WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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22 Jan 2021 | Commentary

To Reverse Trump’s Disastrous Legacy in Latin America, Here Are Key Actions the Biden Administration Should Take in its First Year


This commentary draws from a series of publications, podcasts, and analyses produced by WOLA examining the legacy of the Trump administration in Latin America and top priorities for the Biden administration.

With its series of executive orders and a proposed immigration reform bill, the Biden administration made clear on its first day in office that it is initiating a 180 degree turn away from the Trump years in many policy areas. 

On day one, the Biden administration paused the border wall, suspended new enrollments in “Remain in Mexico,” reinstated Obama’s Central American Minors program, limited ICE arrests, and froze deportations for 100 days. The White House also introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill that provides new pathways to citizenship (including for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) humanitarian programs), while undoing the bans on citizens from primarily Muslim countries, and addressing the root causes of migration, among other actions. 

These are welcome first steps. But much of the damage caused by the Trump administration is so deep that it will take time to undo and heal. As underscored by the violent events of January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol—the culmination of the Trump administration’s four-year push to erode democratic norms and institutions—global democratic ideals cannot be taken for granted. At home and abroad, the Biden administration now has a critical opportunity to rebuild the U.S. government’s ability to support and protect those who advocate for these ideals in regions like Latin America.

It starts with the United States upholding basic democratic principles within its own borders. And it starts with recognizing the need to work with reformers and civil society leaders in Latin America confronting authoritarian tendencies and authoritarian leaders—that is, political actors and their allies who are seeking to hollow out institutions from the inside, close civic space, and undermine rule of law in order to cling to power. 

Both the United States and Latin America are facing formidable threats from authoritarian forces. In the face of these common challenges, both the United States and Latin America have a responsibility to defend democratic ideals as partners.

Trump’s lasting damage

U.S. institutions withstood an unprecedented assault on January 6. President Trump and the mob that attacked the Capitol failed in their violent mission to disrupt the electoral process, and now Congress and the justice system are pursuing various avenues to hold those involved accountable. Ensuring that there is no impunity for the dark events that day will send a strong message about the resiliency of U.S. institutions in the face of authoritarian threats. 

Sending that message is crucial to help reset U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, given how much the Trump administration damaged the U.S. government’s ability to play a constructive role in encouraging democratic practices. It is hard for the U.S. diplomatic corps to exhort President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador to stop attacking journalists, or Guatemalan authorities to protect, not harass, independent justice officials; or President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to refrain from making unfounded allegations of voter fraud, when President Trump normalized the same behavior.  

Trump helped bring out the worst tendencies of leaders across the Americas. The Biden administration must chart another way forward, through U.S. policies that center respect for human rights, upholding rule of law, and transparency and accountability. Promoting equitable economic development and overcoming extreme inequality—with a focus on those disproportionately impacted by poverty, including Black, Indigenous, and rural communities—must be another focus, especially in light of the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

These values have faced withering opposition from empowered authoritarian leaders, entrenched economic interests, and a Trump administration willing to forego defending democratic ideals in exchange for regional leaders’ backing for cruel migration policies.

As human rights advocates who work in partnership with civil society leaders in Latin America, WOLA’s work this next year will not just focus on pressing for the prompt reversal of the harmful legacy of the Trump administration in Latin America. We will advocate for placing human rights, rule of law, and equity at the center of the U.S. government’s approach to the region. We will emphasize the constructive role that the U.S. government can play in supporting civil society efforts that seek to build democratic governance, tear down systemic corruption, promote equity and equality (including racial, gender, and climate justice), and secure peace. 

Our work starts now with pressing the Biden administration to spend its first year on key priorities, in order to mitigate the long-lasting consequences of the Trump administration’s non-existent leadership on human rights in Latin America. These include:

Pushing back against authoritarianism and defending civic space 

1. Through private and public diplomacy, send strong messages that the Biden administration cares about defending civic space and discouraging authoritarian practices. 

As early as possible, the Biden administration ought to send clear signals that it is putting human rights and democratic practices first. This diplomacy will vary from place to place, but the core message should be that the U.S. government is paying attention to threats to civic space across the region, is committed to upholding basic democratic principles within its own borders, and wants to partner with Latin America in defending these ideals. 

