2015 Virtual Edition: Winifred Tate

Postscript to Human Rights Law and Military Aid Delivery: A Case Study of the Leahy Law

“Human Rights Law and Military Aid Delivery” uses a case study of the Leahy Law to examine how human rights legislation gets made and its impact in the case of U.S. assistance to Colombia. This law prohibits U.S. counternarcotics assistance to foreign military units facing credible allegations of human rights abuses unless the government takes effective measures to address the allegations. The creation of the Leahy amendment demonstrates how alliances between activists, policymakers, and advocates make human rights legislation possible, emerging from the professionalization of human rights. The Leahy Law also demonstrates the limits of human rights: implementation operated within the logic of the existing policy narrative, not challenging the militarization of counternarcotics policy or the official assessment of the Colombian military as being afflicted with a “few bad apples” instead of systemic issues of abuse, corruption, and violence. Yet this policy advocacy has kept human rights in the political landscape. In the context of sometimes bitter disputes over what human rights policymaking has accomplished, supporters argue passionately that these efforts have resulted in progress on specific cases, impacting the real lives of actual people.


Memorial for victims of paramilitary violence, the four Galagarra sisters killed in 2000, La Dorada, Putumayo, Colombia. Image by the author.

Activists continue to attempt to use Leahy to attempt to block U.S. aid to abusive foreign military units. They also continue to operate within the logic of the law, by gathering information on human rights abuses that is deemed credible by the U.S. State Department, and linking the perpetrators to U.S. military funding. In December 2014, the Latin America Working Group and the Center for International Policy released a guide outlining the requirements of the Leahy law in English and Spanish for activists in Latin America. This process encourages people to bring cases to the attention of the State Department so that they may investigate the claim through their vetting process and better implement the law.

Since Plan Colombia, drug trade violence has brought U.S. funding closer to home. The amount of aid destined for Colombia has declined, with the U.S. focus now on Mexico and Central America. One of the major ways the Leahy Law has been implemented in this new area has been to freeze aid channeled through the Merida Initiative, a multi-billion dollar aid package for Mexico and Central America modeled in part on Plan Colombia.

Even as the law has been used to address concerns about abusive units in Mexico, however, some senior U.S. military officers and military aid supporters continue to express concern that this human rights initiative undermines their mission. As documented in “The Human Rights Law and Military Aid,” they complain that the Leahy Law limits their ability to provide training critical for U.S. national security. A 2013 New York Times article reported that Admiral William H. McRaven, director of the Special Operations Command and one of the Navy SEALs who participated in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and others “say it undermines their ability to train the troops to fight militants and drug traffickers.”

Colombia was the focus of the largest efforts to implement the Leahy law, following the initial implementation Plan Colombia, the multi-billion dollar U.S. aid package passed in 2000. According to Washington policymakers, Plan Colombia was a success, contributing to counterinsurgency victories against the guerrillas and allowing the Colombian government to expand its territorial control, a happy exception to the troubled U.S. interventions in the Middle East over the past decade. “Colombia is a model for the region,” Secretary of State John Kerry stated at his 2013 Senate confirmation hearing. “It is an example to the rest of Latin America about what awaits them if we can convince people to make better decisions.”

This seemingly rosy, redeeming view of U.S. efforts in Colombia bears little resemblance to the destructive reality of U.S. policy in the country. This is especially troublesome given the ways that the policy has become a new model of U.S. intervention in other contexts. In the conclusion of my new book, Drugs, Thugs and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia, I show the ways that such nostalgic celebrations of Plan Colombia rest on a willful blindness to the rights abuses perpetrated as a result of this policy. Even as Plan Colombia has become a model for other countries and other aid packages, the exclusionary ways in which this policy was made, how it facilitated the paramilitary forces’ ongoing influence on political life, and its failure to consider how sustainable rural lifeways might be maintained rather than destroyed, are rarely discussed. The framing, indicators, and benchmarks that the U.S. has chosen for assessment reveal how particular forms of policy knowledge are authorized and privileged while others are discounted. Celebratory assessments of this policy must also be examined for what they leave out of the retelling. In this case, absences include the food crop fields and other arable lands that are harmed by chemical fumingation aimed at coca leaf plants, brutal paramilitary attacks on citizen bystanders indirectly supported through US military aid, and how U.S. intervention frustrates the efforts of citizens and peace advocates to organize collective participation in policymaking.

Part of the result of the Colombia success story is that the government is now exporting security training, with Colombian security forces training more than 16,000 people from 40 countries. Colombia’s new high profile security training programs has allowed a new strategy to bypass the Leahy Law’s requirements.

Previously in the case of Colombia, the U.S. developed new strategies of aid delivery, through the creation of new, “clean” units that met the law’s vetting requirements, enabled the flow of military aid to abusive military forces in the absence of systemic reform. Now, U.S. military officers have described their use of foreign militaries as U.S. proxies, using their programs to provide training to forces that do not meet the Leahy requirements. There are more questions than answers about this use of Colombian forces as proxy trainers. While the United States does not pay for this training, it clearly meets U.S. priorities and can be off-set by U.S. funding for other programs.

