Criticism of Colombia's peace process with the FARC guerrilla group by US officials and experts at a recent congressional hearing underscored simmering disagreements between the two close allies about how to handle one of the region's most important security issues.
During a September 12 US congressional hearing entitled "Adapting U.S. Counternarcotics Efforts in Colombia," current and former officials criticized the drug policies implemented by Colombia under the terms of a 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
The session began with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley asserting that the impact of the FARC peace agreement on Colombia's cocaine trade has been "staggering." The congressman suggested that concessions on drug control issues by the Colombian government during the negotiations contributed to an increase of 110,000 hectares in coca cultivation in subsequent years, as well as last year's record production of 910 metric tons of cocaine
William Brownfield, the State Department's outgoing Assistant Secretary of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), echoed the idea that Colombia's fight against drug trafficking has been sacrificed in recent years in order to obtain peace with the FARC, while blaming the now-demobilized guerrilla group for the uptick in coca cultivation.
"Widespread reporting indicates FARC leaders urged coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that the Colombian government's investment in the wake of its agreement with the FARC and subsidies would focus on regions with the greatest quantities of illicit crops," he said.
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Reiterating past comments, Brownfield critiqued Colombia's current policy of combining forced manual eradication of coca with voluntary crop substitution programs for coca farmers. In addition to calling for a crackdown on protests by coca farmers, the official argued that the FARC remained involved in the coca business and is manipulating coca control efforts.
"My belief is that what has happened is that the FARC has taken over or created a number of front groups for coca growers. The [Colombian] government in turn is negotiating voluntary eradication agreements with those groups, so that the FARC has basically captured this process, and we are not getting the results that we want," Brownfield stated.
"We at INL will actually support some alternative development, but our condition is: no involvement by the FARC at all," Brownfield said. (INL is barred from working with the FARC due to the group's continued inclusion on a State Department list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.)
Following the hearing, Colombia's government responded by affirming that it had eradicated 62 percent of the 50,000 hectares it aims to manually eradicate this year, reported El Tiempo.
In addition to drug control policies, participants at the hearing also discussed the Colombian government's promise not to extradite FARC members as part of the peace deal.
Amid a general consensus that this provision is problematic, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed concern that the FARC would continue to engage in criminal activities, even as the demobilized guerrilla group transitions into its new role as a political party.
"I don't believe for one second that the FARC as I have watched it for 17 years is going to become a peaceful, law-abiding institution," she said.
Feinstein even went so far as to propose to make US aid to Colombia "conditioned on extradition when the US requests it."
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Opinions voiced during the hearing do not necessarily have direct implications for official US policy. But they add to signs of growing tensions between the policy preferences of important US actors and the Colombian government's preferred approach to the peace process.
For instance, Grassley and Brownfield both critiqued the Colombian government's decision to end aerial fumigation of coca crops in 2015, blaming this move for contributing to the record levels of cocaine production seen in recent years. And more broadly, they argued that Colombia should put more emphasis on coca eradication.
However, accepting this advice could prove detrimental to the peace process. Forced eradication has sparked violent protests in coca-growing regions, fueling resentment against the government and potentially driving community members to align themselves with criminal elements. And there are many socioeconomic factors beyond eradication that have contributed to booming coca cultivation. The Colombian government has made attempts to address these issues, but so far, initiatives like crop substitution programs have struggled to achieve positive results in part due to a continued heavy focus on eradication.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
The disagreements over the extradition issue are also concerning for the future of the peace process. Accepting US extradition requests for FARC members would almost certainly severely exacerbate an already serious problem of dissidence from the peace deal among former FARC fighters. As President Santos highlighted during the peace negotiations, FARC members have no incentive to hand in their weapons and demobilize "only to go and die in a US jail."
Feinstein's threat to cut aid funding to Colombia over this issue is likely alarming to Colombian officials, who have been scrambling to secure international assistance for the peace deal's implementation.
Brownfield previously warned that political friction related to the peace process could cause "problems" in the relationship between the United States and Colombia, which have long been very close allies, particularly on security issues. If these disagreements escalate to the point where the United States gets serious about witholding hundreds of millions of dollars in planned aid money, the Colombian government will be faced with some very difficult dilemmas about whether to change course with regard to its approach to the peace deal.
Beyond the tensions surrounding the peace process, it is also telling that the hearing, meant to look ahead to the future of US anti-drug policy in Colombia, focused extensively on the FARC but not as much on the main actors in Colombia's drug trade -- crime groups known as "bandas criminales," or BACRIM. The Colombian government, on the other hand, considers powerful BACRIM groups like the Urabeños the most important organized crime threat facing the country.