The Growing Movement to End U.S. Complicity in Colombia's Human Rights Abuses

Activists are calling on Congress to freeze funding to the country’s repressive security forces, and House progressives have taken note.

Cruz Bonlarron Martínez

Colombian riot police fire tear gas at protesters in Cali on May 10, 2020. Luis Robayo / Getty Images

On April 28, thousands of Colombians poured into the streets to protest Colombian President Iván Duque’s so-called Sustainable Solidarity Law — a package of regressive taxes, created at the behest of Colombia’s creditors, that would have increased the cost of food and basic services. Under pressure, Duque withdrew the proposal on May 2, but the paro nacional (national strike) highlighted the country’s growing inequalities and what many perceive as the failure of the Colombian government to address them. 

In recent weeks, Colombia’s estadillo social (social outburst) has given way to a low-intensity civil conflict that has pitted police, military, paramilitaries, and vigilantes against workers and protesters alike. The human rights organization Indepaz reports that these forces have killed at least 70 people while injuring and disappearing many more. The conflict itself comes less than five years after a slim majority of voters narrowly rejected a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). (Then-President Juan Manuel Santos signed the agreement anyway, exacerbating the country’s political divide.)

At the height of the demonstrations in late May, Colombia’s vice president and minister of foreign affairs, Marta Lucía Ramírez, made a multi-day visit to the United States in an effort to repair her country’s tarnished image abroad. During the visit, she met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Organization of American States (OAS), and various U.S. officials to reaffirm support for Colombia’s security forces — and to procure much-needed Covid-19 vaccines. But many in Washington, D.C., including key members of Congress and several non-governmental organizations, are starting to question whether the United States should continue to finance a Colombian security apparatus that flagrantly abuses human rights.

Criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the Beltway

The United States has been the number one trainer in human rights for the Colombian police,” says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the director for the Andes of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), one of the leading organizations advocating for Human Rights in Latin America. The U.S. has been promoting the Colombian police as an example to be used in Central America and other parts of the world. So all of this is contrary to what they should be doing.”

Sánchez-Garzoli, who is based in Washington, D.C., has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Colombia’s client-state relationship with the United States. She maintains that by supplying weapons to the Duque government (and those of his predecessors), the United States has facilitated human rights abuses on the part of Colombia’s military and national police.

The only way Colombia is gonna listen is if it fears having its aid cut off or frozen,” Sánchez-Garzoli says. The only way you’re gonna get police reform is if the United States steps in, because Colombia hasn’t listened to the UN or the OAS. If you want to push Colombia to stop the violence, you need U.S. involvement.”

Capitol Hill has begun to take notice. On May 14, following demonstrations in Colombia and the United States, 55 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Blinken urging the State Department to pressure Colombia’s security forces to deescalate, to suspend direct assistance to Colombia’s national police, and to freeze arms sales to Colombia’s riot police, among other measures. 

Progressive Democrats have repeated calls to defund Colombian security forces in the weeks and months since. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose district has a significant Colombian population, said in a May 24 town hall that the Biden administration should follow the Leahy Law, which prohibits the United States from providing aid to any foreign security force that commits human rights abuses with impunity. During a tense exchange with Blinken on June 7, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) even claimed that the State Department has shown a bias against left-leaning governments in Latin America by giving right-wing governments like Colombia’s the kid-glove treatment.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who was himself held captive by the FARC while backpacking along the Colombian-Panamanian border, and which he claims allows him to see different perspectives on the conflict, issued the following statement to In These Times:

The Colombian National Police’s violent repression of protests has killed dozens of Colombians, with even more that have disappeared.’ This violence cannot be supported by U.S. aid, so along with my colleagues Representatives McGovern, Grijalva, & Schakowsky, we led a letter of over 50 of our colleagues to demand Secretary Blinken suspend U.S. direct assistance to Colombian National Police. Specifically, we want an end to U.S. commercial sales of weapons, equipment, services, or training to ESMAD riot police and to freeze any grants or sales of riot or crowd control equipment to Colombian police until clear human rights benchmarks are established and met. If the United States is providing aid to our allies, we have a duty to ensure that aid is not being used to abuse human rights or kill civilians.

The diaspora takes to the streets

Outside of Congress, a protest movement is slowly gaining force. Since the end of April, the Colombian diaspora has taken to the streets in major U.S. cities including New York, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

In South Florida, which has long been a haven for some of the most reactionary forces in the Latin American community, Colombianos Progresistas de Florida (Progressive Colombians of Florida) gathered hundreds of Colombian Americans in downtown Miami on May 8 to rally support for Colombia’s national strike and call for an end to state repression. A month later, more than 300 people from across the country marched on Washington, D.C., to protest Colombia’s human rights abuses, as well as U.S. role as the Duque regime’s chief enabler.

Cesar Bowley Castillo and María Camila Driaza Guzmán, two Colombian diaspora activists in Los Angeles and members of the newly formed collective Colombia Despierta LA, believe these demonstrations are just the beginning. As Bowley Castillo tells it, these kinds of demonstrations have encouraged groups like Colombia Despierta to make more structural demands like the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, the cancelation of Colombia’s foreign debt, and an end to the U.S. military’s presence in the country. He says that the nascent movement also seeks to form broader coalitions with the struggle for Palestinian liberation, Black Lives Matter, and the Indigenous Alliance. 

The idea was to bring visibility and awareness of what’s happening in Colombia, and to provide a platform so the paro (strike) has a more international [audience],” says Driaza Guzmán of the recent protests. “[They] let people understand the implications of U.S. [foreign policy] back home.”

On May 19, activists from such groups as Colombia Despierta LA and Colombianos en Los Angeles succeeded in pushing the Los Angeles City Council to issue a resolution denouncing Colombia’s human rights violations and calling for the federal government to enforce the Leahy Law. It’s a victory they hope will inspire other cities across the country. 

Applying pressure to the Biden administration

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden promoted himself as the architect of Plan Colombia — a U.S. military aid package that Congress itself admits has failed to combat the narcotics trade, and has created gross human rights abuses. (These abuses included a false positives” scandal in which the Colombian military murdered innocent civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas in an effort to record higher casualty counts and receive bonus pay.)

But Biden has shown a willingness to embrace more progressive policies when it comes to domestic issues like pandemic relief. Advocates like Sánchez-Garzoli hold out hope that a burgeoning protest movement can persuade his administration to change course on Colombia as well. 

For 20 years, the U.S. Congress has approved money for Colombia [and its peace process],” Sánchez-Garzoli says. For that investment not to go to hell, Congress has to speak out about the human rights abuses happening now. Colombia is on the brink of another type of civil war. There [have to be] efforts to cut and condition aid.”

Cruz Bonlarron Martínez is an independent writer and researcher currently living in Colombia. He writes on politics, human rights, and culture in Latin America and the Latin American diaspora. You can follow him on twitter @cruzbonmar.

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