The US-Led Drug War and Human Rights Violations in Colombia Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Jul 23, 2020
4:58 PM

In this  August 9, 2018 file photo, a man walks past a graffiti that reads “Let’s paint for peace, for Tibú” during the visit of Colombian President Iván Duque to Tibú, Norte de Santander department, Colombia, . (Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP/Getty Images)

BOGOTÁ — In the midst of the worst biological crisis in a century, small-scale farmers in the northeastern Catatumbo region of Colombia are facing tragedy.

The Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo organization —the small-scale farmer association of Catatumbo known as Ascamcat— announced the massacre of eight people on July 18 by the paramilitary group “Los Rastrojos” in the Municipality of Tibú, verified by the Ombudsman’s office the following day.

This has led to the displacement of at least 400 people from the area.

Other reports have said that seven people were killed with 120 people displaced.

One of the victims was Ernestor Águilar Barreras, a 34-year-old social leader and Ascamcat member  who was also part of the Coordinación Nacional de Cultivadores de Coca, Ampola y Marihuana (National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Growers, Coccam) organization. One of Coccam’s chief demands of is the substitution of illicit crops so these small-scale farmers can transition to the legal economy.

“We, the National Coordination of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Growers, Coccam, have very grave concerns regarding what’s happening in Catatumbo, North Sandander,” a Coccam representative said. “Today, there was a massacre and the government has ignored the petitions we’ve been making, in which we were telling the government to help so that this wouldn’t happen.”

Coccam’s concerns raise questions in light of a 2019 leak to the Colombian newspaper Semana, where Colombian general Diego Villegas, commander of the military forces in the same Catatumbo region, said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights, is finished. Here what we have to do is body count. If we have to ally ourselves with los Pelusos, we’re going to ally ourselves with them. We already speak with them, to fight the ELN. If we have to assassinate, we assassinate, and if the problem is money, well, there’s money for that.” The Colombian military has a history of collaboration with paramilitary groups in Colombia’s internal armed conflict.

Catatumbo is one of five “future zones” in Colombia—special militarized zones where 55% of the country’s illicit crops are grown. Some of the forced eradication operations which resulted in deaths and injuries took place in these areas.

Between 2013-2017, coca cultivation in Colombia increased 160%, according to State Department estimates, and remained high in 2018 and 2019. The Trump Administration put heavy pressure on the Colombian government to do more to fight illicit crops, threatening to decertify the country in 2017, and demanding this past March that the country restart aerial fumigations.

On April 1, the Trump Administration held a press conference to lay out how they plan to escalate the drug war regionally.

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro was indicted on drug charges and warships were sent to the Caribbean. There were plans to  send U.S. troops to the Colombia’s “future zones” before a Colombian court suspended operations.

The U.S. has allocated a quarter billion dollars of financial assistance to Colombia for counter-narcotic programs in 2020 which include money for forced eradications.

Forced eradication can be done manually, such as when soldiers go and pull up the plants, or it can be done aerially. Aerial fumigation had been suspended since 2015 after the World Health Organization said that glyphosate, the active herbicide used in aerial fumigations, was probably carcinogenic. Fumigations have also been linked in dermatological problems, miscarriages, and a negative environmental impact. Bayer, which owns Monsanto —whose Roundup herbicide uses glyphosate as the active ingredient— is trying to settle lawsuits in the U.S. courts for almost $11 billion which allege glyphosate causes cancer. This is still in litigation.

Since March, and before the July 18 massacre, the Colombian military had carried out a series of “forced eradication” missions in coca growing regions, which have resulted in six dead and dozens injured.

On July 3, one farmer was killed and three wounded by Colombian police during an operation in the southern department of Putumayo.

“There are also reports of disappeared people but we’re trying to do a verification mission with social leaders accompanied by personnel of the departmental government,” said Yuli Artunduaga of the Mesa Regional de Organizaciones del Putumayo (Regional Roundtable of Organizations of Putumayo- MERO).

Apart from the serious health and environmental impacts, neither aerial or manual  eradication is effective over the long term as small-scale farmers plant more coca due to a lack of alternatives. In particular, the effects of aerial fumigations are too small to justify the cost.

Who’s Actually Doing the Growing?

Those bearing the violence aren’t hardened drug traffickers. The people doing the actual growing of coca are some of Colombia’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. People on both ends of the drug supply chain —those doing the growing and those doing the consuming— tend to be vulnerable populations who the police and the army brutalize.