In practice, this means forcefully condemning those who use security forces to suppress peaceful protest or intimidate other branches of government. It means enforcing human rights conditions on foreign aid to military and police bodies. It means U.S. government representatives making appearances alongside courageous anti-corruption reformers and human rights defenders. And it means deploying the State Department and USAID to play a major role in conveying these messages across the hemisphere. 

Social movements and civil society organizations are what’s going to make a difference in resisting authoritarianism and bringing lasting change across Latin America. The Biden administration ought to encourage and protect those in civil society who are helping create the conditions for new political movements that are genuinely committed to real democracy and social, economic, racial, gender, and climate justice. 

Listen to WOLA’s podcast about the Biden-Trump transition and rising threats from authoritarianism and closing civic space. 


1. Play a leading role in humanitarian responses to the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America. 

The pandemic has caused widespread illness and death. In many countries, public health systems have been overwhelmed. Those working in the very large informal sector of economies across the region have been hard hit; the damage to economies and setbacks to development efforts is increasing inequality throughout Latin America. 

The region will need international support as it deals with the pandemic, and as it recovers. Historically, the United States has been a leader in humanitarian assistance worldwide; it should resume this position in face of COVID-19. U.S. support for the WHO’s regional office, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), will be critical for an effective COVID-19 vaccine response in the Americas. 

Migration and border policy

1. Set up and staff temporary facilities near ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, to better process asylum seekers in a humanitarian way. 

As a result of Trump administration migration policies, there are large backlogs of asylum seekers in Mexican border cities, including thousands living in crowded tent camps and shelters where they face dangers associated with criminal organizations and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Biden White House’s proposed U.S. Citizen Act of 2021 includes commitments to support asylum seekers through visa reforms and other increased protections, and improved processing at ports of entry. Under another policy statement, no additional asylum seekers can be enrolled into “Remain in Mexico,” the program that created a humanitarian disaster at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

But the administration has also made clear that it will be cautious in reversing the full package of the Trump administration’s cruel and ineffective deterrence policies, potentially leaving thousands of people stranded while it phases those policies out. 

Even as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has limited global travel, the administration will simultaneously face a continuing flow of people seeking asylum, safety, and refuge at the U.S. border, thanks to record hurricanes, crushing poverty exacerbated by COVID-19, and persistent violence and insecurity in Central America. 

Though our work will continue to press for a quick reversal of the harmful Trump policies, there are clear steps that can help mitigate dangers to asylum-seekers and migrants in the meantime. The 2021 spending bill includes $142 million for “facility construction and improvements” for Customs and Border Protection. Though the timing is difficult, these funds should be made available as soon as possible to start establishing “soft-sided” facilities at select ports of entry this year. By making sure that high-traffic ports of entry have the facilities in place to screen and process asylum seekers efficiently, the Biden administration can take a major step towards a more humane, orderly approach to migration. 

2. Spend the border wall money elsewhere. 

Biden has already put a halt to the construction of Trump’s ineffective, wasteful, and destructive border wall, through a proclamation that reverses Trump’s executive fiats (which let the White House use $9.9 billion in Department of Defense funding and some Treasury asset-forfeiture money to build the wall without congressional approval). This was a much-needed move, and still faces the challenge of extracting the U.S. government from construction contracts, and finding ways to divert what remains unspent of the $5.8 billion that Congress specifically approved for wall-building since 2017.        

Looking ahead, the Biden administration should follow through on its commitment either to rescind the unspent border wall funds, or to transfer them—including the $1.375 billion in the 2021 budget—to other DHS activities. These may include humane processing, alternatives to detention for asylum seekers, dismantling and downgrading border wall segments that harm the environment and border communities, and improving port of entry infrastructure to reduce border crossing times.  

Listen to WOLA’s podcast about the Biden-Trump transition and the need for a humane, region-wide approach to migration. 

3. Work with Congress to invest in alternatives to detention. 

Biden’s proposed U.S. Citizen Act of 2021 was a strong early indication that this administration intends to sharply pivot away from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant focus. But there’s another central component to making the U.S. migration and asylum system more humane: stop locking up those who’ve come here in search of protection. 