U.S. Southern Command General John Kelly clearly described this dynamic in an April 2014 Congressional hearing. He testified that “the beauty of having a Colombia” () is in the ways Colombian security forces can provide training to forces that the United States could not without violating the Leahy Law:

We’re restricted from working with them [foreign military forces], for past – ‘sins,’ in the 80s. The beauty of having a Colombia – they’re such good partners, particularly in the military realm, they’re such good partners with us. When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it almost without asking. And they’ll do it on their own. They’re so appreciative of what we did for them. And what we did for them was, really, to encourage them for 20 years and they’ve done such a magnificent job. But that’s why it’s important for them to go, because I’m–at least on the military side–restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins.

This process of celebrating Plan Colombia also requires viewing past abuses as unrelated to the present – even if in many cases the perpetrators of those abuses have moved up in rank and continue on active duty. A central tenant of the Colombian “success story” is that the Colombian military has been reformed and that their “past sins” are firmly in the past.

Such claims however are clearly contradicted by reports, such as for example, Human Rights Watch, which provided more dramatic evidence of the failure of Colombia’s military reform in their June report, “On Their Watch: Evidence of False Positive Killings in Colombia.” The report reveals that Colombian military awarded promotions to officials who oversaw what is colloquially known as “false positives.” In them, officials disappeared young men from their homes, then murdered and presented their cadavers in distant states, dressed as guerrillas supposedly killed in combat. This clandestine practice increased the body counts, which were tallied and used for advancement with the military hierarchy.

Finally, reflections on events in southern Colombia offer evidence of the limitations of human rights legislation for activism rooted in particular geographies and localities. Residents of Putumayo, the southern frontier state bordering Ecuador, were the original targets of the “Push into Southern Colombia.” The initial focus of Plan Colombia provided $600 million of U.S. funding to train and equip Colombian Army elite counternarcotics battalions – created to fulfill the requirements of the Leahy Law.


Oil tankers in Putumayo, 2013. Image by the author.

In this border region, the panorama has shifted substantially. The levels of violence in Colombia have declined. Homicides have declined, as well as kidnapping. The largest and oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC has been weakened: their troop numbers diminished, leaders killed, their units forced into strategic retreat. Mobility has increased, with people now able to travel freely without fear of kidnapping. Infrastructure is being built. The Colombian government’s confidence is expressed in its new slogan: “Colombia: The Only Risk is, You’ll Want to Stay” – created by the tourism board.

Putumayo has a new airport and, for the first time, paved roads along many of the central arteries connecting the Ecuadoran border to the departmental capital. Paramilitary groups no longer openly patrol the towns. Guerrilla roadblocks no longer stop travel on the main roads. The members of the Putumayo Women’s Alliance can now sit at a sidewalk bar after dark, drinking beer to celebrate the completion of a workshop. Women from the small towns of Putumayo can travel once again to rural areas to visit counterparts in small hamlets who had been isolated for years during the intense conflict of the early 2000s.

In response, activists are focused on accountability for the “past sins,” crimes that occurred only a few years ago during the height of the counterinsurgency offensive. The full extent of the toll of this violence may never be known. According to Colombian officials, hundreds of unmarked graves have yet to be located and exhumed. Government officials estimate that thousands of people remain disappeared, their bodies unfound and unidentified, in Putumayo alone.

In early June 2015, government and guerrilla negotiators announced a framework for a future Truth Commission, should the current peace talks with the FARC come to fruition. The mandate of the Commission, which will not name specific individuals, but rather “collective responsibilities,” including those of “any other group, organization or institution, national or international, that has had any participation in the conflict.” Such a Commission could examine the role of U.S. military assistance, the performance of “clean” units and their unvetted colleagues, and the possible culpability of the U.S. government.

Military units do not generate much of the ongoing violence in the region, and activists are concerned with a range of new social problems produced by Plan Colombia’s “success.” During a meeting of activists in 2013, the vice president of the Women’s Alliance of Putumayo The showed me a photocopied paper, one of many distributed over the weekend. “From today at 6pm,” the paper read, “anyone who brings in any unknown person, any informants (sapos), and garbage: death.” The bottom half of the paper was decorated with images of three skulls surrounded by machine guns. But most of the meeting focused on how to get the mayor to fulfill his promises of support. During his campaign, he had promised municipal funds to help buy a building for the Alliance; now a spirited discussion of possible advocacy strategies focused on what kind of pressure to bring to bear. Following these debates, two community activists described efforts to halt oil exploration on ecologically sensitive lands. Working with the local environmental agency, they had secured the commitment of more than twenty hamlets to oppose geological exploration of the area by a Canadian-owned company. They explained their fear of environmental degradation and increased pollution in regional waterways.

Following the ongoing lives and legacies of human rights policymaking requires ethnographic traveling alongside particular human rights mechanism – in this case, vetting programs applied to military aid flows – as well as moving along with the new agendas for the residents of regions where such programs emerged.

Winifred Tate is an assistant professor of anthropology at Colby College, and the author of Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia (University of California Press 2007), and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia (Stanford University Press 2015).