|America’s Useless Attack on Colombia:
Plan Colombia and Why It Is Dangerous
Ethics in Development in a Global Environment
June 02, 2004
When the Clinton Administration committed itself to a multi-billion dollar aid package to Colombia in order to fight the War on Drugs it was pretty big news. After all, as part of his “Plan Colombia,” Clinton was committing the United States to $1.3 billion dollars in aid to Colombia and its neighbors as part of “Plan Colombia.” Of the money, over half of it—$645 million would go to the Colombian military and police force, in effort to “strengthen democracy, the rule of law, economic stability, and human rights in Colombia1.” With this package, Colombia became the third largest recipient of American aid, only behind Israel and Egypt.
Critics, however, knew that there was reason to doubt the efficacy of the plan. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota warned “History has repeatedly shown—especially in Latin America—just think of Nicaragua and El Salvador—that the practical effect of this strategy now under effect is to militarize, to escalate the conflict, not to end it2.” These critics recognized that the exorbitant amount of money being given to Colombia in foreign aid—well over the total amount given to every other country in Latin and Central America combined—could lead to counter-productive results, putting us in the center of conflict that has endured decades of corruption and brutality3.
Four years after Plan Colombia was proposed, critics such as Wellstone prove to have had it right. Colombia has not ceased to produce drugs, and American objectives have not been met. In fact, many claim that fighting between two leftist guerilla groups, the right-wing paramilitary, and the government has only worsened4. In the year 2002, around 4,000 people were murdered and more than 350,000 people were forced from their homes. Estimates show that the conflict now claims the life of 19 civilians per day, as opposed to just 12 civilians per day in 20005. Drug production has continued to accelerate and the human rights situation has continued to get worse6. Needless to say, the “democracy, rule of law, economic stability, and human rights” that the Clinton Administration claimed would improve have not seen much improvement.
In this report, I examine the United States’ “War on Drugs” in Colombia, and show how American involvement in Colombia has been a dangerous and counterproductive use of money. First, I look into the details of the Colombian conflict, which has been going on for decades. In doing so, I examine the multiple players who make up the conflict. I then look at how America has involved itself in the conflict and conclude by discussing where the American plan has gone wrong.
II. A Look at the Players in the Colombian Conflict
Before we delve into a discussion of the American role in the Colombian quagmire, it’s necessary to look at who the main actors are in the national civil conflict. As the US is entering a struggle that has lasted for years, it is impossible to get a full understanding of the situation at hand without discussing how the past has formed the groups that are involved today. It is an established fact that there are few “good guys” in the Colombian conflict and that all parties commit human rights abuses and other violations of international law7. In this section, I examine the specific groups and how they came into existence.
A. The Guerillas
a. The FARC
The FARC (Fuerzas ArmadasRevolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was an unofficial group of united Colombian peasants who were guided by Communist and Marxist doctrines long before the organization’s official formation in 1964. Prior to 1964, peasants led multiple uprisings in response to violent expulsions of from their farms at the hands of the government military and rich landowners8. The official formation of the FARC came after the US-sponsored Marquetalia Raid, in which 16,000 military personnel were pitted against a community of 1,000 unarmed peasants. The survivors of the raid were led my Manuel Marulanda, a peasant guerilla who had actively fought with the guerilla movement since 1948. Together, they founded the FARC shortly after the raid. The FARC’s ideology is highly nationalist and anti-capitalist, with its rhetoric rooted in early progressive ideology9.
In the 1980s, when the government tried to end the guerilla war through peace talks, the FARC created its own political party, the Patriotic Union, which the group hoped to use as a non-violent means to negotiation. Journalist Liz Harper claims that “The UP party -- comprised of disarmed guerrillas, former Communists, and progressive Liberals -- espoused anti-corruption policies, harsh penalties against narco-traffickers and progressive land and economic reforms10.” As the UP gained popularity, however, it became a major target of right wing paramilitaries. Over the years that followed its creation, at least 3,000 of the party’s member were assassinated or disappeared at the hands of the paramilitaries, and the FARC retreated back into the jungle as guerillas.
