US lawmakers push Colombia bill that could lift drug trade agreement

Story updated at 8:45 a.m. to include comments from Democratic lawmakers. As members of Congress rushed to cast votes on legislation that would lift sanctions on Colombia’s leftist rebel group FARC, critics questioned the…

US lawmakers push Colombia bill that could lift drug trade agreement

Story updated at 8:45 a.m. to include comments from Democratic lawmakers.

As members of Congress rushed to cast votes on legislation that would lift sanctions on Colombia’s leftist rebel group FARC, critics questioned the move to re-legalize the group.

Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said the bill bolsters the organization, a remnant of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and the UK.

“The bill actually lets the most vicious organization in Latin America participate in the political process,” he said.

Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, said: “We must find ways to return the FARC to civil society and economic recovery. We must close the chapter on FARC’s involvement in narco-trafficking and nefarious activities and risk re-normalizing this terrorist organization.”

The FARC, which has renounced its armed presence, is being reintegrated into Colombian society after negotiations between the government and the group to end the nearly half-century war with Colombian rebels, since 1960.

Congressional efforts to lift the FARC’s designation as a terrorist organization — as the US State Department and the UK first announced last year — are closely tied to negotiations over a bilateral drug trade and pipeline sharing agreement between Colombia and the US.

The US sanction law is often cited as a contributing factor to the sluggish pace of Colombia’s peace process.

Following Monday’s procedural vote, 80 members from both parties voted in favor of the Colombia bill, with 12 voting against and four members absent. The Colombian government is expected to sign the bill into law after the passage of the House last week.

The Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday applauded the House vote, and said that in the past two years, “about 29,000 FARC members and other civilians have demobilized, transformed themselves into citizens, and now work to prevent Colombia from becoming a drug-producing zone.”

Colombia President Ivan Duque — who is expected to sign the bill into law — said in a statement that he “asked Congress to consider respecting the principles of state sovereignty as it considers the end of the conflict.”

The Colombian government has said that the FARC-EP’s withdrawal from the armed conflict could lead to it becoming more pragmatic in its role as a trade facilitator between Colombian farmers and international companies that produce cocaine.

‘We wanted to protect the United States’

Trying to win support for the bill, lawmakers offered a set of amendments, but none of them significantly altered or expanded the bill.

One of the most consequential amendments would have prevented the FARC from owning public land in Colombia, but the amendment failed 238-193, while 11 Republicans voted in favor of it.

New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican who co-authored the amendment, said he and the remaining bill authors offered the measure to protect the US-Colombia trade agreement.

“In 2011, when the administration went to Congress with a new provision that would give special status to FARC, we Democrats stood on the opposite side of the fence and said, ‘Let’s build on that agreement, and increase the intensity of the process and complete the process and eliminate the FARC from the face of the earth,’ ” he said, while standing next to Colombian President Ivan Duque.

Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico said she is hopeful that US businesses will step up and purchase some of the massive amount of cocaine that FARC profits from through the trade in the years to come.

“The Colombia-US trade agreement … is working to keep drugs off our streets, to reduce violence and terror in Colombia, and help its people,” she said. “We hoped to protect the United States from being blamed if that agreement was tampered with. But sadly, that’s exactly what happened.”

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