Master thesis

The historical involvement of the US and the fight against the FARC-EP

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The historical involvement of the US and the fight against the FARC-EP

To a large extent, it can be said that the military dimension of PC did not only include the combat against drug-trafficking, but also sought to contemplate another concern of the US security policy, which is related to combating movements considered to be extremist and terrorist towards the US policy. This way, the expansion of the actions of the FARC-EP and ELN in the Colombian internal conflict became a target for the US. According to Antonio Navarro Wolf (2002), the way in which the illicit cultivation expanded in Colombia during the 1990s, was through the leftist Colombian guerillas that had always been very poor, and now started to collect taxes (extortion) on the activities of the drug-traffickers, creating a powerful source of financing for their activities. Taxes on illicit crops became the main source of financing for the FARC-EP, surpassing kidnappings and other extortions (Santos: 177). Nowadays, the FARC-EP has brought its extortion practices to a new level, as the insurgency is aiming at multinational companies, specifically in the oil sector. Victims are sent a letter, urging them to collaborate with the FARC-EP’s “002 Law”, which is known to be extortion. When the requested amount of money is not transferred without delays, the effects usually become clear through violent attacks (Insight Crime).

In a country marked by deep social inequalities, the resources gained from extortion practices allowed the FARC-EP to create an immense army of guerillas. The Theory of War describes the fact that people suffering from fear are more likely to join a guerilla movement such as the FARC-EP, as they are looking for protection, something which is offered to them by the insurgency. Between 1995 and 1998, the FARC-EP won basically every battle against the Colombian army. According to Wolf, the first ones to realize this were the Americans in 1998, when Commander Charles Wilhelm of the Southern Command of the US Army stated that if there would be no intervention to change the situation, in five years the FARC-EP would win the war. Therefore, the US decided to intervene with its militarized version of PC, unifying the problems of narco-trafficking and guerilla movements, similarly aiming to exterminate the FARC-EP and ELN. After analyzing the military offensives of PC, Mario Ramírez Orozco concluded that it was necessary to take into account that the areas where the offensives were concentrated were those areas where control of the guerilla insurgents was predominant, while the areas under control of the right-wing paramilitary groups were largely excluded (Santos: 177).

PC is seen as a sign of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)24 and was supported by the US due to fears of the FARC-EP taking over large territories in Colombia. The US and Colombian utilization of the RMA as a counterforce to the FARC-EP relied on new strategies of warfare that weakened the forces of the FARC-EP, but did not tackle the root causes of the rise of insurgencies in Colombia, as they can be determined through Marxist theory. Therefore, it can be questioned what the true influence of the US policies has been on the economic development in Colombia, as the FARC-EP continues to put a strain on the country’s development. The importance of weakening the FARC-EP is shown through the US investments in PC, as “[o]ver 75 per cent of the $6 billion so far divulged through Plan Colombia has been devoted to military and police assistance, with the rest going to institutional programmes and to a lesser extent to social programmes” (Rochlin: 716).

There are many controversial aspects surrounding the creation of PC. First of all, with regards to the issue of combating narco-trafficking, the plan was to follow the US guideline policy, which stated that drug use in their country was not a problem of domestic demand, but of external supply. This led to the immediate introduction of a strategy based on the eradication of crops through fumigation and militarization of the combat in the producing countries. In this sense, although the proposed plan considered socio-economic factors and human rights, the repressive military character of the program turned out to be the central factor. It was established that the US could maintain 500 militaries and 300 civilians in Colombian territory. The School of the Americas took upon itself the responsibility of providing support and training to the Colombian army. In relation to the support of the regional programs and the peace process, most resources were for military projects in order to combat drugs. Another issue to note is that part of the finances that were initially meant for the military in Colombia was used directly to buy military equipment from US companies such as Bell Textron and United Technologies. Ultimately, PC put Colombia in a select group with Israel, Turkey and Egypt, as the main recipient countries of heavy weaponry, elite forces training and assistance in military assistance from the US (Santos: 177). Overall, since 2000, the US has sent aid worth approximately $7 billion, mostly comprising of military aid, to Colombia. This money was mainly meant to fight the drug-trafficking and insurgencies controlling the situation in Colombia. The amount of aid made Colombia the “[…] largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel” (Global Post).

Terrorism and the fight against drug-trafficking

The various strategies involving the creation of PC by the US gained more force with the election of Álvaro Uribe Vélez as the President of Colombia and the publication of a new anti-terrorist doctrine of the government. Both President Bush and Uribe shared the idea that guerillas are essentially terrorist groups that control the narco-trafficking industry, thereby reducing the complex internal conflict in Colombia to a combat against terrorism. PC was, therefore, included in the US strategy to combat terrorism, with the justification of fighting against drug-trafficking, and making Colombia one of their political allies.

