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4 Feb 2016 | Commentary | News

The Many Lessons of Plan Colombia

This piece was originally published in the February 1 issue of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. Read the original in Spanish. 

Although Plan Colombia’s strategy has achieved important advances, it’s still not time to declare “mission accomplished.” In a post-conflict scenario, it is vital that Colombia builds state institutions in neglected areas. A new plan, with generous support from international donors, is needed.

President Juan Manuel Santos travels today to Washington to commemorate on Thursday, together with President Barack Obama, the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia. The strategy has granted to the country approximately US$9.94 billionin aid. Of these funds, about 71 percent have benefitted the armed forces and police. The remaining 29 percent supported productive projects in the countryside, attention to displaced populations, the strengthening of prosecutorial units and the justice system, the reintegration of ex-combatants, and the National Victims’ and Land Restitution Units.

SEE ALSO: Interactive Data Presentation: Explore Plan Colombia’s Legacy

After all this time, the strategy has achieved important advances. But it’s still not time to declare “mission accomplished,” and over the course of the program many errors were committed that should never be repeated. A peace agreement is the obvious next step, and to continue moving forward it is critical to objectively review what happened.

“By the end of 2014, the Colombian military, with targeted U.S. support, had degraded the FARC’s capacity by 68 percent from its peak in 2002,” reads a recent articleby Pentagon analyst and military strategist Agustín Domínguez. Reducing the size of an armed group by two-thirds in 15 years is an important advance, and today the absence of guerrillas from the outskirts of the main cities and highways has brought tranquility to millions of citizens. However, more than 7,000 combatants remain, and the FARC continues to be one of the largest and wealthiest guerrilla forces in Latin American history.

The number of homicides in the country fell from 28,837 in 2002 to 12,673 in 2015. Kidnappings fell from 2,882 in 2002 to 210 in 2015, and forced displacement from 711,000 to 76,000. All of these figures are impressive and worth celebrating, but there is still a long way to  go. The national values for homicide and displacement continue to be among the 10 to 20 highest in the world. Extortion has increased (from 2,083 cases in 2002 to 5,304 in 2015) and the illegal mining phenomenon has intensified sharply. This indicates that organized crime and armed groups, although less violent for the moment, continue acting with too much freedom.

With regard to the production of cocaine, the outlook is complicated. Now there is less coca: cultivation dropped from 170,000 hectares in 2001 to 112,000 in 2014, according to U.S. government estimates. Even so, Colombia continues to be the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

In fact, since the beginning of Plan Colombia, the pattern of rises and falls in coca production has taken the shape of the letter “W”. At the beginning, production fell significantly with the escalation of fumigation, but growers adapted to the spraying and by 2007 it recovered its earlier level.  Afterward, manual eradication intensified and cultivation fell again. But since 2013 all forms of eradication have been reduced, without any significant increase of governance in coca-growing zones. As a result, production is currently increasing again.

Meanwhile, we should not speak of the “success” of Plan Colombia without recognizing the victims who suffered errorscommitted by the armed forces that were strengthened by the Plan and by former President Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy. Their inaction (and sometimes their active support) in the face of the paramilitary onslaught against the civil population, which claimed thousands of lives during the initiative’s first years, only ended with the self-defense forces’ demobilization—or, better said—transformed into the smaller problem of multiple local-level corrupt alliances with so-called “bacrim,” or criminal bands.

As independent monitors of last October’s elections have documented, the dark alliance between mafias, landholders, and politicians—with its capacity to halt land restitution and terrorize human rights defenders—continues to garner power in many regions. And this doesn’t even include the more than 3,000 “false positive” victims, the activists assassinated by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) under the directorship of the now imprisoned Jorge Noguera, and the hundreds of people wiretapped, followed, and intimidated by this U.S.-backed agency.

During the 14 years of war after 2001, 25,176 individuals died in combat, plus probably a similar number of civilian non-combatants. Would a less hardline strategy have achieved the same or better results? Wouldn’t it have been better to pursue a strategy that, of course with an important security component, sought to establish a firm presence of all state institutions in historically abandoned zones?

It’s important to recognize that the last few years have seen a fuller recognition that complex governance problems cannot be solved with bullets and battalions. With the support of a U.S. government that gradually and increasingly emphasized institutional strengthening, the National Territorial Consolidation Plan and other efforts must seek to cement these advances by strengthening state capacities.

That’s why a peace agreement with the FARC is important now, and soon one with the ELN. Removing the guerrillas from the scene as factors of violence and converting their members into political participants is a key step toward building a state that supports production and good governance alongside civil society, with a strong justice system in the regions, and with a security plan that protects populations while focusing on dismantling paramilitarism and organized crime.

In the areas where violent groups and mafias continue to operate, and where coca thrives, constructing good governance in post-conflict is essential. But it produces slow results, and is expensive. The needs will be large in the coming years, especially at a moment when the 3% of GDP that petroleum was contributing to the national budget has disappeared.

Although Colombia will have to carry the brunt of the cost, today it needs a new and final “plan,” with international donors’ generous support and cooperation. In its construction, which has to begin quickly, it is critical to understand what contributed to the successes of the last 15 years, the reasons behind the less encouraging results, and how to guarantee that the errors that brought such an unacceptably high human cost will never be repeated.