WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Julio Cortez

15 May 2017 | Commentary

President Trump and Colombia’s Santos to Meet this Week

Priority Issues on the Bilateral Agenda

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House on May 18. While the two Presidents spoke by phone on February 13 this will be the first face to face meeting since Mr. Trump took office. Given the long-standing diplomatic, anti-narcotics, commercial, and other alliances between these two nations, the relationship between the United States and Colombia is strong. In 2016, the Santos administration ended a five decades long internal armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The peace accord will bring about the disarmament of the FARC, an organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States and linked to drug trafficking. President Trump should celebrate the peace accord and offer the financial and political support necessary to guarantee the sustainability of this peace. Doing so is in the best interest of U.S. foreign policy.

The demobilization of the 7,000 FARC members is going smoothly, but—as with all peace accords—there have been some challenges in implementation of the peace process. As a friend to Colombia, the United States must use its leverage to address the prevailing concerns. Instead of reducing the United States’ important alliance with Colombia to a focus on military-heavy, drug war-style policies, the U.S. government should focus on ways to help build a lasting peace. This means guaranteeing adequate, multi-year financing to address the bottlenecks that have come up in the implementation of the peace accords. The U.S. government should also encourage peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN),  the dismantling of the other illegal armed groups present throughout the country, and stronger protections for social activists currently under attack in rural areas. At the same time, the United States should advocate for Colombia to make its peace process more effective by making it more inclusive. The United States should advocate for Colombia to ensure that ethnic minorities, victims, and civil society are leading the consolidation of the peace accords on the ground.

U.S. Must Commit to Robust Multi-Year Assistance to Colombia

It would be a major mistake if the United States turns its back on Colombia at this time. It could potentially undo all of the security gains achieved in recent years. All peace processes are fragile and their success and sustainability depends on effective implementation. U.S. support for sustainable peace is key to achieving transformative change in this country. For there to be more equitable economic growth, security gains, and effective drug control efforts, Colombia needs more support–not less–in its post-conflict era. U.S. financial support, monitoring, and political engagement will be needed for at least 10 years to consolidate peace.

Since “Plan Colombia” began with a large appropriation in 2000, the United States has given Colombia over $10 billion in assistance. Of this amount, about 70 percent went to Colombia’s military and police forces. Major initiatives included U.S.-backed military offensives against the guerrillas, forced eradication of more than 4 million acres of coca, the training of over 100,000 personnel, and the delivery or upgrade of over 100 helicopters. Economic aid supported coca crop-substitution programs, assistance to conflict victims, and judicial reform, among other efforts.

Plan Colombia is regarded as a success because of the strong gains in public security achieved through a military buildup carried out mostly with Colombian funds. Homicides and kidnappings decreased dramatically in cities, towns, and along main roads. Economic activity recovered robustly.

Drug trafficking, extortion, and other organized-crime activity, however, have proved much harder to control, and corruption persists at high levels. Much of these activities are fueled by unequal distribution of the country’s wealth and access to economic and employment opportunities. Colombia’s military and intelligence forces, meanwhile, have been implicated in several serious human rights scandals, including the killing of well over 3,000 civilians, who were later falsely and deliberately portrayed as guerrilla members. Making a dent on these non-conflict security challenges requires implementing the commitments made to the FARC in the peace accord.

During the height of Plan Colombia, U.S. assistance to Colombia exceeded $700 million per year. Starting in 2008, assistance began decreasing slowly, as responsibilities—especially for coca eradication and cocaine interdiction—were gradually handed over to Colombia’s government. By 2016, total aid to Colombia had decreased to about $325 million. Though far smaller, this still made Colombia the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the Western Hemisphere.

In February 2016, during President Santos’s last high-profile visit to Washington, President Barack Obama proposed increasing U.S. assistance to $450 million in 2017, to support implementation of the imminent peace accord. That accord was signed in November. The budget agreement that Congress reached during the first week of May 2017 provides the aid package, known as “Peace Colombia,” that the Obama administration requested.

This aid is an important show of support for Colombia at a crucial moment, and provides key post-conflict assistance at a time when Colombia—hit hard by the global drop in oil prices and a weakening of its currency—badly needs resources to implement peace accord commitments.

What’s in the 2017 US aid package known as Peace Colombia?

