After 10 Years Brazil and Neighbors Still Opposed to US’s Plan Colombia

US Air Force Colombia is likely to become the regional hub for the Pentagon's Latin American activities and its Fort Apache as U.S. and Colombia near a cooperation agreement that would expand U.S. military presence in the country. The U.S. seeks to increase its influence in Colombia as it counts down the days until its lease expires on the Manta, Ecuador base that Quito terminated on mainly political grounds.

The new Colombia agreement is meant to extend the use of seven of the country's military bases in what is estimated to be a ten year lease arrangement. The agreement is said to also include terms for preferential arms and aircraft sales to the Colombian military. Currently, U.S. military presence in Colombia cannot exceed 800 Department of Defense Employees and 600 civilian military contractors, all of which have immunity for criminal prosecution in the country.

Leaders of a number of Colombia's neighboring countries have expressed their concerns, as U.S' expanded military role in the country appears to further besmirch Bogotá's good name. As a result of the pending accord, Venezuela's Chávez has removed his Ambassador in Bogotá, stating that the base agreement represents an act of aggression on the part of the neighboring country.

Presidents Lula of Brazil and Bachelet of Chile also have strongly condemned expanded U.S. military presence in Colombia and the lack of prior discussion with the affected nations. While South American leaders requested a meeting of UNASUR's Defense Council in order to obtain a clear explanation of the agreement from Colombia, it appears that neither President Uribe nor his Foreign Affairs minister Jaime Bermudez will be attending such event, although Colombia is sure to be attacked for its role.

As a result of the anticipated bitter regional debate, Uribe and Bermudez have begun a regional tour to explain the details of the proposed military deal and Colombia's so called terrorist threat. So far, the tour has had mixed results, as Bolivia's Morales deeply opposed the initiative, stating that allowing foreign military bases on Colombian soil represented an act of aggression to the region's democracies.

On the other hand, Peru's Garcí­a  -  Washington's often-cited South American compadre  -  stated that Lima would always back Uribe's position. In the coming days, Uribe will also meet with Chile's Bachelet, Argentina's Fernández, Paraguay's Lugo, Uruguay's Vázquez and Brazil's Lula da Silva, where it is unlikely that they obtain similar backing.

The Original Plan Colombia

Colombia has been marred by forty years of unrelenting internal conflict that has left thousands dead and an estimated two to three million internally displaced. In the wake of the failed peace talks initiated by the Pastrana administration, Plan Colombia was drafted as a final effort to reinforce the country's rule of law, combat narco-trafficking and deal with the country's insurgents.

Today, nearly ten years after the Plan was initially drafted, it might be useful to assess its efficacy as well as examine potential policy implications for the future of US-Colombia relations. While significant efforts have been made on the plan's counter-drug and military aspects, U.S.-Colombia relations increasingly reflect a militarized agenda whose critics insist should be broadened to robustly include social, economic and institutional aspects that currently are being underserved or entirely disregarded.

Colombia: 1999

In 1999, Colombia was undergoing one of the worst crises in the country's modern history. Elevated corruption levels in the armed forces and the judicial system prevented basic government institutions from effectively preserving order, as well as staggering drug traffic indexes which had led to destabilizing levels of violence and heightened security threats. In addition, government credibility was at record low levels, as corrupt practices were believed to have affected all levels of private and public institutions.

Economically, the country was in the midst of a major economic recession which was said to be caused by its inability to successfully adapt to the 1991 "apertura economica," the opening of Colombia's economy to external markets. Furthermore, corruption, fueled by drug trafficking generated distrust among current and new foreign investors, constituting a roadblock for the transformation and modernization of Colombia's productive processes.

In addition, the involvement of illegal armed groups and terrorist organizations in the illegal drug trade helped fuel the instability plaguing Colombia during the eighties and nineties. In 1999, the country was on the brink of failed peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla organization founded in 1964 by a group of alienated agriculturalists who suffered violent threats from the country's reigning conservative administration and sought to overthrow Colombia's central government.

