colombia’s “institutional architecture”

On July 7 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a report about the weeks of social protest that began in Colombia on April 28. The report extensively documents the Colombian security forces’ harsh and abusive response.

That same day, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry—less than delighted with the Commission’s report—published its response. That document claims:

the Colombian State has a solid democratic, participatory and pluralistic institutional framework, with a balanced institutional architecture between public authorities and autonomous bodies, with specific control functions and with the capacity to deal with events related to protests.

The country’s human rights community certainly disputes this, since Colombia’s institutions have usually had a hard time bringing serious abusers to justice, even when prosecutors and investigators have made good-faith efforts. But if it’s true, then recent moves in the U.S. Congress should be of no concern to the Colombian government.

The House of Representatives’ version of the 2022 foreign aid appropriations bill, which goes before the full House this week, would freeze 30 percent of aid to Colombia’s police through the largest police aid account, until the State Department certifies that the force is punishing serious human rights abusers among its ranks. This is the first time Colombia-specific human rights conditions have applied to police aid in many years.

If what the Foreign Ministry says here is true, then Colombia’s government should have no problem with this. If the country’s well-functioning, autonomous “institutional framework” punishes those responsible for massive abuses committed during the 2021 Paro Nacional protests, then the U.S. conditions will be met. They should be a non-issue, and the Colombian government should have no complaints here in Washington.

Let’s see what happens.

“One of the civilians said why don’t they put me in that van, and then a policeman said why don’t they disappear me”

From Colombia’s El Espectador, here’s English of the story of Álvaro Herrera, a French horn player who had been playing in a “symphony” at some of the protest marches in Cali. Herrera became sadly famous on May 28, when he appeared all over Colombian social media in a video, dazed and bleeding in police custody, strangely confessing to being a “vandal.”

What was done to Herrera needs to be told in English because it casts severe doubt on the Colombian government’s narrative that the-police-force’s-“excesses”-are-just-a-few-bad-apples-who’ll-be-investigated-so-don’t-worry. A whole unexamined side of Colombia’s state—one probably familiar to poorer Colombians—seems to be revealed here:

Alvaro Herrera Melo, 25, says his greatest wish in life is to study music and conducting in Germany. He dreams of perfecting his technique on the French horn and learning to sing. …[On May 28 in Cali] the two most heated spots were La Luna, in the center, and Ciudad Jardín, an exclusive sector to the south, adjacent to the Universidad del Valle, where a symphonic cacerolazo was being held by music students, among them Álvaro.

…In an interview with El Espectador, Alvaro Herrera Melo narrated the moments of terror he experienced while he was detained, according to him, by civilians who later handed him over to the police at the La María station, south of the city.

“When the shooting started, I ran out towards 16th Street, there I saw that there were civilians with weapons and I took out my cell phone to record. At that moment a civilian grabbed me from behind and began to choke me, they beat me on the ground and destroyed my cell phone (…) then they took me to the police station”, said the musician.

Afterwards, he said that he saw a white van right in front of the police patrol car in the sector. “One of the civilians said why don’t they put me in that van, and then a policeman said why don’t they disappear me,” he said, his voice cracking. Alvaro recalled that he managed to scream and beg not to be taken in the white private vehicle.

It was at that station where a uniformed officer, after beating him against a white wall along with other officers, intimidated him so that he would talk. “They asked me where I was and what I was doing, I answered that I was in a symphonic cacerolazo, but the policeman stopped the recording, hit me and asked me again, as if making me understand that this was not the answer they wanted to hear,” he denounced.

Within minutes, the video [of his forced “confession”] had been replicated in Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter groups. It was through him that his family and friends found out what had happened.

When he was being taken to the police station, and as was recorded in several videos on social networks, Alvaro was no longer carrying his French horn. Before the authorities he revealed that it was taken from him at the police station. “As soon as the civilians stopped me, I hugged my instrument so as not to lose it, but then the police took it from me and did not return it.”

“One of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me.”

One of several cases discussed in a La Silla Vacía article about people who’ve gone missing in the context of Colombia’s protests:

Valentina Smimmo Ramirez is a student at the Technological University of Pereira. She was a classmate of Lucas Villa, killed on May 5 by armed civilians in that city. Valentina was arrested on May 1 by ESMAD agents after participating in the protests.

