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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Illicit Crop Eradication

Event December 9: Coca and Eradication Four Years into Colombia’s “Post-Accord” Phase

Colombia has broken its annual record for forced manual coca eradication, and renewed aerial herbicide fumigation looms in 2021.

We’ll be discussing this with some longtime colleagues in Colombia a week from Wednesday: December 9, at 1:30 Eastern. Here’s the text of the event announcement, where you can RSVP. Please share.

(And also — on Friday December 11 I’m putting together a new discussion of COVID-era civil-military relations, covering six countries. Mark your calendar and join for both events if you’re able.)

Four years after the signing of a historic peace accord, hundreds of thousands of Colombian families continue to rely on the coca crop. The government, with U.S. support, has already broken its annual record for forced eradication, during the pandemic, and little of it has been coordinated with food security or rural development assistance. Now, a revival of a controversial aerial herbicide fumigation program is looming.

How are coca cultivating communities responding? How does all of this relate to the peace accord? What might happen if fumigation restarts? What are the costs of eradication, both financially and in terms of rights? Will pursuing the same strategies pursued during the past 30 years really yield a different result? What happened with the peace accords’ crop substitution program? What would a better coca policy look like? How should the new U.S. administration adjust its assistance programs?

WOLA, Elementa, CODHES, the Instituto Pensar of the Universidad Javeriana, the Alianza de Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, and the Corporación Viso Mutop look forward to addressing these topics on Wednesday, December 9, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (U.S. eastern and Bogotá time).

Event Details:
Wednesday, December 9
1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER ON ZOOM

Featuring:

  • Marco Romero
    CODHES, Bogotá
  • Nancy Sánchez Méndez
    Mujeres Tejedoras de Vida, Mocoa, Putumayo
  • Adriana Muro
    Elementa DDHH, Colombia-México
  • Adam Isacson
    WOLA, Washington D.C.
  • Pedro Arenas
    Corporación Viso Mutop, Bogotá

Moderator:

  • Marcela Ceballos
    Instituto Pensar, Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá

Simultaneous interpretation will be available.

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.

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

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

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

That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.

While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.

Read the whole thing there.

Colombia Pushes Coca Eradication During COVID-19 Pandemic

Like the title says: not only is Colombia going full-throttle on manual eradication operations—U.S.-funded, U.S.-pressured manual eradication operations—in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.

The second killing happened yesterday (Wednesday), and we put together this WOLA statement.

Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in March

  • The State Department’s annual report on other countries’ counter-drug efforts, with some information about U.S. aid.
    2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (Washington: Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, March 2, 2020) <PDF from https://www.state.gov/2020-international-narcotics-control-strategy-report/>.
  • Intricately detailed tables of the status of aid to Central America between 2013 and 2018, from a GAO performance audit.
    U.S. Assistance to Central America: Status of Funding (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 4, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-163R>.
  • Two GAO reports about the Homeland Security Department’s processing—and cruel separating—of apprehended migrant families.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Address Fragmentation in DHS’s Processes for Apprehended Family Members (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-274>.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination between DHS and HHS (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-245>.

Why fumigation isn’t the solution, in 2 minutes

In response to the White House’s announcement yesterday that Colombian coca cultivation crept upward in 2019, I worked with WOLA colleagues to put out a good press release.

I wanted to do a bit more, and it seemed like a good moment to try something new: a rapid-response “explainer” video.

So here’s a quick explanation of Colombia’s coca phenomenon, and what hasn’t been tried (like, say, implementing the peace accord).

It turns out that, at least the first time one attempts this, it takes 2 and a half hours, between scripting and at least a dozen takes, to produce something reasonably coherent that fits within Twitter’s 2 minute, 20 second time limit for videos.

1,500 views on Twitter in 2 hours is pretty cool though.

“Infographics” section added to colombiapeace.org

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

We’ve just added a page with nine visualizations of data regarding peace, security, and human rights in Colombia. We’ll update these, and add more, as we make them.

At the bottom of each are shortened links to the documents from which we drew the information. The current collection of infographics covers the demobilized FARC population, U.S. aid, registered victims, U.S. cocaine prices, coca cultivation and eradication, cocaine seizures, homicides, kidnappings, and forced displacement.

We hope you find these useful. Like everything produced by WOLA on this site, you’re free to use them with proper attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Notes on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Annual Report

(Cross-posted at colombiapeace.org)

On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.

The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”

This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.

Here are some highlights from the report:

On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders

In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.

