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

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.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of August 19-25)

ELN Still Hasn’t Released Captives and Hostages

The ELN’s release of four soldiers, three police, and two civilians in its custody, believed imminent, still hasn’t happened yet. Guerrilla fronts in Chocó and Arauca captured the nine on August 3rd and 8th, and President Iván Duque (who was inaugurated August 7th) has demanded their unconditional release before deciding whether to continue peace talks begun by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

A week ago, Colombia’s Defense Ministry stated that it had agreed with the ELN on a protocol for freeing the captives, with the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In Havana, chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán told The New York Times that “the nine captives would be released ‘within the next week.’ But two days later, a recording from the ELN’s Western War Front, its hard-line bloc, which has released pictures of some of the hostages, said no agreement had been reached.”

The situation remains unclear. The Defense Ministry has refused to recognize the liberation as part of the peace negotiation, which the Duque government still hasn’t committed to continuing. The ELN has meanwhile reportedly sent members of its negotiating team to Colombia to work out handover details, but it is not known whether they have yet been in touch with the government.

“Uriel,” the commander of the ELN’s Western War Front, “complained about military pressure in the zone,” according to El Tiempo, which in his judgment is reducing the kidnap victims’ [security] guarantees.”

Interviewed by The New York Times, negotiator Beltrán insisted that the ELN wants to continue dialogue with the new Duque government, and promised reasonable terms. “‘We’re not asking for socialism, he said, adding that his rebels are mainly looking for basic protections for peasants and a way that the rebels can lay down arms.” Beltrán noted that guerrillas he has spoken with, after viewing the sluggish implementation of the FARC peace accord, are concerned that the government won’t honor an agreement. “We have an example that has us scared,” he told the Times, referring to the FARC process.

Murders of Social Leaders Are Not Slowing

On August 23 President Duque, accompanied by the internal-affairs chief (Procurador), human rights ombudsman (Defensor), the U.S. ambassador, the ministers of Defense and Interior, and other officials, presided over an event to lay out a policy for protecting threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. The “Second Table for the Protection of Life” took place in Apartadó, in the troubled Urabá region of northwest Colombia, a zone of drug transshipment, much stolen landholding, and frequent attacks on social leaders. About 90 social organizations were in attendance.

Those present signed a “pact for life and protection of social leaders and human rights defenders,” which El Nuevo Siglo described as “an immediate roadmap to ‘rebuild trust in justice and to judge the material and intellectual authors of this criminal phenomenon.’”

The phenomenon remains intense. Ombudsman Carlos Negret announced that the August 22 murder of Luis Henry Verá Gamboa, a 51-year-old Community Action Board leader in Cesar department, was the 343rd killing of a social leader in Colombia since January 2016: one every 2.8 days. At least 123 killings—two every three days—took place during the first six months of 2018, The Guardian reported.

Deputy Chief Prosecutor (Vicefiscal) María Paulina Riveros, who attended the Apartadó event, said that her office has arrested 150 people and identified 200 suspects tied to the killings of social leaders; she did not say how many are suspected trigger-pullers versus those believed to have planned or ordered killings. In Urabá and northern Antioquia department, she added, businesses and landowners who resist restitution of stolen landholdings are heavily involved in killings of land claimants.

Procurador Fernando Carrillo said that his office will pressure mayors and governors to take more actions against killings of human rights defenders, adding that 30 officials are currently under investigation for failing to prevent the murders.

“If we want to guarantee the life and integrity of our social leaders, we have to dismantle the structures of organized crime that are attacking them,” Duque said. He added, “What we want is to seek an integral response of preventive actions and investigative speed to guarantee freedom of expression to all the people who are exercising the defense of human rights.”

Some social leaders, while glad to see a high-profile commitment, voiced concern about follow-through. “It’s not enough to draw up a lot of norms and mechanisms, if they don’t end up being effective instruments in their application, if they’re handed down from above but get lost on their way to the regions,” said Marino Córdoba of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians.

New Peace Commissioner Meets Senior FARC Leader

The Duque government’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, toured some of the sites (“Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation”) where many demobilized FARC members are still living. Accompanied by UN Verification Mission chief Jean Arnault at the site in Pondores, La Guajira, Ceballos met with former FARC Secretariat member Joaquín Gómez of the former Southern Bloc. Ceballos’s message was that the new government intends to respect the Santos government’s commitments for the reintegration of demobilized guerrillas.

Two of the most prominent demobilized FARC leaders, however, are still unaccounted for. Former Secretariat member Iván Márquez, a hardliner who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana, has not been heard from in about a month. The same is true of Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias El Paisa, the former head of the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero Column. Both Márquez and Velásquez had been staying at a demobilization site in Caquetá; Márquez moved there in April, after renouncing his assigned Senate seat in the wake of the arrest, on narcotrafficking charges, of his close associate and fellow FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich.

FARC Senator Carlos Antonio Lozada told Colombian media that he doesn’t know where Márquez and Velásquez are and hasn’t heard from them. He said he hoped to see Márquez at a late August meeting of FARC political party leaders. Ariel Ávila, an analyst at the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told El Colombiano, “there are many rumors about what they could be doing, that they’re in Venezuela, that they’re in hiding, that they’ve joined the dissident groups.”

FARC Dissidents Expanding in Catatumbo Region

Catatumbo, a poorly governed region of smallholding farmers in Norte de Santander department near the Venezuelan border, has already been suffering a wave of violence between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small guerrilla group that is almost exclusively active there. Now, reports La Silla Vacía, the largest FARC dissident group has arrived in Catatumbo, especially in areas that had previously been the dominion of the FARC’s disbanded 33rd Front.

Basing itself mainly on military intelligence sources, La Silla claims that dissidents from the FARC’s 7th Front, active in south-central Colombia, are branching out. 7th Front leader “Gentil Duarte” has sent one of his most notorious deputies, “John 40”—a FARC leader with a long history in the cocaine trade—to Catatumbo to build up recruitment and recover control of trafficking routes.

