The US-Colombia FTA and National Insecurity: A Call for Ethical Foreign Policy

There is a dire need for international reflection regarding the role of U.S policy abroad, and especially in response to US Government publications regarding the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). In actuality, if passed, the FTA would further destabilize Colombia’s small-property farmers, take away an estimated 250,000 jobs, maintain state sanctioned impunities for military and paramilitary violences against Colombia’s civilian populations, and threaten biodiversity within the country.


Photo by Irene Florez of San Francisco-based Colombia Aqui! Collective

On April 20, demonstrators marched 4,000 paper dolls through cities to represent the 4 million displaced, in political action to oppose Plan Colombia.

This past April 10-13 marked eight years since the massacre of 150 people in Alto Naya, Colombia. The atrocities of this massacre included the use of machetes and chainsaws by the AUC (Colombia’s historically most prolific paramilitary organization) in the extensive dismemberment of civilian bodies, as well as the dispersal of body parts in numerous places to further conceal the death-count and identities of those killed. Why? In order to fortify immunities from state persecution by disposing of evidence, strengthening claims that those attacked were armed guerillas or “collaborators.” In fact, military personnel participated in tormenting residents of the Alto Naya to herald the massacre.1 When the paramilitaries arrived in Alto Naya and began killing, in despair, “some traveled to the base of the Colombian Army’s Third Brigade…They reported that paramilitaries were at that very moment slaughtering people in Alto Naya. But the soldiers replied, ‘We’ve heard this already, it’s a lie. We have no orders.'”2

The collaboration of Colombia’s military and paramilitary forces in this event is no anomaly.3 The Grupo de Memoria Histórica de la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación CNRR de Colombia (Historical Memory Group of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation) has established a provisional registry4, publishing findings that between 1982 and 2007, 2,505 massacres took place in Colombia with 14,660 victims.5 Carried out mostly by paramilitary groups in collaboration with the Colombian Army, these massacres are labeled by these groups as “‘anti-subversive operations’ — the same euphemism used in Argentina and Guatemala.”6 Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the last 45 years as part of Colombia’s ‘dirty war.’7 The military has been and is not only complicit through neglect, but has actively participated in these massacres, as well as in extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances, and threats to civilians.8 Claiming its own internal war on terrorism for the last several decades, the Colombian government preserves its impunity in the face of international accusations of its violations of international conventions on human rights, where discourses of national security and democracy converge. In the months previous to the massacre, the Colombian military did nothing to stop its impending presence, despite that since December 2000 there had been “several forewarnings by a number of organisations9, including the European Parliament.” Paramilitary and military threats continue into the present, as numerous human rights organizations and local Colombian communities plea for international interventions on the violations against their lives.10

There is a dire need for international reflection regarding the role of U.S policy abroad, in response to what the United States Government has published in regards to the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, otherwise known as the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The timing of publication of many of the U.S. Trade Representative fact sheets on the U.S.-Colombia FTA suggests a strategic appeal, to the then up-and-coming administration of President Barack Obama, in favor of the FTA. As the issue has remained on the table for its possible implementation, particularly as Canada seems on its way to ratifying their Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, what is at stake on a local level, within Colombia, must be fore grounded in consideration of the policy’s implications. In the interest of advocating for the rights of millions of individuals whose lives are affected daily by state violence in Colombia, this article aims to evidence why the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is not an ethically viable policy.

In 2006, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed in Washington, D.C. It was ratified by the Colombian Congress in 2007, but has yet to be signed by the U.S. Congress, due to opposition by Democrats who see it necessary to attend to Colombia’s violence against Colombian Trade Unionists. “House leaders issue[d] statement indicating they would be willing to consider the Colombia FTA once ‘concrete evidence of sustained results’ in reducing violence and impunity in Colombia are shown.”11 

