Legality of US drug war aid challenged in Congress and Colombia

By JAKE KINCAID | The Miami Herald | Published: August 1, 2020

Democrats in the House of Representatives are pushing back on President Donald Trump's escalation of the war on drugs and asking for an investigation into the use of U.S. funds in Colombia.

Two amendments, passed in the House in July as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, would prohibit the U.S. government from funding aerial fumigation of coca crops – the raw ingredient used to make cocaine – and would trigger an independent investigation of the use of aid given to Colombia going back to 2002. Colombia is a key partner in Trump's surge, announced in April to combat drug trafficking, and the bill will have to be approved in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The U.S. State Department gave Colombia $418 million in 2019, with just under half going to economic assistance and the rest to military assistance, primarily to combat drug trafficking. The U.S. is on track to match that in 2020. Trump has proposed to cut economic aid while increasing funds to combat drug trafficking in his 2021 proposal, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America.

While the U.S. had a seat at the table in the negotiations between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government that led to the 2016 peace deal under then-President Juan Manuel Santos, as cocaine production has increased in Colombia the Trump administration has pressured Colombian President Iván Duque to go against the accords on several key points.

"Trump's government, Southern Command and all of their operations are pressuring the Colombian government to act against the constitution, against legality and against the [peace] accords," the director of Colombian think tank Indepaz, Camilo González Posso, said. "What defines the pressures from Trump's government is a push to break the constitution in Colombia."

Aerial fumigation of coca crops

In 2015, the Colombian constitutional court ruled that aerial fumigation with glyphosate, a controversial pesticide produced by Monsanto, was illegal to use because of research that indicated it causes cancer in humans and because Colombian farmers had long opposed the practice for the environmental damage it caused. Dropping the pesticide by plane is very imprecise – wind can take the cloud of chemicals far off target, killing fields of legal crops and drenching remote villages. This puts farmers' health at risk and leaves them without their livelihood, often leading to mass displacements.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has repeatedly demanded that Colombia resume aerial fumigation as a necessary measure to curb cocaine production, which has returned to peak levels. A United Nations report released in June showed that while total hectares devoted to coca  dropped to 154,000 last year, total potential cocaine production still increased 1.5 percent to 1,137 metric tons a year. Cocaine production in Colombia has more than tripled since 2013, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found that available evidence suggests U.S.-supported eradication efforts have not been an effective long-term strategy for reducing the cocaine supply.

The constitutional court's decision allowed for the possibility of resuming aerial fumigation only if the government conducted independent studies that could demonstrate there would be no damage to health or the environment. It also called for an independent entity, not the national police, to guarantee due process for those who made complaints of wrongdoing during eradication.

At the end of 2019, a bill was proposed in Colombia that paved the way for the use of aerial fumigation again and asked that the requirement to demonstrate a lack of damage to health be waived, arguing that the requirements were impossible to fulfill. The bill has not passed.

The peace accords between the FARC guerrillas and the government that were signed in 2016 also included a provision that allowed the forced eradication of coca fields only as a last resort, after the population has refused to participate in voluntary substitution programs. Those programs were supposed to provide resources to farmers to grow legal crops and invest in the infrastructure needed to transport their harvests to be sold in markets. Rural coca farms are often not connected to markets by roads adequate to take legal crops to market. Criminal groups, on the other hand, will travel to farms, pick up coca or force farmers to continue growing it by threat of violence.

"The government had the burden of proof to demonstrate they did everything possible to offer voluntary substitution and the people did not want it. But that has not happened. There are many regions where that has not happened, where the people say they never arrived here and we want voluntary substitution," said Isabel Pereira, research coordinator for drug policy at the Center for Law, Justice and Society Studies (Dejusticia).

The congressional amendment proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on July 17 would prohibit the United States from financing aerial fumigation unless the Colombian government complied with these rules.

Illegal intelligence operations

Agencies that receive U.S. funds were caught conducting illegal surveillance, according to documents leaked to the Colombian magazine Semana in May. The targets were primarily journalists, human rights advocates, judicial personnel, and political opponents who criticized the government's handling of the drug war, investigated their involvement in human rights abuses or had visited guerrilla groups as part of their work.

Some of the targets were U.S. citizens, such as New York Times journalist Nick Casey, who published an investigation in May 2019 revealing orders by Colombia's top military commander, Major Gen. Nicacio Martinez, to double the number of kills in the fight against armed groups and drug traffickers. Similar orders had previously led to the military killing civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas in an effort to meet kill quotas, known as "false positives."

Lawyers at the José Alvear Restrepo Collective who represented human rights activists and victims of armed conflict in suits against the government, including victims of False Positives, opposition party senators and prominent Colombian journalists were also under surveillance.

Another amendment in the House bill that passed in July proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts

would trigger an investigation into the use of funds going back to 2002. The investigation would look at whether the funds have been used for illegal surveillance and if U.S. assistance is being used in accordance with Colombia's international human rights obligations, which would include the peace accords. If passed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence would have 120 days to give a report to Congress. In addition, it demands those responsible be prosecuted.

Deployment of U.S. military

The Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), created in 2017 to help take over training and advisory tasks from U.S. special forces in Afghanistan, was deployed on June 1 as part of the Trump administration's new strategy in the war on drugs that included sending Navy ships to the Caribbean. This is the first time SFAB has been deployed in the Americas.

Manual forced eradication, in which the army sprays down fields of coca by hand or tears them out of the ground, has increased since the arrival of U.S. military to Colombia in June. In that month 13,000 hectares were eradicated, according to comments by National Drug Control Policy Advisor James Carroll. From January to April just 17,000 hectares were eradicated.

The brigade of 53 military personnel were sent to assist with drug war operations in regions called "future zones" as part of a new plan announced by Colombian President Duque to stabilize conflict regions. A Colombian state court in Cundinamarca declared the deployment illegal on July 1 because it was not approved by Colombia's congress. Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said the government would fight the lower court's decision. President Duque argued that since the forces were not for on-the-ground combat operations he did not need to seek approval.

The future zones are located in Nariño, Catatumbo, Bajo Cauca, southern Córdoba, Arauca and Chiribiquete. They are all areas of concentrated coca production.

Catatumbo, located on the border with Venezuela, is of particular interest to the U.S. Analysts in Colombia worry that increasing militarization of the region by the United States, particularly the deployment of a large naval force to the region, will create a base from which to stage attacks on Venezuela. In an interview with The Associated Press, Pablo Beltrán, a leader of the National Liberation Army, ELN, a Marxist guerrilla group still in talks with the government, accused the U.S. of attacking the peace process and trying to start a war with Venezuela.

"It is worrying, to turn the Colombian territory into a theater for operations against Venezuela." León Valencia, director of the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation and former ELN guerilla, said. "There was an inferno in Colombia, some embers were left burning, and the Colombian government is throwing gasoline on them. Once again violence is greatly increasing."

The future-zones plan has drawn criticism from organizations monitoring the implementation of the peace process for its emphasis on military intervention in areas where peace accord measures, like the voluntary substitution of coca crops meant to offer alternatives to the illicit economy, have been neglected since Duque took office.

"His plan, the concept, its logic, is against the implementation of the peace agreements," Indepaz director Gonzalez Posso said. "In the future zones, they do not consider access to land for subsistence as fundamental elements. These zones, including where they plant coca, want pacts for voluntary substitution, access to land and other resources to develop production and escape from the trap of the drug war. ... The words peace agreements don't figure in the discourse of the future zones, and the president of the republic speaks of a route to peace with legality. But a replacement of the peace agreement is truly what is occurring in the future zones."


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