According to Army Intelligence information, his appearance in the area occurred between four and five months ago, when it was already known in the region that several ex-FARC members had decided to return to arms, and those who were not organizing on their own in small groups were dividing themselves between the ranks of the ELN and the EPL. What is clear is that John 40 came to organize them to prevent the new reorganizations from being dispersed or ending up simply strengthening the other two guerrilla groups, at a time when the coca market in Catatumbo is skyrocketing.

Wilfredo Cañizares of the Fundación Progresar think-tank in nearby Cúcuta told La Silla that Catatumbo may now have as many as 30,000 hectares of coca, at least 6,000 more than were measured in 2016.

Duarte and John 40 both abandoned the FARC in 2016, objecting to the peace accord the guerrillas were signing with the government. They are now part of the largest dissident group in the country, beginning to coordinate well beyond their center of operations in Meta and Guaviare departments. While La Silla’s military intelligence source said that the group has only about 33 men in the Catatumbo region, “seven sources we talked to in Catatumbo, among them local authorities and social leaders, said that the number could be between four and seven times larger.”

The 7th Front has avoided drawing attention to itself in Catatumbo, even as ELN-EPL fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. However, some of La Silla’s sources say the dissidents may have been behind a massacre three weeks ago in the central Catatumbo municipality of El Tarra.

Two sources in El Tarra told us that with the passing of days, the hypothesis that has grown strongest is that it was a dispute between dissidences. “Everything points to the dissidence of John 40 being the one that ordered the massacre, because the dissidents who died did not want to align with him and the model he came to put together,” one of those sources told La Silla.

Citing a human rights defender, an Army source, a social leader, and two local authorities, the report adds that the presence in Catatumbo of middlemen from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is adding fuel to the fire. Three sources told La Silla Vacía that, while Sinaloa’s representatives aren’t behaving like an armed group in the region, they have a great deal of money, and as a result are under the protection of both guerrillas and corrupt members of the Army and Police.

Displacement Has Already Surpassed 2017 Levels

Speaking at a Cali event organized by El Espectador’s Colombia 2020 program, Jozef Merkx, the Colombia country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, drew attention with a grim piece of data: “in August 2018 Colombia has surpassed the number of internally displaced people that was measured in all of 2017.” That makes more than 20,000 Colombians forced from their homes by violence so far this year.

Merkx added that displacement is most severe along the Pacific Coast, in Catatumbo, and in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region. Mass displacements have also occurred in Meta, Arauca, and Córdoba departments. All of these zones have seen intense fighting this year between still-existing guerrillas like the ELN and EPL, armed organized crime groups like the Urabeños, or FARC dissidents.

The UNHCR official noted that 60 percent of the displaced have settled in 29 cities, where they often continue face severe security challenges. The same neighborhoods are also seeing a large flow of Venezuelans, a migration emergency that is much larger in number and has been getting much more attention. A UN Secretary-General spokesman said in mid-August that 2.3 million Venezuelans—7 percent of the neighboring country’s population—had abandoned the country as of June. Of those, 1.3 million were “suffering from malnourishment.”

WSJ Report Reveals New Details About Drone Coca Eradication Plan

An August 19 Wall Street Journal report gave some new information about Colombia’s plan to start eradicating the country’s still-increasing coca crop by spraying herbicides from low-flying drones. The herbicide would continue to be glyphosate, which Colombia stopped spraying from higher-flying aircraft in 2015, after a World Health Organization study pointed to some probability that the commonly used herbicide is carcinogenic.

Colombian police, along with a company called Fumi Drone, have been testing the new method using 10 drones in Nariño, the department with Colombia’s highest concentration of coca. Fully loaded with herbicide, each drone weighs 50 pounds and must be recharged after about a dozen minutes. “The small, remotely guided aircraft destroyed hundreds of acres of coca in a first round of tests,” police and Fumi Drone told the Journal.

The United States backed an aircraft-based glyphosate spraying program for more than 20 years. It proved capable of achieving short-term reductions in coca cultivation, in specific areas—but in an on-the-ground context of absent government and no basic services, growers tended to replant quickly. Because spraying from dozens or hundreds of feet in the air is very imprecise, farmers also alleged health and environmental damage—which U.S. officials denied—and the destruction of legal food crops.

Since 2015, Colombia’s forcible coca eradication has mainly involved individual eradicators either pulling the plants out of the ground or directly applying glyphosate. This is dangerous work, and hundreds of eradicators or security-force accompaniers have been killed or wounded since the mid-2000s by ambushes, snipers, landmines, and booby traps.

Critics warn that, while drones are safer for eradicators and less likely to spray people and legal crops, they do not solve the fundamental problem: coca-growing areas are abandoned by the government, and those who live there have shaky property rights, no farm-to-market roads, and few economic options. Spraying from the air and leaving no presence on the ground, then, virtually guarantees that coca cultivation will recur. “It’s a short-term solution,” Richard Lapper of the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank told the BBC. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of international demand for cocaine.”

U.S. government officials told the Wall Street Journal that they’re not completely sold on the drone idea. “[T]hey are open to using drones but need to learn more about their capabilities once Colombia’s police complete tests, which could run until January.” As he has in the past, Ambassador Kevin Whitaker made clear that the door remains open to using spray aircraft.

Seven or eight of the crop dusters that had worked the coca fields here remain in Colombia. [There were 14.] In a few months, U.S. officials say, they could become operational again. “I told embassy personnel and the Colombians the same thing: We need to be ready for a restart,” said the U.S. ambassador, Mr. Whitaker.

Meanwhile, participants in the voluntary crop substitution program begun under Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord remain uncertain about whether Iván Duque’s government will continue the effort, known as the National Integral Illicit-Use Crop Substitution Plan (PNIS). Defense Minister Guillermo Botero raised concerns when he announced: “Voluntary eradication is over, and it will become obligatory… the fumigations will surely have to take place… we’re going to dedicate ourselves tenaciously to the eradication of illicit crops.”