“These territories have been marginalized since the founding of the country years ago, and suffer historic state abandonment,” said Arnobi Zapata, a Coccam national delegate. “There aren’t highways or basic rights such as access to healthcare, drinking water, or education. One of the repercussions of this is that today, there really aren’t opportunities or economic alternatives.”

In fact, coca is a structural part of the Colombian economy in as many as 17 departments, making the crop part of the subsistence for up to 230,000 families. With this money, small-scale farmers can pay for local teachers and healthcare. Coca cultivation also allows for active political participation, as youth will often be part of committees in charge of organizing the harvest.

Coccam launched a campaign in June called Rostros que siembran (Faces who grow) to destigmatize those who grow coca.

“The campaign came out of the idea that in recent months the discourse of the national government has been worsening, saying the responsibility to defeat drug trafficking is only the responsibility of the small and medium growers, presenting them as ‘illegals’ and carrying-out operations against them,” said Luzmery Panche, indigenous Nasa and participant in the Coccam campaign. “For us, it is clear that there wasn’t willingness to substitute the illegal economy with the agreements that they haven’t fulfilled.”

Coccam demands that the Colombian government fulfill its commitments in point four of the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC-EP, which addresses illicit crop cultivation. The peace deal created the Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos (National Integrated Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops, PNIS), a program designed to help small-scale farmers voluntarily stop growing coca through a combination of immediate subsidies with medium to long term state investment projects.

The state hasn’t fulfilled its commitments for illicit crop substitution.

“The implementation of the peace accord isn’t advancing, and the hopes of change that the families who started this process are dimming. They have been without economic sustainment and alternatives haven’t arrived,” Zapata said.

“They treat us like we’re allied with guerrilla groups, or allied with paramilitary groups,” said José Hernández, another participant in the campaign.

But as so often happens in war, “many times we get caught in the crossfire,” added Wilder Mora, another participant.

Forced eradications, such as the one on July 3, are taking place in municipalities which have signed voluntary eradication agreements with the government in the framework of PNIS.


If it’s ineffective and dangerous, why are the U.S. and Colombian governments allied in insisting on forced eradication, including unsafe aerial fumigation with glyphosate?

“I don’t even look at it though an attempt to address the issue of cocaine trafficking, which we know is a joke, but through a counterinsurgency lens, which they’ve clearly learned from the US, even more with the SFAB brigade coming here. They’re trained in counterinsurgency. Period,” said Evan King of Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective.

In a 1999 essay, former special forces officer Stan Goff said the counter-narcotics effort was a “flimsy cover story for beefing up the capacity of armed forces who had lost the confidence of the population through years of abuse.” Even before its implementation, Goff saw through the 2000-2015 multi-billion dollar “Plan Colombia” for what it really was—counterinsurgency.

In fact, there is a significant correlation of Colombian brigades that received U.S. military aid with those that committed “false positives,” the practice of killing a civilian and dressing them up as a guerrilla to count as a combat kill. A 2014 report “showed that Army brigades that received a moderate as compared to low level of U.S. assistance correlated to ten more executions per brigade in the two years following assistance. While the analysis does not show that U.S. aid specifically caused or encouraged executions, it casts strong doubt on claims that U.S. assistance improved human rights performance.”

U.S. policies are having a concrete an immediate impact on small-scale farmers in Colombia.

“The people of the United States have to know the humanitarian crisis that is worsening in these territories with operations of forced eradication and evictions of small-scale farmers from national parks without any kind of guarantees about the fulfillment of substitution agreements,” said Luzmery Panche, “and all of the consequences this has generated, such as malnutrition, school dropouts, increase in forced recruitment, and many other consequences.”

In fact, the aerial fumigation kills not only coca, but food crops as well, which can lead to forced displacement. This, as well as an increase in violence between illegal armed groups, led to massive displacements in the southern departments of Putumayo and Nariño during the early 2000s.

“Go back to the counterinsurgency doctrines of the Vietnam War. Why did they use agent orange? To defoliate,” King said, “They’re attacking the food supply, and they’re attacking the economic means. In order to depopulate by force. Mass depopulations of parts of the country through chemical warfare.”

It is no coincidence that really strong civil society organizations, such as Ascamcat or Coccam, happen to be located in some of these future zones.

King believes the government could view these communities as a threat. “People in coca growing communities are extremely active politically. There, political participation is through the roof. Clearly, that is a result of popular organization in these areas, and that’s a threat in an election. They could swing an election.”


Thomas Power is an investigator and writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. He is a candidate for a master’s in Political Studies from Colombia’s National University and was an International Human Rights accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation. Twitter: @ahbueno55.