The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.

Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.

Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.

OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.

On the government’s response to these attacks

OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.

The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.

The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.

The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.

OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.

On the military and human rights

OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.

OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.

On blurring the lines between military and police

OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.

On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.

In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.

On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories

Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.

The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.

In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).

[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.

On illicit crop eradication and substitution

Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.

OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.

New at wola.org: The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia

Sometime this year, Colombia is likely to reverse 5 years of policy progress and restore a program that sprays herbicides, from aircraft, over many of the more than 119,500 rural households that live in areas so neglected and abandoned that people grow coca to earn a modest living.

This makes me sad and angry, because Colombia’s 2016 peace accord held so much promise of bringing government, for the the first time, into these forgotten territories that I’ve visited—and been moved by—on many visits to the country. Instead of governing, Iván Duque’s government will be sending contract pilots and police helicopter escorts to fly overhead, spraying the highly questioned chemical glyphosate, with the U.S. government footing much of the bill.

Here’s my latest writing about this, based on a contribution I added to documents submitted by Colombian organizations seeking to challenge the policy in the country’s judicial system. It points out that fumigation may bring short-term reductions in coca growing, but does nothing in the long term but bring high costs, environmental and health risks, a high likelihood of social unrest, and danger to the pilots and other personnel.

I wish they wouldn’t do this: there’s no substitute for governing your own territory and serving your own people.

Read “The Costs of Restarting Aerial Coca Spraying in Colombia” at WOLA’s website.

Notes on the Colombian government’s draft decree to restart coca fumigation

A National Police OV-10 plane sprays herbicides over a coca field in Colombia. [AP/WWP file photo]
Image from the State Department’s website.

On December 30 Colombia’s Ministry of Justice issued a draft decree that would allow it to re-start a U.S.-backed program of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing zones. This program used aircraft to spray more than 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory between 1994 and 2015.

In 2015, a UN World Health Organization literature review found that glyphosate, the herbicide used in the program, was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In 2018 and 2019, two California juries gave large awards to three U.S. plaintiffs who claimed a link between heavy use of glyphosate and cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The government of Juan Manuel Santos suspended the coca spraying program in late 2015, but took years before replacing it with any other effort, like alternative livelihoods or manual eradication. As a result of this and other factors, coca cultivation increased dramatically in Colombia. By 2017, more than 119,500 families were making a living off of the crop.

Now, the government of Iván Duque is bringing fumigation back. The U.S. Department of State quickly put out a brief statement celebrating Colombia’s decision.

The decree is 20 pages long, and lays out some of the review, consultation, and complaint processes that should apply to a renewed fumigation program. We’d been expecting this document since July 18, 2019, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling, modifying a 2017 decision, softening the requirements that the government would have to fulfill in order to start fumigating again.

What happens next?

The draft decree is now undergoing a 30-day citizen comment period. Then, it will go to Colombia’s National Drug Policy Council (Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes), a grouping of ministers, the police chief, the chief prosecutor, and the inspector-general, which must then vote to re-start the program. That vote probably won’t happen until at least March or April. The Colombian journalism website La Silla Vacía sees the process going on for months more:

Several more steps await: that the final decree be issued; that the Defense Ministry formally present a spray program, adjusting to this decree’s requirements, before the National Drug Policy Council; that this Council approves it; and that the Ministry obtains an environmental license for that program. All of that will take several months, and probably most of the year.

The Court’s requirements

Though it loosened restrictions on a new spray program, the Constitutional Court still requires that:

  • The regulations governing spraying come from a different agency than the one charged with spraying.
  • The regulation must be based on an evaluation of health, environmental, and other risks. That evaluation must be “participatory and technically sound,” and must happen continuously.
  • Newly emerged risks or complaints must receive automatic review.
  • Scientific evaluations of risk must be rigorous, impartial, and of high quality.
  • Complaints about health, environmental, or legal crop damage must be processed in a “comprehensive, independent, and impartial” way that is “tied to the risk evaluation.”
  • “Objective and conclusive” evidence must demonstrate “absence of damage to health and the environment,” though the Court says that absence doesn’t need to be total.

Limits on spraying

The draft decree excludes from aerial spraying “natural parks of Colombia, whether national or regional; strategic ecosystems like páramos, wetlands as defined by the Ramsar convention and mangroves; populated centers; settlements of populations; and bodies of water.” According to Colombia’s Semana magazine, “researchers consulted…calculate that 70 percent of illicit crops are located in territories where aerial fumigations aren’t viable” under the decree’s definitions because “they are protected zones, because prior consultation is required, or because they are out of the planes’ reach for logistical reasons.”

