After a 15-year legal battle, a U.S. jury will begin deliberations Wednesday over whether a U.S. security contractor must pay damages to as many as 2,000 Ecuadoran farmers who say they were poisoned by the U.S. and Colombian governments’ years-long, coca-eradication campaign.
During a two-week trial in Washington that ended Tuesday, a lawsuit against McLean, Va.-based DynCorp probed one of the bitter legacies of America’s long war against Latin American cartels and its own insatiable drug appetite.
The mostly peasant farmers in the case, represented by International Rights Advocates, say their families, animals and crops were collateral damage in recklessly executed aerial spraying efforts using glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular weed killer Roundup, when aircraft or clouds of fumigant drifted south over the Colombia-Ecuador border.
The human rights groups say the American corporation should be held liable for its role in alleged abuses by an element of Plan Colombia, a sweeping, $10 billion U.S. counternarcotics effort launched in the 1990s that became the government’s largest foreign policy initiative in South America and is credited for helping a democratic U.S. ally end a bloody civil war.
In a first test trial involving six farmers before U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle, the plaintiffs have suggested giving each farmer damages of $50,000 to $500,000, plus potential punitive damages.
Only one farmer had the means to obtain a visa and travel to Washington to testify in person; the rest testified via video.
“This is a historic case,” said plaintiffs attorney and International Rights Advocates Director Terrence P. Collingsworth. “A jury will finally [decide whether] DynCorp aerially sprayed a toxic poison . . . on thousands of Ecuadoran farmers and killed their crops, their animals, and caused untold misery for the farmers and their families.”
“For DynCorp to deny its role is for it to stand up and refuse — refuse — to take responsibility,” fellow lead counsel Theodore J. Leopold told the 10-person jury in closing arguments.
DynCorp spokesmen have said that health problems experienced by farmers were because of other causes, and that no spray mission using the Monsanto-manufactured herbicide was conducted near the Putumayo border without direction and prior approval of the U.S. State Department and the Colombian government.
In court, company attorneys said the firm was not responsible for pilots, who were hired by a subcontractor or the Colombian national police, and denied that anyone acted recklessly or intentionally to spray the farmers. The company attorneys also said in court that there was no evidence of spray drifting more than 150 feet under flight parameters or at the times and places alleged by farmers.
“This was the largest U.S. foreign policy initiative in 20 years in South America,” lead defense attorney Eric G. Lasker told jurors, saying that DynCorp managers acted with great commitment and care and that brave pilots executed flights at risk of terrorist and guerrilla ground fire. “The aerial operations worked. This was a success.”
In court filings and testimony, farmers said spraying begun in January 2001 caused severe health problems in northern Ecuador, including the deaths of four infants and incidents of high fever, vomiting, diarrhea and skin problems.
Ecuadoran authorities at one point reported that spraying prompted at least 60 percent of farmers on the border to abandon their farms and stop the planting of banana, rice and corn. Crops including peppercorn, pineapple and plantain were also reported damaged.
“The spraying was getting into the house and it was touching them as when you are walking, it rains, it touches you that way. That’s how it was getting to my children,” said Laura Sanchez, whose farm was about a mile from the frontier, according to a summary of testimony in court files.
“The cloud moved toward us because the plane went actually almost over us. We were not only able to see [the cloud] but we also felt it on our bodies,” Edgar Balcazar said of spraying from 2001 to 2006 on his land. “The spray had the same smell and the same sticky thing on our skin.”
The lawsuit filed Sept. 11, 2001, alleges to show the impact on civilians of a two-decades- long drug-suppression tool wielded by U.S. and Colombian authorities. The spraying peaked in 2006 when more than 405,000 acres were hit, according to White House data.
U.S.-funded spraying helped slash Colombia’s cocaine-producing lands temporarily from an estimated 400,000 acres in 2001 to fewer than 120,000 acres in 2012, according to data from the United Nations. At the same time, a lethal counterinsurgency campaign helped bring the Marxist rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was deeply engaged in the drug trade, to the negotiating table in secret government talks.
Aerial fumigation provoked a backlash by rural residents, however, while eventually shifting drug-growing to areas such as national parks and indigenous reserves that were shielded from spraying.
With the support of President Juan Manuel Santos — who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year — the Colombian government declared an end to spraying with glyphosate, citing concerns of a cancer link, in 2015.
Opponents of a spraying ban warned that although other major coca-producing countries balked at spraying, hand-eradication by ground forces was dangerous. They predicted correctly that it could lead to a recovery in cocaine production.
Colombia in 2013 agreed to pay Ecuador $15 million and expand no-spray buffer zones to settle an allegation at the International Court of Justice that reckless spraying “caused serious damage to people, to crops, to animals, and to the natural environment on the Ecuadoran side of the frontier.”
The trial in Washington followed years of legal wrangling, including a dismissal by another judge in 2013, before a federal appeals court revived claims for battery and intentional infliction of emotional damage.
Huvelle wrote that in allowing the trial, “there is ample evidence” to suggest that DynCorp and pilots that it briefed and managed “simply ignored (and sometimes mocked) the fact that plaintiffs from specific areas of Ecuador were complaining about the company’s sloppy spraying flights,” citing thousands of sprayings that broke speed, height and mixture limits.
“The fact that plaintiffs include impoverished farmers who rely on their land to survive and defenseless children make defendants’ recklessness all the more outrageous,” Huvelle wrote in September.
DynCorp, taken private in 2010 in a $1.5 billion deal by Stephen Feinberg’s Cerberus Capital Management equity fund, began as an aviation company and became one of the largest U.S. security contractors, supporting State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration aerial missions.