Five years after the establishment of PC, data from the Colombian and US government showed a decrease of 36% in the production of cocaine, from 617 tons in 2001 to 390 tons in the beginning of 2005. However, Colombia continues to be the world’s largest producer of cocaine, representing 56% of the total production. Furthermore, the coca leaf plantations that were eradicated by the government troops often are replanted, even in places such as nature reserves, where fumigation is no option. Altogether, the implementation of the US policy with regards to the combat of drug-trafficking in Colombia has produced little results with regards to the elimination of the activities of drug-traffickers. The US strategy itself contributes to this, by privileging repressive actions and law enforcement, and by neglecting fundamental aspects that are involved with the advancement of narco-trafficking in Colombia, such as the deep social, political and economic inequalities of society (Santos: 180-185).

Coca cultivation and US involvement

The US consumes about 44% of the global cocaine production, which makes the country the most important market for Latin American drug-trafficking activities, including Colombia. Furthermore, “[…] the Latin American narcotics trade is pertinent to U.S. national security interests because of its actual or potential negative interaction with other transnational challenges and potential threat contingencies” (Chalk, 2011: 48). The main focus of the Colombian government with regards to the eradication of coca cultivation has been on destructing the coca plantations, both manually and by fumigation processes. “Between 2003 and 2009, the Bogotá government invested $835 million to underwrite these programs, a figure that is expected to surge to $1.5 billion by 2013” (ibid: 60). In spite of all efforts to significantly decrease the Colombian drug-trafficking activities, both by the US and Colombian governments, “Colombia still constitutes the principal source of cocaine for both the U.S. and global markets, accounting for 90 and 80 percent of respective consumption” (ibid: 63).

Therefore, the influence of coca production on the Colombian economy, and thereby the influence of the FARC-EP which controls a large part of the coca production, continues to exist. The overall cultivation, both licit and illicit, and consequently the Colombian economy, is affected by the fumigation processes. Not only are the effects of the fumigation possibly the cause of various health issues and has the coca production not yet decreased significantly in spite of the destruction of large amounts of crops, the investments in the fumigation programs continue to grow. The effectiveness of these programs is reasonably questioned by the public, diminishing the popular support for the Colombian government and “[…] driving local producers into the hands of insurgents and legitimating their rhetoric that the government is engaged in a rapacious drive to destroy peasant livelihoods” (ibid: 64). This statement is confirmed by both the Marxist economic perspective, as well as the Theory of War (cf. Theory).


In general, it can be stated that the focus of US aid to Colombia has changed over the past decade. Currently, US aid is more centered around nonmilitary elements, and although “[t]he greater part of the relationship is still based on strengthening the armed forces, creating a more democratic and civilian-ruled state, and encouraging practices that are respectful of human rights […]” (Pardo: 89), have caused a positive change in the perspective of the US government. USAID assists the Colombian government in various issues, including the support of victims and civil society and the protection of human rights. Furthermore, USAID focuses on the expansion of government services throughout the country and the implementation of a new justice system, stronger governance, improved health care and education facilities. USAID is mainly concerned with the “[…] social and economic development opportunities to Colombians who have been affected by the conflict” (USAID).

The amount of US aid to Colombia has dropped by 50% over the past five years, when approved funds decreased from $603 million to $332 million (El Tiempo). The decrease in aid to Colombia results from the limited impact of PC on the eradication of coca cultivation, and the criticism on the US aid to Colombia deriving from this. Furthermore, it became known that human rights violations in Colombia continue to exist on a wide scale (Open Democracy). The decrease in aid does not seem to stop based on predictions for the future and the steady decrease of funds, which demonstrated a $200 million decrease from 2010 to 2013 only. This aid is independent from the resources that Colombia receives from the Pentagon, which represent approximately $100 million per year. Ultimately, USAID aims to support the Colombian government in facilitating economic growth by creating a positive business environment, improving the factors that challenge Colombia’s economic development and allowing FDI and trade to blossom, all according to the neo-liberal ideology as it is followed by the government of Colombia (El Tiempo).

An indirect influence of the US presence in Colombia worth mentioning is the negative implications that derive from Colombian military units receiving an increased amount of aid from the US when they work more efficiently. This resulted in the killing of civilians, forging them as guerilla kills and thereby receiving more aid from the US, because “[t]he Colombian military faces significant political pressure to produce concrete results in its war against the FARC” (Global Post). This incident is known as falso positivo [false positive] and was the result of an unofficial system rewarding high numbers of kills in combat with promotions and benefits. It was discovered only later that the number of deaths was connected strongly with the amount of aid received.

