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.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




U.S. Policy

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”

On Sunday evening I posted this tweet in response to a statement from Colombia’s Defense Minister that, while red meat for his political base, is just incredibly off-base as a strategy.

Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador, reached out to me about this. We had a good conversation, and the newspaper did a good job of translating my gringo Spanish in a piece posted last night. Here’s a quick English translation.

“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson

By Juan Sebastián Lombo, El Espectador, November 26, 2020

For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.

Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.

The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.

Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?

They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.

Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?

If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.

You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.

Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.

WOLA has been following the peace process.

As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.

And with regard to crop substitution…

It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.

Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?

The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.

How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?

We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.

The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.

Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?

Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.

I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.

Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?

I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.

Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.

Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?

For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.

In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?

Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migration

Here’s a second WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, Maureen Meyer and I talk about a huge topic: migration. In particular, how to adapt to the “new normal” and respond humanely.

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

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

Nowhere is this shift likely to be as sharp as on migration policy, with Trump’s hardline giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.

Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer have collaborated for nine years on WOLA’s border security and migration efforts. Here, they take stock of the region’s “new normal” of heavy migration flows, and the administrative and policy shifts that the Biden administration—and governments and international organizations regionwide—must undergo in order to adapt.

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. In coming weeks we plan to cover anti-corruption, then the state of human rights and democracy.

A few important border graphics

Late Thursday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a pile of data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border in October.

Here are some key trends. Click on any graphic to expand in a new window. You can download a PDF packet of more than 30 of these infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The Trump administration has been around for 46 months (yes I know). Of those 46, October 2020 saw the 7th largest number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border. And now they can’t blame it on “loopholes” or agents being constrained. They’re implementing some of the hardest-line anti-migration tactics ever, express-expelling most everybody, including asylum seekers, under a March 2020 CDC quarantine order.
Under the CDC border closure, US authorities have now express-expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times. (The actual number of individual people is fewer, because some have been caught more than once.) At least 13,000 of those expelled were children who arrived unaccompanied, and were pushed back to their home countries unaccompanied.
Border Patrol is apprehending more single adults than at any time in the past decade. While there’s double-counting here because “expelled” migrants often make a second or third attempt quickly, this is a dramatic change in the profile of migrants. Many of them may be deportees seeking to reunite with spouses, children, or other family members. Nearly all seek to avoid apprehension, which means it’s likely that more will die of dehydration or exposure in deserts and other wilderness areas.
For much of the 2010s, a large number—often a majority—of apprehended migrants were children and families, usually seeking to be apprehended in order to petition for asylum or other protection. Draconian Trump policies like “Remain in Mexico” reduced child and family asylum-seeking migration—but it has been slowly recovering in recent months.
Expulsions mean it’s virtually impossible for a parent or child who needs protection to do so by approaching a port of entry (official border crossing).
Mexico’s migrant apprehensions recovered in September to pre-pandemic levels. The overwhelming majority are from Central America.
After a pandemic lull, applications for asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR recovered to early 2020 levels in October.
Something is up with drug seizures. I had to increase the y-axis on three of these charts because of a big jump from September to October. Nearly all seizures occurred at ports of entry where CBP officers inspect vehicles, not between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latest table of aid to Colombia

Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org.)

The Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft of its version of the 2021 aid bill yesterday morning. And two weeks ago, a Congressional Research Service report revealed new data about Defense Department assistance.

The 2021 aid bill hasn’t become law yet, and might not until the next presidential administration. This table depicts the White House’s February request and the House and Senate versions of the bill. The two chambers’ amounts don’t differ widely.

Both the House and Senate packages would dedicate less than half of 2021 aid to Colombia’s military and police. This is a big contrast from the peak years of Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2015, when military and police aid in some years exceeded 80 percent of the total.

Sources for most of these numbers:

Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.

400 Miles of Harm: There is Nothing to Celebrate about Border Wall Construction

I was aware that DHS was getting close to completing 400 miles of Trump’s border wall, and was racing to complete that much before the election. So I’d anticipated that there’d be some huge obnoxious campaign event that we’d have to respond to.

