A Sobering 10th Anniversary for Plan Colombia

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This week marked the 10th year since the infamous U.S. aid package known as “Plan Colombia” was signed into law. And while some U.S. and Colombian officials have been celebrating it as a “success” and pushing to use it as a model for other countries like Afghanistan or Mexico, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) chose to commemorate this anniversary by releasing a report that describes exactly why that analysis is not only misguided but also dangerous.

“Looked at more closely… Colombia’s security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by ‘collateral damage,’” writes Adam Isacson, the report’s author and long-time Colombia policy analyst. “They have carried a great cost in lives and resources. Progress on security has been stagnating, and even reversing. Scandals show that the government carrying out these security policies has harmed human rights and democratic institutions. Progress against illegal drug supplies has been disappointing. And wealth is being concentrated in ever fewer hands.”

Isacson argues that if you unpack all the baggage that comes along with any gains—the continually rising body count of the conflict, an increasingly corrupt political system, a culture of impunity for state crimes, the massive internal displacement crisis, the intimidation and threats against those working for justice, the rising gap between rich and poor, and the lack of change in drug production—it would be impossible to describe it as a “success.” 

“Colombia’s experience offers some important lessons,” he concludes. “But copying its model elsewhere would be disastrous.” Here are some of his main points why, after wasting $7.3 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars on this project, we must not attempt to replicate it anywhere else:

       “First of all, the human and financial cost of prolonged war has been staggering… combat has killed 21,000 soldiers, police, guerrillas and paramilitaries. Human rights groups estimate that conflict-related violence killed another 14,000 civilian non-combatants.”

       “While Colombia has made security gains, its democratic institutions and respect for human rights have been under siege… Since the 1980s, political bosses from regions beyond the capital—many of them large landholders with ties to narcotrafficking—fostered and funded brutal pro-government paramilitary groups… The paramilitaries could not have functioned without support from the politicians who held local power. Evidence, much of it from former paramilitary leaders, has brought a cascade of criminal investigations of legislators, governors, mayors and other officials, who made common cause with the far-right warlords.”

       “Between 2002 and 2006, the Colombian government negotiated a deal that secured the demobilization of the largest paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or AUC. The resulting ‘Justice and Peace’ process, begun in July 2005, was to offer demobilized paramilitary leaders light jail sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparation of victims. This has not happened.”

       “While ardently supporting the armed forces, President Uribe pushed them hard for results against guerrillas… Colombia’s defense ministry set up a system of informal incentives for soldiers—special recognitions, leave time, promotions—and formal incentives for civilian informants to reward body counts… By 2005, human rights groups and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights were observing a very disturbing phenomenon: an increase in complaints about civilian non-combatants being killed, their bodies later dressed in camouflage uniforms and presented as those of armed-group members killed in combat.”

       “Similarly shocking have been the waves of allegations of criminal activity, collusion with paramilitaries, illegal surveillance and intimidation carried out by the Administrative Department for Security (DAS), the Colombian Presidency’s intelligence service or secret police… the security agency carried out a campaign of wiretaps and surveillance against dozens of human rights defenders, independent journalists, opposition politicians and even Supreme Court justices, especially those investigating ‘parapolitics.’”

       “Success has also eluded efforts to achieve Plan Colombia’s main initial goal: reducing Colombian cocaine supplies. Between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s, the U.S. and Colombian governments believed that aerially spraying herbicides over fields of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, would reduce drug supplies. They were wrong.”

       “When Plan Colombia and ‘Democratic Security’ were launched, Colombia was already one of the most economically unequal countries on earth. Whether measured by GINI coefficient or the ratio between the income of the richest and poorest ten percent, Colombia ranked near the bottom. Eight years later, much of the hemisphere has made strides toward greater income equality, but Colombia’s inequality measures have worsened.”

       “Finally, and despite these costs, the Colombian government’s security gains are stagnating… At least 9,000 FARC and ELN guerrillas and a similar number of ‘new’ paramilitaries persist in remote areas, urban slums, and along key strategic corridors. They carry out ambushes, lay IEDs and landmines, recruit children, and launch other attacks throughout the country on a daily basis—usually, though, in more remote areas than before… Guerrillas’ destructive persistence is only part of the security story. Networks of criminal groups and gangs, most the direct heirs of the old paramilitary groups and all funded by the drug trade, are growing rapidly and have caused the murder rate to increase in several important areas.”

This powerful and sobering report is definitely worth a read on this not-so-joyous anniversary. Click here to check it out.