FARC's longevity can be primarily attributed to its involvement in a number of aspects of drug trafficking, which seriously demoralized the organization's stated socialist goals. On the other hand, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) was a brutal right-wing paramilitary vigilante insurgency organization that, in addition to Colombia's armed forces, also fought against the FARC, resulting in the unrelenting internal conflict that still overwhelms the nation.

A "Marshall Plan" for Colombia

In response to the existing crisis, then-President Andrés Pastrana proposed a new anti-drug initiative in an effort to promote social and economic growth that would put an end to decades of internal armed conflict. While the term "Plan Colombia" is primarily used in the U.S. when referring to U.S. legislation aimed at counter-drug efforts, the concept was initially conceived by Pastrana as a "Marshall Plan for Colombia," with the intention of channeling military and developmental aid from international organizations and foreign governments into the country.

As a result of the plan's proposed strategy, Presidents Clinton and Pastrana entered into a number of contracts implementing a secure increase of U.S. aid to Colombia throughout that year, a move that signified an important step for the corrosive bilateral relations that existed under the previous Colombian administration. Allegedly, the U.S. Government's input in the final plan's original draft was so extensive that it was first written in English and then translated into Spanish.

Plan Colombia was originally drafted as a "plan for peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state," and consisted of five main elements: the peace process, an economic recuperation strategy, an antinarcotics strategy, human rights and judicial reform, and the strengthening of the country's rule of law and democratic institutions. In this way, international supporters of Plan Colombia would come to the aid of the country's almost fatally weakened institutions and its inability to control the armed conflict, the advance of drug-trafficking and the prevailing economic crisis.

Modifications to the Original Plan

Since its installment, there have been significant modifications made to the original version of Plan Colombia that reflect policy changes and variations in Colombia's political panorama and domestic affairs. The plan's initial proposal called for a total budget of US$7.5 billion spread over its anticipated six year duration, 65 percent of which would come from Colombian resources and the remaining 35 percent from other international sources.

The total budget was expected to be distributed in the following manner: 51 percent for institutional and social development, 32 percent for fighting the illegal drug trade, 16 percent for economic revitalization, and 0.8 percent in support of the peace process. Since then, new categories such as an ex-combatant demobilization and reinsertion policy have been included under the program's original agenda, the internal conflict was redefined as a terrorist threat and the peace process was removed as one of the plan's objectives after the failed peace talks in 2002.

Originally, Pastrana posed the peace process as being the cornerstone of Plan Colombia, but in order to obtain U.S. support which the Plan very much called for, the initiative was sold as a counterdrug strategy.

Most critics condemn Plan Colombia's focus as being far too "militaristic" and in turn diminishing the importance of the social development aspects that are increasingly significant in a poverty stricken nation like Colombia. In its early stages, the European Union believed that the U.S. gave the Plan an unnecessary military and counter-narcotics inclination, and consequently reduced its funding (which was meant to be directed primarily towards the plan's social development programs).

During the first two years of Plan Colombia, the Clinton administration appropriated an approximate $1.3 billion for the program. By 2001, Colombia had become the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world (after Israel and Egypt), with funding allocated for training Colombian counternarcotics battalions, as well as for helicopters, intelligence assistance, and supplies for coca eradication.

While originally intended to last six years (from 1999 to 2005), Plan Colombia was automatically extended into the beginning of President ílvaro Uribe's second term in 2007. At that time, the Colombian government announced the second phase of Plan Colombia, known as the "Strategy for Strengthening Democracy and Social Development" (2007-2013) that was meant to consolidate the progress made during the program's first phase and then begin a nationalization or "colombianization" of the Plan.

