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Happenings since we left Colombia

In the month since I’ve returned…

  • An assassination attempt was made on Catholic priest and human rights defender Padre Alberto Franco of the Inter-ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, one of our delegation’s most beloved partners.
  • A women’s association of pineapple growers in the Putumayo department have had their entire harvest fumigated aerially–again.
  • Angela Bello, director of the National Foundation in Defense of Women’s Rights (FUNDHEFEM), was found dead in suspicious circumstances after an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
  • Land rights advocates won a small victory when an agriculture judge issued an injunction for up to six months, blocking mining companies from operating illegally on collectively-owned indigenous land in Choco and Antioquia.

And that’s just what I’ve been able to keep up with. In the meantime, the incredible International Team with Witness for Peace has uploaded our delegation’s Report on the Impact of the U.S. War on Drugs in Colombia (translated Spanish version also available). Thank you to everyone who told us their stories and everyone who worked on this important document.

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Colombia’s population of internally displaced people has now surpassed the Sudan to become the largest in the world. (3.9 to 5.3 million at year end 2011, 65 percent under 25 years old).[1] Displacement, or forced migration, has multiple interacting causes, including multinational trade agreements favoring extractive industries, Colombia’s ongoing violence as part of its armed conflict, political corruption, and woefully inadequate infrastructure and public services.

Since the 1990s, paramilitary “auto-defensa” groups financed by wealthy landowners have forced farmers off fertile land and areas with natural resources like gold, oil, and other minerals. Foreign investment has tripled since 2002, and about 1 in 20 Colombians has been newly displaced since then. However, none of the funds have trickled down to average Colombian citizens, many of whom have historically lived in areas with small agricultural economies. According to a recent piece in The Economist:

Land distribution in Colombia is among the most unequal in the world, with 52% of farms in the hands of just 1.15% of landowners, according to a study by the United Nations Development Programme. The agriculture ministry says that only 22% of potential arable land in a vast country is cultivated. Around 6.5m hectares (16m acres) of land, including some of the most fertile, was stolen, abandoned or forcibly changed hands in other ways between 1985 and 2008 as a result of the conflict.

Additionally, several U.S. companies have been sued under the Alien Tort Statute [2] for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups by making “security” payments. Most recently, a suit has been brought against Chiquita Banana’s wholly owned subsidiary, Banadex, by families in the Urabá region whose loved ones were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia). The class action is pending[3]; but other American companies in Colombia have faced faced allegations of “synergistic relationships” with hired “security contractors” (paramilitaries).[4] In this context, security for multinational corporations is but a thinly-veiled justification for the forceful, violent annexation and evacuation of indigenous and campesino families from their agriculturally viable, and valuable, resource-rich land.

Despite collective title vested in Afro-Colombian communities in 1993 through Law 70, and nominal protection of land as resguardos (reserves of legally inalienable land to indigenous communities), land continues to be illegally stolen and sold to foreign agribusiness companies, who use it to produce oil palm and other raw materials for agro-fuel for sale in the international market.[5] The Colombian Constitution has been modified nearly 70 times since 1991, as political elites (closely tied to both private multinational corporations and paramilitary actors) have manipulated the laws to favor growth of lucrative, privatized, extractive industries–using “security” and “protection” to forcibly remove people from their property. These latifundas (landgrabs) have forced migration of indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians to the outskirts of cities such as Cali, where they face enormous marginalization in makeshift refugee settlements: minimal employment opportunities in agriculture, poor housing not supported or recognized by municipal governments, and outright racial discrimination from citydwellers and police.

Ukawexs, Nasa refugee settlement outside Cali, Colombia. Photo credit: Hillary Watson

Ukawexs, Nasa refugee settlement outside Cali, Colombia. Photo credit: Hillary Watson

On my recent trip to Colombia, we visited one such settlement high in the mountains outside the city of Cali, where more than 500 families have sought refuge from the Cauca region over the past 5-10 years. This indigenous refugee camp is home to members of the Nasa people, who are committed to nonviolent resistance to displacement and militarization of their land. Despite being left with almost nothing, they welcomed us into their homes with open arms and gave us everything they had. I will always remember the generosity and resilience of spirit in the face of extreme hardship. Even though they have been demonized and portrayed as savages by mass media since they peacefully removed a military installation from their sacred mountain in July 2012, they trusted us and shared with us.

Our delegation compiled a report to tell the stories (English) (Spanish) of the Nasa settlement and its courageous leaders, along with and those of many other Colombians negatively affected by U.S. military and counternarcotics aid. We submitted the report to the U.S. Embassy when we met with embassy staff on our last day in Bogota.