When I got wind on Tuesday that a 400-mile commemoration ceremony was planned for today, that seemed to be it. I made the cursor move left-to-right as fast as I could and cranked out these 1,800 words on how much of the wall is actually “new,” what it’s costing us, and how it has harmed the environment, indigenous communities, property rights, foreign relations, checks and balances, and corruption protections.

And then… a nothingburger. This morning, DHS’s “Acting Chad” Wolf and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner of CBP Mark Morgan held a lonely event with a few assembled reporters, in the shadow of the wall on an unseasonably cold day in south Texas. It might pick up some minor media attention, but it served more to highlight how little Donald Trump is bothering to talk about the border and migration during his increasingly bizarre re-election campaign.

My “rapid response” may have been a bit too amped up here. But I’m glad I produced this piece, which is a good “cheat sheet” for all that is wrong with Trump’s border wall.

So tired of this guy

At least Stephen Miller avoids the spotlight. The unconfirmed DHS secretary, “Acting Chad” Wolf, prefers to play the role of a monster in public, telling blatant lies about family separation, then following it up with a vroom-vroom joyride on an ATV.

Please vote if you haven’t yet.

3 devastating reports in 11 days

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

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

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

What’s New About Trump’s New “Strategic Framework?”

In mid-August the Trump National Security Council published a “Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework.” (You’re forgiven if you missed it—it got a super-low-profile launch.) Here’s an English translation of an analysis that I published about it last week for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung en Colombia.

Three and a half years in, the Trump administration has published a “Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework.” It didn’t launch it with much publicity, nor is it a document of transcendental importance.

The document (or at least its declassified summary) says few truly new things. This shouldn’t surprise us from an administration that has said little about policy toward Latin America beyond Cuba, Venezuela, and immigration. But there are a few notable nuances.

The framework makes clear who the enemies are. Within the region it identifies Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, “repressive dictatorial regimes [that] threaten regional security.” Other regimes that have shown authoritarian characteristics but are more aligned with Washington, like Bolivia, El Salvador, or Honduras, escape this label.

Extra-regional powers, and their “malign influence,” are also adversaries. The document only mentions China, although documents from Southern Command, among others, also warn about Russia and Iran. That desire to exclude other powers from the hemisphere recalls the Monroe Doctrine (according to which the United States reserves the right to keep other powers from having a presence in the American continent), something that according to the last national security advisor, John Bolton, is “alive and well.”

In reality, this focus on external powers has more to do with an effort to stay relevant to the National Defense Strategy that the Defense Department published in 2018, under then-Secretary James Mattis. That strategy says a lot about the threat of “great powers,” but hardly mentions the threats that have most oriented policy toward Latin America in recent years. In its public summary, it doesn’t even mention the words “organized crime” or “cartel.”

While none of these documents discusses in detail transnational organized crime—the issue that was most discussed during the Obama years—it’s worth noting that it was the Trump administration, in April 2020, that launched the largest naval deployment to the region in decades, justifying it as an anti-organized crime effort.

Another new nuance are the document’s sections about immigration, the Trump administration’s banner issue. The first objective that the Framework discusses is the protection of the homeland, with the first sub-objective to “Prevent illegal and uncontrolled human migration, smuggling, and trafficking.”

It’s also notable that “Align asylum policies and harmonize visa and immigration regulations” appears as another sub-objective in the section about strengthening democracies: it’s not clear what one has to do with the other.

In 2012, during the Obama administration, the Defense Department published a Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Statement. That document focused on institutional strengthening, fighting organized crime and terrorism, peacekeeping missions, and humanitarian assistance. The new Trump administration document leaves all those issues aside.

These abrupt changes in emphasis not unusual for U.S. policy toward Latin America, whose central paradigm has shifted several times over the past 30 years. From Cold War anti-communism, it morphed into the War on Drugs, and later the War on Terror, from there to “transnational organized crime” and, now, to “countering external influence” with a bit of anti-immigration. There’s no reason to think that the priorities expressed in this new document might be any more long-lasting.