It was near the San Nicolas CAI, which was burned down that day. Valentina told La Silla that she was running away from the gas and gunfire from the Police in that area that day when she was detained around 7:20 pm by ESMAD agents without visible identification.

“I fell down and when I got up I was surrounded by ESMAD agents and Police. One of the policemen told them to leave me alone, that they were looking for men, but one of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me,” she says.

She says that they did not take her to a CAI or a URI. “They put me in a black car and took me blindfolded to some warehouses near the fire station. Later I found out that’s where I was, when they released me. They had their implements there, like shields. There, they continued beating me. On the way, they turned off my cell phone, which was sending my location in real time. In the warehouse they discussed whether it would continue sending the location when it was turned off. They turned it on, saw that people were looking for me and got scared. Then they checked my wallet and found out that I am not a Colombian citizen, but Italian, and they released me.”

Valentina spent 5 hours in detention. According to her testimony, which La Silla could not independently verify, they did not respect her right to communicate, nor did they take her to a center to legalize her detention. She was also beaten and insulted, and then released without explanation. Two days later, Valentina says she was beaten again at a protest and had two ribs broken. She filed a formal complaint.

The hyper-politicized Honduran military

Here’s the great Leticia Salomón of the Centro de Documentación de Honduras, who has been studying Honduran civil-military relations since the 1980s, excerpted in criterio.hn’s coverage of a conference:

“The 2009 coup d’état opened the door for the military to leave the barracks and invade political space, but the National Party [of President Juan Orlando Hernández] turned the military into an armed wing of the governing party,” said sociologist Leticia Salomón during a forum held Tuesday on the anti-military struggle of Berta Cáceres.

Moreover, President Juan Orlando Hernández “in his legal and illegal presidential terms” turned them into “guardians of a personal political project impregnated with corruption and drug trafficking,” the sociologist also said at the virtual event organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) with the participation of analysts from Honduras, Guatemala and the United States.

The military are also “executioners” of a new version of the “old enemy”, as the defenders of territory and resources are seen, who must be “fought, imprisoned or killed.”

Salomón reflected that “it seems that the old positions of the 80’s are always being revived and that they are there hidden, dormant and always ready to come out at any moment to regain space and to try to impose a vision that is extremely harmful and damaging for the country.”

This reconceptualization of the “old enemy” introduces the concept of criminalization, which has three components. The first, the military and police ready to repress; the second, churches and the media ideologizing the conflict “and introducing a Manichean vision” that turns into good and evil those who are fighting for or against the defense of territories and resources; and the third, the use of the justice system against defenders, in which prosecutors and judges play a fundamental role.

These three instances became the executors of “a conservative, repressive, Manichean and anti-democratic political project”, and explain the role of the military who have specific functions, which, in addition, “they carry out with great enthusiasm”, said the sociologist.

Leticia Salomón (from Criterio).

…”The great challenge is to identify who, how, and when will begin the dismantling of this political project and its replacement by another that is capable of recovering sovereignty over the territories, reestablishing a rule of law at the service of national interests, restoring respect for life, for the defenders of resources, and for the defenders of defenders,” Leticia Salomón also said in her message.

She considered that it is necessary to rethink a different model of armed forces and police, and to give “a gigantic shake-up to the justice system” to restore confidence and eliminate the feeling of defenselessness “in which we all find ourselves”.

…Finally, the sociologist reflected that Berta’s anti-militarist struggle, and that of all those who have been carrying it out in recent years, should not only be encouraged and remembered, but should be instilled as an urgent and necessary demand for change in Honduras.

From WOLA: Violence in Colombia Requires Bold Response from Biden Administration

We hammered out a new statement this morning about the situation in Colombia, which nearly six weeks after protests started is as tense as it’s ever been.

officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest.

This silence of the U.S. government is taking place even as the 2022 foreign aid request, issued May 28, includes approximately USD $140 million in new assistance for Colombia’s police. WOLA reiterates its call for a suspension of all U.S. sales of crowd control equipment to Colombia’s security forces, and a suspension of grant U.S. assistance to Colombia’s National Police, due to the high probability that such assistance might be misused while tensions continue to escalate.

To stop the ongoing violence, restrain further abuse by Colombia’s security forces, achieve justice for the victims, and prevent further damage, the U.S. government needs to take a bolder stance.

Read the whole thing at wola.org.