Ten social and coca-grower organizations that have served as intermediaries for the PNIS program responded with a letter to President Duque asking him to keep the program in place. As laid out in the accord, the Santos Presidency’s crop substitution program has already promised two years of financial and technical assistance to 124,745 coca-growing households, signing individual accords with 77,659 of them. About 47,910 have eradicated about 22,000 hectares of coca in exchange for promised support, which has been arriving slowly.

In other bad drug-trade news, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant, Daniel Gould, was arrested after DEA agents found 90 pounds of cocaine inside two backpacks aboard a military transport plane in Colombia. The plane was bound for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A Defense Department spokesman confirmed the allegations, which were revealed by NBC News, but did not elaborate, citing “the integrity of the investigation and the rights of the individual.”

In-Depth Reading

Video: “The Origins of Cocaine” book event

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

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

24 years of coca and eradication in Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of May 13-19)

Transitional Justice System Suspends Santrich Extradition

The case of FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, arrested on April 9 with the possibility of extradition to the United States for narcotrafficking, grew more complicated this week. The Review Chamber of the new Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP, the transitional justice system set up by the peace accord) ordered his extradition suspended. Other entities within Colombia’s government contended that the Chamber doesn’t have the right to do that.

Santrich, a hardliner who represented the FARC at the negotiating table during the entire Havana process, is currently confined at a Bogotá facility run by the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference. His health is precarious, as he has been on a hunger strike since his arrest. Santrich is charged by a grand jury in the Southern District of New York with conspiring to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

As he allegedly committed the crime after the peace accord went into effect, Santrich’s case could go to Colombia’s regular justice system, where he would face long prison terms or extradition. First, though, the JEP must determine that the crime did indeed take place after the peace accord’s December 1, 2016 ratification.

That is the task of the JEP’s Review Chamber, which must fulfill it within 120 days. This chamber contended, by a unanimous vote, that fulfilling its duty required a temporary suspension of Santrich’s extradition. The Chamber asked for more evidence of the allegations against the FARC leader, and instructed the “regular” justice system’s Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) to provide, within five days, information about the extradition process.

Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez responded with a strongly worded 16-page letter alleging that the JEP has no authority to freeze an extradition process, adding that the newly formed body’s action “has left democratic institutionally threatened.” And in fact, the director of another body of the JEP, its Investigations and Accusations Unit, tweeted “I separate myself from the extradition suspension decision.”

The Colombian government’s Justice and Interior Ministries responded with a communiqué arguing that the JEP could not suspend Santrich’s extradition because the United States had not formally requested it yet. Colombian law gives countries requesting a citizen’s extradition 60 days to issue a formal request after that citizen has been detained. That would give the U.S. government until June 8 to issue the request. It has not done so, perhaps out of a desire not to appear to be influencing the May 27 presidential election campaign.

The JEP Chamber, however, stated that in its view, “the extradition process has already begun, because a detention for extradition purposes has been requested.”

There is no sense of when the Chamber may issue its determination of when Santrich committed a crime, or whether the Chamber may seek to determine whether there is even enough evidence that a crime took place. “Still, the political effect of the decision is immediate,” wrote Juanita León, director of La Silla Vacía.

Above all when the JEP issues it a few days before elections in which the candidate with the best chances of making it to a second round and reaching the Presidency [Iván Duque of the right-wing Centro Democrático party] proposes to make “adjustments” to the JEP that, in practice, would do away with it.

Debate over whether to extradite Santrich continues. Rodrigo Uprimny, founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, believes Santrich should be tried in Colombia so that he may answer to his victims. An analysis in Semana magazine worries about the effect on ex-guerrillas’ desertion:

In the end, the consequences won’t be those of an ideal transition to peace or a return to the open war of the last decades. The scenario in play is intermediate, and has to do instead with the size of the dissidences that may return to the jungle. In other words, if Santrich’s possible extradition creates uncertainty among guerrillas that increases the number of dissidents, it may be best to allow him to serve his sentence inside the country.

An El Tiempo editorial contends that “rules are rules,” despite Santrich’s victims’ right to learn the truth from him.

It could be proposed that, without leaving aside at any moment the importance of the truth, the precept must come first that whoever doesn’t comply with the agreed rules must pay for it.

This, the editorial clarifies, only applies if the evidence against Santrich “leaves no doubt about his criminal conduct.” If so, “there would be no reason to insist that this [his extradition] poses an insurmountable obstacle to the implementation of what was agreed in Havana.”

Government Will Miss Its Coca Substitution Target

The Colombian government recognized on May 15 that it will not meet its target, set for this month, of 50,000 hectares of coca eradicated by growers voluntarily destroying their crops in exchange for economic assistance. That was the one-year goal the Presidency had set for its implementation of chapter 4 of the Havana peace accord, which establishes a national crop substitution program.

In fact, the program fell significantly short. Eduardo Díaz, the director of the crop substitution program, announced that families participating in the program had eradicated 36,000 hectares, of which 11,700 have actually been verified by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The U.S. government measured 188,000 hectares in Colombia in 2016, and media have reported that the U.S. estimate for 2017 could be as high as 230,000. (UNODC’s 2016 estimate was 146,000, and media reports point to 180,000 in 2017.) The government forcibly eradicated 53,000 hectares in 2017.

Díaz blamed security conditions for the shortfall. He told CNN en Español, “In different zones where there are crops, narcotraffickers’ networks have advanced, have killed communities, have killed leaders, have threatened government officials and UN officials.”

Independent analysts place more blame on the slow performance of the Colombian bureaucracy. The idea of the government’s National Comprehensive Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS, the main focus of the accord’s chapter 4) was to provide small-scale coca-growing households with two years’ worth of payments and help with productive projects in exchange for eradicating their coca. The economic benefits for each household would total about US$12,000 over two years. This week, the Ideas for Peace Foundation released a detailed report and dataset (Excel file) laying out the progress of the PNIS program as of March 31. In sum:

  • 123,225 families had signed collective framework community accords agreeing in principle to substitute crops.
  • 62,181 families (50.4 percent of above) had signed specific accords committing to a timetable of voluntary eradication and receipt of benefits.
  • 32,010 families (51.4 percent of above) had received at least one monthly payment.
  • 7,009 families (11 percent of the 62,181) had received any technical assistance to pursue an alternative productive project.
  • UNODC had found (in 2106) 22,025 hectares of coca in the municipalities (counties) where families had begun receiving payments.
  • UNODC had verified and certified the eradication of 6,381 hectares of coca (28.9 percent of above). (This is far fewer than the 11.700 hectare figure that the government substitution program’s Eduardo Díaz had given CNN.)