Detention is costly and inhumane. In the middle of a historic pandemic, it’s deadly. It doesn’t have to be this way: case management systems have a proven successful track record in ensuring participants show up in court. The Biden administration should work with Congress to build upon the modest FY2021 cuts to ICE detention, and further expand the $440 million for alternative-to-detention programs in the FY2021 spending bill. 

Read more on what the Biden administration can do in the medium and long-term to reverse Trump’s disastrous migration policies. 

4. Strengthen internal controls and accountability at border-security agencies, while undoing an institutional culture that fosters human rights abuse.

2020 was another alarming year for denunciations of human rights abuse at CBP, ICE, and Border Patrol. These ranged from forced medical procedures, to racial profiling, to insufficient protection from COVID-19, to grossly excessive use of force, to numerous examples of everyday cruelty. Even before the Trump years, these agencies gained reputations for fiercely resisting scrutiny, but over the past four years their most destructive tendencies were fostered at the government’s highest levels.

A big challenge for the Biden administration is to change how CBP and Border Patrol management view and carry out their missions at the border. Instead of a de facto policy of employing deliberate cruelty to deter would-be migrants—including those seeking protection—these agencies should be able to focus on actual security threats, leaving the processing of undocumented migrants to others with specific training. Institutional culture change means abandoning the reigning “paramilitary” ethic in favor of serving border communities, focusing on organized crime, and de-escalating confrontations, with greater transparency and full accountability to strengthened internal affairs and civil rights complaint mechanisms. Transfers of responsibilities and increases in internal affairs capacity will require shifts in how DHS allocates resources among border agencies.

Read more about the politicization, resistance to oversight, and tolerance of abuse in U.S. border agencies’ institutional culture.


1. Work with the Mexican government to develop a blueprint for ending “Remain in Mexico” and addressing the humanitarian disaster caused by this policy. 

As of January 21, the Biden administration had suspended enrollments in the “Remain in Mexico” program. Officials have signaled that winding down the program is unlikely to happen expeditiously, due to concerns over limiting the number of migrants and asylum seekers taken into U.S. custody, particularly during the pandemic. (Over 68,000 people were sent back to Mexico under the program, creating a humanitarian crisis at the border). 

“Remain in Mexico” is an illegal policy that has had devastating consequences for tens of thousands of people. The failure of the Trump administration to handle the COVID-19 pandemic adds to the challenge (although public health experts emphasize that using health concerns as justification for asylum restrictions is unwarranted and goes against recommended, evidence-based measures for mitigating COVID-19 risk). 

At least 28,455 people subject to “Remain in Mexico” are still awaiting U.S. asylum decisions in Mexican border cities. (Another 41,000-plus have had their cases closed, and they deserve an opportunity to re-apply for asylum at any U.S. embassy or consulate.) Many are families with children. Their claims have already been processed. They already have court dates in the United States. They should be paroled into the United States where they can await their hearings with relatives or other support networks, safe and socially distanced—not adrift and semi-homeless in Mexican border cities.

Based on extensive work with this population along the border, HIAS and partner humanitarian practitioner organizations have developed a detailed set of proposals for paroling “Remain in Mexico” enrollees, in a way that is in line with COVID-19 public health standards. We urge the Biden administration to follow these recommended measures as quickly as possible.

The Mexican and U.S. governments will need to work closely together on the logistics of ending “Remain in Mexico,” while increasing efforts to ensure that, while the phase-out proceeds, asylum seekers waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border have access to adequate housing and medical services, instead of being left vulnerable in squalid conditions and at risk of attacks

Read more on how the Mexican government and the Biden administration can work together to implement more humane migration policies. 

2. Prioritize cooperation with the Mexican government on justice reforms, anti-corruption efforts, and human rights. 

Mexico continues to experience record levels of violence. Impunity for attacks perpetrated by both state and non-state actors has left environmental and human rights activists, journalists, and other civil society leaders particularly at risk. In 2020, Mexico was the deadliest country in the world for journalists. Over 80,000 people have disappeared in the country, most after 2006. 

