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Colombia: Five Priorities for a New Era of U.S.-Colombia Relations

by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Adam Isacson

On Sunday, August 7, Colombia will inaugurate its first ever leftist President, Gustavo Petro, and its first Afro descendant Vice President, Francia Márquez. The new administration inherits a country hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, one that in 2021 experienced a national strike and protests, and with an abysmal human rights record.

Expectations that the Petro government will immediately remedy the economic and social problems facing Colombia are high. However, many of the challenges ahead are due to structural factors for which there is no quick fix.

Under President Iván Duque’s tenure, the country suffered at least 281 massacres, with a total of at least 1,057 victims as well as the assassination of more than 930 social leaders and 276 demobilized members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC).

On July 26, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that a militaristic approach, coupled with a deficit in civilian institutions, failed to stop the expansion of illegal armed groups – both non-state actors and criminal organizations. Implementation of the 2016 peace accord was undermined by the Duque administration’s political disinterest in its advancement and its replacement with a parallel “peace with legality” policy that differed from what was initially agreed.

Allegations that a group of members of Congress and personnel from the National Department of Planning (Departamento Nacional de Planeación, DNP) and the Comptroller’s Office (Contraloría) set up a scheme to steal more than ten percent of the funds designated for peace projects are extremely concerning. This matter needs to be investigated and dealt with swiftly and action taken within the first two months Petro is in office.

Just having celebrated two hundred years of U.S.-Colombia relations, the United States remains Colombia’s number one strategic ally in the region. The Biden administration’s immediate outreach and set of dialogues with the new government has reassured those who believed that Petro’s win could damage relations between the two countries. The U.S. has invested more than $13 billion mostly in anti-drug and security efforts since 2000 in Colombia, but coca cultivation remains rampant, and cocaine continues to be widely available in the U.S. This is an opportunity to review the U.S.-Colombia relationship to determine which aspects of U.S. policy and financing have worked and which haven’t and, when needed, hit the reset button.

Here are the five issues that the Petro administration must prioritize in its first one hundred days:


Implementing the 2016 peace accord as signed and making it a political and budgetary priority will be of the essence to tackle the violence and impunity that is rampant throughout Colombia. In doing so, the Petro administration should focus on the 170 municipalities most affected by violence, institutional vacuums and drug trafficking. In order to guarantee that the most vulnerable sectors of society, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous, are fully included in the process, the new administration must advance the ethnic chapter by strengthening the work of the High Instance for Ethnic Peoples (Instancia Especial de Alto Nivel con Pueblos Étnicos, IEANPE) and work diligently with ethnic authorities.

The findings of the recently released Truth Commission report should be integrated into the new government’s policies. In addition to implementing peace with a differentiated approach, it should guarantee the security of former combatants. On the justice system, the Truth Commission suggests that four areas be targeted: independence of the institutions in charge of investigating human rights violations, adjustments to investigation methods, creation of an investigation support mechanism, and the establishment of limits to the extradition of persons implicated in other crimes to guarantee victims’ rights.

On corruption, it recommends an independent commission to examine the risks of co-optation and corruption of the Attorney General’s Office, and that this office assumes all investigations so that they fall under the jurisdiction of the ordinary criminal justice system. Lastly, it points to the need to transform the security apparatus to reduce militarization, with a new doctrine that prioritizes human rights and that the National Police no longer be under the Ministry of Defense.

At the same time, the new government should take the reverse approach of the Duque government when it comes to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP): it should elevate the truths revealed of atrocities and human rights abuses that took place during the conflict.

2.Protection of social leaders

The security of the country’s human rights defenders, social leaders and environmental defenders will not improve until grave consequences are imposed upon those who plan, order, and carry out their murders and their harassment.

Reforms to the country’s judicial institutions, so they can move from open investigations into actual justice by putting perpetrators in jail, are needed. It is also important to implement an audit and revamping of the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP), which has become bureaucratic, ineffective, and riddled with allegations of corruption. In ethnic territories, the new government should establish agreements with the Indigenous and cimarona guards, as stated in the ethnic chapter, to increase security for civilians. While this is occurring, the Petro government should strengthen the Commission for Guarantees set up by the 2016 peace accord to help dismantle the illegal armed groups that proliferated under Duque.

