The United States and Colombia’s first leftist government are navigating a new relationship against the backdrop of a truth commission report that was scathingly critical of both countries’ policies and conduct during six decades of conflict in Colombia. The report outlined, among other failures, how U.S. policies helped cement a destructive Colombian national security doctrine. The findings make clear that the only way the two countries can carve a more constructive joint path forward is to acknowledge longstanding struggles. They must grapple especially with legacy issues such as a colonial mindset and a pernicious security paradigm dominated by counterinsurgency strategies and the so-called “war on drugs.”

The 9,000-page, 13-volume report from Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (Truth Commission), released in June, documented the toll of the fighting between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and made recommendations for how to avoid repeating the pattern in the future. The commission based its findings on years of research and testimony from more than 28,000 citizens, including survivors, perpetrators, officials, and experts. Among the commission’s sources were more than 13,000 declassified U.S. government documents gathered by the Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization National Security Archive and published on the website of the Truth Commission.

Among the commission’s many criticisms of the Colombian government and the U.S. role as its erstwhile partner in the conflict was the persistent U.S. demands to extradite certain rebel leaders as part of the “war on drugs.” That pattern continued even after the landmark 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC that guaranteed that former FARC guerrillas who laid down their arms and agreed to appear before a special war crimes court (known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP for its Spanish acronym) would not be extradited. The commission clearly saw the extradition push as a spoiler of the peace agreement with the FARC, some of whose leaders have become disillusioned and returned to the fight.

Against the backdrop of that report, Colombia’s first leftist president, former rebel Gustavo Petro, took office in August, pledging to carry out the commission’s recommendations and even reach a deal with another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) to extend the 2016 peace terms to them as well. That promise will face severe tests, as became apparent when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Bogotá last month.

The peace agreement’s pledge to protect former rebels from extradition if they meet certain conditions was a stance that then-U.S. envoy to the Colombian Peace Negotiations Bernard Aronson supported in 2015, after the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to set up a transitional justice system. “Colombia is the one that decides who extradites,” Aronson asserted in an interview with El Tiempo. But U.S. actions and statements since then have contradicted that position. And the divergence with the Petro government emerged clearly during Blinken’s visit. In a joint press conference with Petro after their meeting, Blinken said the U.S. believes extradition is “one important tool to help dismantle the transnational criminal organizations that do so much damage to both of our societies,” Reuters reported. But Petro was critical of the current U.S.-Colombian extradition agreement, and Blinken only said, “we’ll continue to work closely together on this.”

A U.S. Spoiler to 2016 Peace Agreement

One of the commission’s findings was that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) between 2016 and 2018 entrapped ‘Jesús Santrich,’ the nom de guerre of a former FARC commander who was one of their leaders negotiating the 2016 peace agreement. Intercepted intelligence presented by the commission shows that DEA officers, with the help of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, posed as Mexican drug traffickers to negotiate with an associate of Santrich to receive cocaine. The result was a U.S. federal indictment of Santrich for drug crimes.

Under the peace agreement, Santrich had a guarantee that he would not be extradited to the United States for any crime committed before 2016. However, legal uncertainty developed because the entrapment, a tactic that is not legal in Colombia, began just after signing the agreement, and the United States did not hand evidence to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace to establish the nature of the alleged crimes committed by Santrich. During this quagmire, Colombia captured Santrich in April 2018 at the request of U.S. authorities. After legal maneuvers by the defendant, the JEP in 2019 ordered him released while his extradition was decided. In 2020, Santrich posted a video that went viral on social media, broadcasting his decision to take up arms again. He was later killed by an unknown assailant in 2021.

For the Truth Commission, this episode is another example of continued state persecution of former combatants even after a hard-fought peace agreement that aimed to rebuild relations between the two sides. According to the Truth Commission, the entrapment and the indictment of Santrich were the tipping point that cracked many rebels’ confidence in the peace process. The legal uncertainty about possible extraditions, as well as a high level of distrust in the Prosecutor’s Office and in the government’s ability to fulfill the accord’s terms led thousands of ex-combatants to take up arms again, undermined the political process of “Comunes,” the political party they had formed, and encouraged the use of violence among ex-combatants, as demonstrated by the more than 357 killings of former FARC-EP combatants.

In an Aug. 25 press conference in Bogotá during the visit of Rahul Gupta, the White House director of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Francisco Palmieri denied any U.S. interference in the Colombian Peace Process. “There was no effort to trap the Peace Agreement. With respect to the specific information the [Truth Commission Final Report] talks about, we believe [the ‘Santrich case’] is an example of how the U.S. and Colombian governments have worked together to pursue illicit trafficking cases to their end,” Palmieri said.