WOLA Podcast: A Snapshot of Human Rights and Democracy in Brazil

Many thanks to Camila Asano, the program director at the São Paulo-based think tank Conectas, for joining WOLA’s podcast. Her country is going through a historically difficult—tragic—moment, and she explains why civil society there is a last bulwark against authoritarianism. We must accompany and protect many very brave people during this dark moment.

Thanks as well to WOLA Program Assistant Moses Ngong, who is playing a bigger role in helping me put these podcasts out. Here’s the text of the podcast landing page at wola.org.

Brazil is the second largest country in the hemisphere, but its many complex issues rarely make news in the U.S. In this episode of the WOLA podcast, Camila Asano, Director of Programs at the Brazilian human rights NGO Conectas, joins Adam Isacson and Moses Ngong to discuss recent and ongoing attacks on human rights and democracy in Brazil.

The conversation covers a handful of key issues facing the country today, including:

  • How President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has worked to antagonize and criminalize human rights defenders
  • What the impact of COVID has been on the country, and the government’s poor response
  • President Bolsonaro’s authoritarian actions attacking democracy and consolidating power
  • Police brutality and reform efforts, especially in light of the recent massacre in the Jacarezinho favela.
  • What Biden and human rights NGOs in the U.S. can do to support Brazilian civil society

Camila’s insights provide valuable context for several issues facing the country’s relatively young democracy and diverse civil society. Please enjoy!

Readings:

Conectas’ publication on Rights in the Pandemic can be found here (read about it in English here).

Their publication on police violence at custody hearings can be found in English here.

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

WOLA Podcast: “The Border Situation Viewed from Mexico”

The WOLA Podcast continues to cover the situation at the border, this time what’s happening in Mexico. There, the Biden administration has been leaning on the national government to send more security forces and accept more expelled Central American families. I gathered four colleagues for what turned out to be a really informative discussion about the current moment, and it’s not good.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As migrants from Central American countries flee instability at home, Mexico is increasingly a final destination for them. COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, received a record number of asylum requests in March 2021. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struck deals with Mexico (and other regional governments) to militarize its southern border. The consequences of such deals means migrants will face more dangers in their journey north, including from state actors.

Despite the unfortunate response from regional governments, non-governmental actors are working hard to ensure that migrants lucky enough to make it into Mexico or the United States are supported and treated with dignity. This conversation details what is happening on the ground in Mexico, as well as what civilian groups in the United States are doing to support the first people to enter the United States as “Remain in Mexico” winds down.

We are joined by four WOLA staff experts:

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

WOLA Podcast: When your neighbor is a murderer: Sean Mattison on “escrache” in Argentina

I enjoyed this conversation about victims’ activism in Argentina with filmmaker Sean Mattison. The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The New York Times featured a short film by Sean Mattison about Argentina. Atención! Murderer Next Door, posted on November 10, 2020, tells the story of HIJOS, a group of children of victims of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, who started using a novel technique in the 1990s to pressure for an end to the amnesty that the armed forces’ torturers and killers enjoyed at the time.

Those responsible for the dictatorship’s campaign of tens of thousands of forced disappearances were living side-by-side with regular citizens. HIJOS and other activists started using direct action, gathering outside the perpetrators’ homes and workplaces and making clear to all that “a murderer lives here.”

They called this increasingly creative method “escrache,” which as Mattison explains here doesn’t translate well into English. Escrache worked: it helped build pressure for President Néstor Kirchner to end the post-dictatorship amnesty law in 2003. Argentina has now sentenced more military human rights abusers than has any other Latin American country.

As Mattison discusses, escrache has caught on elsewhere. Versions of escrache are already being aimed at Trump administration officials who led abuses like family separation. While it is not a perfect tool or an appropriate form of activism for all circumstances, it deserves a closer look, which is a future direction for Sean Mattison’s work.

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

WOLA Podcast—The Transition: U.S. Credibility, Cooperation, and a Changed Tone

I thought it would be a good idea to record a few podcasts with colleagues at WOLA to talk about what this U.S. presidential transition means for Washington’s relations with Latin America. Here’s the first of what should be a series of four: more of an overall view of what Biden can do in a context of diminished U.S. standing and credibility in the region.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

The United States is in the transition period between the Biden and Trump administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

The shift will be sharp in some ways, at least—but not across the board: even amid a changed tone, there may be some surprising continuities. And the United States, beset domestically with political polarization, human rights controversies, and mismanagement of a public health emergency, suffers from reduced influence and credibility in the region.