In some ways it can be stated that “[…] the US relationship with Colombia has revolved around drug control policy” (Fukumi: 186). Furthermore, “Plan Colombia was based on the idea that economic development, security and peace were directly linked, [and] this appealed to the Americans who believed that the reduction of cocaine production would help to solve drug trafficking and the problem of insurgency groups” (ibid: 188). In any case, the influence of the US involvement on the Colombian socio-economic development is undeniable. Eventually, the efforts of the US to improve the situation with regards to the internal conflict in Colombia have, therefore, been relatively successful.

USAID grants

Carlos Mario Jiménez, better known as Macaco, is one of the most feared paramilitary commanders in the history of the Colombian internal conflict and the claimed owner of palm oil cooperation Coproagrosur. In 2009, it became clear that in 2004, Coproagrosur received a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), paid for through PC (Ballvé, 2009: 22-24). It seems that the US grant has provided a notorious drug-trafficker, part of the paramilitary forces, with money – while PC aims to fight the illegal drug-trade in Colombia. USAID officials state that they look for projects that give the Colombian people a chance at an alternative to illegal activities, instead of enabling illegal activities such as drug-trafficking. However, “[…] a study of USAID internal documents, corporate filings and press reports raises questions about the agency’s vetting of applicants, in particular its ability to detect their links to narco-paramilitaries, violent crimes and illegal land seizures” (ibid: 24).

USAID supports the Colombian government in its efforts to improve the internal security and economy of the country, as well as the living conditions of the Colombians, especially for those who need help the most. The key objectives for USAID are providing alternatives to producing illegal drugs and strengthening state presence and effectiveness, particularly in certain areas of the country (USAID). However, not only Coproagrosur received a grant from USAID, there was an additional $650.000 awarded to Gradesa, another palm oil company with suspected links to paramilitary drug-traffickers on its board of directors. Therefore, the US involvement in the economic development of Colombia through establishing PC, aimed to reduce drug-trafficking and violence and thereby improving the economic environment, resulted to be less efficient than expected as the US is actually subsidizing drug-trafficking. While the US are fighting narco-trafficking activities, USAID gives money to palm oil companies which are used by paramilitary insurgencies to launder money and fund their violent actions (Ballvé: 24).

Colombia and other Latin American countries

The Colombian people suffer from relative poverty in spite of an economic policy that is generally considered to be successful. Although the Colombian economy has historically been developing steadily, […] violence restrains economic growth and drugs distort the economy” (Holmes, Gutiérrez de Piñeres & Curtin: 3). It is estimated that roughly two million of the country’s inhabitants have left since 1985, due to the country’s exceptional homicide rates and the amount of political violence. While the security in Colombia has been improving over the past decade, the Colombian internal conflict and the problems deriving from it seem to be spreading into neighboring countries. This fact is illustrated by the presence of the FARC-EP in both Ecuador and Venezuela, near the Colombian borders, as well as the shift of major drug production in Peru and Bolivia. In order to solve the significant challenges Colombia faces with regards to drug-trafficking and guerilla movements, extensive cooperation between the Andean countries is indispensable. This requires changes in Colombian foreign policies, whereby “[…] Colombia needs to work through low-level diplomacy and multilateral channels to gradually rebuild trust at the highest levels and restore cordial relations with its neighbors” (Shifter: 74).

Due to the unique relations between the US and Colombia, other countries in Latin America were left feeling ignored which has a negative effect on the IR between both the US and Colombia with the rest of Latin America. Both the other Latin American countries as well as the EU were not particularly in favor of the close connection between the US and Colombia. It was considered that “[t]he high financial dependence on international resources for Plan Colombia allowed large donors, such as the United States, to influence the project strongly and push their own priorities” (Fukumi: 183). Not only do both countries have limited diplomatic ties to the rest of Latin America, the strong bond between the US and Colombia has also caused difficulties for the IR between Colombia and Venezuela. It is clear that the US and Colombia have built a strong relationship through extensive investments over the past years, which is beneficial to both countries and will continue to exist. Colombia and Venezuela share a long border, together with residents living in the border area and a $5 billion annual trade between the countries. Not only Venezuela, but other countries in the Andean region similarly suffer from tension deriving from the strong ties between Colombia and the US (Pardo: 90-95).

In spite of the high interdependence between Colombia and Venezuela, “Venezuela froze diplomatic ties and imposed trade sanctions on Colombia in July [of 2009] after Colombia announced that it would sign a military agreement with the U.S. allowing the North American country access to seven of its military bases” (Colombia Reports Venezuela). The trade sanctions had a great impact on trade between the neighboring countries, specifically in the border area, as “[f]or each country, the other is the second-biggest trading partner (after the United States in both cases)” (Economist). Recently, the relations with Venezuela and Ecuador have been re-established by President Santos, which allows the nations to create a stronger cooperation with regards to border security, trade and counternarcotics (State).

