How the U.S. Is Quietly Undermining Colombia's Fragile Peace Process

Through its reckless war on drugs, the U.S. is escalating tension and violence.

Cruz Bonlarron Martínez and Evan King

Thousands march in support of the Colombian government-FARC peace deal on October 7, 2016 in Medellin, Colombia. Fredy Builes/VIEWPRESS/Corbis via Getty Images

Colombia made an unexpected entrance into the 2020 U.S. presidential election when its far-right politicians endorsed President Trump, and Biden defended his role in crafting Plan Colombia in an op-ed in El Tiempo, one of the largest newspapers in Colombia. Even still, the role of the United States in Colombia, the fourth largest country in the Western Hemisphere, remains largely a mystery to most North Americans. 

But in Colombia, the role the United States plays in the country is part of the daily news cycle — and is a topic of interest in the everyday lives of Colombians. This role has been most pronounced in the U.S. counternarcotics policy in the country for the past few decades. Under the Trump administration this policy has been mixed with animosity toward the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Entrapping Peace Negotiators

After more than 50 years of civil war, the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to put an end to a deadly armed conflict that left over 262,000 people dead and roughly 7 million internally displaced. The agreement consisted of several key points aimed at beginning the process of building real and sustainable peace. One of these points included basic conditions for the political participation of the former FARC guerrillas and their leaders. The agreement guaranteed 10 seats in Colombia’s congress to former FARC guerrilla leaders, and dedicated an entire chapter to a nationwide project to allow small-scale coca, poppy and marijuana farmers to voluntarily substitute their illicit crops in exchange for social investment and government-sponsored substitution programs.

The most direct interference of the U.S. government is still being uncovered in the form of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation that involved top FARC peace negotiators and Colombian Vice President Óscar Naranjo, and even led to the tapping of then-sitting Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ phone. 

Early last month, El Espectador, one of Colombia’s largest newspapers, broke a story exposing over 24,000 secret audio recordings of a joint operation by the DEA and the Colombian attorney general’s office to entrap Ivan Márquez, who was the head of the FARC’s peace negotiation team in Havana, and Jesús Santrich, who was a also a part of the FARC’s peace negotiation team and a sitting member of Congress for the FARC Party. 

Undercover DEA agents posed as members of the Sinaloa Cartel with connections to Rafael Caro Quintero, the alleged murderer of DEA agent Kiki Camarena, one of the protagonists of the Netflix show Narcos: Mexico.” The undercover agents approached Marlon Marín, Iván Marquez’ nephew, with the aim of establishing contact with Márquez and Santrich. 

The agents were eventually able to get a meeting with Santrich, a blind and eccentric former FARC guerrilla, under the pretext that they were going to publish his book of poetry in Mexico. The DEA agents then got him to agree to send over books in a meeting secretly recorded on camera by the two undercover agents and, together with the attorney general’s office, have tried to use this manufactured evidence to frame Santrich for drug-trafficking and extradite him to the U.S. by claiming that he was referring to cocaine, not books. 

The attorney general’s continued attacks on Santrich over the DEA recorded video, coupled with the U.S. government’s insistence on extradition, eventually led both Santrich and Márquez to leave Congress and return to arms under the name FARC-Second Marquetalia, a new leftist guerilla group that claims to continue the war against the state and in defense of social movements while continuing to fight with other organizations for control of drug routes in various parts of the country. The new name is a not-so-subtle reference to the Marquetalia massacre, a U.S.-sponsored attack on autonomous peasant communities that led to the foundation of the FARC in 1964 and the start of the internal conflict. 

This DEA mission was a clear violation of Colombian sovereignty and an open affront to the movement for peace in Colombia. The DEA’s push to entrap and extradite two of the FARC’s top peace negotiators and sitting members of Colombian Congress put the whole peace agreement at risk. In the end, the operation led to a split in the FARC leadership, pushed Márquez and Santrich back into the drug trade, and increased the levels of violence in the poorest departments of Colombia. 

Despite this outcome, the U.S. embassy has defended the role that the DEA played in the operation, claiming that any accusation that the DEA did not act in accordance with Colombian law undermines joint efforts to fight transnational crime.” 

Forced Eradication

Harmful intervention is also evident in the U.S. government’s support for forced Coca eradication. The National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops is one of the cornerstones of the Colombian peace agreement, aimed at putting an end to the country’s 53-year armed conflict. The substitution program is part of a broader rural development agreement aimed at alleviating the social and economic inequities that led to the armed conflict in the first place. This alternative strategy sought to work hand-in-hand with small growers and rural communities across the country to manually eradicate coca plants. The voluntary substitution program has proven far more effective than the heavy-handed, militarized approaches being pushed by the U.S. government. Despite the lack of political will by the administration of President Iván Duque Márquez, the nationwide program has already led to the voluntary eradication of over 100,000 acres of coca by families enrolled in the program, with a staggeringly low 0.4% rate of recidivism, according to a recent UN report.