Advocates of the policy argue for the U.S.-Colombia FTA, stating that it would ‘open a significant new export market’, ‘level the playing field for American business, farmers, ranchers, and workers’, ‘strengthen peace, democracy, freedom and reform’, ‘promote economic growth and poverty reduction’, and ‘anchor longstanding ties with a vital regional ally.’12 The Agreement, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), would effect these changes as it would “eliminate tariffs and other barriers to goods and services, promote economic growth, and expand trade between the United States and Colombia.”13 Additionally, former U.S. President George W. Bush has contended that the FTA is essential to United States national security. The U.S. and Colombian governments have made considerable efforts to represent Colombia as capable of responsibly handling the bi-national agreement, asserting that the South American country has ‘made significant advances to combat violence and instability’.14

The fact remains that Colombian national security remains fraught with violence15. Though the Colombian state has made immense efforts to solidify the economic, social, and political security of the mostly white and Mestizo Colombian middle-class, the continued presence of hyper-militarization across the country has maintained grave forms of insecurity, not only for trade unionists, but for Colombia’s peasants, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, human rights activists and organizers, journalists, educators, and the poor.

These communities continue to be targeted by state and paramilitary violence, including threats, torture, disappearance, extrajudicial executions, and mass displacement.16 These forms of violence continue to occur, and have increased, despite Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s claims that an expanded military and police presence has promoted peace and stability within the Colombian territory, and that demobilization of paramilitary forces has effectively taken place17. Furthermore, the USTR reports strides made by the United States and Colombian governments in promoting peace, justice, and prosperity in Colombia18, but the actuality of these claims remain in dispute. Numerous national and international human rights organizations, as well as local Colombian communities, have contested these claims, are emphatically against the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement, and seek alternative forms of economic policy for Colombia that include the collective participation of Colombia’s people, including communities that are systematically oppressed.19

Specifically, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would further destabilize Colombia’s small-property farmers. “Andean growers of sugar cane, rice, corn, potatoes and cotton say they won’t be able to compete against heavily subsidized U.S. goods.”20 It would take away an estimated 250,000 jobs in Colombia, mainly in the agricultural sector21, but also within the public and social services sector. Neo-liberal policies in Colombia in the last two decades have resulted in the privatization of much of the public sector, including Colombia’s Postal Service, decreasing the amount of postal workers from 3,000 to 300. Teaching jobs are increasingly following the same path.22 The policy would legitimize state practices that undermine Afro-Colombian and indigenous23 legal rights to self-determination (such as the ILO conventions, Colombia’s Constitution of 1991, and Law 70 of 1993), and that continue to violently displace Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities from their ancestral territories.24 As state juridical apparatuses fail to act as they purport to, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities are forced into the national economy and relations of production and labor which are not on their own terms, as “capitalist society has forced individuals into a type of mass communication with the functions of standardization and normalization.”25 These relations of labour and production, as well as resource exploitation do not protect them in their struggle for physical and cultural survival, but further threaten the stability of collective subsistence practices26 and historical memory.

Advocates for the FTA buttress the possibilities for continued extrajudicial executions27, through which Colombian military and paramilitary forces systematically target Colombia’s marginalized populations, as the Colombian government remains under pressure to show progress in it’s “war on terror” as one factor in its qualification for eligibility for the FTA. In the last six years alone, armed groups, including Colombian military and paramilitary forces, have murdered over 1,200 indigenous people. The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, (ACIN), in an open letter to U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama, recently wrote,

“These murders have created insecurity, and this insecurity has been used to strip us of our rights [by] divest[ing] the [people from] Colombia’s mines, hydrocarbons, water resources, intellectual property, and national parks — all of these are brought under the ultimate rule of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S…In our view, the FTA puts commercial logic above the respect for life itself, not to mention international humanitarian law and agreements such as the ILO’s Covenant 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Worldwide. These covenants, as well as the respect for life, have to date been ignored by the government of our country, as well as by your government”28

Furthermore, the FTA would maintain state sanctioned impunities for military and paramilitary violences against Colombia’s civilian populations. The USTR, as well as the Uribe Administration, cite Colombia’s Justice and Peace Law as the antidote to paramilitary presence, but Law 975, as it is also known, actually has been used to further these impunities, and de-mobilization has not been effective, as new illegal armed groups pop up in the place of old ones and continue to collude with the state.29 