Still headed by Marulanda, the FARC currently has more than 17,000 members in more than 70 fronts, making it the largest guerilla group in the western hemisphere. Currently, much of the narcotics produced in Colombia are grown in areas under the control of the FARC. Though the FARC’s link to the drug trade is rather controversial, it is widely accepted that FARC members receive funds in the way of taxes placed on coca-growers in the areas it controls in exchange for protection from paramilitary and government groups11.
The FARC further finances itself through kidnapping for ransom and extortion. Together with the ELN (see below), the FARC is responsible for a majority of the kidnappings in Colombia. According to the Center for International Policy, “The FARC and ELN are responsible for about 15 percent of killings associated with Colombia’s conflict, many of them civilian non-combatants. The FARC regularly carries out massacres, and has claimed many innocent lives through indiscriminate use of inaccurate gas-cylinder bombs12.” Due to its reputation as a communist threat during the Cold War and its current status as the “root of the drug problem,” the FARC has been a primary target of American involvement in Colombia for decades. Currently, the US government sees the FARC as a terrorist organization, and as such has given itself a green light to mobilize against the FARC even with regards to issues unrelated to narcotics. In a rhetorical stunt, the Bush Administration often refers to FARC members as narco-terrorists. The Bush Administration’s efforts to justify attacks on the FARC as part of its War on Terror will be discussed in more detail in section III
b. The ELN
The ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- The National Liberation Army), also founded in 1964, was created by a group of Colombian students who underwent their political and guerilla training in Cuba. Following the Cuban model of rural rebellion, the ELN attracted many radical students and priests who believed in the communist doctrine13. The ELN, whose mission is “to incite a Marxist revolution to oust the Colombian government, replacing the current capitalist economy with a socialist system,” currently has 3,500 members14.
During the Cold War, the ELN depended largely on financial and military assistance from the Soviet Union and Cuba. Attracted to the ELN’s commitment to peasant welfare, many radical priests joined the group during the 1960s as well. When the Cuban and Soviet aid declined in the 1980s, the ELN turned to kidnapping and extortion for funding.
Largely due to its religious ties, the ELN historically has not turned to drugs as a primary source of revenue. Recently, however, under new leadership, the group has loosened its prohibition on involvement in the drug trade. A primary goal of the ELN is the sabotage of the energy industry—oil pipelines, and electricity infrastructure—as it claims that the industry is dominated by foreign interests15.
Although the ELN spoke for years of potential peace talks with the Colombian government, in early June of 2002, the Colombian government officially terminated talks that were taking place in Havana, Cuba, claiming that “the guerillas were not committed to the objectives of their peace agreement16.” By turning the War on Drugs into a “War on Terror,” the Bush Administration has increased stepped up the efforts to shut down the ELN. As the ELN gets in the way of American oil interests, their new label as “terrorists” has allowed the American army to wage fronts against them, even though they are not very involved in the drug trade.
B. Paramilitary Groups
The guerillas, in their efforts to protect themselves and the nation’s natural resources have often targeted the wealthier land owners and oil producers. As such, ever since the guerilla groups entered the scene in Colombia, wealthy landowners, ranchers, and businessmen have banded together to protect themselves and their assets from the guerilleros17. In the 1950s, these land owners began commissioning militias to protect their assets and take revenge when necessary. These defense militias grew drastically during the 1980s, with the financial support of the drug cartels that had bought a majority of Colombia’s land.
Over the course of the late 20th century, multiple paramilitary groups were set up, often in response to the deaths of family members of drug cartel leaders. Because of the exorbitant wealth of the drug lords, paramilitary groups have been very wealthy and powerful. The groups threatened anyone suspected of supporting guerilla groups, ranging from unionists to religious leaders to journalists18. As the drug trade grew, paramilitaries such as the MAS (Death to Kidnappers) were established to protect cartel leaders’ interests in cities19. They used abusive tactics such as selective assassinations, forced disappearances, massacres, and forced displacements of entire communities in effort to eliminate guerilla groups.
