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28 Sep 2017 | Commentary

With Glaring Omissions, a U.S. Ambassador Delivers a Dark View of Post-Conflict Colombia

Last weekend marked the moment Kevin Whitaker truly became Donald Trump’s ambassador to Colombia. It came in a featured interview in Sunday’s edition of the country’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo.

In fact, Kevin Whitaker has headed the U.S. embassy in Bogota for almost three-and-a-half years. While Barack Obama was president, Ambassador Whitaker consistently gave vocal support to the FARC peace process, which culminated in a November 2016 accord ending a 52-year conflict. But now, he is following a different set of orders. His interview marks the sharpest reversal yet in U.S. support for the process.

With El Tiempo, Whitaker highlights areas in which the FARC is slow to comply with accord commitments, but only mentions the Colombian government’s own foot-dragging when it concerns coca eradication.

The interview was remarkable for what the Ambassador did not say.

  • He did not mention that the FARC disarmed by handing in more weapons than combatants, by about a 1.2 to 1 ratio. That has never happened in a peace process.
  • He had no words of praise for the United Nations (UN) mission that verified the FARC’s demobilization and disarmament, plus the ceasefire, even though by all accounts it performed an exemplary job.
  • He did not mention that this ceasefire prevented the deaths of nearly 2,800 people between mid-2016 and July 2017, according to the Colombian think-tank CERAC, or more than 3,000 deaths or injuries according to Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.
  • He did not mention that it’s not just the FARC failing to comply with peace accord commitments. The Colombian government avoided Whitaker’s scolding, even though it is behind on many aspects of accord implementation. These include not just crop substitution but:
    • Reintegration of ex-combatants: fears are growing that the lack of a coherent plan for collective reintegration will lead more mid-level guerrilla leaders to return to violence.
    • Getting transitional justice set up: at this rate, the first post-conflict human rights trials may not happen until the end of 2018 at the earliest.
    • Protecting social leaders, especially in areas of former guerrilla influence, and punishing those who plot to kill them.
    • Establishing a government presence in the countryside, especially zones of former guerrilla influence, where a post-FARC “security window” is rapidly closing.
  • Except when prompted—and then, barely—Ambassador Whitaker did not mention Colombia’s other armed and organized crime groups, which today pose more of a security threat than the ex-FARC. These include the thousands-strong Urabeños post-paramilitary group, which has killed at least 16 Colombian police this year and which DEA testimony this month called “Colombia’s largest security threat”; dissident FARC elements now numbering in the high hundreds or low 1,000s; the ELN guerrillas, currently in negotiations; and a host of smaller criminal groups. The U.S. government has apparently been assisting Colombia’s effort to weaken the Urabeños. But Whitaker didn’t mention the Urabeños once. Focusing rhetoric so intensely just on the FARC—as happened during a September 12 Senate hearing on counter-drug efforts—makes the U.S. government appear stuck in the past and unable to adjust to Colombia’s changing security reality.

What Whitaker said: “The FARC have not complied, in my judgment, with their obligations based on the accord. What does the accord say? It says that the FARC need to give information about narcotrafficking so the there may be investigations and judicial follow-up, something that hasn’t occurred.”

What Whitaker, unfortunately, did not say: “Turning in information about the operations of narcotrafficking organizations is one of the most dangerous things an individual can do in Colombia. Few paramilitary groups did this when they demobilized a decade ago during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency; this is why their links to the legal economy remain largely uncovered, and why many mid-level paramilitary leaders so easily took over much of the drug trade as ‘criminal bands.’ Overcoming ex-guerrillas’ hesitation is impossible without strong security guarantees. We will work with Colombian prosecutors and fund the Interior Ministry’s protection unit to make sure that ex-guerrillas who share information do not pay the ultimate price.”

What he said: “Frankly, I find myself very disappointed with the results that we’ve managed to achieve [working with the Attorney General’s Office to recover FARC assets]. I’m sure that there’s more money in this.”

What he did not say: “We suspect that the FARC are holding back on their illegally acquired assets. Their declaration of over a trillion pesos in assets (over US$340 million) is far more than the paramilitaries handed over a decade ago, but still seems low. This is our suspicion, we can’t prove it, but we will work closely with Colombian prosecutors, investigators, and financial experts to track down more of these hidden assets and hold accountable any FARC members who are cheating.”

What he said: “Right now we’re investigating several cases of people who are trying, in a fraudulent way, to be included in the list [of guerrillas who will benefit from amnesty or reduced sentences], though they shouldn’t be there.”

What he did not say: “The FARC has presented 14,178 names of guerrillas, combining about 7,000 who went through the six-month demobilization process, militias (part-time guerrillas) who had to register, and guerrillas in Colombian prisons. Colombia’s government has so far verified 11,345 names and found 251 people who were not guerrillas. Of these, two went through the full demobilization process. Twenty-one are non-guerrillas wanted in the United States for narcotrafficking. This is a black eye for the peace process, as it was for the AUC paramilitary demobilization 10 years ago. However, the Colombian government’s vetting of purported ex-guerrillas is maintaining the legitimacy of the overall peace process and has our support.”

Coming a week after the White House’s near-decertification of Colombia, whose bombastic wording did needless harm to an unraveling bilateral relationship, the glaring omissions in Whitaker’s interview strengthen and enable the new hard line in Washington. The ambassador got his orders, and he followed them. That, of course, is his job. But at a late stage of a distinguished Foreign Service career, Kevin Whitaker risks being remembered as the diplomat who led an abrupt and premature retreat from a promising peace process