Oversight, evaluation, and complaints

As in the past, Colombia’s National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate, a heavy recipient of U.S. assistance, would manage the new spray program. The draft decree gives crucial oversight and approval responsibilities to three small agencies elsewhere within the Colombian government.

  • The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), within the Agriculture Ministry, will be charged with processing and adjudicating complaints about the inadvertent spraying of legal crops. It must do so within 15 days, though the decree allows very wide latitude for postponements. (During the past spray program, people whose legal crops suffered damage from fumigation had to go to the Anti-Narcotics Police, which approved only a small single-digit percentage of compensations. Police usually responded that “we didn’t spray there that day,” “there was coca mixed in with the legal crops”—which many farmers denied, or “the zone is too insecure to evaluate the alleged damage.”)
  • The National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA), an Environment Ministry entity established in 2011, will approve aerial eradication projects, perform initial studies, and monitor their environmental impact, while processing complaints about environmental damage.
  • The the National Health Institute (INS), an entity within the Health Ministry, will monitor the human health impact of aerial eradication, carrying out continual evaluation of health risks, while processing health complaints.

These agencies seem quite small, with sporadically updated websites. In some cases they will have to depend on the National Police for logistical support necessary to perform their oversight work. Their capacity to handle a large docket of complaints and monitoring requests is far from assured.

Participation and consultation

The decree states that the Anti-Narcotics Police must “announce to local and regional authorities, as well as to the citizenry in general, the initiation of spray activities.” This announcement must explain complaint and evaluation mechanisms, and use local media. After spraying in an area, the Narcotics Police must “guarantee participation spaces with local authorities and with the citizenry in general, in which comments, complaints, and suggestions may be expressed.” Conclusions of these “participation spaces” will be included in the Anti-Narcotics Police’s monthly report to the ANLA.

What the peace accord says

Semana notes that the Constitutional Court had “immovably” required the Colombian government to build a spraying policy “that complies with what was established by the FARC peace accord,” adding that “the expression ‘peace accord’ isn’t mentioned even once in the decree’s text.” The peace accord (section 4.1.3.2) limits aerial spraying only to cases in which communities have not agreed to crop substitution, and where manual eradication is “not possible.”

In cases where there is no agreement with the communities, the Government will proceed to remove the crops used for illicit purposes, prioritising manual removal where possible, bearing in mind respect for human rights, the environment, health and well-being. If substitution is not possible, the Government does not waive the instruments that it believes to be most effective, including aerial spraying to ensure the eradication of crops used for illicit purposes. The FARC-EP consider that in any case of removal this must be effected manually.

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.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of September 16-22)

UNODC Publishes Its 2017 Coca Cultivation Estimate

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime published an executive summary of its 2017 estimate of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia. The UN agency has usually produced this document, in complete form, in June or July of each year. Among the latest report’s most notable findings:

  • Coca cultivation increased by 17 percent in Colombia between 2016 and 2017, growing from 146,000 to 171,000 hectares. (A hectare is about two and a half acres.) In June, the U.S. government publicized its own estimate for 2017, finding an 11 percent increase to 209,000 hectares. According to Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, the UN figure is “the official statistic that the Colombian government works with.”
  • 64% of the increase was concentrated in four departments: Antioquia, Putumayo, Norte de Santander and Cauca. Nearly all coca is grown in municipalities where coca was grown a decade ago.
  • The department with the most coca is still Nariño, as has been the case every year since 2006. Nariño makes up 27% of all Colombian coca cultivation, but the crop increased by only 7% there in 2017.
  • Tumaco, a giant municipality (county) in southwestern Nariño, remains the number-one coca-growing municipality in the country. However, coca cultivation declined by 16% in Tumaco last year.
  • The department of Guaviare saw the largest decrease, shrinking 28% from 6,800 to 4,900 hectares. Guaviare, along with Tumaco, has been a main focus of crop-substitution efforts within the framework of the peace accord. In Meta, another department that saw a lot of crop substitution, coca increased 2%.
  • The areas where the Colombian government has managed to get crop-substitution programs up and running comprise 14% of coca-growing territories. But in those territories, cultivation fell 11% in 2017.
  • 33% of coca crops were detected in “isolated areas, 10 km away from any populated center.”
  • 34% of coca crops were detected in areas that were covered by forests in 2014.
  • Probably due to increased supply, prices crashed in 2017. Coca leaf prices fell 28%; cocaine paste fell 14%, and cocaine fell 11% inside Colombia. This isn’t entirely supply and demand: local circumstances, like changes in armed-group control, may be more important factors in some areas.
  • Colombia’s cocaine exports were worth about US$2.7 billion in 2017. Colombia’s coffee exports totaled about US$2.5 billion. Only oil and coal produced more export revenue.
  • All cocaine base produced in the country was worth US$1.315 billion. All coca leaf was worth US$371 million.
  • In the ten municipalities (counties) with the most coca crops, the coca leaf market adds up to US$302 million. These counties’ combined municipal budgets were US$196 million.
  • 5% of coca was planted within national parks, and another 27% within 20 kilometers of a national park.
  • 10% was planted within indigenous reserves. 15% was planted in land belonging to Afro-Colombian communities.
  • 16% of coca was planted within 10 kilometers of a border, mainly those with Venezuela and Ecuador.
  • The National Comprehensive Substitution Program (PNIS), the voluntary crop-substitution program set up by the FARC peace accord, had enrolled 54,027 families by the end of 2017. By June 2018, that had climbed to 77,659 families.
  • Mainly because the bushes have had time to grow taller than they used to be, their yield—the amount of cocaine that can be produced from a hectare of coca—has increased by one third since 2012. As a result, Colombia’s potential cocaine production grew from 1,053 tons in 2016 to 1,379 tons in 2017.
  • Processing that much cocaine required that 510 million liters of liquid precursor chemicals, and 98,000 tons of solid precursors, be smuggled in to very remote areas.
  • “When we talk about coca growers,” UNODC Colombia Director Bo Mathiasen told El Espectador, “we talk about there being today about 119,500 households that depend on that. If we estimate that each family has four members, we are talking about almost half a million Colombians, just those involved with crops.” That is 1% of Colombia’s population of about 50 million.

Asked whether the increase in coca-growing was “a failure of the peace agreement,” Mathiasen replied that Colombia’s government over-promised to coca-growing families.

It’s an agreement with promises that had no basis. They promised more than they could fulfill. The Government does not have the money to fulfill the prior commitments. There was a lack of realistic communication about the resources that were available and what could be delivered. This caused the campesinos to think that if they planted more coca, they could have subsidies and be part of the substitution program.

Mathiasen also criticized the simultaneous implementation of crop substitution and crop eradication, two strategies that “work with different timeframes.” He cautioned against relying too heavily on renewed fumigation of coca with the herbicide glyphosate.

The United Nations does not have an opinion either in favor or against the use of glyphosate, and I must add that it is widely used in agriculture in Colombia and in many countries. The effectiveness of forced eradication has limits. Yes, the plant is done away with, but replanting has historically been high in eradication zones where there is no program of social and economic intervention going hand-in-hand. If you want a more sustainable outcome over time you have to combine forced or voluntary eradication with investment programs to develop these territories.

President Iván Duque said that in coming days, “he would present a new plan to combat drugs that would ‘strengthen our air, sea and land interception capacity’ and ‘dismantle completely the supply chain, both precursors and product,’” the New York Times reported, adding that “so far, he has provided no details.”

Interviewed by El Tiempo, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker reiterated his support for glyphosate-spraying, despite a California jury’s August ruling that a gardener who contracted cancer was entitled to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from Monsanto, the company that produces most glyphosate herbicide sold in the United States.

I have always said, and I maintain, that the use of glyphosate is safe and effective. It can be a very important tool in the fight against narcotics as part of eradication, which is only one aspect of a comprehensive program. Evidently there was a jury decision in California, and you have to respect that. But that decision does not change the science at all, and the science is clear.

Government Won’t Name an ELN Negotiating Team Until Conditions Met

In a statement, the ELN’s negotiators in Havana called on the government to re-start frozen peace talks, citing its release of nine captives during the first half of September. The Duque government announced that it would not name a new negotiating team until the ELN releases all hostages. The government has a list of ten individuals who remain in ELN captivity. It is unclear whether all are alive, and the guerrillas have not addressed their cases.

This week the ELN released Mayerly Cortés Rodríguez, a 16-year-old whom guerrillas had kidnapped in Chocó. By holding a minor, government High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos said, the ELN “broke all the rules.” The ELN’s Chocó-based Western War Front stated that it was holding Cortés not as a hostage, but “to clear up her collaboration with the Marines,” accusing her of providing intelligence to the local unit. The commander of Colombia’s Pacific Naval Force (Marines are part of the Navy) insisted that it does not seek intelligence from minors.

