This article appears today at the Colombian analysis site Razón Pública as “¿Qué implica que las FARC ya no estén en la lista de terroristas de Estados Unidos?“ I last covered this issue on this site in March 2020.
The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
At least in the 20 years since “Plan Colombia,” it’s been rare to see the U.S. and Colombian governments disagree in public about something. Even during the worst days of police abuses during the Paro Nacional protests earlier this year, Washington’s expressions of concern were remarkably mild.
That’s why it was surprising to hear President Iván Duque express disagreement with a step that the Biden administration took to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. “We understand and respect this information from the United States, but we would have preferred a different decision,” he said on November 29, the day before the State Department removed the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The removal of the FARC, or rather the ex-FARC, should be uncontroversial. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on the U.S. list doesn’t exist, and hasn’t since August 2017. Of its 13,600 members who underwent demobilization, more than 90 percent haven’t carried out an act of organized violence in more than five years. They are playing by the rules and integrating themselves into civilian life.
A few continue to engage in violence against civilians. These are mainly members of Colombia’s two main ex-FARC dissident networks, the one headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the one known as “Nueva Marquetalia,” which either refused to demobilize in 2016 or abandoned the process later. Most of these groups’ members are new recruits with no guerrilla background; many weren’t even adolescents yet when the peace accord was signed. The Biden administration added these groups to the State Department’s list, in the FARC’s place.
The step taken on November 30, then, was less a “removal” of the FARC than an updating of the terrorist list to reflect reality.
As the list was being interpreted, “Gentil Duarte” and “El Paisa” were in the same category as former fighters now raising children and going to schools, starting their own businesses, or participating in competitive rafting teams. That was absurd.
But that was the reality. Under the “material support for terrorism” provisions in U.S. law, as they were being interpreted, it has been a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any demobilized FARC members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.
The U.S. government was interpreting this very strictly. It has literally been illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less include them in development meetings or—as in the case of Humanicemos, a group of ex-FARC deminers who were unable to get any U.S. aid—to instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.
In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.
In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have eaten a snack provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.
The delay in removing the FARC not only undermined U.S. programming, though. It made the U.S. government look out of date, unaware that the FARC on the list didn’t exist anymore. It even made the U.S. government appear actively hostile to the entire peace process, echoing the notion—expressed this year by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum and Defense Minister Diego Molano—that the Comunes party and the dissident groups (which, in fact, often target Comunes members) are somehow linked. Either way, the message Washington sent by keeping the FARC on the list was toxic.
It is great news that this step has finally been taken. But the Biden administration certainly could have rolled it out better. News of the impending decision leaked to the Wall Street Journal very early, on November 23, perhaps from an individual who opposed removing the FARC from the terrorist list. The explanation, with fuller context, did not come from the State Department and White House for days afterward, in part because November 25 was a major national holiday in the United States.
As a result, the initial reaction from many colleagues and journalists in Colombia was confused. Those of us who work on Colombia policy here in Washington got a lot of questions. Here are answers to a few of them.
Why did it take so long to take the FARC off the list, especially if it was causing so many problems for U.S. programming? There is no great answer to this, other than that while it is easy to add a group to the State Department’s list—all you need is a few attacks on civilian targets—it is hard to remove it. Revocation of a “terrorist” status requires a deliberative process within the State Department in which all interested actors have to reach consensus. The AUC formally demobilized in 2006 but remained on the list until 2014. Peru’s MRTA barely existed after the 1997 Japanese embassy fiasco, but was on the list until 2001. The Washington Post reported that each group’s terrorist designation usually gets reviewed every five years, and that the FARC had last been considered in April 2015. A fresh review of the FARC didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Does this mean FARC leaders are no longer wanted by U.S. justice? Nothing changes about extradition requests for FARC members. They are wanted in U.S. courts either for sending cocaine to the United States or for kidnapping or killing U.S. citizens. These are specific crimes, not the vague charge of “terrorism.” Those processes continue, so former FARC leaders wanted by U.S. justice still face risks if they travel internationally. Because he was arrested in Ecuador in 2004 while apparently serving as an intermediary for talks about three U.S. citizen defense contractors whom the FARC was holding at the time, Simón Trinidad remains imprisoned in the state of Colorado for his role in that specific case.
Is this an insult to the FARC’s victims? Annette Taddeo, a Democratic Party state senator in Florida, emigrated from Colombia when she was 17, after the FARC kidnapped her father. “For me and many of us, this is painful and very personal,” she tweeted. The FARC upended the lives of thousands of Colombians; many of them, and their loved ones, are no doubt outraged to see any sign of conciliation like a U.S. recognition that those leaders are no longer behaving as terrorists. The fact, though, is that the top non-dissident ex-FARC leadership appears truly to have renounced terrorism. They remain guilty of many things, and must answer to their victims and the transitional justice process. But the “terrorist” label no longer sticks.
What about Sen. Marco Rubio’s complaint that any U.S. money that benefits ex-FARC members should go through the Colombian government? The Colombian government “doesn’t want the delisting,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida), who is close to Uribismo, told U.S. radio. “What they wanted was, to the extent that you’re going to provide assistance to these people who abandoned the guerrilla fight, laid down their weapons, become politically engaged, we want you to run that assistance through the democratically elected government of Colombia, not unilaterally.” This argument is confusing. Most US assistance with ex-combatants’ participation—reincorporation, rural development, demining—would go hand-in-hand with the efforts of Colombian government agencies. U.S. aid almost never goes to such agencies directly as cash payments.
Why is Cuba still on the list of state sponsors? Before leaving office in January 2021, the Trump administration re-added Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The main reason cited was Cuba’s refusal to extradite ELN leaders who had been in the country for peace talks with the Colombian government, a move that would have violated those talks’ protocols. That the Biden administration hasn’t taken steps to remove Cuba, even as it removes the FARC, probably owes more to the politics around U.S.-Cuban relations. It would be very difficult to take Cuba off of the list—or perform any other act of engagement—in the weeks after Cuba’s government aggressively suppressed a citizen protest movement.
Why was the announcement rolled out this way? When we heard that the FARC were being taken off, why didn’t we know right away that the dissident groups would be added? There is no great answer to that. The impending decision was leaked, possibly by a hostile party. But for days, the Biden administration offered no new context, so many actors were left think that all of the FARC was being taken off of the list, and even that FARC leaders were no longer wanted by U.S. justice.
The rollout of this news was not graceful. In today’s climate, when a lie travels around the world before the truth can even get its running shoes on, that does damage. Still, there is only so much that the Biden administration could have done. Many sectors of our societies will always be determined to believe what they want, regardless of the facts we present to them.
There is a communications lesson here, though—one that recalls the plebiscite debacle of 2016. It is crucial to get out ahead of a story as much as possible, so that when it breaks, the response can be nimble, and people who are open to the truth—the majority of people, still—can get the context quickly.