The report concludes,

The greatest advances of PNIS are found in the signing up of campesinos and the disbursement of payments, while it is falling most behind in technical assistance and in the supply of goods and services. Under those conditions, three months before the end of President Santos’s government, it will be difficult for the program to meet the goal of 50,000 voluntarily eradicated hectares.

The Ideas for Peace report notes that while homicides across Colombia have increased by a troubling 8 percent over this time last year, they are up by a very alarming 57 percent in the municipalities with crop substitution programs.

The Verdad Abierta website visited Briceño, Antioquia, where the PNIS began as a pilot project in 2015. In the coming weeks, the national government is to announce that the municipality’s residents will have eradicated all of their coca, about 567 hectares.

However, Briceño’s farmers told the site that “the campesinos complied, but the government has not.” While monthly payments have come on time, assistance for productive projects has hardly begun. “They did give us the payments, but in the agreement it said that as the payments arrived, then the productive projects to implement them would also arrive, so that we wouldn’t end up the way we are now: with our arms crossed and worried because the money has run out,” said a Community Action Board president.

“The state has a great responsibility with respect to the families who expressed their will to abandon the coca crops and who took part in the substitution process,” the Ideas for Peace report reads. “In the zones where the PNIS began to be developed, the link between populations and the state has been re-established. However, the lack of compliance with what was agreed not only has implications for institutions’ trust and credibility, it generates a risk of re-planting and a possible increase in hectares of coca.”

ELN to Cease Fire During Presidential Voting

The ELN announced that it will cease military activities for five days, from May 25-29, “to contribute to favorable conditions that might permit Colombian society to express itself in the elections” that will take place on May 27.

This raised hopes for a more permanent bilateral cessation of hostilities between government and guerrillas. However, the ELN’s chief negotiator in Havana, Pablo Beltrán, intimated that the group would be unlikely to agree to a ceasefire as long as social leaders continue to be killed at a rapid pace around the country: “We are fully disposed to do a cessation, but what about all the others? It’s not just a call on the military forces, but on paramilitarism, on all these attacks that different popular sectors are receiving.”

Asked about President Juan Manuel Santos’s hope that the ELN talks will leave behind a framework agreement—which, for the next president, would increase the cost of pulling the plug on the talks—Beltrán said that the ELN wants “to leave the accords at such a point of consolidation that any incoming government would have to respect them.” Any advancement, Beltrán added, would have to include more civil society participation; he did not specify what that might look like.

Timoleón Jiménez to Uribe: Let’s Go To the Truth Commission Together

Maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez alias Timochenko published a lengthy communiqué about the status of the peace process on the eve of Colombia’s presidential election. “The peace accord is shielded,” it reads.

That’s what the Constitutional Court understood when it upheld Legislative Act 02 of 2017. The UN Security Council recognizes it. The community of nations accepts it and applauds it. We’re not going to force absolutely anything, the issue is simply to honor what was agreed when the Colombian state and our former insurgency gave our word. The beautiful dream of peace could be an irreversible reality if you [President Santos] decide to act.

Timochenko’s tone contrasts with that of the FARC’s de facto number-two leader, Iván Márquez, who said that if his close collaborator Jesús Santrich dies of a hunger strike while awaiting a possible extradition, his death “would also be the death of the peace process.”

In his statement, Timochenko asked forgiveness of Ingrid Betancourt, Clara Rojas, Sigifredo López, and other civilians whom the FARC held hostage for years. He called on former President Álvaro Uribe to join him in appearing together before the newly established Truth Commission to show the country “what the search for truth and the clarification of the truth look like.” Uribe led an intense military offensive against the FARC during his 2002-2010 presidency, and enjoyed the political support of many backers of right-wing paramilitary groups.

The presidential candidate of Uribe’s party, poll frontrunner Iván Duque, rejected the FARC leader’s invitation. “He can’t come here like a shameless person trying to appear as the equal of a good citizen. Instead, they should give reparations to their victims, tell all the truth, and pay their penalties.”

Military Operations Against FARC Dissidents

A joint Colombian Army-Air Force-Police operation killed 11 members of the FARC’s 7th Front dissident group in Putumayo. Among the dead was a commander named alias “Cachorro,” reportedly a close collaborator of Edgar Salgado, alias “Rodrigo Cadete,” who commanded the FARC’s 27th Front and abruptly abandoned the demobilization process last September. The 7th Front dissidents are a recent presence in Putumayo; they have been most active in Meta and Caquetá.

In Bello, just north of Medellín in Antioquia, an operation carried out by the Army and the Fiscalía captured Henry Arturo Gil Ramírez alias “el Feo” (the Ugly One), a top commander of the 36th Front dissident group.

In-Depth Reading

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Still catching up. This is the week of April 15-21.)

Ecuador Will No Longer Host the ELN Negotiations

The president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, announced April 18 that his country will no longer host the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN. Government representatives and guerrilla leaders had held five rounds of talks in Quito since February 2017. Moreno’s announcement came days after the murder of two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver, whom a group of re-armed FARC guerrillas had abducted in late March on Ecuador’s side of the border with Colombia.

“I have asked the foreign minister of Ecuador to put the brakes on the conversations and put the brakes on our role as a guarantor of the peace process while the ELN does not commit to ending terrorist actions,” Moreno told Colombian cable news network NTN24.

“President Santos understands the reasons why President Moreno has decided to move away from his role as guarantor and host of these negotiations,” Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín responded, adding that Colombia will seek a new foreign country in which to hold the talks, which have made only very modest progress on their agenda. The candidate leading polls for Colombia’s May 27 presidential election, rightist Iván Duque, endorsed Ecuador’s move: “President Moreno was completely right to suspend the dialogues with the ELN. What President Santos did not do, the Ecuadorian government did well.”

