The United States Army is deploying a “company-sized” Special Forces team to support and advise Colombian anti-narcotics operations beginning June 1, 2020. Essentially, they are helping Colombian security forces fight unarmed campesinos by destroying over 235,000 families' only form of subsistence, growing coca leaf. All of this in the midst of a global pandemic.
According to the U.S Army’s Southern Command, “the team will work with host units in areas designated by the Colombian government as ‘priority areas’ where they will focus on logistics, services and intelligence capabilities”. One of these “host units” is the Fuerza de Tarea Especial Vulcano, responsible for countless human rights abuses, including the extrajudicial execution of 22-year old campesino leader, Alejandro Carvajal, on March 26th, 2020.
Many of these coca-growing communities in “priority areas” have already signed collective agreements with the Colombian government under the National Program for Illicit Crop Substitution (PNIS), a pillar of the 2016 peace accords. In these collective agreements, coca-growing families promise to gradually and voluntarily substitute their coca crops in exchange for basic subsidies and social services like drinking water, roads, schools, and technical training.
The Colombian government has failed to deliver even the most basic conditions for a sustainable transition away from coca cultivation, opting instead to defund the PNIS program and rely on lethal force. The U.S. and Colombian government claim they simply do not have the resources to fully fund the PNIS program, yet seem to have unlimited funds to send thousands of troops to remote areas of the country and carry out forced eradication operations that are far more costly than simply providing these citizens with basic services. During this pandemic, president Duque has invested 8 billion pesos (2 million USD) on 5 armored anti-riot vehicles for the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD). Duque has also used 840 thousand dollars of the funds destined for the implementation of the peace deal to improve his image online.
Why are Colombian Campesinos Growing Coca Leaf?
The neoliberal structural-adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, dominated by the United States and a few of its western allies, work to drive campesinos into industrial agro-export industries (sugarcane, coffee, cacao, palm oil, etc), producing not for local consumption but for international commodity markets.
These austerity policies also reduce spending on social programs, like much-needed infrastructure, healthcare and education service, cutting government deficits, and servicing foreign debt repayments by driving up exports. This leads to legislation that invariably favors transnational capital over small and medium-scale producers. These small and medium-sized producers are forced to give up their land as prices for basic inputs like fertilizer, seeds, and irrigation systems rise and cut into their already razor-thin profit margins. Big business then swoops in and consolidates massive landholdings and reorients production away from local needs towards global demand (mostly the United States and Europe).
The U.S-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, signed in 2011, cut back tariffs to allow U.S. agro exporters to flood Colombian markets with cheap, highly subsidized products, which massively undermined local small-scale production by campesinos. These economic conditions and the mass dispossession of small-scale farmers, unsurprisingly, resulted in an increase in coca production by Colombian campesinos, as their only comparative advantage.
The Drug War Industrial Complex
President Eisenhower warned the American people of a military-industrial complex because the profiteering from war was leading to a state of perpetual military expansionism. Succeeding presidents failed to heed his warning or apply it to the War on Drugs. According to Noam Chomsky, the war on drugs threatens democracy because:
“The Drug War is an effort to stimulate fear of dangerous people from who we have to protect ourselves. It is also a direct form of control of what are called “dangerous classes,” those superfluous people who don’t really have a function contributing to profit-making and wealth. They have to be somehow taken care of…So there are many factors making the Drug War a war against the poor, largely poor people of color. And those are the people they have to get rid of.”
Colombia's upsurge of violence and repression is not accidental; rather, it follows a distinct systemic pattern involving a series of international and national actors, an elusive transnational money trail, and carefully curated marketing strategies to legitimize abuse of power.
As Naomi Klein writes in No is Not Enough, the term “shock doctrine“ can be used to explain “the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters – to push through radical pro-corporate measures, often called “shock therapy”.
In Colombia’s case, the financial and institutional implementation of the U.S.’s war on drugs over the past four decades, has provided the perfect framework to legalize displacement and human rights violations through a series of neoliberal national structural reforms designed to give easier and greater entry to transnational corporations. And in particular, entry into land previously controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during Colombia’s decades-long civil war.
At the core of the so-called drug war lies the backbone of neoliberalism: unhindered resource extraction, privatization of public services and goods, and normalized rampant militarization through arms proliferation. Encircled by a vast financial net of U.S. funding, including over $10 billion allocated to Plan Colombia since 2000, the Colombian government collaborates with both transnational corporations — via foreign investment, Special Economic Zones, and Free Trade Agreements— and organized crime — with less than 1% of assassinations of social leaders facing prosecution. This has earned Colombia one of the worst impunity scores in Latin America according to the 2017 Global Impunity Index.
The operations of the United States special forces scheduled for this week will not make a dent on the unwinnable war on drugs; it will only allow the vicious cycle of poverty and violence to continue. Community members speculate these operations serve as a way to open the fertile land for extractive projects.
The violence inflicted on these rural communities will force them to leave their lands and settle in the poverty-stricken outskirts of urban centers, where they are free to live in abject poverty for the rest of their lives. As Dawn Paley argues in her book, Drug War Capitalism, the war on drugs serves mainly to boost the United States’ neoliberal economic model by opening new territories to privatization and foreign “investment”.
If the United States government is serious about tackling the issue of coca production in Colombia, it should spend more time promoting inclusive socio-political and economic structures that uplift campesino communities and less time supporting “host units” that kill them.
By Samantha Wherry & Evan King