Recent reforms to Mexico’s National Security Law could dramatically limit bilateral intelligence sharing and opportunities for U.S. law enforcement cooperation. The reforms and the events surrounding them—the U.S. arrest of Mexico’s former Defense Minister on charges of collusion with organized crime, followed by his return to Mexico, where authorities promptly cleared him of all charges in a highly questioned process—make clear that both governments need to rebuild the relationship and establish priorities for future cooperation centered on strengthening the rule of law. These should include: 

  • Build upon and expand the shift in focus regarding U.S. foreign aid to Mexico, emphasizing support for rule or law, human rights, anti-corruption efforts, and justice reforms over counternarcotics aid. For decades, the United States has provided significant aid for increasingly militarized public security efforts to address drug cartels, an approach whose ineffectiveness is clear in light of a recent record in drug overdose deaths in the United States and the nearly 500 percent rise in fentanyl seizures in Mexico. Focusing instead on strengthening criminal investigations and tackling the corruption that enables the operations of Mexican cartels is a far more promising strategy to reduce violence and deprive organized criminal groups of drug-trafficking-related income, especially when paired with a robust domestic U.S. effort to invest in prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services. 
  • Support Mexico’s efforts to address its disappearance crisis by reinforcing the petitions of the families of the disappeared and providing ongoing funding to increase Mexico’s capacity to search for the disappeared, identify remains—including through the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification (Mecanismo Extraordinario de Identificación Forense)—and to investigate those responsible for these crimes. 
  • Fully implement human rights protections and Leahy law requirements in U.S. foreign aid to Mexico, to ensure that U.S. funds aren’t going towards empowering potentially corrupt and abusive security forces.
  • Stop measuring “progress” in addressing Mexico’s security crisis around drug interdiction numbers and the arrest of high-value cartel targets. Instead, prioritize advances by prosecutors and other officials in investigating and prosecuting crimes. Another commitment should be investing in the well-being and quality of life of those in areas where poppy, coca and cannabis are grown—as well as in the communities most affected by drug use and violence. 

Read more on how the Biden administration can support rule of law and anti-corruption efforts in Mexico. 

Central America

1. Send clear, strong, and consistent messages that supporting rule of law and anti-corruption efforts are a top priority.  

The Biden administration needs to make clear from the get-go that rule of law, governance, human rights, and anti-corruption efforts will be at the heart of U.S. policy towards Central America. This needs to be communicated loud and clear from the White House, the State Department, and in meetings between diplomats and other government personnel. When there are efforts by corrupt actors to hinder anti-corruption efforts and hijack the justice system, U.S. officials will need to respond forcefully and promptly, in order to send the message that the U.S. authorities are not turning a blind eye.

Other key, short-term actions should include: 

    • Issuing a public statement making clear that anti-corruption and good governance will be at the heart of U.S. relations with Central America and committing to ensuring that aid and much needed humanitarian assistance will be accompanied by strong anti-corruption measures. 
    • Appointing a special envoy on corruption in Central America.
    • Promptly nominating ambassadors to Honduras and El Salvador with a solid track record of and commitment to protecting human rights, advancing the rule of law, and tackling corruption. 
    • Publishing and regularly updating a list of individuals from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who are engaged in significant corruption and the undermining of democratic institutions, and ensure that they are denied entry into the United States. 
    • Using all available tools to issue targeted sanctions against individuals accused of significant corruption and undermining rule of law. This includes the Magnitsky Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), State Department designations of corruption, and the Treasury Department targeted sanctions under the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
    • Providing political and financial support to those within and outside of government, leading efforts to combat corruption, including courageous and independent prosecutors and judges, independent journalists and civil society organizations that specialize in anti-impunity, transparency and governance. 
  • Advocating for fiscal reforms and oversight mechanisms of funding and loans provided by international financial institutions. 
  • Fully implement human rights protections and Leahy law requirements in U.S. foreign aid to Central America, to ensure that U.S. funds aren’t going towards empowering potentially corrupt and abusive security forces.

Listen to WOLA’s podcast about the Biden-Trump transition and the future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight.

