The unveiling of a plan to protect community leaders involved in Colombia’s voluntary coca crop substitution program is not likely to alleviate security concerns, given the recent killings of such figures and the government’s poor track record in supporting crop substitution.
The new plan, announced on July 16, seeks to protect leaders involved in the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Plan Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos – PNIS), a cornerstone of the government’s 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Colombian forensic institute Medicina Legal reported in July that 58 community leaders with the program have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement, according to El Heraldo. In 2018 alone, 19 leaders were slain, reported Verdad Abierta.
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The government says that about 400 people will initially benefit from the protection program. The plan will focus on mechanisms to denounce threats, self-protection workshops, improving communication with leaders and creating informant networks.
Before being rolled out nationally, a pilot program was implemented in Tumaco, a southeastern coastal municipality in Nariño department, one of the country’s hubs for coca cultivation. While little has been made public about the pilot program, no murders of crop substitution leaders have been reported there since the government’s March 22 announcement, with the last homicide occurring on March 17.
The program will now expand to the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, Bolívar, Norte de Santander, Meta, Valle del Cauca, Arauca, Putumayo, Cauca, Guaviare and Caquetá.
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While there are promising aspects to the Colombian government’s new plan to protect crop substitution leaders, it will not provide much reassurance.
The government blames drug trafficking groups for the string of killings of PNIS leaders, saying that traffickers are pressuring them to abandon substitution efforts. Yet the administration of President Iván Duque has let the crop substitution program flail, instead supporting forced eradication.
The administration has not honored its commitments regarding economic and social investments, leaving participants at risk, according to Wilder Mora, president of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Farmers (Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola y Marihuana — Coccam) in Norte de Santander department, along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Mora told El Colombiano that “armed actors that benefit from drug trafficking feel economically threatened, and they see those of us who want to substitute crops as a military objective.”
By focusing on preventative actions, the new plan attempts to go beyond Duque’s security plan, which acknowledged that community leaders were being killed with chilling regularity.
At the least, it’s a step in the right direction and shows that the government recognizes that coca crop substitution leaders have felt abandoned. However, it may be too little, too late.