The talks’ remaining five guarantor countries are Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela. Analysts asked by Colombian media coincided in the view that Cuba or perhaps Chile is the best choice for a new venue: Brazil is about to have elections, Chile just inaugurated a new conservative government, Norway is too far away, and Venezuela is roiled by political and economic instability. Another option would be to continue the original vision of “itinerant” negotiations that move from country to country, which poses logistical challenges.

Moreno’s decision came after the journalists’ kidnapping-murder, another kidnapping of two Ecuadorians who remain in custody, and several attacks on Ecuador’s security forces in the border region, mainly in the Pacific province of Esmeraldas. All of these actions were perpetrated by the so-called Oliver Sinisterra Front, a grouping of ex-FARC members headed by Walter Arizara, an Ecuadorian-born former FARC member who goes by the alias “Guacho.” Though the ELN has nothing to do with Guacho’s group’s actions, the attacks on Ecuadorian soil have soured public opinion in the country toward Colombian armed groups in general.

The Colombian journalism website Verdad Abierta adds that Ecuador’s government was also probably miffed at the “lack of diplomatic tact” with which Colombia’s government handled the reporters’ kidnapping and murder.

For more than two years, annoyance has been incubating within the Ecuadorian Defense Ministry over their Colombian counterparts’ lack of commitment to the design of a joint border security strategy that would include contingency plans. Since that time, it was known that some FARC units wouldn’t accept the accords signed with the Colombian government.
… A researcher who has studied the armed conflict dynamic in that border region for several years, and who asked not to use his/her name, affirmed… “The Ecuadorian government has always felt undervalued by the Colombian government. The situation intensified with President Juan Manuel Santos’s response to the situation with the murdered journalists. This had several elements, for example that he did not go to Ecuador to meet with Moreno at a moment of intense pain for Ecuadorians. This was seen as an affront.”
That atmosphere became even tenser after President Santos’s clumsy statements saying that “Guacho” was Ecuadorian and that the reporters were killed in Ecuador. Those statements were interpreted by many Ecuadorian people, including by international bodies as saying “that’s Ecuador’s problem.”

On April 15, two days after President Moreno announced the reporters’ death, President Santos recognized that the reporters were killed on Colombian soil. The bodies remain there, unrecovered.

On April 19 someone—the Colombian military said the ELN—bombed a power pylon in Nariño, Colombia, shutting off electricity throughout the border region, including the troubled port city of Tumaco. The peace talks, meanwhile, continue to seek a new venue at which to resume their fifth round.

Aftermath of the Arrest of Jesús Santrich

Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich, the FARC ideologist and negotiator arrested April 9 on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine, was transferred to southern Bogotá’s La Picota prison, where he will remain as Colombian judicial authorities determine whether he should be separated from the peace accords’ transitional justice process and extradited to the United States. Colombia’s Supreme Court denied a habeas corpus motion seeking his release; his lawyers contended, unsuccessfully, that the transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) should have executed the arrest order instead of the regular criminal justice system.

From his confinement, Santrich gave an interview to Colombia’s W Radio news station. He confirmed that he had spoken to Mexican traffickers —who were either undercover DEA agents, or had one or more DEA agents embedded in their group—but thought that they were potential investors in post-conflict agricultural projects. Santrich had been put into contact with the Mexicans by Marlon Marín, a lawyer who is the nephew of chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez, a close associate of Santrich’s on the FARC party’s hardline wing.

Santrich said his relationship with Marín “is a working relationship about ideas for productive projects, specifically about farms growing native crops, to implement in zones where the accord on integral rural reform will be carried out.” He said that he did not know the name of Rafael Caro Quintero, the top Mexican drug trafficker whom his intermediaries claimed to be representing. “It’s very hard for me to keep in mind who could be a narco or not. Many people came to my house with the idea of contributing to moving the peace process forward, and all of the people who came were registered with the National Police.” Asked about the ink drawing he gave the Mexicans, dedicated to Caro Quintero, he said that he thought Caro was a potential investor, and that he had given similar drawings to Vice-President Óscar Naranjo and presidential post-conflict chief Rafael Pardo.

“You will never hear words like ‘cocaine, payment, five-kilogram packages’ come out of my mouth,” Santrich said. “This is like an Indiana Jones movie, everyone adding special effects and the setup is right around the corner.” He added, “It’s more likely that cocaine passed through the nose of the chief prosecutor of the nation than through my hands.” Recordings of Santrich’s conversations with the Mexicans, currently in U.S. authorities’ possession, may give a clearer idea of to what extent Santrich knowingly discussed a plan to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States, or how he reacted when Marlon Marín—who had urged Santrich to meet the Mexicans—discussed the plan in his presence.

Yezid Arteta, a former FARC member turned columnist for Semana magazine’s website, called Marín “the typical lizard that one finds in all political parties and institutions, who seems to be one of the planners of the trap laid for Santrich.” On April 16, Marlon Marín boarded a flight to New York, where he has agreed to testify against Jesús Santrich as a cooperating witness. Asked about his relationship with his nephew, FARC leader Iván Márquez only said he was a “gentleman” whose “conduct will have to be investigated.”

On April 19 Márquez, who is slated to take a seat in Colombia’s Senate on July 20, notified Colombia’s Police and National Protection Unit that he was leaving Bogotá, moving “temporarily to the territorial space [FARC demobilization site] in Miravalle,” in the southern department of Caquetá, “due to the situation and until there is greater clarity and certainty about what comes next.” Santrich, on a hunger strike in La Picota, said he would rather starve to death than be extradited.

Aftermath of Revelation of Peace Fund Irregularities

A week after Colombian media reported on letters from European ambassadors and from Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) voicing concerns about the management of special peace accord implementation funds, President Santos announced a “crash plan” to improve monitoring of resources and administrative steps to restructure management of resources from international donors.