What does its aggressive coca eradication campaign tell us about Colombia—and about the United States?

Over the next few weeks I expect to use this space to think some things through in a series of bite-sized but connected posts. I’m going to start with the reality of forced coca eradication and the Colombian government’s larger plan for the millions who live in rural zones where illicit crops and armed groups predominate.

One such zone especially got me thinking: the Guayabero River region in Meta and Guaviare departments, in south-central Colombia about 200 miles south, and 20 hours’ drive, from Bogotá. (I’ve been near here—but not quite this far south—when working on this 2009 report.) In early June and again in early August, this zone saw strong confrontations between coca-growing farmers and security forces.

Strong images from June 4 in the Guayabero region.

The main military unit operating in the Guayabero is the Omega Joint Task Force, which has received heavy U.S. assistance since its founding in 2003. Its current commander (who has threatened legal action against local human rights groups) holds degrees from both the National Defense University in Washington and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (which means he probably speaks English better than I do). Omega is one of four units specified to be receiving assistance from a four-month, fifty-three-person detachment of U.S. military trainers that arrived in Colombia at the beginning of June.

The Omega Task Force isn’t accused of killing anyone in these confrontations, but local campesino groups and national human rights groups have leveled some very troubling allegations of rough and aggressive treatment of farmers at the soldiers’ hands. I’ll summarize those in another post.

Omega in the Guayabero is just one example among many of a more combative approach to forced coca eradication this year, and especially since the pandemic lockdown began in March. I discussed this trend in a post in early July, but it’s time to dig deeper.

Here are the points I want to explore over the next few weeks. The outline may change as research accumulates and thoughts evolve.

Forced coca eradication has been notably rougher and more aggressive this year.

There have been many more denunciations of aggressive behavior in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019. While coca farmers aren’t models of nonviolence either, the security forces have the guns and the option whether to escalate or de-escalate. Where armed groups are forcing some coca farmers to protest against their better judgment, that should be another reason to de-escalate.

Eradication is larger in scale this year.

Too much is being guided right now by a single, short-term number: hectares of coca planted in Colombia. The U.S. government is pushing Colombia to cut that number by half in 2023, and Bogotá is pursuing some record eradication targets in order to get there. The number of eradication teams has grown sixfold, much of it with U.S. funding.

Eradication is happening with the participation of U.S.-aided armed forces units.

Joint Task Force Omega in the Guayabero is a key example. The U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade that arrived in June is also accompanying military units in two other major coca-growing zones, Catatumbo and Nariño, as well as the nationwide mobile Army Counternarcotics Brigade created with funds from the original 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package. As eradication operations grow more aggressive, U.S.-aided units’ behavior requires especially tight scrutiny.

Eradication is happening uncoordinated with food security or any other economic assistance—even in a pandemic.

Colombia’s defense minister has acknowledged this, as have officials with whom I’ve recently spoken. Leaving coca farming families hungry is not only cruel, it would seem to be a recipe for rapid re-planting. Perhaps it makes sense if the goal is to meet an eradication goal just for 2020, future be damned. But it makes no sense if the goal is to achieve permanent reductions in planting, or to integrate these abandoned territories into the rest of the country.

Farmers are caught in the middle.

With no land titling, no government presence, no access to credit, and no farm-to-market roads, coca—an easily transportable product that for years has sold at a reliably steady price—is farmers’ best, and often only, option. Armed groups in some cases require farmers to plant it, and there’s no government nearby to prevent that. Armed groups in some cases are forcing farmers to protest eradication. Campesino leaders, especially those leading coca substitution projects, are being killed in shocking numbers.

Depite all this, when eradicators show up in a territory, who bears the brunt of the security forces’ aggressive behavior? The farmers.

