A seemingly minor provision of the massive defense spending package currently under consideration in Congress could have major implications for the war on drugs in Latin America — if it manages to remain part of the final bill.
An amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) would bar the Pentagon from funding, conducting or assisting aerial fumigation operations in Colombia, a practice the country has used to target the lucrative coca crops that are harvested to produce cocaine.
Colombia suspended aerial fumigation operations that used the chemical glyphosate in 2015, after the World Health Organization produced studies linking it to cancer. But the Colombian government has at times sought to restart the practice in response to spikes in cocaine production — moves that have won support from the United States, one of the largest markets for illegal Colombian cocaine.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro, a leftist who took office this year, has promised to maintain the current prohibition on aerial fumigation as part of a broader overhaul of the country’s approach to illegal narcotics and cocaine in particular.
The amendment, however, would effectively give U.S. blessing to Petro’s prohibition against aerial fumigation. The U.S. has been a staunch supporter — and funder — of Colombia’s aggressive war on drugs, and it does not regard glyphosate to be as cancerous or as dangerous as WHO and many European countries do. The U.S. has in the past stood by the safety of aerial fumigation programs, and former President Donald Trump pushed Colombia to resume the operations to curb cocaine production.
The amendment is one of two related to Colombia that Ocasio-Cortez attached to the House version of the NDAA; another would direct the State Department to produce a report on the United States’ role in the brutal civil war that engulfed Colombia for more than 50 years as the government battled narcotraffickers and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a communist rebel group.
The United States spent billions of dollars funding Colombian military and police efforts during the conflict, and it continued to support the government’s efforts even as U.S. officials feared that the Colombian military was involved in extrajudicial killings and was working with right-wing paramilitaries, as The New York Times reported this year.
Both amendments were part of the defense authorization bill passed by the House in July. But neither is in the Senate version, and it’s unclear whether they will survive negotiations between House and Senate leaders over the final text of the NDAA that could ultimately become law.
A coalition of progressive organizations this week pushed lawmakers to keep the amendments in the final version of the bill, arguing in a letter that they would help “strengthen the United States partnership with Colombia by taking steps to rectify harmful policies of the past.”
The aerial fumigation amendment would “support the Colombian government’s efforts” to end the practice while also “definitively ending the era” of U.S. support for it, the groups said in the letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). Reed and Smith serve as the chairs of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, respectively.
Isabel Zuleta, an environmental activist who won election to the Colombian Senate this year, also called on Congress to adopt the amendments into law.
“Prohibiting U.S. support for aerial fumigation and requiring the Pentagon to share information about human rights abuses during our armed conflict are critical parts of turning the page on the harmful policies of the past,” she said in a text message to HuffPost. “I hope that Congressional leadership and the White House will ensure that these provisions are signed into law.”
Rural Colombians have in the past said that fumigation led to the contamination of local water supplies and ill health effects in their communities. Opponents, including former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, have also pointed to increases in coca production to argue that the practice has been ineffective. Human rights groups have similarly pushed for economic assistance and other programs to help provide alternatives to illegal coca cultivation, instead of practices that simply aim to eradicate crops.
The other amendment, the groups argued, would help strengthen the truth and reconciliation commission that was established after Colombian voters in 2016 approved a peace agreement between the government and the FARC rebels.
The commission’s initial report, released this year, criticized the United States’ role in the conflict, during which the U.S. spent at least $12 billion arming and training the military.
“The consequences of this concerted and largely U.S.-driven approach,” the document said, caused a “hardening of the conflict in which the civilian population has been the main victim.”
The report also documented rampant human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and disappearances, by both sides in the conflict. But scrutiny of the government’s actions, in particular, led former President Iván Duque and other conservative politicians to criticize the report and many of its proposed reforms to police and the military.
Petro has backed the commission and its report, and since taking office he has attempted to kick-start negotiations between the government and smaller rebel groups that neither took part in the peace process nor accepted the resulting deal in 2016.
The commission relied heavily on declassified documents from the United States, but the amendment calls for a broader accounting of the U.S. role in the conflict. It would direct the State Department to publicly document U.S. government knowledge of the Colombian military’s involvement in extrajudicial killings, kidnappings or other human rights abuses, and to produce more information on U.S. military partnerships with Colombia during the conflict.
The amendment’s inclusion in the final defense package, the organizations said, would help Petro’s government and the truth commission “provide accountability for human rights violations committed during this period.”
The letter was authored and signed by a coalition of progressive groups that focus on foreign affairs and Latin America, including the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Oxfam, Just Foreign Policy and the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
The NDAA is likely to receive a vote this year, with Democrats pushing to finalize and pass it before the end of the current Congress.