A web presentation from the Washington Office on Latin America

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

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U.S. Aid Over the Years

U.S. assistance to Colombia has at least a 60-year history. Colombia sent a battalion to fight in the Korean War. Later, when U.S. officials determined that Colombia’s chronic poverty and inequality put it at risk of “going communist,” the country became a significant recipient of Cold War U.S. military and non-military assistance. By the 1980s, as Colombia and its cartels became a principal source of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine, the Drug War came to guide most U.S. aid, which by the late 1980s exceeded US$100 million per year.

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Column graph showing 9.94 billion dollars in U S aid between 2000 and 2016

After the 1993-94 takedowns of the Medellín and Cali cartels, there was a brief lull in U.S. aid levels and a dip in relations amid allegations that President Ernesto Samper (1994-98) had taken drug-money campaign contributions. During this period, most U.S. assistance went to Colombia’s National Police, which launched a program of aerial herbicide eradication of illicit crops, while USAID planned to exit this “middle-income” country. Aid grew again at the end of the 1990s as congressional Republicans and some in the Clinton administration, alarmed by increased drug production and worsening security, channeled more funding through counter-drug accounts, principally for Colombia’s National Police.

Colombian President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) began his term by launching peace talks with the FARC. He proposed an ambitious set of new development investments for rural Colombia, to be carried out in coordination with demobilized guerrillas, and laid them out in a document called “Plan Colombia.” By 1999, as the peace process showed signs of faltering (it failed in 2002), U.S. officials like Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering offered Colombia a large increase in mostly military aid. This aid, they explained, would have to be part of a larger strategy of mostly Colombian investments. By September 1999, Colombia published a new English-language document called “Plan Colombia” calling for a more military-focused strategy. In January 2000, the Clinton administration proposed an “emergency supplemental” aid package that would add US$860 million in contributions to Plan Colombia, three-quarters of it for the country’s armed forces and police, and the rest re-establishing Colombia as a major USAID recipient. House Democrats objected to its large military component, and an amendment seeking to reduce it won over 180 votes. But the measure passed and became law in July 2000.

Between 2000 and 2007, U.S. assistance would routinely exceed US$600 million per year, with over 80 percent of it going to the security forces. Key initiatives included the creation of a Counternarcotics Brigade in Colombia’s army, which led a so-called “push into Southern Colombian coca-growing areas,” creating security conditions on the ground for greatly expanded aerial herbicide fumigation. After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the collapse of the 1998-2002 peace process, the Bush administration won a legal change allowing aid delivered through counter-drug accounts to be used for counter-insurgency. U.S. assistance closely accompanied the “Democratic Security” strategy promoted by President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), which intensified the anti-guerrilla fight. Efforts included a plan to help the military protect oil pipelines from guerrilla attacks, support for a large-scale, several-year anti-guerrilla offensive called “Plan Patriota,” and the implementation of broad doctrinal and strategic reforms in the armed forces. During these years, about one-third of U.S. aid simply went to the maintenance of military aircraft, and nearly as much paid for the fumigation program.

The 2007-08 period saw important shifts in the United States’ aid strategy. The November 2006 legislative elections gave the Democratic Party control of both houses of the U.S. Congress, placing some longtime critics of the strategy in the chairmanship of key committees. In 2007, they approved an aid package for 2008 that reduced military assistance and increased economic aid, and they called on Colombia to begin assuming more of the strategy’s costs. Deliveries of “big ticket” military hardware like helicopters came to an end. By 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office summed up a common assessment of Plan Colombia: that it contributed importantly to gains in security across the country, but had failed to make much of a dent in illegal drug production.

That year, a scandal in the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha forced the United States and Colombia to respond to a years-long trend of so-called “false positives": military personnel seeking rewards for high “body counts” by murdering thousands of civilians and portraying them as combat kills. This scandal, combined with congressional leaders’ tougher implementation of human rights conditions holding up military aid, and greatly increased U.S. aid to Colombian human rights prosecutors, brought important human rights reforms. Colombia’s government, including then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, increased military accountability to civilian courts in human rights cases, though this remains a contentious issue today.

Much U.S. aid in the 2008-2012 period went to the National Territorial Consolidation Plan, an effort to insert a government presence into several historically conflictive, abandoned zones. The Plan showed initial promise, but ended up with mixed results as the non-military part of the government proved slow to arrive in these zones, and as key personnel assumed other responsibilities in the government of President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-present). These responsibilities included participation in peace talks with the FARC launched in 2012. The Santos government also intensified a secret strategy, backed by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Joint Special Operations Command, to kill top guerrilla leaders through aerial attacks using “smart bombs."

The last several years have seen gradual but steady declines in U.S. assistance to Colombia, which is now below 1999 levels. As security assistance has declined faster than economic assistance, there is now a rough 50-50 split between military and non-military priorities. Should a peace accord be signed with the FARC, post-conflict U.S. assistance may increase, with the balance favoring non-military aid.

The best outcome, for a few years at least, would be to return U.S. aid to the very high levels of the mid-2000s. The moral argument for doing so is that since Washington helped pay for the war effort, it should be similarly generous toward the peace effort. The practical argument is that increased U.S. assistance can help cement in place the governance and security gains of the past few years, while ensuring smooth implementation of peace accord commitments so that the conflict never resurges.

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