The policy also threatens biodiversity within the Colombian territory. Already, neo-liberal policies have resulted in the loss of millions of acres of rainforest and farmland due to the implementation of mono-cropping for export. ‘Ratio of profits’ estimated from the FTA is 6:1 in favor of the United States. Already, neo-liberal policy is further threatening food security for Colombia’s people as local flora are patented by the United States, and as imported foods offer prices that local farmers can’t compete with, often forcing them to resort to growing coca as the only plant they can still profit on. The FTA will only exacerbate these problems,30 particularly as it would enhance corporate unaccountability through deregulation, where historically, corporations have hired paramilitaries to police their territories, resulting in several massacres over the last century. Through neo-liberalism, the private sector is understood to be a more accountable, effective, and productive source of labor regulation than the government. This problematic assumption will allow such massacres to continue as the corporations more easily than the Colombian State, evade accountability for their actions.31

If the above list of anticipated effects of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement may be understood as some of the destructive effects of the free market on society, then the United States and Colombian governments must understand their forms of inattentiveness to those threatened populations as a political position which remains answerable to the people they govern, and that fails to produce the FTA as an ethically viable policy.

It is vital that the current Obama administration pay attention to these issues, and consider recommendations from international and local organizations opposing the FTA, as well as those Colombian civilians who will be affected. Responsible governance would require Congress to jettison the current draft of U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and draft a new international trade policy with the state of Colombia, through processes that are inclusive of dialogue with community leaders of communities that have historically been systematically marginalized by the state. Self-designated leaders from Colombia’s peasant, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, as well as trade unionists, human rights activists and organizers, journalists, educators, poor, women, and working class communities should all be consulted in the formation of a new trade agreement.

United States Foreign Trade policies should insist on seeking more ethical economic practices which do not rely on the exploitation of lives and environmental resources, but which thrive off of sustainable relationships of production. Additionally, the United States should recognize the role it has historically played in protracting violence in Colombia, and the influence it has on Colombian forms of governance and economic policy, and should therefore aid the state of Colombia to enact: the legal, physical, and economic protection of small-farmer properties and production practices; the de-privatization of the social sector, towards increased employment nation-wide; the legal and physical protection of Colombia’s peasants, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, trade unionists, human rights activists and organizers, journalists, educators, poor, women, and working classes, all which have been systematically targeted by the state military and paramilitary forces; the halting of paramilitary extraditions to the United States which have impeded truth and reconciliation processes; and the conviction and sentencing of Colombia’s military and paramilitary crimes against humanity.

Further, foreign policy to Colombia should facilitate the return of illegally expropriated lands to Colombia’s population of over four million internally displaced individuals; the protection of biodiversity and crop diversity through the banning of mono-cropping; increased regulation and ethicalization of corporate entities, as well as the eviction of any corporations continuing to hire paramilitary forces; the reallocation of Plan Colombia funds away from military spending and towards establishing more effective and accessible social services, including healthcare and education.

As the Fifth Summit of the Americas convened the leaders of 34 different nations recently, U.S. Free Trade Agreements with Latin American countries remained on the table, with the U.S.-Peru FTA passing, despite oppositional protests. While a more ethical approach to U.S. foreign policy on Colombia was marked as a priority for President Obama during his campaigning for presidency, his post-election approach to the FTA has seemed lacking in advocatory strategies for those who the FTA will violently affect. He seems to be seeking friendly relations with Latin American leaders while giving the go ahead to open up talks for the U.S.-Colombia FTA. Ron Kirk, the now confirmed United States Trade Representative, will continue to face demands from human rights groups insisting on attentiveness to the widespread and violent effects of neoliberal policies abroad.32 These concerns have been met this week with a widespread protest across six different U.S. cities, bringing attention to the mass displacement in Colombia as largely facilitated through the implementation of Plan Colombia over the last nine years. Activists in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington marched on Monday, April 20, 2009, beckoning the Obama Administration to bring a new politics to Colombia.