The ELN talks remain stalled. “It’s evident that neither the government nor the ELN wants to be seen as the one slamming the door on the peace process, but neither of the two parties wants to be the one that gives up the most to restart the dialogues,” El Tiempo’s Marisol Gómez observed.

Elsewhere in Chocó, combat between the ELN and Army displaced about 80 indigenous people from the Murindó River reserve.

FARC Dissident Leader “Guacho” is Wounded, Military Says

A military offensive against FARC dissident groups has intensified in Nariño, along what may be Colombia’s busiest cocaine production and trafficking corridor. Last week, troops killed alias “David,” commander of the United Guerrillas of the Pacific dissident group. This week, special forces reported wounding his rival, Walter Arízala alias “Guacho,” commander of the Oliver Sinisterra Front dissident group.

Though born in Ecuador, Guacho rose through the FARC’s ranks in Narino over 15 years, becoming deeply involved in narcotrafficking. He refused to demobilize in 2017, then became one of the two or three most-wanted armed-group leaders in Colombia earlier this year, after he staged attacks on government forces in Nariño and across the border in Ecuador, and then kidnapped and killed two Ecuadorian reporters and their driver. The tragedy of the El Comercio journalists was front-page news in Ecuador for weeks.

On September 15, at a site in the northern part of Tumaco further from the border, a joint unit seeking to capture Guacho was closing in, but was detected by the dissident leader’s innermost security ring. During the resulting firefight, troops shot a fleeing Guacho twice in the back, but his men helped him to escape.

Though Colombian and Ecuadorian troops reportedly did not coordinate, Ecuador’s military and police strengthened security on their side of the border with the aim of preventing Guacho from crossing. There were no new reports about the guerrilla leader’s condition or whereabouts during the rest of the week.

Semana magazine, claiming that Guacho’s influence in Nariño had been declining, reported that the guerrilla leader “is fleeing with the last of his bodyguards, and the search continues.”

Three Mining Company Geologists Killed in Antioquia; Guerrilla Dissidents Blamed

A group of armed men burst into a mining company camp in the predawn hours of September 20 in Yarumal, Antioquia, opening fire and killing Laura Alejandra Flórez Aguirre, Henry Mauricio Martínez Gómez, and Camilo Andrés Tirado Farak. The three were geologists carrying out explorations for Continental Gold Mines, a Canadian company.

No group has claimed responsibility. Colombian authorities told the media that dissident members of the FARC’s 36th Front are very active in Yarumal. Precious-metals mining has been a principal income stream for organized crime groups here and in many parts of the country.

In the nearby municipality of Buriticá, Continental Gold is building what El Espectador calls “the first large-scale subterranean gold mine in Colombia,” which is to begin operation in 2020 and produce an average of 253,000 ounces of gold per year over 14 years.

Accord Implementation Budget Appears Insufficient

Colombia’s Comptroller-General’s Office (Contraloría) sent a new report to Congress on expenditures to implement the FARC peace accord. It concludes that, over the next 15 years, the government will need to come up with about US$25 billion to fulfill the commitments made in the accord. Most of the resources needed would go to the accord’s first chapter on rural development.

The Treasury Ministry has estimated a 15-year cost of accord implementation at 129.5 trillion pesos, or about US$43 billion. The Contraloría sees a need for an additional 76 trillion pesos, which

would represent 0.4% of annual GDP that would be added to the fiscal deficit projected for the coming years. These calculations could increase to up to 1.1% of GDP if we add the additional costs of covering all the municipalities with scattered rural territories as contemplated in the Final Agreement, and the reparation measures in the public policy of attention to victims.

The Contraloría report found that the government spent 6.9 trillion pesos (about US$2.3 billion) in 2017 on activities related to the FARC peace accord.

El Espectador meanwhile notes that Colombia’s defense budget has increased during the post-accord period, growing 8 percent from 2017 to 2018.

FARC Remains on U.S. Terrorist List

The U.S. Department of State released its annual report on international terrorism on September 19. This report includes and updates the Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The FARC—recognized as a political party today in Colombia—remains on that list.

