In latest $740 billion defense bill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a progressive ally send a warning to one of the US’s closest allies

The $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act passed by the US House of Representatives last week includes a warning from progressive Democrats to the US and Colombia over the decades-long fight against drugs and crime.

Amendments from Reps. Jim McGovern and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez require reporting on the use of US military assistance to commit abuses and restrict funding for aerial fumigation to eradicate coca crops. Senate and House versions of the NDAA still have to reconciled before the bill can go the White House.

“Over the last 20 years, we have seen reports that illegal surveillance against human-rights defenders and journalists and judicial authorities and the political opposition have become commonplace,” McGovern told Insider on Thursday.

“The point of this amendment is to make it very clear to the Colombian government that people are fed up,” McGovern said. “None of us want to be supporting institutions that do this kind of stuff. So this is a warning signal.”

‘A first step’

US troops Colombia explosive ordnance disposal

US sailors and Colombian troops discuss explosive-ordnance disposal techniques in Coveñas Colombia, August 21, 2018. US Army/Pfc. James Whitaker

The latest scandal for Colombia’s military — which has received billions in aid and decades of training from the US — stems from a May 1 report that army intelligence units were compiling dossiers on possible whistleblowers, politicians, judges, activists, and journalists, including US citizens.

Such allegations led Colombia to disband its intelligence agency, known as DAS, in 2011. By then, at least 20 current and former DAS officials had been jailed.

“At some point, you can’t buy the … excuse that this is just a few bad apples,” Robert Karl, a historian of conflict in Colombia, said in an interview earlier this year. “These kinds of abuses are systematic. They’re tied into other patterns of illegality and violence within the military.”

McGovern’s amendment states that no military or intelligence aid provided through US security assistance programs should be used for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering” against civilians and that the US “should consistently and at all times promote the protection of internationally-recognized human rights in Colombia.”

It also directs the State Department and other agencies to submit a report within four months of the NDAA’s passage that details whether and how US assistance was used in illegal activity.

Joseph Dunford Colombia

US Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaves a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, in Bogota, March 10, 2016. US Defense Department/Navy PO2 Dominique A. Pineiro

“This is probably one of the most comprehensive requests of a report on Colombia that I can ever remember,” McGovern said. “This report is a first step. We need to see what happened, and we need to figure out what to do in response, but clearly there’s something wrong here.”

The report will also detail what the US and Colombian governments have done in response to that misconduct.

“If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now,” McGovern said. “Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable … Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”

“When you surveil human-rights defenders, for example, or journalists, they’re doing it not just to monitor and find out information,” McGovern added. “We know that those very journalists and those very human-rights defenders become targets.”

Killings of social leaders and former rebels have intensified since a 2016 peace deal between the government and the left-wing FARC rebel group. More than 100 social leaders and activists have been killed so far this year.

“Neither our judicial authorities, the military, or any government has a good track record when it comes to holding our men in uniform accountable,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of advisory firm Colombia Risk Analysis. “So I think [more scrutiny is] welcome, but its success is seen with skepticism.”

‘A destructive tactic’

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A Colombian national Police plane sprays glyphosate in the jungle near San Jose del Guaviare to wipe out illegal coca crops, January 6, 1998. AP Photo/Javier Casella

Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment prohibits use of NDAA funds for aerial fumigation in Colombia without “demonstrated actions by the Government of Colombia to adhere to national and local laws and regulations.”

Colombia halted US-backed aerial fumigation to eradicate coca, cocaine’s base ingredient, in 2015 over public-health concerns.

Colombian President Ivan Duque, at Trump’s urging, seeks to restart fumigation and is navigating court-imposed restrictions, including consultations with communities living where it wants to spray, to do so.

“Aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians,” and Ocasio-Cortez was “pleased that the amendment was passed by a voice vote,” a spokesperson said.

The measure seems welcomed by Colombians who’ve long opposed fumigation, Guzmán said, noting that consultations will be hindered by the coronavirus and that Trump’s threats to decertify Colombia as counter-drug partner puts more pressure on Duque.

Karl said continued emphasis on aerial fumigation reflects a lack of commitment to the 2016 peace accord, and McGovern said that instead of more counter-drug training for Colombia’s military, he’d prefer US actions “supporting the implementation of the peace process.”

“We finally have a peace agreement that has a lot of good things in it — that, if in fact the agreement were implemented, would provide Colombians a better future,” McGovern said. “I think our focus ought to be on that.”