The AUC (Autodefensas Unidades de Colombia: The United Self-Defense Force of Colombia), led by Carlos Castaño is currently the umbrella organization for these right-wing paramilitaries. In the year 2000 alone, the group was responsible for 804 assassinations, 203 kidnappings, and 57 massacres20. Using “extreme brutality” toward civilian populations, the group continues to weaken guerrillas and establish a terrorizing presence throughout Colombia21. Castaño has recently admitted that the UAC benefits largely from taxes received from coca growers who pay for protection from guerillas. The groups appear to be directly involved in processing cocaine as well22. Due to the immense profits as a result of drug production, the UAC has grown nine-fold since 1992, now claiming more than 8,000 members. Paramilitary groups commit around 80 percent of the murders in Colombia’s conflict.
Although it is very controversial, paramilitary groups are often involved with the military that the United States is funding. Because of their common interest in the repression of guerillas, the government and the paramilitaries have been able to unite in effort to fight the guerilla war. As such, much of the American dollars spent on the Colombian conflict are indirectly reaching the hands of the paramilitary organizations.
c. Government Military Forces
In the wake of all the civil unrest caused by paramilitary and guerilla groups, one must ask, “Where is the law enforcement during all this?” Historically, it has been either absent or contributing to the commotion. The military consists of roughly 250,000 members—145,000 military and 105,000 policy officers. Slightly less than one fifth of Colombia’s municipalities have no state security presence; this contributes largely to the paramilitaries’ ability to do as they please in various regions in Colombia.
In 1989, the Colombian Minister of Defense publicly stated that the military was to embark on a “total war” to “control the popular elements and manipulate the masses23.” This declaration gave the military the green light to target anyone they felt was under any sort of control of the “subversive elements” of society24. As a result, many organizations, such as indigenous organizations, environmental organizations, peasant movements, religious groups, etc. became potential military targets25.
As the violence of the military grew worse and American ties with Colombia strengthened, the pressure for reform increased. A revised military penal code was implemented in 1999, increasing the likelihood that those committing human rights abuses be tried and brought to justice. It also guarantees protection for militiamen who refuse to violate human rights while serving. Although this was considered by many to be a step in the right direction, there has been very little effort to enforce any of the policies set forth in this code.
The Colombia military has had very positive relations with the United States government since the beginning of the Cold War (even sending a battalion to fight with the United States in the Korean War). As part of the war on drugs, the US has provided the Colombian military with equipment through the international narcotics control program, military assistance programs, and foreign military sales. As the US trains many Colombian soldiers, the US has had opportunities to push further reforms on the Colombian military. In 2000, the Colombian government spent 3.4% of its GDP, $3 billion dollars, on its military in effort to combat the insurgency that has gone on over the past 40 years. Much of the remainder of this paper focuses on the relationship the United States government and the Colombian military have had over the past decade.
Zones of greatest illegal armed group activity
FIGURE 1: Guerillas, Paramilitaries, and Government illegal murder rates
After looking at the groups that are playing large roles and examining figure 1, it is certainly apparent that Colombia is not a nation of exclusively “good guys” and “bad guys.” Regardless, however, of who the victims are and who the perpetrators are, this section has clearly laid out that Colombia is a weakly governed nation with a stark history of corruption, animosity, and vengeance. As we will see, the United States’ decision to focus great amounts of money on the police and military to fight illegal drugs—what many call a symptom of other nation problems—was not a recipe for success in this incredibly complex conflict.
III. American Involvement in Colombia
a. Before “Plan Colombia”
The United States and the Colombian military have had a positive relationship for centuries. As mentioned above, Colombia was the only Latin American nation to support American efforts in the Korean War. During the Cold War, the primary motivation for American involvement in Colombia was the ideological clash with the guerillas. This pinned American forces against the guerilla movements’ communist mission. Incidentally, just as the Communist threat began fading from the American security radar screen, the American people began seeing drugs as a large international threat. A 1988 New York Times poll showed that “48 percent of the US public considered drugs to be the principal foreign policy challenge facing the United States26.” In response, George Bush Sr. began a counter-narcotics effort, beginning in Bolivia and extending it to Peru and Colombia in 1989. His counter-narcotics effort continues today. Although the stated motives for supporting the Colombian military have changed, America has supported it for decades.
Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton Administration provided the Colombian military with more than $100 million per year, claiming that the money would only go towards counter-narcotics efforts. Although administrators admit that in some areas, the counter-narcotic efforts often crossed into counterinsurgency actions, the Clinton Administration ignored this contradiction with policy. Furthermore, the US military was often engaged in military training in Colombia, preparing Colombian soldiers who were explicitly oriented towards fighting the guerillas27. Clearly, thus, as early as the 1990s, the American forces were already involving themselves in far more than a Drug War, wetting their hands in a Civil War they pledged to be keeping out of.
b. Since the late 1990s
The American involvement in Colombia continues to increase rapidly. The Embassy in Bogotá has recently passed the embassy in Cairo as the largest American Embassy in the world28. Since Plan Colombia came into effect in 2000, the United States has appropriated $2.44 billion for Colombia, with $1.97 billion going to Colombia’s police and military forces. On average, that equals $1.35 million per day for four years. Another $688 million will go to Colombia in 2004, and there are requests that even that quantity increase29.
The majority of American aid goes to Colombian counter-narcotics army brigades. More than half of all aid has gone to create and maintain a 2,300 man brigade in the far south of Colombia, an area fiercely contested by both the FARC and the paramilitaries. This new battalion’s original mission was to eradicate drug-processing labs, apprehend traffickers, and clear armed groups from areas of drug-cultivation30.
The U.S. funds not only pay for the 2,300-man army brigade, but also for dozens of helicopters, naval and air force support, radar sites, base construction, “and a police-run aerial drug-crop fumigation program that has sprayed herbicides over nearly 400,000 hectares of Colombian territory, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island31.”
In 2002, however, the Bush Administration upped the ante in American involvement in Colombia. As part of the administration’s “War on Terror,” it was made permissible to use American sponsored equipment and training for “counter-terrorist” purposes. As a result, “some of the brigade’s operations may legally resemble the U.S.-supported counter-insurgency efforts commonplace in Latin America during the Cold War32.” A result of this new green light on non-narcotic affairs is a $99 million project to help Colombian forces take on guerillas near the Venezuelan border. Another 93 million dollars has gone towards funding a pipeline protection brigade, which trains Colombian soldiers to fight off ELN guerillas in protection of the Araunca region’s pipeline33.
FIGURE 2: US Aid to Colombia 1997-200334
As can be seen in figure 2, around 1 in 6 dollars given to Colombia has gone to humanitarian relief. Some of the money has gone towards helping illicit drug farmers find legal crops to produce, some has given emergency assistance to displaced citizens, some has gone to Non-Governmental Organizations. The money proportioned to human rights relief work at least indicates that Washington understands that this problem cannot be solved through military alone.
Despite the kind gesture behind the humanitarian relief aid, however, the 5/6 of the money given in military aid neglects many of the most basic tenants of counter-insurgency35. The massive herbicide being sprayed across peasant fields by counter-narcotic militants is fueling anti-American and anti-government sentiment in areas controlled by guerilla forces36. According to journalist Eric Isacson, “The social and economic component of Washington’s aid has been overshadowed, particularly in most Colombians’ perceptions, by the far larger military-aid outlay37.” Even the aid that is reaching targeted populations is only having a marginal effect. According to US Ambassador to Colombia Anne Peterson, “[The aid programs that have been successful] only represent a drop in the bucket in relation to the real needs of Colombia’s displaced persons38.”
IV. Plan Colombia Results
The previous paragraph examined aspects of Plan Colombia’s humanitarian side. This section will look into the successes and failures of the remainder of Plan Colombia.