The concerns center around the “Colombia in Peace Fund,” which concentrates a few hundred million dollars in resources for peace accord implementation projects, most of them from foreign donors. Though the fund is subject to close oversight and reporting, in order to speed delivery of aid it is largely exempt from often cumbersome procedures in regular Colombian law designed to prevent corruption in contracting.

The government found that 97 percent of the fund’s resources so far have gone to 40 contracts. “That’s why the denunciations and suspicions that persist about supposed poor management are so concerning,” reads an editorial in El Espectador. “In synthesis, it seems that the corrupt political bureaucracy that is so rooted in our country has also tried to stick its hand in the investments that should be consolidating the accord’s implementation.”

The concerns led to the dismissal of Carlos Fidel Simancas, a contractor of the International Organization for Migration who worked in the Presidency’s Post-Conflict Secretariat. “In that Secretariat,” El Tiempo reported, Simancas

was the manager of former Green Party congressional candidate Sonia Elvira Veloza Mogollón, who last Friday was called for questioning at the Fiscalía as part of the “group of people who played specific roles” in the presumed irregularities in the management of productive projects for demobilized FARC.
Another eight people—a list that does not include Simancas—were also called to the Fiscalía, and their offices and homes were searched on suspicion of being part of the network of Marlon Marín Marín, who according to the investigative body was a sort of articulator of a network that sought to enrich itself with peace contracts.
Marlon Marín first sought to obtain a cut of the contracts for basic healthcare at the demobilized combatants’ concentration sites.

This is the same Marlon Marín involved in the arrest of Jesús Santrich, the FARC leader’s nephew whom columnist Yezid Arteta referred to above as a “lizard.” Before discovering his efforts to strike a cocaine deal with Mexicans, Colombian authorities were already monitoring Marín because they suspected he was mishandling these health contracts.

Vice President Óscar Naranjo said that the government will seek “to accelerate the accords’ implementation, especially with relation to productive projects.” Treasury Vice-Minister Paula Acosta said that the government has contracted the accounting firm Ernst and Young to audit the contracts awarded so far.

Naranjo promised a detailed review of post-conflict productive projects. He said there are 214 such projects so far, in different states of development. Among them, 35, involving 1,533 ex-FARC members, are in the “formulation phase” and will cost about COP$22.764 billion (US$8.081 million).

“This is no reason, certainly, to slow implementation” of the peace accord, concluded El Espectador’s editorial. “The accord has already faltered too much for the government to keep delaying compliance with its promises. The money is there precisely to be spent as soon as possible and to put in motion everything that was promised. Can’t we do this with transparency?”

UN Secretary General Reports on Peace Process

The UN Security Council convened on September 19 to hear the Secretary General’s latest report on the peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission. The ambassadors in attendance gave supportive statements and celebrated the progress away from conflict that Colombia has made. Some, most notably Russia, voiced concerns about the pace of implementation.

“While it is obviously too early to take stock of a peace process that has set ambitious and long-term goals,” UN Mission Head Jean Arnault told the Council that there is reason for optimism.

[W]e have already observed that it has achieved a notable reduction of violence in the context of the congressional elections. Similarly, it has created a series of institutions dedicated to overcoming patterns of social, economic and political violence in the conflict areas. …Throughout the implementation phase of the Peace Agreement, circumstances have occasionally tested the commitment of the two parties to stay the course. They have stayed the course.

Nonetheless Arnault, and the Secretary-General’s report, warned of problems. “[T]he resurgence of violence in several of the areas most affected by the conflict and the persistent pattern of killings of community and social leaders are the main subjects of concern at present,” the report emphasized.

The report highlights the slowness with which Colombia is reintegrating former FARC combatants.

Socioeconomic reintegration is lagging behind. The transition from early reinsertion to sustainable reintegration has not yet been completed, and this uncertainty continues to undermine the confidence of former members of FARC-EP in their reintegration and in the peace process itself.

Lack of progress in this respect is in good part responsible for the movement of former FARC-EP members outside the territorial areas, hence the growing importance of access to land, the design, funding and implementation of viable productive projects linked to local development and the creation of cooperatives to implement them.

Remarkably, Colombia still does not have a plan in place for reintegrating ex-combatants, violating a cardinal precept of how a peace accord should be implemented.

I reiterate the need for the National Reintegration Council to adopt, as provided for in the Peace Agreement, its national reintegration plan linking reintegration to development.

The Secretary-General’s report also voices concern for the security of former FARC members located outside the former concentration zones, and of threatened social leaders throughout the country.

I am concerned that, by all accounts, the killing of community leaders and human rights defenders has continued unabated in the past three months, despite several measures to address the alarming number of killings registered in 2017. This trend and the proliferation of illegal armed actors associated with it should be brought under control as a matter of urgency, as has been acknowledged by the President and top officials of his Government.
Of particular concern are the attacks against persons working to implement government programmes related to coca substitution and land restitution. Members of local community boards, the governance mechanism established in rural districts, are among the main targets of violence.

A Supportive Statement From U.S.-UN

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, read a statement that was significantly more supportive of the peace effort than has been customary for the Trump administration. It calls for greater government presence in territories, reintegration of former combatants, and action on land tenure. The expected exhortation to “accelerate its counter-narcotics effort” doesn’t appear until the 11th of 15 paragraphs.

The agreement that ended five decades of war in Colombia has created the conditions for the just and lasting peace that Colombians deserve. It was a historic achievement. But peace in Colombia remains an unfinished project. All of us have a role in ensuring that it succeeds.
…We cannot allow formerly FARC-controlled areas to fall into the hands of criminals and illegal armed groups. That would undo much of the progress of the peace accord. We encourage the government to continue efforts to eliminate Colombia’s ungoverned spaces. The United States also urges the government to continue the full implementation of the comprehensive peace plan. This includes efforts to reintegrate former combatants into civilian life.
The peace accord provides an important opportunity to address historical land issues that have driven conflict and violence in Colombia. We welcome President Santos’ landmark decree meant to formalize land ownership for more than 2.5 million farmers. Improving access to land is essential in transforming rural livelihoods. Criminal groups and narco-traffickers have dominated rural areas of Colombia for decades. With secure land titles, the Colombian people can provide for their families without feeling beholden to these groups.