  1. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. (2012). Global overview 2011. From http://www.internal-displacement.org/publications/global-overview-2011.pdf
  2. 28 U.S.C. § 1350, establishing tort jurisdiction in U.S. federal courts over violations of the “law of nations.”
  3. In re Chiquita Brands Int’l, Inc., 792 F. Supp. 2d. 1301 (S.D. Fla. 2011).
  4. Romero v. Drummond Co., 552 F.3d 1303 (11th Cir. 2008).
  5. Hristov, J. (2009). NACLA Report: Colombia. Legalizing the illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘post-paramilitary’ era. From http://nacla.org/files/A04204014_1.pdf

Coca eradication and the globalized U.S. War on Drugs

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Despite all that I am discovering about the environmental and economic dimensions of Colombian geopolitics, my primary reason for getting involved has always been to discredit the illogical and counterproductive strategies that the U.S. government has employed in its folly to enforce a “drug-free” society. We humans have always sought mind-altering experiences to elevate our existence and analgesic painkillers to soothe our angst.

Granted, our coexistence with drugs has certainly not always been pleasant. The desperation of addiction is an affliction that I would not wish on my worst enemy. But instead of educating ourselves as much as we can about how to moderate use of psychoactive substances and prevent them from causing harm, we have decided to punish drugs themselves by criminalizing them and naming them the “enemy.” Banning something doesn’t make it disappear—it just pushes it into a black market, where there’s always demand.

From “How to Chew Coca Leaves” (click for link)

Coca eradication is, theoretically, a supply-side military intervention in the chain of cocaine cultivation. Erythroxylum coca is a plant native to western South America that plays a central role in indigenous healing traditions. The coca leaf is chewed regularly in the Altiplano (Andean Plateau) to cure altitude sickness, and archeological evidence shows that its use dates back about 8,000 years, especially in Peru and Bolivia. It has been the target of U.S. military and counter-narcotics policy in Latin America because it contains less than one percent cocaine alkaloid, which must be chemically extracted from the leaves to synthesize the cocaine that is eventually consumed by North Americans. The Transnational Institute has an excellent fact sheet on how coca came to be criminalized, along with opium and marijuana, by most nations via adoption of the U.N. Conventions on Narcotic Drugs beginning in 1961.

Colombia has been a primary beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid since Plan Colombia, which refers generally to the partnership beginning in 2000 between the State Department and Colombian security forces dedicated to combating “narco-terrorism.”[1] Notice how we’ve neatly conflated national security with counter-narcotics—Plan Colombia’s goals included not just eliminating illicit drugs, but also left-wing guerilla groups. (The exact nature of the relationship between the official Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary units is, one might say, undetermined.)

Militarized eradication of coca began as part of Plan Colombia, and includes both aerial fumigation (herbicides sprayed from helicopters over suspected illicit crop fields) as well as manual eradication (physically uprooting the plants). Let’s start with the fact that no one gets rich from cultivating coca. The regions with coca economies are some of the most impoverished, with little or no state presence. Families who grow coca do it because there is no alternative to sustain their communities in areas controlled by criminal armed actors. They are not in control of the highly organized system of cocaine production that enriches drug cartels. Without addressing the root social causes of coca production, eradication will never result in extinction of coca; it will only drive cultivation further into the jungle. In 2000, only 12 of Colombia’s 32 departments had any coca cultivation; by 2007, that number had grown to 23.[2]

Military eradication of coca has only spread it to more regions of Colombia.

Military eradication of coca has only spread it to more regions of Colombia. (click for full article from Witness for Peace)

So…have we won??

[1] Mondragón, H. (2007). NACLA Report: In the name of democracy. Democracy and Plan Colombia. From http://nacla.org/files/articles/A04001044_1.pdf
[2] Witness for Peace. (2009). An exercise in futility: Nine years of fumigation in Colombia. From http://witnessforpeace.org/downloads/An_Exercise_in_Futility.pdf


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Mobilizing my network to fund my journey to Colombia

I’m a 24-year-old law student and public health activist based in Boston. I’m an alumna of AmeriCorps Community HealthCorps and founder/co-president of my school’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. I’ve worked in community health centers, legal services agencies, and public defenders’ offices, and I am deeply invested in ending the Drug War and the War on Poverty.

Though I’m a Spanish speaker who’s lived and worked in NYC, I’ve unfortunately never had the chance to visit the countries I’ve heard so many of my clients recall. This page is here to help me collect enough money to be a delegate to Colombia with Witness for Peace in January. The costs and accommodations of the 10-day trip are modest, but beyond my capacity as a student. I am hoping to reach folks who care about the same issues as me and want to participate, a little, in my professional and personal development as an advocate.