Some past efforts tried to establish a state presence, to uphold farmers’ organizations, and to integrate communities into the national economy. Right now, these are underfunded at best, or stalled or abandoned at worst.

Examples in the past 10 years include the National Territorial Consolidation Program, the Land Restitution Law of 2011, and the 2016 peace accords’ rural reform and crop substitution chapters. None of these efforts is thriving right now.

Trying to reveal the “real agenda” behind this means exploring the Colombian elite’s split personality.

This is where I’d like to conclude this series of posts. Colombia’s elite seems to show two very different faces to communities in rural areas, including coca cultivators. The same probably applies to the urban poor.

The first face—that of “consolidation,” “stabilization,” land restitution, and the peace accords’ commitments—says to communities, “you can stay where you live.” Even if they don’t see the rural smallholder model as the most efficient approach, they’re willing to direct resources, and in some cases to foster participation.

The second face—that of paramilitarism, “mega-projects,” impunity for social leader killings, refusal to govern territory, and nakedly favoring large landholders—says to communities, “we don’t want you here.” (Or perhaps, “the free market doesn’t want you here”—a message as old as the British Enclosure Movement of the 1700s, and nothing unfamiliar to residents of declining factory towns and poor urban neighborhoods in the United States today.)

Forced, aggressive coca eradication without any food or economic aid? That’s solidly an example of that second face.

The U.S. government supports both faces of Colombia’s elite, to an extent that approaches split-personality disorder. Its aid programs have helped dozens of rural communities to remain where they are and to obtain land ownership, and some military aid programs helped improve Colombia’s overall human rights record. But it also supports aggressive forced eradication and (as we saw in documents released this week) has been too slow or quiet in its response to paramilitarism, social leader killings, and serious human rights abuses.

I’ll be digging more into these questions over the next several weeks.

Top Defense Official in 2004: Backing Paramilitarism “Goes With the Job”

For nearly 20 years, when uniformed U.S. military deploy to Latin America, the U.S. Southern Command has required that they carry a little card reminding them of “the five ‘Rs’ of human rights”: to “recognize, refrain, react, record, and report” if they hear of, or witness, a human rights violation.

Higher up in the Pentagon, though, standards have been lower.

The National Security Archive just revealed a 2004 memo from Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon (George W. Bush’s first term). It’s a series of bullet points addressing the suspicious past of Colombia’s then-president, Álvaro Uribe.

Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia [the department that includes Medellín, between 1995 and 1997],” Rodman informs Rumsfeld. But he brushes it off: “It goes with the job.

“Goes with the job?” The AUC, at the time, was on the Bush administration’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Bush administration had in fact added the AUC to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations on September 10, 2001. At the time, AUC leaders were sending hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States. The AUC grew rapidly in size and strength in Antioquia while Uribe was governor, committing massacres including one that destroyed the village of El Aro in 1997—a crime for which Colombia’s Supreme Court recently called Álvaro Uribe to provide testimony. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the paramilitaries committed the majority of extrajudicial killings and massacres in Colombia’s conflict, according to the government’s National Center for Historical Memory.

Assistant Secretary Rodman was not ignorant about Colombia. In August 2001, he had a long exchange with reporters about an initiative for which he was playing a lead role: the new Bush administration was reviewing U.S. policy toward the country with an eye to allowing Colombia’s military to use counter-drug aid to fight its armed conflict.

No U.S. official would ever, during Uribe’s presidency, have said publicly that the Colombian president—a Bush administration favorite—had links to the paramilitaries. In private, Rodman’s blasé attitude about a group that was killing thousands of civilians per year—a listed terrorist organization, no less, during the war on terror’s most intense moment—flies directly in the face of the uniformed U.S. military’s publicly stated attitude toward human rights in Latin America, going back to the 1990s.

Southcom’s “five ‘Rs,’” if truly observed, would have required evidence about Uribe’s dealings with the paramilitaries to have been recognized, reacted to, recorded, and reported, while U.S. officials should absolutely have refrained from shrugging it off as something that “goes with the job.” The exact opposite happened.