3.Ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQI+

During the Duque years the ethnic agenda was placed on the back burner. We saw little advancement on the ethnic chapter and tense engagement between the national government and Indigenous communities. With a more diverse administration, the hope is that there will be a differentiation of all the policies and programs of the new government to make sure that specific collective and individual rights of the Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, Palenqueroraizales, LGBTQI+ and women are integrated.

However, diversifying the government cannot be just appointing ethnic minorities. Along with this, the political will and budget need to reflect this interest. A confidence building measure with Afro-Colombian communities would be to finish regulating law 70 of 1993 of the Black communities. Antiracism, anti-discrimination, anti-homophobia, and anti-xenophobia measures are required. Re-launching the U.S.-Colombia Racial Action Plan (CAPREE) with the ethnic chapter serving as its framework is an additional step that the Petro government can take to protect these communities’ rights.

One area on which the U.S. and Colombian coincide is the environment, combating climate change and the Amazon region. Tackling climate change and protecting against deforestation and other damage that increases CO2 production is key. This, however, cannot be done without the buy-in of the communities concerned. Militarized efforts to address deforestation under Duque have generated violations against the Indigenous and campesino communities. Rather than imposing an idea of conservation from a desk in Bogota, the government should see the millennial peoples and afrodescendants who are stewards of the environment as their co-partner and seek to support those communities already existent conservation efforts.

4.Reforming the security forces

The Petro government’s defense and security reforms should tackle corruption in the security forces, focus on increasing the state’s presence in marginal rural areas, modernize the police, and address impunity for abuses committed. Illicit economies will persist, though, and armed-group leaders will be replaced with others, as long as vast territories remain devoid of government presence. Targeting criminal groups won’t work without targeting the environment of statelessness and abandonment that benefits those groups.

Prior governments have sought to address this vacuum in marginal rural zones through military-heavy programs that don’t continue once the administration changes. Petro’s government should reinvigorate the Territorially Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs) foreseen in the Peace Accord’s first chapter, especially the original sets of priorities agreed with communities, the Regional Transformation Action Plans (Planes de Acción para la Transformación Regional, PATR). Even the outgoing Duque government’s military-heavy “Future Zones” plan can be adapted instead of canceled.

After the horrific abuses committed against protestors during the 2021 national strike and subsequent protest a real police reform is required. The new government needs to put more resources for civilian policing while simultaneously putting in place reforms to make the police more civilian and less on a war footing. The police should not be under the Ministry of Defense. Rather it should be under a new Public Security Minister whose portfolio includes management of a transferred National Police.

5.Humanitarian crises and migration

As the top receptor country of Venezuelan migrants and refugees that total at least 1.7 million people Colombia should continue its temporary protected status program. The country is a global example of how to address the influx of large groups of migrants. That said, Colombia requires a reform of its migration and asylum laws and policies in way that those granted refuge can fully and permanently integrate into the country.

The humanitarian and migration situation in Colombia is becoming extremely complex. Colombia is increasingly becoming a corridor for migrants from multiple nationalities that seek to cross into Panamá to later travel to the U.S.-Mexico border. The sheer number of such people is surpassing the capacities of the municipalities and local authorities and organizations to provide them with assistance. According to the UN’s Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), internal displacement in 2021 was 181 percent higher than the year prior. This means that there is a multidimensional crisis of human mobility requiring a strategy that includes upholding the rights and humanitarian needs of the persons concerned regardless of their legal category.

At the same time, the country still has a population of seven million internally displaced persons, at various stages of displacement, requiring attention and assistance.

Stopping new displacements of Colombians from occurring is the first step. To guarantee the protection of civilians caught in the middle of violence perpetrated by illegal armed groups in the areas of Chocó, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Arauca, and Catatumbo, the Petro government should support the humanitarian accord initiatives. These are civilian led efforts to advance respect for basic humanitarian minimums that go a long way in protecting communities embattled by illegal armed groups.