2. Support civil society and other actors in Central America to address the drivers of migration.

Biden proposed developing a four-year regional strategy for Central America, providing up to $4 billion in assistance; his comprehensive immigration reform bill would codify and fund this four-year interagency plan. His administration should work with Congress to increase aid to the region, funding programs that:

  • Prioritize support for initiatives that have proven successful at tackling corruption and improving good governance, and help strengthen civil society organizations and their efforts to hold governments accountable. 
  • Expand evidence-based, community level programs to reduce youth crime and violence, reintegrate youth seeking to leave the influence of street gangs and criminal groups, and provide assistance for the protection of the rights of women, young people, children, LGBT+, Indigenous communities, Afro-descendants, and other vulnerable groups.
  • Support evidence-based employment creation and job training programs that focus on at-risk youth in targeted communities.
  • Focus security-related funding on strengthening justice institutions and professionalizing civilian law enforcement and making them more accountable and transparent. Aid should be directed toward enhancing the independence and capabilities of prosecutors and judges by supporting merit-based selection processes and evaluation and disciplinary systems, and ensuring adequate protection for judges, prosecutors and other justice officials.
  • Establish a process of regular consultation with a broad range of civil society organizations to elicit their input and recommendations on U.S. assistance and initiatives in the region. 

Aid to government agencies should be contingent on anti-corruption measures and demonstrable progress in advancing much needed reforms. The new administration and Congress should ensure that the assistance package includes clear metrics to evaluate whether aid is achieving the desired results. WOLA has worked with partners to identify clear indicators for tracking these issues, and is actively gathering data through its Central America Monitor.   

Explore the Central America Monitor

Read more about how the Biden administration can transform relations in the northern countries in Central America.

3. Work with other international donors to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the countries devastated by hurricanes Eta and Iota and to coordinate long-term recovery efforts.  

Eta and Iota caused massive destruction and devastation. Addressing the impact of these storms will require assistance to support immediate recovery efforts and longer-term investments in reconstruction efforts. 

Recovery and reconstruction efforts should be based on an inclusive, participatory planning process to ensure that assistance reaches the most remote and affected communities. The U.S. and other donors should expect that governments seeking international assistance present comprehensive plans that have been developed in consultation with civil society actors.  Given concerns about corruption, aid should be largely channeled through international and national humanitarian organizations, and any assistance to governments should be made contingent on anti-corruption measures. Additionally, the new administration should designate Guatemala for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and re-designate El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. 

The hurricanes’ impact was intensified by environmental problems and climate change in the region, including drought and deforestation, which have hit rural communities and small farmers in particular. Reconstruction plans must acknowledge these problems, and include mitigation efforts. 

4. Work with allies in the hemisphere to use diplomacy and targeted sanctions to press the Nicaraguan government to end political repression and human rights abuses, so that civil society and political actors can organize freely,  and negotiate reforms that will make genuinely free and fair elections possible.

With elections scheduled to take place in November 2021, the broad opposition movement—students, environmentalists, grassroots activists, along with both new and long-established opposition political figures, and parts of the business community—will have to find common cause and field candidates, at both the local and the national level.   

The Biden administration will need to press for the political freedom for these groups to come together as they see fit, and must press for the electoral reforms needed for, free and fair elections in Nicaragua.  This will require a mix of diplomacy and targeted pressure, including early messaging to the Ortega government that the new administration, with bipartisan support in Congress, will keep pressing  for reform and respect for human rights, and that it will engage broadly with the range of opposition political actors as they determine their own electoral strategies.  


1. Clearly and unequivocally state that the U.S. government does not support military intervention in Venezuela.

Maintaining any kind of military intervention on the table has only served to divide international allies, as well as Venezuela’s opposition. Instead, the Biden administration should clearly signal its support for a multilateral diplomatic strategy that emphasizes the need for free and fair elections as the only solution to Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.

2. Direct senior Western Hemisphere policy officials in the National Security Council and State Department to closely coordinate with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to re-establish credible negotiations.

The 2019 talks in Oslo and Barbados, facilitated by Norwegian diplomats, were the most credible negotiations yet between the Maduro regime and the opposition. The U.S. government should offer full support to these efforts and stay closely engaged with Norwegian diplomats.

3. Support progress towards initial, partial agreements as a way of building social capital needed to advance a comprehensive political solution. 

A June 2020 agreement to implement a response to the pandemic between Maduro’s Ministry of Health and the Humanitarian Aid Commission of the National Assembly, coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), was a tremendous achievement and shows that such agreements are possible. The Biden administration should support and expand this deal, ensuring that it includes access to a COVID-19 vaccine.