WOLA is concerned that the Peace Colombia aid package will be undone by the Trump administration’s 2018 foreign aid budget request to Congress. While more details of this request will start to emerge on May 22, a document leaked to Foreign Policy indicates that the White House wants to cut the main economic aid program for Colombia, Economic Support Funds, by 44 percent from 2017 levels, from $187 million to $105 million. A similarly deep cut to other aid accounts would deal a devastating blow during the fragile initial phase of Colombia’s post-conflict effort. It would also send a toxic message: during wartime, the United States’s generosity exceeded $700 million per year, but during the crucial early phase of peacetime, the U.S. commitment falls to less than half that.

At the same time, European nations facing a massive refugee crisis and terrorism threats are pulling away funding for Colombia to meet these domestic demands. The U.S. cannot afford to do the same because Colombia’s security and drug production issues, if not addressed properly, will affect the entire Western Hemisphere placing undue strains on the United States.

Dealing with coca cultivation: don’t “narcotize” the relationship

While details have not yet emerged, WOLA is concerned that cuts to economic aid may be combined with strong increases in military and police assistance to post-conflict Colombia, in order to expand forced eradication of coca.

As WOLA documented in a March report, Colombia is experiencing a boom of coca cultivation. This boom has many causes: forced eradication was reduced and not replaced with anything new, the prices of other illicit commodities like illegally mined gold fell, Colombia’s peso grew weaker, and news that the peace accord included benefits for coca growers may have perversely incentivized many farmers to plant coca.

Increased coca cultivation and cocaine production are driving calls, in Washington and elsewhere, for more forced eradication, including a revival of an aerial herbicide fumigation program that was suspended in 2015 for public health reasons. It would be a mistake to return to policies that did not work in the past.

A key reason why the United States claimed it backed aerial herbicide fumigation was that the presence of well-armed guerrillas made the countryside too dangerous. Now, though, the FARC is gone from these areas and Colombia has a plan for addressing the illicit crop problem, which—though it won’t achieve dramatic immediate results—deserves a chance.

That plan was foreseen in the final peace accord. Colombia’s government is signing agreements with over 50,000 coca-growing households around the country to provide assistance aimed at integrating them into the legal national economy, in exchange for their voluntary eradication of coca plants. Demobilized FARC fighters are to have some sort of role in eradication. Meanwhile, the Colombian government says it plans to eradicate 50,000 hectares forcibly this year, in zones, like national parks or indigenous reserves, that are not meant to be open to small farmers.

Critics warn that Colombia’s initial efforts to carry out this plan have been slow and haphazard, and that it may be asking for trouble down the road by promising coca-growers more than it can deliver. Even if the promised 100,000 hectares of coca eradication doesn’t happen in 2017, though, Colombia will greatly exceed last year’s total of 18,000 and is likely to measure a significant decrease in its coca crop over the course of 2017. The trendline should be more positive when the 2017 cultivation data emerges in early 2018.

If carried out along with other commitments in Colombia’s peace accord, especially those aimed at making the rural economy function better for impoverished small farmers, Colombia’s new plan for coca will yield long-lasting, even permanent reductions in coca cultivation. The hard-line strategy the United States may begin pushing, by contrast, tends only to deprive growers of a few harvests before they replant again for lack of other opportunities.

Despite concerns about increased cocaine production, this is not the time to force Colombia to change a course that it has barely begun to pursue. WOLA counsels patience, and urges U.S. policymakers to resist the temptation to “narcotize” the relationship with Colombia, as happened in the past, by making drug policy the preeminent theme of the bilateral relationship. Today, the U.S.-Colombia relationship is so much more than that. A return to the past would be a grave mistake.

Encouraging Colombia to Address the Bottlenecks in Implementation

Colombia is notorious for developing sophisticated legislation, programs, and plans and being unable to aptly implement them on the ground. In order to build confidence for peace, especially in the outer regions of the country, the Colombian government must meet the commitments made in the peace accord. While the FARC is abiding by its efforts to demobilize, reports indicate that in the 26 zones where combatants are concentrated, basic access to services, shelter, and food have not been forthcoming. Bringing in the civilian institutions and operationalizing their services into these areas must happen more quickly to guarantee success of this effort. Furthermore, FARC guerillas who only committed the crime of rebellion and are currently detained were supposed to receive amnesties and let free. However, this process is slow in coming but it is required for peace to advance. Colombia’s congress approved a  fast-track process to push legislation required to implement the peace accord. This process has been slow and should not serve to alter the contents of the accord itself nor as an opportunity to push through unrelated items that were on hold. The United States should prompt Colombia to quickly and effectively operationalize what is in the accord, and to shield it from alterations and politics that could influence its content.