This second phase consists of six elements: drugs and terrorism, justice and human rights, open markets, integral social development, attention to the displaced population and demobilization, and disarmament and reintegration. Another change occurred in the first part of 2002, with the start of Uribe's first administration. Since then, the objectives of Plan Colombia have been blurred with the President's "Democratic Security" agenda, based on a military resolution to the armed conflict, territorial control and strengthening of the state, which resulted in ambiguity when it came to assessing the plan's overall progress and in blurring the lines between the country's domestic and foreign policy.

Furthermore, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI) issued by the Bush administration in 2001, extended U.S. funding for the program as well as the number of U.S. military advisors and private contractor personnel to be stationed in the country. According to the U.S. State Department, "The U.S. has continued close cooperation with Colombia under the Uribe administration.

Recognizing that terrorism and the illicit narcotics trade in Colombia are inextricably linked, the U.S. Congress granted new expanded statutory authorities in 2002 making U.S. assistance to Colombia more flexible in order to better support President Uribe's unified campaign against narcotics and terrorism." The importance of this change lies not only in the increased funds sent to Colombia, but in the broadened support for Uribe's policies under a counter-terrorist agenda.

Currently, U.S. funding for the second phase of Plan Colombia falls under three major initiatives. The first is the ACI, which provides drug interdiction, eradication and helicopter support. The second is military aid through financing military education and training. Lastly, the U.S. supports social programs, such as demobilization and reintegration efforts, displaced persons and vulnerable groups, efforts towards democratic governance, and the promotion of alternative economic production of illicit crops.

Still, while the U.S. has provided approximately $6 billion dollars under Plan Colombia since 2000, only $1.3 billion of these funds have been directed to social, economic and democracy-promotion programs, clearly exposing the Plan's indisputably militaristic approach and selected passions.

10 years after Plan Colombia

According to U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield, "By any measurable criteria, Colombia today is a better country than it was in 1999." Although the results of Plan Colombia are mixed, the U.S. and the Colombian governments invariably qualify the program's results as successful.

From an economic standpoint, it is clear that vast improvements have taken place when compared to the 1998-1999 economic crisis that griped the country, demonstrated by the positive growth of most of Colombia's economic indicators since 2002.

Yet, while it would be simplistic to tout these results as direct consequences of Plan Colombia, there is a direct correlation between security and economic performance, as improved security indicators result in increasing investment and consumer confidence.

In relation to counter-drug efforts, it has been clear that coca cultivation has oscillated since 2001. Moreover, there are countless debates surrounding the data's veracity, recollection methods and the effects of anti-drug trafficking efforts on drug consumption. It is clear that the plan's initial objective of reducing cultivation, processing and distribution of illegal drugs by 50 percent in the first six years of the Plan was not accomplished.

Recently, however, the United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2009 World Drug Report cited an important reduction in Colombia's coca production, noting that there had been a 50 percent reduction between 2002 and 2008, and an 18 percent drop over the last year. In addition, data from the U.S. Justice Department shows that since 2002, cocaine prices have increased by 104.5 percent while purity has gone down by 44 percent. Data from Colombia's Defense Ministry supports this argument, stating that in 2008 Colombia had "the highest amount of cocaine interdicted in its history, the largest number of manually eradicated coca acres, and the largest number of laboratories destroyed since 2002."

However, the Plan's overall effect on drug trafficking is still controversial and conflictive, since the UNODC report highlights that coca cultivation has significantly increased in neighboring countries, such as Peru and Bolivia, a balloon effect from current eradication efforts in Colombia. Lesley Gill, author and anthropology professor at American University, touches on several related questions: "northern Ecuador has long suffered from the contamination of border communities and legal crops because of the aerial spraying of coca fields in southern Colombia."

Furthermore, there are severe environmental and health problems that can be directly attributed to the aerial fumigation methods that are purportedly utilized for drug eradication purposes. During Uribe's administration, limits to fumigation areas were expanded to include national parks, small-scale cultivation and an increased glyphosate content, leading to increasing environmental concerns.