It’s a complex moment. Discussing it in this episode are WOLA’s President, Geoff Thale; Vice President for Programs Maureen Meyer; Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh; Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt; and Venezuela Program Assistant Kristin Martinez-Gugerli.

This is the first of a few discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. In coming weeks we plan to cover migration and border security; anti-corruption; and the state of human rights and democracy.

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: Fixing a Culture that Protects and Rewards Abuse at U.S. Border Agencies

This was a hard one to write, it took about two and a half weeks to crank out 3,000 words, even though nearly all the research was already in my database.

The main reason is in the middle of it: the bulleted list of CBP and Border Patrol offenses that have happened so far in 2020, which I copy below.

It was just so damn grim and painful to point out the horrors being committed on U.S. soil, by a U.S. agency, by people who—for the most part—we’d probably genuinely like if we met them at a bar or on line at a supermarket.

Beyond this list, the commentary is about the big challenges that lie ahead in changing the organizational culture of our border and migration agencies. Please read it.

While past abuses like “family separation” and “kids in cages” shocked much of the nation, evidence of a perverse institutional culture persists in the 2020 calendar year.


  • In January, CBP and ICE agents assigned to serve as advisors in Guatemala ended up packing hundreds of Honduran migrants into rented, unmarked vans and shipping them back to Honduras, without even an opportunity to seek asylum. An October report by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff found that DHS lied to the State Department, which was funding the CBP and ICE presence in Guatemala, about the bizarre operational role its agents were playing.
  • In February, a Guatemalan woman reported that while she was in Border Patrol custody, agents ignored her requests for medical attention. As a result, she had to give birth with her pants on, while standing and clutching the side of a trash can in the Chula Vista, California Border Patrol station. She was sent to a nearby hospital, then returned to the Border Patrol station where she spent a night “without an adequate blanket for the baby.”
  • Since March, Border Patrol agents and CBP officers summarily expelled more than 150,000 Mexican and Central American migrants back into Mexico, usually in about 90 minutes or less, with no real opportunity to request asylum if they were fleeing lethal threats. This has been done in the name of COVID-19 protections, but we now know—thanks to AP and Wall Street Journal investigators—that the Centers for Disease Control had recommended against closing the border, only to be overruled by Vice President Mike Pence. 
  • That number includes 8,800 children apprehended while unaccompanied by an adult, then swiftly returned to their home countries while unaccompanied, between March and August. (September data are still pending.) Border agencies made zero effort to ensure these children’s safety upon expulsion or even track their whereabouts. Those to be flown back were warehoused in border-city hotels, guarded by an ICE contractor not certified for childcare, while awaiting their expulsion.
  • In June the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that CBP had broken the law. A year earlier, Congress had appropriated money for the agency to improve its care of children and families in its custody, paying for items like blankets, food, and medicine. Instead, CBP spent much of the humanitarian appropriation on items like computer network upgrades, vaccines for CBP personnel, dog food, and dirt bikes.
  • In June, elite Border Patrol agents were among DHS personnel sent to Portland, Oregon—against the wishes of the mayor and governor—to confront protesters following the killing of George Floyd. While some protesters were violent, the agents’ crowd control tactics—which included grabbing people off of sidewalks into unmarked vans—did nothing to de-escalate the situation, nor did they incorporate best practices for de-escalation. If anything, their aggressive tactics prolonged the confrontations.
  • In July in El Paso, a Border Patrol agent ran over a 29-year-old Mexican man while pursuing him in his vehicle. Though injured, the migrant was deported within 48 hours. Border Patrol refuses to make public its vehicle pursuit policy.
  • In July, Maria Cristina Vargas Espinosa, a 38-year-old mother from Guanajuato, Mexico, died after falling from the border wall west of El Paso. She was at least the second person to die of such a fall this year: a pregnant Guatemalan woman and her unborn baby died of a fall in Clint, Texas, in March. Neither Border Patrol nor other local authorities disclosed Ms. Vargas’s death or bothered to investigate it; her relatives in Mexico only learned of her fate from her smuggler. Asked by El Paso Matters how often such incidents happen, a Border Patrol agent said that “a large number of people…get major injuries.” His main concern, though, was that “those hospital bills are ridiculous.”
  • In July in Arizona, dozens of rifle-bearing Border Patrol agents, accompanied by an armored vehicle and helicopters, raided a desert camp run on private land by No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in an area where thousands of migrants have died in this century of dehydration and exposure. Agents arrested migrants receiving medical attention, seized phones, photos, and records, and “trashed” No More Deaths’ camp.
  • In July, the libertarian publication Reason revealed a 2012 internal affairs report indicating that a CBP instructor had told “a room full of supervisors” that “if Border Patrol agents feel threatened by a migrant, they should ‘beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out.’” This was yet another appearance of the word “tonk” or “tonc,” Border Patrol slang for an undocumented migrant. Former agents say that the word originates from the sound a human skull makes when clubbed with an agent’s heavy Maglite flashlight. When an agent uses a weapon, he or she must file a memo about the incident; no paperwork is required for flashlights.
  • By August, only four Border Patrol agents, of unknown rank, had been fired for their involvement in a graphically offensive Facebook group. The group, “I’m 10-15,” whose members included 9,500 current and former agents, was revealed to exist a full year earlier. Twelve months after launching an investigation, “CBP has provided little new information about” the group “or its efforts to address toxic attitudes within the ranks,” reported ProPublica, the outlet that revealed the group’s existence.
  • In August Tianna Spears, a Black U.S. diplomat who had been assigned to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, published a lengthy account in Politico about the blatant racial profiling to which CBP officers subjected her whenever she crossed back into El Paso. “[O]fficers in primary inspection still made sarcastic comments, cruel jokes and belittling jabs implying I was not a U.S. diplomat, not a U.S. citizen and had stolen my own car.”
  • In September Border Patrol used taxpayer money to produce a video depicting a fictionalized Spanish-speaking migrant whose first action after eluding agents is to kill a man in a dark alley. With evidence pointing to lower crime rates among undocumented migrants than among the general population, “The Gotawayvideo reinforces racist stereotypes to which, we hope, most Border Patrol personnel do not actually subscribe.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, local media in El Paso and Arizona have reported about CBP officers and Border Patrol agents going unmasked in their interactions with the public, from checkpoint encounters to the July raid on No More Deaths.
  • CBP’s rapid border wall construction is doing permanent environmental damage: gouging at mountains, draining a fragile desert oasis to mix cement, and sealing animals’ migratory routes. Members of Indigenous communities have been arrested for carrying out civil disobedience against the construction in California and Arizona. But the building continues, with no meaningful engagement with affected communities.
  • While ICE is not the focus of this analysis, any discussion of this year would be incomplete without recalling allegations of non-consensual surgeries performed on women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia; the deportation of a woman alleging sexual abuse at the El Paso detention facility while investigations were ongoing; the storing of children and families in border-town hotel rooms under questionable supervision; a slipshod, hardline response to COVID-19 that has led to a cumulative total of 6,541 cases in detention, deportations of COVID-19-positive individuals to countries with weak public health systems; and a sharp increase this year in the use of pepper spray and other force against the agency’s detainees.