The Colombian economy compared to other Latin American countries

In spite of the clear improvements in the economic situation of Colombia since the early 2000s, the standard of living of the population is lagging behind that of the people in other Latin American countries. The life expectancy for Colombians remains stable at the third-lowest rate in Latin America, possibly resulting from the ongoing internal conflict in the country (Holmes, Gutiérrez de Piñeres & Curtin: 36). Yet, Colombia is one of the countries that has been improving its sanitation facilities the most, which provides hope for the future in terms of an improved standard of living. Violence affects the population in various ways, for example through the amount of wounded people as a result of the internal conflict, which is shown through the high costs of health care. On the contrary to developed countries, “[h]igh health expenditures in developing countries frequently indicate a crisis rather than a healthy population and high quality care […]” (ibid: 38). Furthermore, although economic growth depends on investment in education, Colombia spent the smallest percentage on education from all Latin American countries in 2004. This is a consequence of the high investments in the military and health care, which shows that insurgencies such as the FARC-EP strongly influence the decline of education in Colombia, and thereby the economic development of the country as this is strongly linked to the human capital available.

It may be clear that Colombia has not yet developed to its full potential, which is probable to derive from the internal conflict and weak governmental control. In fact, economic insecurity dominated the 1990s and it was mainly after President Uribe dealt with various security issues within the country that the Colombian economy started to develop (ibid: 45). As a result of the neo-liberal ideology that is followed by the Colombian government, the country’s economic development has been progressing rapidly. Furthermore, a changing global context with a prominent role of emerging economies similarly influenced the Colombian economy. The fact that Colombia’s economy is doing so well in spite of the severe issues the government is dealing with, such as the violence deriving from the impact of insurgencies such as the FARC-EP, makes it valid to wonder how well off the Colombian people would have been, had it not been for the influence of the internal conflict in the country. This argument is underlined by the BTW, which states that both sides of the conflict are usually worse off than they would have been, had they bargained efficiently (cf. Bargaining Theory of War).

The decrease in the influence of the FARC-EP

Although the influence of narco-trafficking and the FARC-EP on the economy is diminishing, both factors still pose a threat on the economic development of the country. Kidnappings continue to occur and President Santos has made it clear that foreign companies are not to pay any ransom to the insurgencies, as this will only allow for violence and insecurity to grow. “The influx of investments into the country, and an increase of economic growth outside of illegal drug operations and illegal mining, will hopefully limit the influence of [the] FARC” (International Business Times), because an increase in investments “[…] ultimately adds to the quality of life for the average Colombian citizen” (ibid). With the higher quality of life there is more pressure on the illegal activities of organizations such as the FARC-EP, as they are becoming known as pariahs. With a decrease in inequality within the country it will become more difficult for the FARC-EP to recruit new members, as can be explained through Marxist theory. Therefore, security with regards to FDI increases, and combined with the pro-business mentality in Colombia and the neo-liberal economic policies, the country is becoming an attractive place for foreign companies to invest in.

Another important factor decreasing the influence of the FARC-EP is the growing involvement of the Colombian government with regards to establishing relationships with the population. This is mainly done by offering jobs and training to the largely unemployed and poor Colombian citizens, thereby strengthening the people’s ties to the government instead of to the rebel groups. “[…] [J]ob training is popular in Latin America as an attempt to help the labour market insertion of disadvantaged youth, and also as a way of providing skills to low-income groups […]” (Ibarrarán and Rosas, 2009: 2). In order to make sure that the training is demand driven, the private sector should be included in the training programs by sharing part of the costs. An example of a training program offered by the Colombian government is the program Jóvenes en Acción [Young People in Action]. This program is offered to the working population between 18 and 25 years old and aims to improve the level and quality of employment for young people (DNP).

Furthermore, the illegal mining that takes place in Colombia, for a great part led by the FARC-EP, is a challenge for the Colombian government. This problem equally offers possibilities for foreign mining companies entering Colombia and offering better work conditions for the people, thereby reducing the influence of the FARC-EP on the economy (International Business Times). Political violence in Colombia remains a problem, due to the fact that there is a chance of security issues affecting the general sentiment towards financial investments in Colombia. The country has established a strong and consequent economic policy (Economist Intelligence Unit). However, it is not realistic to expect that the Colombian problem with violence will disappear in the near future, as peace negotiations with the FARC-EP are still on hold. On the other hand, “[…] even in the unlikely case that a formal peace was reached with the weakened FARC” (Shifter: 73), violence would still continue to be a problem in Colombia.

Based on the analysis, which presents extensive research on the topic of the connection between the influence of the FARC-EP and the economic development of Colombia, related to the influence of the IR between the US and Colombia, various findings can be established. The research, as well as the findings, are underlined by the theoretical framework as it was set out in the theoretical chapter (cf. Theory). The final findings are presented in the conclusion.

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