The media have built up the successes of Plan Colombia, generally pointing to declines in levels of coca being produced, increased macroeconomic growth, and declines in violence levels in Colombia39. The Washington Post claimed that “Though Plan Colombia still hasn’t achieved many of its goals, there can be little question that the $2.7 billion invested by the United States so far has gotten results40.” As has been and will be pointed out, these claims are overly-optimistic. Critics of Plan Colombia are not so sure of the positive outcomes. According to Representative Janice Schakowsky (D-Illinois), “Plan Colombia has made a bad situation in Colombia even worse and has not provided any measurable benefit to the American people41.”
a. Problems with Current American Policy
As mentioned in the introduction, there have been many counter-productive results from the War on Drugs. In the year 2002, around 4,000 people were murdered and more than 350,000 people were forced from their homes, despite the new American presence. The conflict led to 19 civilian deaths per day in 2002, as opposed to just 12 civilians per day in 200442. Drug production has continued, drug prices in the United States have not increased, and the human rights situation has continued to get worse43. US-supported counter-narcotic programs are exacerbating the already depleted situation. US fumigation projects have destroyed crops, made water undrinkable, displaced thousands of farmers, and harmed the health of farmers and animals in contact with the herbicides44. These harmful effects led to a Colombian court ruling making it illegal to spray glyphosate on coca and poppy plates; a government court overruled the decision, and the spraying has resumed45.
One of the largest problems with current American policy in Colombia is its great dependency on the Colombian military, a historically corrupt and ineffective organization. A recent senate report admitted that the Colombian military is a “particularly weak link in the fight against narcotics.46” The weakness manifests itself in a long tradition of human rights abuses, of collaborating with brutal paramilitaries, a history of corruption, and a lack of accountability for the human rights abuses it perpetuates47.
As a result, the United States policy gives insufficient priority to protecting the democratic institutions of Colombia and finding a peaceful result to their 40-year-old war. Instead of seeking an end to the war by attacking the conditions that give rise to such a conflict, American energy has focused largely on alliances with political and economic elites; such alliances are unfavorable for long-term peace in Colombia, which would certainly be in American interests.
The Colombian government, though distancing itself from any peace agreement with the guerilla groups, is advancing negotiations with right wing paramilitary groups. The AUC has committed itself to gradual demobilization as well. Though this seems like a promising inroad to peace, any agreement would most likely include an amnesty granting to the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity48. Furthermore, it would side the American aid with the leaders of the drug cartels who have committed 80 percent of the murders in Colombia over the past few decades! The hypocrisy is almost startling. We support a regime that has taken sides with the drug traffickers profiting from the drug networks, while attacking the poor peasants who have little control over what they produce. This is all our effort to stop drugs from getting to America.
From a more economic standpoint, supply-side drug policy is unlikely to bring in the effects that the government is hoping for. Despite any decreases that may have taken place in Colombian coca fields, the drug prices in America have remained constant throughout49! This implies that drugs have remained equally accessible. Furthermore, history has proven that if one country produces less of any drug, other countries begin producing more. See figure 3 for an example of how Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru have maintained the drug market, despite changes in quantity produced by individual nations. This is known as the bubble effect. In the words of the Washington Office on Latin America: “Steady demand – and the immense profits it produces – ensures that even if drug cultivation and production are suppressed in one area, they will emerge in another50.”
FIGURE 3: The Balloon Effect (as one country’s production decreases, others increase)
V. Suggestions for Future and Conclusions
American efforts to reduce the flow of drugs into our country have proven ineffective. Our government has spent more than 25 billion dollars in the past decade on anti-drug programs, but more illegal drugs are currently available at prices cheaper than ever before51. In the process of spending all this money, the US government has strengthened an abusive military in Colombia and stepped into a quagmire of civil conflict. Three years after Plan Colombia was passed, the aid Clinton granted has expanded well beyond the simple realm of the War on Drugs. Isacson explains the situation: “Counter-terrorism is now the principal rationale, though policymakers are still trying to figure out what that term means in a country whose terrorist groups are armies that control territory and have tens of thousands of members52.”