4. Instruct the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to immediately re-establish humanitarian exemptions which permit Venezuela to trade crude oil in exchange for diesel.

In Venezuela, diesel is used to transport food, medicine, and humanitarian aid. It’s the primary fuel source for the backup electric generators used in private health clinics and some public hospitals across the country. The Trump-imposed restrictions on fuel imports to Venezuela will aggravate the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans, in the midst of a historic pandemic. 

5. Convene an inter-agency task force to review Venezuela sanctions and related indictments.

The goal of this task force should be reforming policy in ways that alleviate Venezuela’s  humanitarian crisis and more effectively contribute to a return to democracy. This task force should also recommend ways to advance a more internationally-coordinated individual sanctions strategy, as well as to ensure that any indictments of key regime figures do not pose an obstacle to a transition.

Read more on what the Biden administration can do to recalibrate U.S. policy on Venezuela and help advance the search for a peaceful, democratic solution to Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.


1. Re-engage diplomatically with Cuba. 

Diplomatic engagement was among the most successful aspects of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba. President Trump shut it down almost entirely. Diplomatic re-engagement is a first necessary step in repairing the damage and the United States should take the initiative to restart it.

Some key, short-term steps in this direction would include:

  • Remove Cuba from the “state sponsor of terrorism” list by initiating the State Department review process immediately. 
  • Send a personal message from President Biden to President Díaz-Canel, expressing the U.S. interest in rebuilding a constructive relationship.
  • Begin re-staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana and allow Cuba to re-staff its embassy in Washington, while monitoring health and safety issues for U.S. personnel.
  • End the prohibition on U.S. government personnel traveling to Cuba on official business.

2. Restore key commerce and Treasury Department regulations to where they were pre-Trump presidency. 

The sanctions the Trump administration imposed have had the greatest impact on family ties and cultural and educational exchange, especially people-to-people travel. These sanctions and others aimed at restricting commercial relations have also harmed U.S. businesses. 

The simplest, most straightforward approach for Biden is to reverse the Trump sanctions in a single action: restoring the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) and the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) regarding Cuba to their status on January 20, 2017.

By doing so, U.S.-based families would once again be able to send unrestricted cash remittances to Cuba. Cuban companies would no longer be listed on the State Department’s list of “restricted entities,” prohibiting U.S. citizens from doing business with them. And U.S.-based cruise lines, private vessels, commercial airlines, and charter airlines would once again be able to carry passengers to Cuba.

3. Relaunch the U.S.-Cuba working groups that were suspended in the last four years, on issues important to both countries.

The U.S. and Cuba launched a series of working groups on environmental cooperation, law enforcement issues, human trafficking, migration, and other issues, including a working group on human rights issues. These working groups opened important dialogues, and made concrete progress in areas that are important to U.S. interests. The groups should be relaunched

Read more on what the Biden administration can do in the medium and long-term to push a new policy of engagement with Cuba. 


1. Reprioritize fully implementing the 2016 peace deal with a differentiated ethnic and gender approach.

The U.S. government should have one principal diplomatic message for Colombia: the 2016 peace accord should be fully implemented. Consolidating peace needs to be the major issue for U.S. diplomacy towards Colombia. It must not be subsumed in a narrow counternarcotics focus.

Some concrete steps in this direction would include: 