Justice, here, requires attention toward events in the past such as the massacre of Alto Naya, as well as political accountability to the continuing present, through international and local interventions: on military and paramilitary impunities; on policy and law; and on forms of power that structure racial, regional, gendered, and national inequities. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence, particularly as they live on land that is desired by those involved in the armed conflict.33

Justice necessitates accountability, and economic growth is not, in this context, equivalent to justice.

Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes is a scholar-activist doing work on social justice in Colombia.


1 The May 6, 2001 letter from the European Parliament to then President, Andres Pastrana, details the numerous occasions when both the European Parliament as well as individual Parliament members had alerted the Colombian authorities of the imminent attacks. Additionally, the letter points to a number of examples of Colombia’s military forces “directly engaging in activities designed to intimidate and threaten civilian communities in the region including ‘some 200 soldiers from the navy, many wearing hoods, [who] photographed and interrogated members of the community and announced the arrival of the paramilitaries.'” See (Craig-Best, Liam and Rowan Shingler. 2001. The Alto Naya Massacre: Another Paramilitary Outrage. Colombia Journal. May 21. retrieved February 21, 2009.)

2 (Dahl, Patricia. 2004. The Massacre at Alto Naya. Colombia Journal. February 23. retrieved February 18, 2009.

3 Alto Naya residents faced extensive threat previous to April 2001. In 2000, paramilitary forces “started killing people near our village…They stole food from people coming down the mountain, set up check points, took over several villages, and killed more people, throwing the bodies in the river…Within six months, over 350 people were killed.” A leader of the former Alto Naya community, now in Popoyan/La Laguna. See (Dear, John. 2006. The Road to Colombia. February 14. retrieved March 2, 2009.

4 As new cases are reported everyday, sometimes decades after the event, the registry statistics are due to change.

5 See (Memoria Histórica (MH) de la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación CNRR de Colombia. 2008. Trujillo: Una tragedia que no cesa. Semana por la Memoria (del 9 al 16 de septiembre). retrieved January 26, 2009.

6 (Ballvé, Teo. 2007. Remembering in the Land that Memory Forgot. May 15. In Upside Down World: Covering News and Politics in Latin America. retrieved January 26, 2009.

7 While in the last 60 years, between 500,000 to one million of Colombia’s inhabitants have been killed. Roughly 80% of the deaths in Colombia in the last 40 years have been at the hands of military-paramilitary operations. Human Rights Watch contends that between 1998 and 2003 alone, “paramilitary violence caused around 200,000 deaths.” See (Zibechi, Raúl. 2008. Colombia: Indigenous Self-Defense in Times of War. Americas Program Report. Americas Program: A New World of Citizen Action, Analysis, and Policy Options. June 5. retrieved February 27, 2009.

8 Government support offered to paramilitary actions includes, but is not limited to: communication via electronic devices; the ‘sharing of intelligence’, ‘vehicles’, and ‘fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases’; the ‘coordination of army roadblocks’; and other forms of ‘active coordination during military operations.’ Often payments are made from paramilitary officers to military officers for their continued material support via access to resources and continued impunities. (Human Rights Watch. 2001. The "Sixth Division": Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia. 4 October. 2653. Online UNHCR Refworld, available at: [accessed 27 February 2009]

It is also crucial to mark the complicity of the United States government in these practices, through military funding and policy aid via Plan Colombia, and through the training of Colombian forces on U.S. military bases such as the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

9 “The Organization of American States (O.A.S.) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had advised the “Colombian government to extend special protections to the Naya communities. The United Nations Human Rights Office reported that it had alerted the authorities two days before the killings began that a 300-strong paramilitary force was advancing into the Naya area.” (Carrigan, Ann. 2001. Into the Abyss: The Paramilitary Political Objective. In Colombia: The Traffic of Terror. Crimes of War. 4. retrieved March 2, 2009.

10 See, for instance, Paramilitaries in Southern Bolivar Consolidate while Authorities Remain Silent. Colombia Support Network News. March 23, 2009.

11 Office of the United States Trade Representative. “Colombia FTA Timeline: Dates You Need to Know.” (see retrieved November 20, 2008.