Likewise, aerial fumigation is known to have not only destroyed coca cultivated areas, but also small farmers' legitimate crops, causing economic strains on a wide number of Colombia's farmers as well as vast increases in the number of peasants displaced by the process.

In regards to the counter-terrorist element of the Plan, it should be noted that Pastrana was the first Colombian president to coin the phrase "narco-terrorists" when referring to the country's armed insurgency organizations. By doing so, Pastrana linked drug trafficking to the FARC, AUC, and ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional), which as a result became a target for U.S. counter-drug efforts under Plan Colombia.

This ambiguity, however, was not resolved until 2002 when the U.S. role expanded to addressing this terrorist threat. On this point Gill argues, "The U.S. government claims that this support is necessary to curtail cocaine production and to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. Yet Plan Colombia appears to have aimed less at curtailing drug production than at countering the country's guerrilla insurgency."

Demobilization Perplexities

A recent study performed by Fedesarrollo shows that 55 percent of the production of alkaloids in Colombia can be directly attributed to the FARC, for which the organization brings in approximately US$ 36 million a year. According to Colombian government sources, an estimated 45,000 members of insurgent organizations have either forcefully or voluntarily demobilized.

Still, FARC is far from defeated and remains a potent military force despite the recent death of a number of its key leaders. Moreover, widespread impunity prevents holding demobilized ex-combatants accountable for their crimes, and AUC emergent gangs have started to surface after the organization's nominal dissolution in 2006.

In spite of these unresolved issues, the Colombian government has recovered much of the country's territory from insurgent organizations and has set up police stations in all of the country's municipalities. Its armed forces today are far more modern and better equipped than in 1999, and the military, despite its abuses and scandals, is still perceived by the Colombian people as a credible and patriotic institution.

Government figures show that homicide rates are at their lowest levels in thirty years, kidnapping rates are down and the economy has grown an average of six percent over the last seven years, all of which are well-publicized accomplishments utilized by the Bogota to demonstrate the effectiveness of Plan Colombia and to guarantee future funding by its counterparts in the United States.

While some progress has been made on the military and counter-drug parts of the Plan, it is clear that much remains to be done with its other clauses. With the second largest number of internally displaced people in the world (following Sudan), increasing income disparity, unemployment, poverty, an abysmal human rights record, a weak and corrupt judicial system and with grave social issues associated with the demobilization and reintegration processes of ex-combatants, it is clear that Plan Colombia's social and institutional aspects are still widely underfunded. As a result, social development has been neglected. After ten years of a profoundly militarized approach, it is time that the U.S. redirects its strategy towards Colombian realities rather than primarily its own desiderata.

Recent Developments

According to recent developments, policy redirection of Plan Colombia seems unlikely. While the Plan's nationalization process was supposed to have begun in 2008 with a $160 million reduction in U.S. funding, the Plan is still in its transition phase. President Barack Obama, who many expected would reduce his support for Plan Colombia as a result of the economic crisis and his stance on Colombia's human rights excesses, has agreed to maintain funding at similar levels for the program this year. Last May, Obama agreed to allocate a total of $513 million in aid for 2010, very close to the $547 million provided for Plan Colombia last year.

While many in the U.S. Congress and non-governmental organizations have demanded an increase in the plan's social and alternative development programs, the second phase of Plan Colombia seems like nothing but an attempt to tame criticism and maintain current levels of funding.

With an incredibly tight budget, it is yet to be seen how Colombia plans to fund this policy once it is fully "nationalized" in 2013. What's more, recent discussions in relation to increased military cooperation via the use of seven Colombian military bases by U.S. troops in addition to preferential treatment in arms and aircraft purchases that may be given to Colombia as a result of the agreement, seem to not only go against these so-called "nationalization" efforts, but actually further militarize U.S.  -  Colombia relations into the future.

These discussions are likely to once again fall into the ambiguity and mutation that has anticipated the elements of Plan Colombia for too long.

This analysis was prepared by COHA's Research Associate Juliana Sojo. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:


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