  • Designate a U.S. special envoy for peace in Colombia. This person would work to monitor and facilitate the implementation of the 2016 FARC peace accord with a particular focus on the Ethnic Chapter, gender, and LGBT+ provisions. This person would also work to establish a humanitarian dialogue between Colombia and the ELN that protects the population while paving the way for peace negotiations.
  • Ensure that the U.S. Embassy, State Department, and National Security Council are regularly raising concerns about specific obstacles to implementing the peace accord, and issuing praise when advances are made. 
  • Reconsider the FARC political party’s placement on the U.S. terrorist list, given the group’s demobilization, disarmament, and general compliance with the peace accord. Keeping the FARC on this list hinders U.S. support for certain initiatives critical to creating a sustainable peace, such as supporting the reintegration of ex-FARC combatants, or development projects in communities with large ex-combatant populations. 
  • Work with Congress to ensure that aid to Colombia includes continued support for peace accord implementation. This should include financial support via USAID to rural reform efforts, victims’ organizations, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, and justice and reconciliation efforts like the Truth Commission, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), and the Unit to Search for the Disappeared. 
  • Encourage the Colombian government to accelerate implementation of and fully comply with the gender provisions of the peace accord. In addition, policymakers should urge Colombia to protect members of the LGBT+ community and LGBT+ leaders and encourage the Attorney General’s Office to expand training of prosecutors to address violence against LGBT+ persons.
  • Support counterdrug efforts that center on promoting equitable economic development in areas where crops deviated to the illicit market are grown in order to reduce and eventually eliminate their cultivation, in close collaboration with local communities. The focus of U.S. support should be working with farmers to sustainably reduce and replace coca—not providing support and advice for forced eradication programs (such as aerial herbicide spraying) that are harmful to human health and the environment and which fail to sustainably reduce coca cultivation. This includes working with Colombia to develop more robust, bilateral drug policy goals that focus on reducing the amount of families that depend on coca for survival, instead of relying on unproven metrics like hectares eradicated.
  • Dramatically reduce military assistance to Colombia, and support those seeking accountability for false positives, illegal surveillance, and other abuses committed by Colombia’s armed forces. The emphasis of U.S. security policy in Colombia must be on increasing government presence and services—including protection of social leaders—in historically abandoned territories, as contemplated in the peace accord’s first chapter (rural reform). In this respect, the most urgent unmet need is for civilian government presence like road-builders, land-titlers, health and education professionals, and especially judges, prosecutors, and investigators.
  • Fully implement human rights protections and Leahy law requirements in U.S. foreign aid to Colombia, to ensure that U.S. funds aren’t going towards empowering potentially corrupt and abusive security forces.

Read more on what role the U.S. government should play in protecting Colombia’s peace. 

2. The State Department should urge the Colombian government to improve its protection of human rights defenders and social leaders.

This should include encouraging President Iván Duque’s administration to: 

  • Ensure the effective functioning of the Attorney General’s special investigative unit, dedicated to investigating attacks against and killings of social leaders. The Colombian government needs to bring those responsible for attacks against social leaders to justice. “Those responsible” means the true masterminds of these attacks, not just the paid trigger-pullers.
  • Support the grassroots work of social leaders by implementing key provisions of the peace accord, including the chapters on rural reform and drug policy, the Ethnic Chapter (which protects the rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities), and the truth, justice, and reconciliation agencies created by the accords. In addition, the U.S. government should urge the Colombian Inspector General’s office to sanction officials of the national government responsible for neglecting their responsibilities to advance the Ethnic Chapter. 

Join the fight to protect social leaders and peace in Colombia through the #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign. 


Drug policy

1. Focus on urgent domestic investments to address the U.S. overdose and public health crisis. Acknowledge the failure and harms caused by traditional U.S. drug policies in the Americas, which have sought to suppress illegal drug supplies but have instead contributed to the spread of illegal production and trafficking within the region.

The U.S. government has invested billions in trying to suppress drug supply “at the source” in Latin America. This approach has failed to curb drug use and overdoses in the United States, while heaping harm on Latin America’s most vulnerable communities.

To “just say no” on the endless U.S. “war on drugs,” the Biden administration can take several concrete steps in the short-term, including: 

  • Invest significant resources in prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery efforts that help mitigate the overdose and public health crisis in the United States. 
  • Withdraw U.S. support for aerial herbicide spraying of coca crops, which is poised to restart in Colombia. Work with the Colombian government to establish metrics that measure greater quality of life, reduction of violence, and institution-building in marginalized communities, not hectares of coca eradicated. 
  • Act on a recommendation from the independent, bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission to work with Congress to retire the U.S. drug certification and designation process, a relic of the 1980s drug war escalation. The certification process was meant to promote drug control cooperation, but it has proven to be worse than useless by often antagonizing partner governments, undermining its own rationale.
  • Stay out of the way of other countries that decide to pursue significant reforms of their own, such as decriminalization of drug possession and cultivation for personal use, or legal regulation of cannabis markets. Mexico, for example, is expected to pass legislation to legally regulate its domestic adult-use cannabis market this year. 

Read more on how the Biden-Harris administration can start reining in the U.S. drug war in the Americas.