So what comes next for our relations with Colombia? In a completely ideal world, violence declines, coca moves away, and guerillas lose steam. Some government reports have claimed that these results are currently being realized. Current Colombian President Uribe, however, does not expect American aid to leave anytime soon. “An exit strategy now is a disaster strategy,” he told Washington Post reporters53. The US Congress General Accounting Office agrees that it’s unlikely that Colombian forces could handle an American removal of forces: ““Neither the Colombian Army nor the Colombian National Police can sustain ongoing counter-narcotics programs without continued U.S. funding and contractor support for the foreseeable future54.” If we cut off our aid, thus, whatever progress might be made will be retracted quickly. It’s also noteworthy that these quotes are in response to our ideal world scenario.
In a more realistic world, the drug world will maintain it’s demand-meeting resilience and the guerillas will hold strong in the Colombian jungle, much like was the case in Vietnam. In today’s political climate, it will be nearly impossible for the US to pull out of Colombia, and the forces pulling the US towards more military action could be too strong to resist. Isacson fears, “Whether the result is a new Vietnam, a large-scale El Salvador, or something new, it could be quite painful55.”
It is imperative, however, for Washington to realize that military escalation is NOT the only available option. Many have found that drug treatment domestically is one of the most effective methods for reducing its use at home. Decreasing narcotic demand in the States would serve as a more fruitful option than the multi-billion dollar supply side war the US Government is currently waging. Economic aid to Colombia could be part of a larger strategy to bring to life Colombia’s downtrodden and attacked labor sector. The basic human rights of nearly a million internal Colombian refugees require immediate attention. And lastly, the domestic judicial system of Colombia will not be able to maintain any order if it cannot enforce the rules of society.
While pulling out may not be the answer, the least the US can do is try to address the root causes of the problems as laid out in the previous paragraph. Tokatlian expresses that the various wars being waged in Colombia, “the war on drugs”, “the counterinsurgency war”, “the war against the establishment”, are just oversimplifications, euphemisms “for the an inability of any individual or organization to understand the crisis that has multiple actors, where there is no specific, identifiable source of blame.56” We must end this overly simplified approach. One step would be to abandon fumigation in favor of an eradication strategy that actually strengthens the Colombian government. The current system of spraying fields with destructive chemicals only harbors distrust among peasants who have very little contact with their government. The US must view human rights and security as inseparable and necessary for the common good. Lastly and most importantly, the US must realize that the problems Colombia faces “are complex and inter-related, and that focusing too much on one aspect courts failure57.” As Viacius claims, “A genuine U.S. and Colombian effort to address these ‘deeply-rooted problems’ would be a radical break with historic patterns and policies, more revolutionary than anything Colombia’s insurgents claim to be fighting for.”
Baron, Randolph. “Whiteout.” SAIS Review. Winter Spring 2004. http://www.saisreview.org/PDF/24.1baron.pdf
Bouvier, Virginia. “Colombia Quagmire: Time for US Policy Overhaul.” IRC American Programs Policy Brief. September, 2003. http://www.americaspolicy.org/pdf/briefs/0309colombia.pdf
Carlsen, Laura. “Militarizing the Americas.” The Americas This Week. 3 September 2003. http://www.americaspolicy.org/pdf/columns/0309mil.pdf
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Heeres, Joel. “Colombia: Political Violence, The Drug War, and Multinational Corporations.” May, June 1999.
Isacson, Eric. “Optimism, Pessimism, and Terrorism: The United States and Colombia in 2003.” Brown Journal of World Affairs. Winter/Spring 2004 volume. http://www.watsoninstitute.org/bjwa/archive/10.2/Essays/Isacson.pdf
Meza, Ricardo Vargas. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Illicit Drug Trade.” Transnational Institute, The Netherlands. June 1999. http://www.tni.org/drugs/pubs/farc.htm
Tokatlian, Juan. Globalización, narcotráfico y violencia: siete ensayos sobre Colombia, Bogotá: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2000.
Viacius, Ingrid. “The War on Drugs Meets War on Terror.” International Policy Report. February 2003. http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/0302ipr.htm
Wilson, Scott. “U.S. Seeks to Avoid Deeper Role in Colombia,” The Washington Post 9 March 2003.
Youngers, Coletta. “Waging War: US Policy Towards Colombia.” Latin American Studies Association. 1999. http://184.108.40.206/ar/libros/lasa98/Youngers.pdf