12 Office of the United States Trade Representative. 2008. “Colombia FTA Facts: The Case for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.” October. (see retrieved November 20, 2008.

13 Office of the United States Trade Representative. 2007. “Free Trade with Colombia: Summary of the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement” Trade Facts. June. (see retrieved November 20, 2008.

14 United States Office of the Press Secretary. 2008. “Fact Sheet: U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Essential to Our National Security.” Press Release. March 12. (see retrieved November 24, 2008.

15 See United Nations, General Assembly. (2008.) Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia. HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL, Seventh session, Agenda item 2. A/HRC/7/39. 29 February.

16 For example, as of November 3, 2008, after a 6 day fact-finding tour in Colombia, the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights stated that Colombia’s government forces are responsible for systematic and widespread extrajudicial executions of its own people, which constitute crimes against humanity. (see Vieria, Constanza. 2008. RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: UN Warns of Civilian Killings by Military. Bogotá. November 3. Though the resulting U.N. report pushed the Colombian government to purge its military of numerous offenders of these crimes, the Colombian Justice System has historically proven to be inadequate and unreliable in bringing justice to the fore when it comes to implicating, trying, and sentencing those who constitute the state-military-paramilitary complex. For sources on this, see Restrepo, Elvira María. 2003. Colombian Criminal Justice in Crisis: Fear and Distrust. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

17 For sources on this, please see Amnesty International,

18 Office of the United States Trade Representative. 2008. “Colombia FTA Facts. Colombia: On a Path to Peace, Justice and Prosperity.” October. (see retrieved November 20, 2008.

19 For instance, the recent Popular Minga, consisting of indigenous, Afro-Colombian, peasant, and sugar-cane workers’ organizations wrote in their declarative agenda: “…We propose that mechanisms of interlocution with the U.S. Congress be established. It makes no sense to debate the issue with the Colombian government. Our reasons for rejecting this and other similar treaties have been expressed broadly and repeatedly. We also must remember that we organized and held transparent, internationally verified, and democratic consultations on the FTA in the past, where 98% of the voters in Cauca [a Department in the west of Colombia] gave an overwhelming “NO” to the FTA.” (see Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca (ACIN.) Popular Minga. 2008. The Minga’s Agenda Advancing. Mario Murillo, trans. October 20, 22. Received in an email from Leonard Morin, October 23, 2008.




23 Colombia’s indigenous number to about half a million, and the Afro-Colombian population is around 11 million out of Colombia’s 44 million people.

24 For a detailed comment on this see Cordoba, Marino. 2008. “Why Afro-Colombians Oppose the Colombia FTA.” In The Hill’s Congress Blog. February 7. Retrieved November 20, 2008.

25 Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979. Michael Senellart, et al, eds. Graham Burchell, trans. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 113.

26 “Food security is not a bag of bread and potatoes. It is sovereignty in deciding what we grow and what we eat. The FTA will bring new diseases, transgenic products, and dependency on foreign products. It will destroy our campesino culture, economy, and autonomy.” Dagoberto Villadiego, representative of the National Farmers’ Association (ANUC) from the state of Sucre, Colombia. (see Martin, Amanda and Kath Nygard. Faces of Colombia: Who are the Victims of Free Trade? Witness for Peace Colombia Team. retrieved December 4, 2008.

27 For more, see Amnesty International reports, as well as Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University School of Law.

28 Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca ACIN. 2008a. An Open Letter from the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, to U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama. October 20. Cauca, Colombia.

29 (For more on the Justice and Peace Law, see International Center for Transitional Justice ICTJ, 2006.)

30 (see Martin, Amanda and Kath Nygard. Faces of Colombia: Who are the Victims of Free Trade? Witness for Peace Colombia Team. retrieved December 4, 2008.

31 (see, for example, Corporación Colectivo de Abogados/Lawyer’s Collective, 2008.

32 See Obama’s Challenge: Free Trade. New America Media, Commentary, Adam Sgrenci. Apr 17, 2009

33 For more information, see also: Amnesty International Report: The State of the World’s Human Rights