Is the U.S. sabotaging peace in Colombia?

September 21, 2017

Isabel Peñaranda explains how American drug warriors of both parties are backing forces in Colombia that undermine efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest civil war.

A TOP Trump administration official announced last week that the decades-long U.S. drug war is going after another target: the Colombian peace agreement that many are hoping will end one of the world's longest and most destructive civil wars.

William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, declared in a September 12 Senate hearing that the U.S. would not be supporting key points of the Colombian government's implementation of the peace agreements reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) last year.

Even worse, Brownfield said the Trump administration would actively undermine the peace in order to continue drug-war strategies of forceful eradication, extradition and militarization. Brownfield's arguments reveal that Cold War imperialist policies continue to define the U.S. approach to Latin America.

Last year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a series of agreements with the FARC in Havana that put an end to a 52-year armed conflict between the Colombian state and the guerrilla group--a conflict which also involved paramilitary armies and narco-trafficking cartels, and which left over 950,000 dead and 7 million internally displaced.

Military airplanes spray toxic chemicals on coca crops in the Colombian countryside
Military airplanes spray toxic chemicals on coca crops in the Colombian countryside

The Havana accords were a comprehensive agreement that included land reform, political participation, transitional justice and drug policy. In this last area, the agreement called for policies that would not target the weakest links of the narco-trafficking chain--consumers and producers--and instead would go after the narco-traffickers who accumulate most of the wealth.

This marked a change from the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, which criminalized and systematically violated the human rights of coca producers, particularly through indiscriminate aerial fumigations that have been proven to have adverse health effects and to destroy food crops and the surrounding environment.

Instead, the new National Comprehensive Program for Illicit Crop Substitution would allow families to voluntarily substitute coca for legal crops, through a mix of monthly cash handouts, subsidies in kind for switching to licit crops and technical assistance.

The program was part of a broader strategy linked to other aspects of the peace agreements aiming to transform the structural conditions that led to the cultivation of coca--and armed conflict--in the first place.

Despite many hurdles in the implementation, the government has signed 105,000 voluntary substitution agreements with families and has stated that it estimates it will meet its target of substituting 50,000 hectares by the end of the year.

The program has met many challenges: payments have been delayed, funds aren't yet secured and community participation is limited. However, nothing has been as damaging as the simultaneous and contradictory government policy of forcibly eradicating another 50,000 hectares, often in the same places where substitution agreements are signed.

ONE OF those areas experiencing this contradictory drug policy is the Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela. Catatumbo has historically suffered at the hands of the Colombian army, paramilitaries and two different guerrilla groups. It's an area that had been largely abandoned by the state, where local peasants turned to coca as one of the only viable economic options.

Many of those peasants have signed voluntary substitution pacts with the government, which have been directly violated by military teams' forcefully eradicating their crops.

These military actions have provoked responses from peasant and coca growers' associations, which in turn have been met with armed repression by anti-riot special police forces, leading Catatumbo coca growers to declare a strike against the eradication policy.

Communities like Catatumbo have a historic distrust of the state, which has often only appeared in these remote territories in the form of army operations--or worse, the paramilitaries. The blatant contradiction of the two policies of substitution and eradication not only destroys trust in the substitution program, but also wears on the larger credibility of the peace process.

None of this matters, however, to the arrogant U.S. officials who reduce this struggle for a community's livelihood to how it affects domestic drug policy. The Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that heard Brownfield's testimony cited alarm at a 130 percent rise in the number of hectares cultivated with coca between 2013 and 2016.

Experts agree that the causes for this increase are multiple and complex. Brownfield claimed that the FARC and the peace process are responsible and are therefore to blame for a rise in cocaine-involved deaths in the U.S.--which are at their highest since 2006.

This argument led Brownfield to the even more questionable conclusion that the only solution to the rise in coca hectarage and cocaine production is aerial fumigation, which has been declared illegal by Colombia's Constitutional Court--and forceful eradication by the armed forces, which goes against the Havana Peace Agreements.

