A web presentation from the Washington Office on Latin America . Posted February 1, 2016.

WOLA logo 15th Anniversary of Plan Colombia: Learning from its Successes and Failures

Though WOLA has always encouraged generous U.S. aid, we opposed the “Plan Colombia” package 15 years ago because of its human rights risks, its faulty approach to drugs, and its potential to intensify the conflict. Today, several security measures improved more quickly than we foresaw, Colombia contributed more of its resources than we expected, and U.S. troops did not get stuck in a counter-insurgency quagmire. Still, Plan Colombia’s results are not the “clear success” that the reigning narrative implies. We were unfortunately correct about the human rights damage, the prolongation of the conflict, and the stubborn persistence of drug production.

Over the years, U.S. aid to Colombia became more balanced as development and justice programs grew more sophisticated, and human rights conditions strengthened. We’ll never know whether a different approach from the start could have brought better results in less than 15 years. Today, though, a peace process nearing a final accord offers a historic opportunity to prevent the armed conflict—and the violent organized crime that still afflicts Colombia—from ever flaring up again. That will require a big new package of investments and foreign assistance: a new “Plan.”

So let’s commemorate Plan Colombia by learning from what worked and is applicable elsewhere, what didn’t and why it failed, and what should never be repeated. WOLA offers this data presentation to guide that discussion.

A key lesson: a mostly military approach cannot solve complex security problems.

Nowhere else—not Afghanistan, not Central America, not Mexico—has success come from emphasizing the so-called “hard side.” Plan Colombia is an important foreign-policy case study, but not a model to replicate elsewhere. Click any panel to learn more.

A Mostly Military Strategy

U.S. Aid Over the Years

Of the US$9.94 billion in aid since 2000, 71 percent went to Colombia’s security forces. Before 2008, it was over 80 percent.

Major Military Aid Initiatives

Military and police aid paid for aerial herbicide fumigation, large-scale offensives, a high-value target strategy, defense reforms, and much else.

Hardware and Training

U.S. “deliverables” included helicopters, aircraft, boats, and thousands of trainees. Contractors did much of the delivering.

The “Soft Side”

A steadily increasing, and steadily more sophisticated, portion of the aid package sought to address Colombia’s civilian needs.

Security Successes and Frustrations

Notable Improvements

The Plan Colombia years brought marked improvements in several security measures. The first few years saw the sharpest gains.

Stubborn Challenges

Some security measures persist at high levels. Security improvements have favored urban areas. Armed groups remain strong in the periphery.

Drug Policy Remains Vexing

Though cocaine production is down from 2001 levels, Colombia is still the world’s number-one producer.

An Unacceptable Human Cost

Scandal Upon Scandal

Some units killed thousands of civilians, worked with paramilitary death squads, and wiretapped critics. Accountability has come slowly.

Human Rights Conditions

Though slowly, accountability for rights abuses did improve. Some of the credit goes to laws that froze some military aid until impunity declined.

The Guerrillas’ Horrific Record

The FARC and ELN carried out many extrajudicial killings, and the majority of kidnappings and indiscriminate attacks on populations.

Human Rights Defenders

Those who work on behalf of conflict victims, or who investigate rights abuses, corruption, and land theft, do so at enormous personal risk.

Vulnerable Groups

Women, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians have been hit disproportionately by the conflict, and they are essential to its resolution.

Despite progress, Plan Colombia left much still to do.

Plan Colombia helped bring the country's security challenges from “nightmarish” to “severe.” A negotiated peace will be essential to get them down to “manageable.” Post-accord Colombia will need a much different “Plan.” Click any panel to learn more.

A Nation of Victims

One in Six Colombians

Nearly 8 million Colombians have registered with the government as conflict victims. They deserve truth, reparations, and recognition.

Land Tenure

Colombia’s very unequal land distribution, a key driver of conflict, has been worsened by mass theft. Restitution has proceeded slowly.

Transitional Justice

The peace accord calls for "restriction of liberty" for those who committed the worst war crimes. Many questions remain undefined.

The “DDR” Challenge

Tens of thousands of guerrillas may demobilize. Colombia must apply lessons from past massive reintegrations of ex-combatants.

Organized Crime and the State

Rooting Out Corruption

Organized crime, the main post-conflict threat, prefers not to fight the government. It penetrates and corrupts it in many regions.


A new generation of drug-funded groups, tracing its heritage to the 1990s-2000s paramilitaries, poses an under-reported security threat.

Illicit Economies

It’s not just drugs. Violent criminal groups compete to control precious-metals mining, extortion rackets, human trafficking, and more.

Governing Territory

“Territorial Peace”

Colombian government planners use this term to describe post-accord plans to bring the state into conflictive zones. The task will be huge.

Past Frustrations

Colombian governments’ efforts to address statelessness, like the U.S.-backed “Territorial Consolidation Plan,” didn’t achieve their goals.

The Likely Cost

Peace accord implementation will be expensive, and comes at a time of economic retrenchment. Donor coordination will be essential.

The Armed Forces’ Future

The post-accord period could mean a wrenching transition for Latin America's second-largest armed forces (and largest army).