Latest Table of Aid to Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org)

Click to enlarge. If you’d prefer this as a spreadsheet for easier copying-and-pasting, go here.

The House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee finished work on the 2021 State Department and Foreign Operations bill on July 9. In addition to offering some language very supportive of peace accord implementation, the narrative report accompanying the bill provides a table explaining how the House appropriators (or at least, their strong Democratic Party majority) would require that this money be spent.

The table above shows how the House would spend the 2021 aid money, and how it fits in with what the Trump White House requested, and what aid has looked like since 2016, the year before before the outgoing Obama administration’s “Peace Colombia” aid package went into effect.

If the House were to get its way, less than $200 million of the $458 million in 2021 U.S. aid to Colombia would go to the country’s police and military forces. However, the bill must still go through the Republican-majority Senate, whose bill may reflect somewhat more “drug war” priorities. A final bill is unlikely to pass both houses of Congress until after Election Day.

Sources for most of these numbers:

Not reflected here is assistance to Colombia to manage flows of Venezuelan refugees.

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing there.

Dirt bikes and riot helmets are not humanitarian aid

Photo source: CBP.

A year ago, the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), came under fire amid revelations of miserable and unsanitary conditions in holding cells overcrowded with apprehended children and families.

At the time, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to provide more resources to deal with an influx of asylum-seeking migrants. Legislators included about $112 million for “consumables and medical care” to improve conditions for migrants being held for processing. Over opposition from progressive Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) agreed to approve a bill diminished by the Republican-majority Senate “in order to get resources to the children fastest.”

We’ve now learned that much of these resources didn’t reach the children at all.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a June 11 decision finding that instead of medicines, food, diapers, blankets, and other humanitarian needs, CBP diverted this “consumables and medical care” money into:

  • detention guard services;
  • boats;
  • all-terrain vehicles (ATVs); 
  • motorcycles;
  • dirt bikes; 
  • small utility vehicles;
  • passenger vans for moving detainees;
  • printers;
  • security camera systems;
  • speakers;
  • HVAC upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • sewer system upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • janitorial services;
  • canine supplies and services like dog food;
  • computer network upgrades “to analyze factual information in support of CBP’s border operations;”
  • the CBP-wide vaccine program for CBP personnel; and
  • “tactical gear and law enforcement equipment, such as riot helmets, and temporary portable structures.”

This is a stunning example of an agency defying the will of the legislative branch and its constitutional powers. The “consumables and medical care” outlay resulted from a long process of negotiation within Congress, and between Congress and the administration—but CBP just ignored it anyway. 

That it even sought, in the first place, to portray the items in the list above as meeting humanitarian needs indicates an agency that either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, what “humanitarian” means. That’s a huge problem, because much of CBP’s duties over the past several years have been humanitarian. Most of the undocumented migrants its agents have encountered have been children or families seeking refuge in the United States. These spending decisions evidence a lack of basic human empathy that call into question CBP’s management, training, and organizational culture. 

GAO reports that “CBP plans to adjust its account for several of these obligations.” It should do so for all of them, or its management should be held in violation of the Antideficiency Act for so nakedly defying the will of the American people’s representatives in the U.S. Congress. 

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in May

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on political developments, issues with U.S. foreign policy, and events in selected countries.
    Mark P. Sullivan, June S. Beittel, Nese F. DeBruyne, Peter J. Meyer, Clare Ribando Seelke, Maureen Taft-Morales, M. Angeles Villareal, Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 21, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46258.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on developments in Cuba and U.S. policy concerns.
    Mark P. Sullivan, Cuba: U.S. Policy in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 14, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45657.
  • The GAO discusses how well (or poorly) the State Department and USAID have monitored and evaluated programs to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative” aid package. This report does not report comprehensively on all aid to Mexico.
    U.S. Assistance to Mexico: State Department Could Improve its Monitoring of Mérida Initiative Projects (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 12, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-388.
Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.