Beyond all of this are the everyday allegations of racial profiling, roughing up (called “tuning up”) of apprehended migrants, abusive language, maintenance of hieleras and other deliberately uncomfortable custody conditions, and a view that people exercising their legal right to seek asylum are, in President Trump’s words, “scammers” gaming the system.


Read the whole thing here.

3 devastating reports in 11 days

In case you missed it, three shocking reports released between September 14 and September 24 document abuse, neglect, and dehumanization in ICE’s network of mostly privately run migrant detention centers.

  • September 14: a whistleblower at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, run by LaSalle Corrections, filed a complaint alleging inadequate medical care, poor COVID-19 protections, and—most shockingly, though not as clearly documented—hysterectomies or other non-consensual medical procedures performed on women. Project South, an advocacy group, compiled and submitted the complaint from Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the facility.
  • September 21: The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee published a staff report based on visits to eight ICE facilities and interviews with 400 detainees over a year. It finds deficient medical care, abuse of solitary confinement as a form of retaliation, difficulty accessing legal and translation services, and unsanitary conditions.
  • September 24: The House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee published a staff report based on a 14-month investigation of for-profit contractors operating ICE detention centers. Among its horrifying findings: “several detainees died after receiving inadequate medical care, including issues that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detention contractors had previously identified.”

Though activists will tell you “it’s always been like this,” these reports reinforce the sense that our country is slipping into a new age of barbarism. Thanks to these official and non-governmental investigators for their unflinching look into ICE’s opaque and mostly unnecessary network of privatized human suffering.

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.

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