DEA Investigating Corruption Allegations Against Agent

A story by BuzzFeed reporter Aram Roston, later picked up by the New York Times, reveals that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating veteran agent José Irizarry, who had been stationed in the agency’s field office in Cartagena, Colombia. The nature of the now-resigned agent’s misconduct is not clear, but three anonymous sources told Roston “the scope of the case is believed to be unprecedented in the agency’s history.” One source said that Irizarry is also being investigated by the Justice Department’s Inspector-General and the FBI.

Proposal To Eradicate Coca With Drones

El Tiempo reported that the U.S. government’s estimate of the amount of coca planted in Colombia in 2017 reached a new record of between 220,000 and 230,000 hectares, up from 188,000 in 2016. The White House has not yet published its 2017 figure. Nor have Colombian authorities published their estimate, but the same article cites a Colombian estimate of 170,000-180,000 hectares, up from 146,000 in 2016. This apparent increase occurred even though Colombian government, police, and military eradicators uprooted, cut down, or directly applied herbicides to 53,000 hectares of coca bushes last year, and worked with farmers for the voluntary eradication of about 20,000 more.

As a result, the same El Tiempo article revealed, the Colombian National Police Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DIRAN) is pursuing the possibility of employing drones to spray herbicides on the coca fields. Each would fly a meter or less over the bushes, spraying the herbicide glyphosate.

In 2015, Colombia suspended the U.S.-funded practice of spraying glyphosate from aircraft after the UN World Health Organization published a literature review finding that the chemical “is probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate is still commonly used in Colombian (and U.S.) agriculture, and eradicators still kill coca with the more precise method of applying it from backpack-mounted dispensers, which presumably minimizes spray drift to populated areas and destruction of legal food crops. The drone proposal would enable similar close-proximity spraying without the risks that sharpshooters, ambushes, landmines, and booby traps have posed to human eradicators working in the fields.

On April 13, the DIRAN began testing drones from five companies. It is prepared in 2018 to spend COP$21 billion (US$7.5 million) on drones that meet a series of standards:

  • Ability to fly between 50 centimeters and one meter above the plants.
  • Ability to operate in temperatures ranging from -5 to 40 degrees Celsius.
  • Two GPS systems to guarantee precision of spraying.
  • An anti-collision sensor.
  • An automatic recording system that records the drone’s location at every second.

The DIRAN expects that each drone would be able to spray between 10 and 15 hectares per day, whereas a human eradicator can only destroy 3 to 5 hectares of coca per day. In an absence of government presence in coca-growing zones, though, it remains unclear what would prevent farmers with limited economic options from replanting the crop.

Fighting Between Armed Groups in Bajo Cauca and Catatumbo Has Displaced Thousands This Year

In addition to the Colombia-Ecuador border region, where the FARC dissident group commanded by alias “Guacho” has drawn much attention, two other regions saw intensified violence during the week between groups that remain active, and are growing, in post-accord Colombia.

The Bajo Cauca region in northeastern Antioquia, a coca production and cocaine transshipment zone a few hours’ drive from Medellín, is the scene of frequent combat between two organized crime groups. The Urabeños (also known as Gulf Clan, or Usuga Clan, or Gaitanistas), the largest organized armed group in the country, is battling a regional group called the “Caparrapos” (also known as the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Front). Both groups can trace their lineage back to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary network that terrorized much of Colombia, and enjoyed some support on the political right, in the 1990s and 2000s.

So far this year, fighting between the two groups has displaced at least 2,175 people in the Antioquia municipalities of Cáceres, Caucasia, Tarazá, and Ituango. Violence has also been intense across the departmental border in southern Córdoba. Fighting on April 13-15 killed five people and displaced 210. In the sports complex in Tarazá’s town center, 120 of the displaced are currently taking refuge.

Sergio Mesa Cárdenas of the Medellín NGO Corpades told El Colombiano that the warring groups are getting support from the Mexican cartels that buy their illicit product.

The “Caparrapos” gang, led by alias “Ratón,” has alliances with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Medellín’s “Los Triana” gang. Regarding the “Gulf Clan,” led by alias “Gonzalito,” the investigator says they have the support of the “Pachelly” gang from [the Medellín suburb of] Bello and the “Zetas” cartel.

The situation is arguably worse in Catatumbo, a poorly governed coca-growing region in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. This zone had a longtime presence of the FARC, the ELN, and the EPL. The latter group, the People’s Liberation Army, is descended from the dissident remnant of a larger group that demobilized in 1991. (The Colombian government often calls them “Los Pelusos.”) The EPL remained active in Catatumbo, profiting from the production and transshipment of drugs into Venezuela; today it has about 200 members and appears to be growing.

With the FARC’s exit from the scene—the 33rd Front concentrated in a demobilization zone in Tibú municipality over a year ago—the EPL and ELN began to compete for control of its previous territories of influence. A longstanding non-aggression arrangement broke down in mid-March, and combat has intensified ever since. “According to voices in the region who spoke to reporter Salud Hernández-Mora,” El Tiempo noted, “it is all because the ELN believes that the ‘Pelusos’ violated accords to share the business that the FARC left behind.”

After a month of tensions and sporadic combat, the situation worsened April 15 with the EPL’s declaration of an “armed stoppage”: a several-day prohibition on all road travel, and often a requirement that local businesses shut their doors. Residents of several Catatumbo municipalities received pamphlets informing them of the stoppage, and many of the region’s population centers became “ghost towns.” Schools closed all week, “affecting about 45,000 children and 2,000 teachers,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Norte de Santander Governor William Villamizar declared a state of humanitarian emergency in Catatumbo, and asked the national government to authorize a dialogue between ELN and EPL leaders at the ELN negotiating table. The commander of the Colombian Army’s “Vulcan” Task Force, stationed in the region, said that “a special deployment has been done.”

Civil society groups in Catatumbo, along with the Catholic church and local governments, have joined in calls on the armed groups to leave the civilian population out of the fighting. Business owners tried to open their establishments for half-day periods, but, according to El Colombiano, were met by armed people “who obligated them to close with the threat: ‘we’re the ones who have the weapons here.’”

The UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs says that 2,500 people have been displaced by Catatumbo’s violence since the situation deteriorated in mid-March. A government source told El Colombiano that the actual number is probably higher, as many displaced are fearful of registering and may be staying with relatives and friends. If the situation continues for another week, the source said, food could start running out in some communities.

In-Depth Reading

Coca in Colombia: what are the options?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace-ocracy

Colombians complain constantly about their government’s ossified bureaucracy. But when they get a chance to approach a problem in a new way—with a sweeping peace accord—this is what happens:

In the executive branch, there are at least six entities or authorities with competencies related to the illicit crops issue, including the Defense Ministry. In addition, there are three different “directorates” with similar functions—in the Vice-Presidency, in the Ministry of Justice, and in the High Presidential Ministry for the Post-Conflict. To these must be added the challenges of effectively articulating the PNIS [National Integral Program for Substitution of Illicitly Used Crops] with the Territorial Renovation Agency in the framework of the implementation of the Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDET), as well as with the Land Agency, the Rural Development Agency, and the Agriculture Ministry itself.

That’s from page 14 of a July report from Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank.

Colombia’s peace accord provides a huge opportunity to reverse generations-old failings that hold back the country’s development. Especially the lawlessness and abandonment in the countryside that enable coca cultivation.

But if this soup of agencies with unclear mandates and poor coordination is what’s going to implement the accord’s coca provisions—well, we can predict the outcome, can’t we.

The U.S. government’s strident approach to Colombia’s coca boom

The “answers” in this imagined dialogue are direct quotes from Wednesday’s Senate testimony of Amb. William Brownfield, the longtime assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. This “imagined conversation” format is a bit goofy, but it illustrates how knotted and constrained the U.S. approach to coca is right now.

Q: Colombia’s government says it plans to manually eradicate 50,000 hectares of coca plants this year, the most since 2009. As of early July, it was at 20.297 hectares, up from 18,000 hectares in all of 2016. Is that effort robust enough?

A: Colombian leadership must find a way to implement a robust forced manual eradication effort to create a disincentive to coca cultivation and an incentive to participation in the government’s crop substitution effort.

Q: So the U.S. view is that Colombia needs to step up manual eradication even further. What about Colombia’s ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) program to work with coca-growing families to voluntarily eradicate another 50,000 hectares?

A: We are strongly encouraging the Colombian government to limit the number of voluntary eradication agreements they negotiate and sign to make implementation feasible.

Q: So the U.S. view is that Colombia should scale back voluntary eradication and crop substitution? But this program was foreseen in the peace accords, and former FARC members are supposed to be helping once they leave their disarmament zones.

A: To be successful, the Colombian government’s voluntary eradication and crop substitution program needs adequate financial and human resources as well as a clear implementation plan to succeed.

Q: Sure. Then, if Colombia is short on voluntary eradication funds, why doesn’t U.S. assistance help fill the funding and expertise gaps?

A: The United States is not currently supporting the Colombian government’s voluntary eradication and crop substitution program because the FARC is involved in some aspects of the program and remains designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under several U.S. laws and sanctions regimes.

Q: We could debate whether a demobilized FARC member participating in coca substitution is really still a “terrorist.” But never mind that.

In the end, if Colombia carries out so much forced eradication that it outpaces economic assistance for affected communities, what happens to the families who live in ungoverned, abandoned coca-growing zones? The UNODC estimates that 106,900 Colombian households depended on coca last year, earning an average of only US$960 per person per year. If you take their main income source away and don’t replace it with anything, won’t these families go out and protest?

A: Making manual eradication work includes overcoming the persistent social protests that disrupt forced eradication operations. Without a permanent solution to the social protest issue, forced eradication efforts are unlikely to have a significant effect on coca cultivation levels in 2017. In 2016, 675 attempted eradication operations were cancelled in the field due to restrictive rules of engagement that prevented security forces from engaging protestors. In 2017, the protests continue.

Take these responses together, and the U.S. approach to Colombia’s coca boom appears to be:

  • Increase the pace of forced eradication.
  • Do less to help coca-growing families in ungoverned areas.
  • If the families protest, unleash the security forces so they can “engage” them.

Wow.

UNODC’s Colombia coca estimate is out

Chart of coca and eradication in Colombia since 1994

On July 14 the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released (PDF) its 2016 estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia (the dark blue line). It shows a lower estimate than the U.S. government’s (the green line), but a sharper rate of increase over 2015.

UNODC identified four reasons for the increase:

  1. Some coca farmers “have a perception of reduced risk associated with illicit activity due to the suspension of aerial spraying and the possibility of avoiding forced [manual] eradication through blockades of the security forces.”
  2. Increased expectations of receiving compensation for substituting coca within the framework of the peace accord.
  3. “A general reduction of alternative development efforts in all of the country due to transition to a strategy centered on the elimination of crops to a strategy centered on transformation of territory.”
  4. Coca-leaf prices shrunk somewhat, but remain “at a high level.”

In an interview with Colombia’s daily El Tiempo, UNODC’s representative in Colombia, Bo Mathiasen, made clear that renewing aerial herbicide spraying—the preferred strategy of many in the U.S. government—is not the solution.

It’s a sovereign issue for Colombia. But the past impact of glyphosate [the herbicide that is sprayed] could be analyzed. Did it really work for anything and give the desired results? I don’t believe so. In the medium term, there was always replanting in these zones. Spraying happened, and they planted again. The desired change was not achieved.

Podcast: “U.S.-Colombia Relations ‘in a Challenged Place'”

It’s nice to put one of these out again, for the first time in 2 1/2 months.

Relations between the United States and close ally Colombia have hit their roughest patch in years. The situation is aggravated by the Trump administration’s much darker view of the FARC peace accord, and open disagreement about how to deal with coca eradication. Messages from Washington, meanwhile, have been confusingly mixed. A better-briefed Secretary of State could deal with this more effectively, but that doesn’t seem to be Rex Tillerson’s style.

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