The War on Drugs has resulted in countless casualties and unquantifiable suffering throughout the Western hemisphere. From the lives destroyed by prescription drug abuse in the U.S., to the horrific violence along our border with Mexico, to the livelihoods “eradicated” by militarized police in Colombia—we are all suffering from the crusade of prohibition.

For nine days, the cost is $1450, everything included (food, lodging, transportation, etc.). I’ll also need to purchase a plane ticket, likely to run another $800. I’m asking for help from friends and family in raising $2300 to finance this trip and make this dream a reality!

Please give only if you are able and inclined to do so. Thank you for reading. Now back to your scheduled programming.

This was my earnest plea to friends and friends-of-friends back in August, when I started a campaign to raise enough money to travel on a Witness for Peace delegation examining the failed War on Drugs policies in Colombia. By the end of September, I had a few hundred dollars, but raising the whole amount wasn’t looking very realistic.

Then came my first real fundraising success, at the Students for Sensible Drug Policy Northeast Regional Conference in Providence, Rhode Island.

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My table @ the 2012 Northeast Regional SSDP Conference in Providence. (Photo credit: Devon Tackels)

Lizzy and Devon, the amazing organizers, helped me set up a table next to their check-in, and I got to chat with SSDPers about the effects of coca eradication and the global War on Drugs in Latin America. I’d set up my MacBook to play Shoveling Water, a documentary produced by Witness for Peace in 2009. Unbeknownst to me, Sanho Tree (who is featured in the film) was a scheduled panelist at the conference. It was a bit surreal—but awesome!—to meet him (director of the Drug Policy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies) and talk to him in person, while a digital version of him, on the screen next to us, compared clandestine coca paste production in the Andean jungle to rural Appalachian moonshine operations under alcohol Prohibition during the 1920’s. Other SSDP alumni and current chapter leaders helped put me over the $500 mark that weekend.

During October and November, my fundraising efforts were put on the back burner due to a rigorous grad school courseload. Still, I made the effort to incorporate learning about coca eradication by putting together a presentation for my Public Health Biology course on the biochemical mechanisms of glyphosate—the active ingredient in the commonly used Monsanto herbicide, Roundup®, and its generic formulations. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about industry toxicity hazard assessments and their faulty assumptions (and I’m saving that for another post).

On November 4, I’d raised enough money from classmates, former co-workers, supervisors, teachers, family, and even strangers to cover the entire cost of my round-trip plane ticket (final cost: $910.49), and then some. When I booked that ticket, I committed to become part of the delegation, one way or another—no excuses and no turning back!

So I started to talk more, to everyone I know, about why this is no vacation—why it is a personal and professional investment in my future as an advocate. I talked about the year I spent as an undergraduate reading and writing about youth involved in narcotics trafficking and armed conflict in Medellín and surrounding areas. I talked about the damages of drug prohibition in the form of violence, mass incarceration, displacement, and addiction. I talked about my dear friend Liliana, who grew up in Barranquilla and got me hooked on afro-Colombian funk through her excellent musical collective, M.A.K.U. I talked about the time I spent in the Bronx as a community health worker, environmental and social determinants of health, and the collateral consequences of incarceration and addiction. I got to meet Jessye (permanent staff member with Witness in Colombia) when she accompanied Ligna Pulido to Boston to give a talk at NUSL on indigenous women’s movements in Colombia—another example of the serendipity of this opportunity’s timing. I applied for and was granted conference funding through the Tufts PHPD Student Activity Fund. And finally, by the start of December, I’d raised over $2200 in total and it finally started to seem real.

The icing on the cake was that my birthday this year coincided with a very dear Northeastern Law tradition, the annual NLG party upper-levels throw for the 1Ls to celebrate being done with their first law school exams. After an adorable birthday potluck and gift exchange with my wonderful JD/MPH cohort, I headed over to the party, where the organizers had graciously assembled all of my favorite Fall/Spring friends to help me celebrate! It was amazing to stand in a room full of inspiring, bright people who all supported me (financially or otherwise) on this endeavor.

Over the past few months, I have been touched and humbled by the outpouring of support from folks I have known in many different stages of my life. Many of you got back in touch after years apart, to support my upcoming journey to Colombia. I honestly never imagined that I would actually raise the money to afford this trip, but you all came through and here I am.

Thanks to every single person who supports me and encourages me and inspires me to dream big. I leave January 4 and return on January 16. Much more to come.