“Colombia experienced a continued decrease in terrorist activity in 2017, due in large part to the November 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC),” the report reads, citing the disarmament, demobilization, and reincorporation process that the ex-guerrillas underwent last year. Still, a footnote in the report explains that the FARC remains on the terrorist list because the party’s ties to increasingly active guerrilla dissident groups are “unclear”:

The FARC remains a Foreign Terrorist Organization under the Immigration and Nationality Act. However, the Colombian government classifies FARC dissidents as criminals. While the ideological motivations of such groups and ongoing connections with demobilized FARC are unclear, we have included acts of violence by FARC dissidents in this report.

Although the UN verification mission and other observers fault both the Colombian government and the FARC for the slow pace of ex-guerrillas’ reintegration programs, the State Department report places all the blame on the FARC. It essentially faults the ex-guerrillas for insisting on collective reintegration, instead of accepting the government’s standard individual reintegration offer:

The Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), formerly the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR), is the implementing arm of this process. Delays in implementing the program, caused by the refusal of FARC leadership to permit members to actively and effectively participate, increased the prospects that some ex-combatants would return to engaging in criminal activities.

Asked by a reporter why the FARC party remains on the list, State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales offered no specifics.

I’m not going to be in a position to comment on any internal deliberations that may or may not be taking place. What I can tell you is that the statutory standards for getting on the FTO list or getting off the FTO list are very clear, and it – we apply the standards that Congress has given us consistent with the evidence in front of us, and we do that regardless of the organization or country.

Interviewed by El Tiempo, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker insisted that Washington would push for the extradition of any wanted FARC members believed to have committed crimes after the peace accord’s December 2016 ratification. “Any effort, by any actor or institution, to limit extradition, affects U.S. interests.”

Whitaker criticized a Constitutional Court finding that appears to give the transitional justice system (JEP) the power to review evidence against those wanted in extradition for alleged post-accord crimes, like FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich. The way extradition works, he said, is that the requesting country evaluates the evidence.

The Ambassador also rejected the idea that wanted individuals should first remain in Colombia to provide victims with truth and reparations. “I don’t accept the mistaken idea that if there is extradition, then there can be no truth. In the case of the paramilitaries extradited a decade ago, we have set up 3,000 hearings, including victims, prosecutors, magistrates, etcetera. There has been every opportunity to clarify the truth. So both can be done.”

President Duque Meets UN Mission Chief

Jean Arnault, the chief of the UN verification mission that just had its mandate extended for another year, met with President Iván Duque. Arnault’s mission is overseeing the reintegration and security of FARC ex-combatants, which have moved forward but faced setbacks and obstacles over the past year.

Appearing publicly with the President, Arnault said, “I encourage you to continue with a difficult process, full of obstacles and still very fragile. We encourage you to continue not only for the sake of Colombia, but also for the sake of the international community.” Duque said that the government remains committed to “the people who have genuinely bet it all on demobilization, disarmament, reintegration and non-repetition, can make a transition to coexistence and a life of legality.”

Arnault said that Duque’s six-week-old government was in the midst of a “useful reflection” about its ex-combatant reincorporation policy. Duque and Arnault agreed that finding productive projects for ex-combatants was a priority. These projects, Duque said, “had to incorporate more than 10,000 people in the process, but today do not exceed 100 people.” The President and the mission chief agreed that future reintegration projects should benefit entire communities, not just the ex-guerrillas.

In response to a written request from FARC party leader Rodrigo Londoño, Duque’s government named its representatives to the Commission of Follow-up, Impulse and Verification (CSIVI), the government-FARC mechanism meant to oversee implementation of the peace accord. They are Emilio José Archila, the High Counselor for the Post-Conflict; High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos; and Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez.

Meanwhile, one of the highest-profile demobilized guerrilla leaders, Luciano Marín alias Iván Márquez—the guerrillas’ lead negotiator during the Havana peace process—remains missing. FARC leaders insist that Márquez has not abandoned the peace process, that he has “clandestinized” himself out of concern for his security.

Márquez is free to roam the country pending his eventual transitional-justice trial for war crimes. But he now faces calls to clarify his situation.

  • The Congressional Peace Committee, which recently traveled to the demobilization site in Caquetá that Márquez abandoned in June or July, published a letter calling on him to “unequivocally reiterate your commitment to this process very soon.”
  • During the week of September 9, the transitional-justice system (JEP) called on Márquez and 30 other former FARC commanders to submit a written statement that each remains committed to the process and intends to comply with the peace accord. The JEP demanded a response within ten business days. Márquez’s lawyer may have bought some additional time by submitting an official information request to the JEP about its demand.

In-Depth Reading

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.

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