This isn't just a matter of a rogue Trump official. Brownfield was complimented at the hearing by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. All three agree on blaming Colombian government, the FARC and the peace process itself for the U.S. drug epidemic and insisting that the U.S. government should only support a military solution.

U.S. SUPPORT for military policies that will undermine the peace process have the potential to deepen internal divisions in the Colombian state.

There is already a feeling that the Ministry of Defense has a separate agenda. The latest statements from the U.S., which take explicit care to exempt the police and military from criticism, can only strengthen the idea that the military can work independently of the government--a dangerous Cold War mentality that the U.S. has frequently employed to debilitate democratically elected civilian governments who do not do its bidding.

Even without U.S. interference, the implementation of the peace agreements is dangerously inadequate and faces sabotage from within the state due to the entrenched interests it threatens, as well as financial restrictions due to the global commodity bust and fall in the price of oil.

The results of the plebiscite--in which a majority of voters opposed the agreement--and recent court rulings have meant that the legislation necessary to implement the agreements has been slow to arrive, exposing the agreements to modifications and leading many to question the government's commitment to their implementation.

Meanwhile, selective assassinations of 127 social leaders in 2016 alone and of former FARC members testify to the conflict's continuation, as does the expansion of criminal bands known as Organized Armed Groups, many of them successors of paramilitary structures.

FARC members have still not been awarded amnesty almost a year after signing the agreements, and the future is uncertain for the approximately 7,000 former guerrillas.

The decision by a mid-ranking commander to join a growing dissidence in the southwestern department of Guaviare after attending the launch of the FARC's new party, Alternative Revolutionary Force of the Commons, made evident the lack of guarantees most FARC members face for their future.

"One can't help but wonder if the state isn't strategically failing to implement the agreements," one FARC member told me. Another, based in the Amazon department of Putumayo, noted, "We have no real guarantees that we will have protection of our lives. In this area, they murdered an entire family of a guerrilla soldier who lived nearby."

IN LIGHT of this, comments about FARC made by Brownfield and Feinstein are not only in bad faith and offensive to people risking their lives to abide by the agreements, but they are dangerous for the continuation of the peace process.

Brownfield hinted that the FARC are responsible for the rise in coca hectares, and what is perceived as the failure of the substitution strategy, due to a continued interest in narco-trafficking. Feinstein went as far as to say, "I don't believe for one second that the FARC as I have watched it for 17 years is going to become a peaceful, law-abiding institution."

So the official U.S. policy a year after the signing of peace accords and four years after the beginning of peace negotiations remains unchanged.

"The United States is not currently supporting the Colombian government's voluntary eradication and crop substitution program because the FARC is involved," declared Brownfield, who adds that the U.S. would only support substitution if the former guerilla group were not involved, despite the fact that the programs were negotiated with the FARC in Havana.

Especially troubling is the criminalization of communities who are simply demanding that their own government abide by the law, and that the substitution agreements be respected. "My belief is that what has happened is that the FARC has taken over or created a number of front groups for coca growers," Brownfield told Congress, another echo of past rhetoric that justified the repression of the left.

Adding insult to injury, Brownfield suggested that the rules of military engagement with civilians were too lax: "In 2016, 675 attempted eradication operations were cancelled in the field due to restrictive rules of engagement that prevented security forces from engaging protestors."

The intervention of the U.S. in a manner directly at odds with the peace process is imperialism, plain and simple. The "war on drugs," and specifically Plan Colombia, has long been a counterinsurgency strategy to fight the FARC that has proved lucrative for the U.S. military industrial complex.

Brownfield also testified that in Venezuela, trafficking organizations have "completely penetrated virtually every security, law enforcement and justice-related institution," further underscoring the U.S. interest in maintaining Colombia as a highly militarized ally in the region.

It is important that anyone supporting a transition away from the armed conflict, and towards a democracy in which all perspectives are given access to representation in the political system, support the FARC's effort to disarm and condemn this kind of harmful intervention from the U.S.

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