Guaranteeing a “Complete Peace” in Colombia

As WOLA wrote in a recent analysis, the peace process with Colombia’s second guerilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) is slow in coming. Despite starts and stops, the process is moving forward. In 2017, the ELN has upped its attacks throughout Colombia and even recently kidnapped eight people in Choco. The group is also engaged in combat operations against the successor paramilitary groups in areas where the FARC has left a vacuum of power. In those areas, illegal groups are vying for control of drug routes and illegal economies, including resource extraction, extortion and other sources of illegal income. This is having a devastating effect on the civilian population and generating internal displacement. The United States should be supportive of the ELN peace process and encourage that it advances as quickly as possible.

At the same time, efforts to more boldly dismantle the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) and other paramilitary groups are vital to consolidating security gains. In 2017, at least 40 social leaders, three family members of a FARC guerilla, and one former FARC combatant were assassinated. The peace accords themselves contain essential commitments set to address these two issues. The U.S. must ask President Santos to prioritize these efforts. The social leaders, human rights defenders, and others under threat and attack are the base that could construct a new political reality in Colombia, where dialogue and political engagement replace violence as a means of addressing differences and conflict.

As WOLA has continuously raised with U.S. policy officials, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities were worst affected by the conflict and continue to bear the brunt of ongoing conflict between the non-FARC guerilla groups. The humanitarian and protection situation of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities affected by fighting between the ELN and AGC is critical. The recommendations of these communities and their leadership are vital to guaranteeing an effective implementation of the peace accord in Colombia’s remote and less developed areas.


Appendix: U.S. Aid to Colombia in 2017

The 2017 omnibus appropriation for Colombia approves approximately $450 million in assistance. It would go through the following aid programs.

Economic Support Fund (ESF): $187.328 million: This is the main economic aid program in the Colombia aid package. The “Peace Colombia” appropriation increases it from the 2016 level of $141 million. ESF pays for increased civilian government presence in rural zones of Colombia, crop substitution programs in coca-growing zones, and assistance to conflict victims. Congress mandates that $20 million assist Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities; $9 million support human rights programs, and $4 million support biodiversity programs.

International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE): $143 million: This program funds both military and police assistance and some civilian institution-building aid. The “Peace Colombia” appropriation increases it from the 2016 level of $117 million.  It pays for manual eradication of illicit crops, drug interdiction efforts, support for Colombia’s National Police, and judicial reform efforts. Congress specifies that $10 million be set aside for the human rights unit of Colombia’s prosecutor-general’s office (Fiscalía). In addition to this amount, $10 million supports Colombian forces’ training of counterparts in other countries

Defense Department Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime: $44.6 million: This account, estimated at $52 million in 2016, pays for training, intelligence support, equipment upgrades, some construction, and other services for Colombia’s armed forces and police. This authority is the largest source of funding for U.S. training, with 1,593 Colombian students supported in 2015. These funds come from the Department of Defense budget, not the State Department budget.

Foreign Military Financing: $38.525 million: This is the largest non-drug military aid program in the State Department / Foreign Operations budget.  The “Peace Colombia” appropriation increases it from a 2016 level of $25 million. The additional money will go to Colombian military “engineering” units that carry out construction projects in poorly governed rural areas, focusing on roads, police stations, and military bases.

Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR): $21 million: this new outlay, increasing a program that provided only $4 million in 2016, will fund military-led efforts to clear landmines from formerly conflictive zones. The United States and Norway are leading a group of countries, the Global Demining Initiative, contributing to this effort in the country that has the highest number of landmine victims after Afghanistan.

Other “Function 150”: $14 million: A February 2016 State Department document indicates that this funding would pay for “Public Diplomacy, Voice of America, and Trade and Development Agency” activities in Colombia—three programs that normally are not considered to be foreign assistance.

International Military Education and Training (IMET): $1.4 million: The main non-drug training program in the State Department / Foreign Operations budget, IMET tends to support professional development courses for senior Colombian officers at U.S. facilities. (IMET trained 78 Colombian personnel in 2015.) Most low-level technical training on the ground in Colombia comes from the Defense Department counter-drug budget.