“Journalistic terrorism?” Maps of poverty, coca, fumigation and alternative development
Sep 192006
The map below shows the locations of the vetted recipient units from Colombia’s army, navy and air force.

The so-called "Leahy Law" is a provision that has appeared in the U.S. foreign aid bill every year since 1997. Named for its principal proponent, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), its purpose is straightforward. It states that if a foreign military unit includes people who have committed gross human-rights violations, and they are not being credibly investigated, tried or punished, then that unit cannot receive U.S. assistance.

The Leahy Law is not frequently invoked, though it has on occasion forced the U.S. government to refuse aid to army units in Colombia, or to cut off aid to units already receiving it (as happened in January 2003, when an air force command saw its aid cut off for non-cooperation with authorities investigating the 1998 Santo Domingo massacre).

In order to comply with the Leahy Law, the U.S. embassy in Colombia (and, presumably, in every country that gets military aid) must keep a database of individual military personnel who face credible allegations of human rights abuse, and must ensure that none of these names appear on the roster of a military unit being considered for U.S. assistance. This process is called "vetting" the unit.

We had never seen a list of which units had been vetted and approved for U.S. aid – until now. Thanks to the efforts of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Colombia Program, we now have recent lists of all Colombian military and police units:

A few quick notes about these lists:



  • If a unit does not appear on the list of approved units, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. government has refused aid for human-rights reasons. It does mean, however, that the unit is not getting U.S. aid.
  • When the aid in question is training (as opposed to weapons, equipment or intelligence), the definition of "unit" becomes much more flexible. The U.S. government only considers the human-rights background of the individual who has been proposed for training. The individual is the "unit." It is conceivable, then, that an individual from a notoriously abusive unit can receive training, as long as his name does not appear in the vetting database.
  • It was surprising to see the 11th Brigade listed. This unit is based in Montería, Córdoba, and its area of responsibility is one of the paramilitaries’ principal historic strongholds. Yet the 11th Brigade has almost no record of combating the paramilitary groups that operate in its midst.
  • For the most part, other units that operate in paramilitary-heavy areas – the 17th (Urabá), the 4th (Antioquia), the 5th (Magdalena Medio and Catatumbo), the 14th (Magdalena Medio), and the 10th (Cesar) – do not receive assistance. Exceptions include the above-mentioned 11th Brigade, the 16th Brigade (Casanare), and naval units in Sucre.
  • Many recipient army units are concentrated in the southern Colombian zone where the "Plan Patriota" offensive has been occurring (Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare departments, including the former demilitarized zone where peace talks with the FARC took place between 1998 and 2002). Another zone of concentration are the oil-producing departments of Arauca and Casanare. (In 2002, the U.S. Congress approved a Bush administration request for $100 million in military aid to protect an oil pipeline in Arauca.)
  • Surprisingly, none of the military units in the department of Putumayo – where Plan Colombia began in 2000 – is receiving aid, with the exception of the Navy Riverine Battalion and an Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade that only spends some of its time in Putumayo.
  • In the list of units cleared to use helicopters, "TF Omega" is the task force involved in the Plan Patriota offensive. "PCHP" stands for "Plan Colombia Helicopter Program."

3 Responses to “Where in Colombia does U.S. military aid go?”

  1. richtiger Says:

    I’m (almost) speechless. I can’t imagine trying to track individual Colombian military personnel who have been accused of human rights violations. I guess there’s plenty of job opportunities in the U.S. Foreign Service.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    If only it were that thorough. All that’s involved is comparing names to what’s in a database. Something similar happens with the “no fly list” for terror suspects at the airport. (Yes, that’s the list that keeps babies from being able to board planes.)

  3. KyleHanky Says:

    First, phenomenal work by FOR for tracking all of this stuff down and confirming it and so on, probably a long nightmare of a process. Secondly, I was also quite surprised to see that very, very little aid is going to Putumayo. First, because as stated, it has been one of the main focus areas of US policy in Colombia for the last 6 years, at least. Second of all, I was surprised because noting the situation there (having traveled there twice during the month of August), it would seem that the US would think that the military still very much needs assistance, and that human rights would not be too much of a hurdle for them (though there have been problems in the past, does not seem as problematic as up north in the areas Adam pointed out). There are, according to various sources, up to 8 fronts of the FARC operating in Putumayo and they are not completely silent, though the situation has quieted. I would think the US would want to continue to maintain Putumayo as “calmer” (relative to its past), with less coca than before and less of a FARC stronghold. It would seem that the approach taken by the US Gov’t in the last 5-6 years would continue, as they have seen Putumayo as a relative success. But it seems like very little military aid is coming in, with some (still very little) alternative development aid coming in as well.

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