Washington, DC — On October 5, rural farmers gathered in Tumaco, Nariño department to protest forced eradication of coca crops by the security forces, with crowd size estimates ranging from 200 to more than a thousand. These farmers protested because the government refused to address local conflicts that affect how to best to implement the national crop substitution program (Programa Nacional de Sustitución de Cultivos, PNIS). Rather than address these communities’ concerns so that an effective crop substitution program be implemented, the security forces fired indiscriminately on the protestors, resulting in at least eight reported murders and over fifty wounded. The security forces claim that they were responding to an attack initiated by FARC dissidents. However, reports and witness testimony provided to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) from those on the ground indicate that this was not the case. WOLA calls on the U.S. government to immediately condemn this massacre and urges Colombian authorities to investigate and sanction those responsible for these abuses.
We also urge U.S. officials to tone down the rhetoric and offer constructive solutions to the coca issue. President Trump’s recent threats to decertify Colombia on account of increased coca cultivation put pressure on Colombia to show results at any cost. Fifty years of internal armed conflict and abuses committed during Plan Colombia all show that when the U.S. government gives Colombia a blank check to use force to solve security and criminal problems, this leads to increased abuses against civilians. Over the years, U.S. officials have learned that this is not the best way to affect change in Colombia. Past experience has also shown that while forced coca eradication may yield short-term results, it is ineffective in the medium to long-term if farmers are not provided with alternative sources of income. Rather than extol unhelpful rhetoric on the drug issue, U.S. officials should focus on providing Colombia with the funding and tools it needs to implement the peace accord in coca-growing areas. Building infrastructure, strengthening governmental institutions, addressing corruption, and creating economic opportunities for rural farmers will take time. However, this approach will have better results in the long run.
The most complicated part of implementing the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the drug chapter. The FARC agreed to stop engaging in the drug trade and help with reducing coca cultivation, in return for the Colombian government addressing the socio-economic problems that drive rural farmers to grow coca. Creating sustainable and lucrative economies for rural farmers in these remote areas of the country—where there is little infrastructure to get goods to markets, and poor state presence (if any at all) in terms of education, health, and other services—is hard. Coca production and illicit economies do not blossom in a vacuum. They develop when there is poverty, marginalization, extreme socio-economic conditions, and a lack of effective state response to communities’ needs and problems. Frequently, it is the most marginalized, poor, rural, and vulnerable communities where coca is grown due to lack of other economic options.
The Colombia peace accord with the FARC is unique in that it includes an effort to address the drug issue. This provides a major opportunity to rethink and implement drug policies that are both more humane and more effective. This bold and necessary change is not easy. It requires strong political will, the backing of Colombian society, investment of resources, and full integration of the leadership of communities where coca is cultivated. Approaches must be adapted to each region’s specific necessities, economic potential, and ethnic composition, and take into account a gender perspective.
As WOLA has evidenced for years, both the alternative development programs implemented to date in coca-growing regions and a punitive and militarized approach have not achieved their stated goals. Moreover, they have disproportionately violated the rights of rural farmers, ethnic minorities and increasingly women, especially women-headed households.
Colombian authorities must swiftly investigate and sanction members of the security forces responsible for killing protesters. Moreover, ultimately only equitable rural development provides the possibility of significantly reducing coca cultivation in Colombia. This is why it is essential that the Colombian government ensure that all state institutions respect the spirit of the peace accord, work towards achieving crop substitution agreements in communities that have called for them, and cease forced eradication in areas where such agreements have been signed or where local communities have expressed interest in signing them. The Colombian government must also support genuine dialogue with communities in order to reach crop substitution agreements to overcome the inevitable difficulties that will arise in their implementation.
Finally, the U.S. government should offer its full support for the Colombian peace process and cease its aggressive demands for forced coca eradication, which places unnecessary pressure on Colombia’s security forces and could bring about more tragedies resembling what just happened in Tumaco.