But the Trump administration has taken steps to undermine this program. On September 13, 2017, the Trump administration threatened to place Colombia on a blacklist” of countries deemed to not be doing enough to counter the global drug trade. Countries that are decertified face a range of U.S. sanctions, including the suspension of all U.S. foreign assistance not directly related to anti-narcotics programs. This would also include suspension of all assistance related to the peace accord implementation.

The threat of de-certification” was made to put extra pressure on the right-wing Duque administration to double down on forced eradication policies, which send U.S.-trained military commandos to manually eradicate coca crops in rural areas. These kinds of operations violate the voluntary substitution pacts signed by nearly 125,000 coca-growing families. They have also led to horrific human rights violations, as happened in 2017 in Tandil, Tumaco when state security forces opened fire on demonstrators, indiscriminately killing at least eight protesters and injuring at least 50 more.

A month after his election in 2018, under pressure from the Trump administration, President Duque announced plans to go even further by reinstating aerial glyphosate fumigations. This tactic involves crop dusting entire villages with an industrial-grade weed killer known as RoundUp — a Monsanto product declared in 2015 to be probably carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization. 

This is not the first time the U.S. government has encouraged aerial spraying. In 2015, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker published an op-ed in El Tiempo that declared, The majority of reduction in coca cultivation is due to aerial spraying,” while citing the health of Colombia’s rural poor as, at best, a secondary concern. A year later, then-Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez, who would later resign in May of 2019 due to his alleged role in a major corruption scandal, met with then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Immediately after the high-level meeting, Martínez publicly advocated for the return to aerial fumigations with glyphosate in Colombia. Martínez’s stance came despite the knowledge that securing a peace agreement with the FARC would hinge on the approval of a voluntary manual eradication program. For years, environmental NGOs, human rights groups and rural communities affected by glyphosate fumigations believed the policy amounted to chemical warfare, which makes any attempt to return to the harmful practice incompatible with a holistic approach to peace. 

In 2000, the United States doubled down on its funding for the forced eradication of coca plants — one of many raw materials in cocaine — with the implementation of Plan Colombia, a multi-billion dollar aid package, 80% of which went directly to the corrupt security forces between 2000 and 2007. In addition, this plan financed widespread human rights violations, such as torture, forced disappearances and the mass killings of thousands of innocent civilians by the Colombian armed forces. It also funneled money to paramilitary death squads responsible for the conflict’s most heinous atrocities. 

The U.S.-led push for increased forced eradication and a return to aerial glyphosate fumigations jeopardizes a successful program intended to assist the more than 230,000 Colombian families who depend on coca to gradually move towards other forms of sustainable agriculture. It also endangers the implementation of reforms in the peace agreement that are aimed at addressing one of the main causes of the decades-long conflict, access to land.

According to a 2017 Oxfam report, Colombia remains the most unequal country in Latin America in terms of land distribution, with less than 1% of the population controlling more than 80% of the land. In fact, this trend towards greater land concentration was aided by the multi-billion dollar U.S. escalation of the conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the percentage of large landholdings (over 1,200 acres) more than doubling, going from 25.6% of total land ownership in 1997 to 66% in 2014

Colombia Returns to War

As the United States undergoes a presidential transition, Colombia is experiencing a transition from an unstable peace to a new localized war with many more actors. In addition to Second Marquetalia, there are various groups of FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army, and right-wing paramilitaries that act in coordination with elements of the state, fighting for control of territories that have been abandoned by the government, leaving the people that live in those territories in the middle. Just this year alone, Colombia has seen 84 massacres and 292 killings of social leaders, the most recent of whom was Freiner Lemus, an indigenous leader who was assassinated on December 13. U.S. intervention in Colombia’s internal affairs will continue to exacerbate this violence until there is a serious rectification of the country’s legacy in the region. 

A recent report by the House Foreign Affairs Committee took some steps toward acknowledging the failure of the drug war and policies like Plan Colombia. But the report’s emphasis on reducing the foreign supply of illicit drugs,” providing law enforcement assistance, and imposing sanctions suggests a lighter version of the same militaristic policies that it is reportedly criticizing. And it fails to address the root cause of the problem: the lack of real alternatives for drug producing communities. 

The incoming Biden administration has the chance to change this legacy and support a lasting peace in Colombia by withdrawing DEA agents and U.S. military advisors from the country, supporting the implementation of the peace accords, and decriminalizing coca cultivation. Time will tell whether President-elect Biden chooses a new direction or repeats the failures of the long history of U.S. intervention in Colombia.

The authors of this piece are affiliated with Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, which provides physical and political accompaniment to movements for justice and environmental sustainability in the Americas. 

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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.

Evan King is a former Co-Director of the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective’s Colombia Program.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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