Palmieri is right. The strategic alliance between Colombia and the United States against drug trafficking is longstanding. But the commission saw this “cooperation” in a different light. “Colombia has accepted the discursive framework that the U.S. government has proposed since the 1950s: first, the war against communism; secondly, the war on drugs. Negotiated alignment with U.S. discourse has translated into cooperation for Colombia, including military [cooperation],” the commission wrote. Thus, the panel recommended ending the war on drugs which, as heir to the counterinsurgency strategies of the Cold War, created security policies that exacerbated the war in Colombia. In the words of the commission, “The war on drugs is one of the main factors in the persistence of conflict.”

This is not the first time that a Latin American truth commission has criticized the U.S. approach to international relations with Latin American countries as counterproductive, but it is perhaps the strongest rebuke of U.S. behavior in the region from such a panel. Moreover, these findings come at a time of transition in the hemisphere, which is causing diplomats, policymakers, and international aid agencies to rethink their policies on Colombia and its neighbors.

Petro joins a new crop of leaders in the region who were elected to create strategies to confront elitist Latin American politics and offer alternatives to neoliberal policies and traditional national security doctrines. As Christopher Sabatini recently noted in Foreign Affairs, offering such alternatives must be a U.S. priority in order to maintain constructive relations with these countries.

A Crucial Step: Acknowledging the Horrors of the Past

To achieve this, the commission’s final report offers not only critiques of U.S. foreign policy but also explanations for the leftward turn of political change in Latin America today. Part of the commission’s focus in its report was a security paradigm in Colombia that focused on what the State considered internal enemies – usually leftists, peasants, trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities – and “red zones” where such individuals and groups lived or operated that the government believed had to be pacified.

Data from the Transitional Justice Evaluation Team (TJET), made up of researchers at Harvard University and the University of Toronto, show that the commission’s accounts of the number of assassinations committed during the conflict in Colombia is the highest number ever recorded by a commission in Latin America.

The Truth Commission estimated the number of victims of homicides in Colombia between 1985 and 2016 was more than 450,000. Approximately 210,000 people disappeared, and 7,752,964 are counted as survivors of enforced displacements. At least one of every six Colombians is a victim of the armed conflict.

These numbers highlight the difficult task of reconciliation that lies ahead for Colombia. The Colombian Truth Commission sought to chart a path to enhance democracy and human rights. Indeed, TJET researchers Geoff Dancy and Oskar Timo Thoms evaluated the impacts of truth commissions around the globe from 1970 to 2015. In an August 2021 article, they outlined a positive relationship between the work of truth commissions on the one hand and, on the other, both greater democratic participation by individuals and observance of the right to be free of physical harm committed by state agents.

This finding precisely aligns with some of the recommendations made by the Colombian Truth Commission. The commission concluded that there were multiple causes of the atrocities that occurred – in essence, that the Colombian conflict is about more than the left-right narrative that has been a Cold War inheritance. Instead, the commission situates the violence in the context of longstanding struggles over unresolved issues: structural racism, patriarchy, colonial mindsets, a security paradigm dominated by counterinsurgent strategies and the so-called “war on drugs,” and an economic model that perpetuated some of the most extreme inequality on the continent.

The Truth Commission offers a comprehensive analysis that helps us understand the birth of “new citizenships” in the region. (“New citizenships” refer to social movements whose political stands vindicate identity matters of class, race, and gender in the core of current debates about how to overcome the economic, democratic, and environmental crisis.) In this sense, the report shows the cumulative effect of past truth-seeking endeavors – that of post-apartheid South Africa, for example, and the recognition of racism against indigenous people in Guatemala and Peru – can reveal the underlying reasons for oppression of the past and thus explain structural violence.

Attempts to prevent future violence must carefully consider the conditions that provoked the violence of the past. Strengthening the rule of law has the potential to expand democracy. But that will still be unlikely without a true re-engineering of the joint policies of the U.S. and Colombian governments, especially the so-called war on drugs, and without understanding the call of the “new citizenships.”

As the president of the Truth Commission, Francisco de Roux, said, “Colombia is still in ‘war mode.’ Security is not given by weapons, it is given by trust, by the faith we have in each other. That’s big social capital.” Confidence inevitably involves rethinking how we treat each other in the Americas.

IMAGE: Colombian President Gustavo Petro (L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a joint press conference after holding a meeting at Casa Nariño Presidential Palace in Bogota on October 3, 2022. (Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images)