Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Plan Colombia: A Retrospective

Reading Time: 12 minutesIt may work in Central America as well.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

A special relationship: The U.S.and Colombia have collaborated on security through three administrations, beginning with that of Colombian President Andrés Pastrana (left) and U.S. President Bill Clinton. (Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

At first glance, perhaps the most notable feature of Plan Colombia has been its longevity. Given the current divisiveness in Washington, the bipartisan support it has received across three administrations now seems remarkable. After 12 years, the plan is gradually winding down, but the U.S. allocated more than $300 million under the program in 2012 alone.

Although the Plan has evolved considerably since it was approved by the U.S. Congress in July 2000, it has become shorthand for wide-ranging U.S. cooperation with Colombia to assist that country in combating drugs, guerrilla violence, and related institutional and social problems. All told, the U.S. has spent nearly $8 billion on the initiative—more than anywhere outside of the Middle East, and Iraq and Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War. Although the effort gave priority to counter-narcotics operations—and specifically the eradication of coca in southern Colombia—from the outset it also encompassed assistance for the judiciary and economic development.

What lessons can be derived from such a sustained commitment—arguably the most significant U.S. policy initiative in the Western Hemisphere in recent times? Does it offer any guidelines for addressing comparable regional challenges in coming years?

One such challenge is already urgent: Central America’s emergence as a nexus of drug trafficking and violent crime. Despite differences in the type and scope of the problems as well as in the institutional capacities of the governments involved, there are some striking parallels with Colombia.

Central America is sliding into ungovernability, just as Colombia was in 2000, and Washington has a similarly high stake in preventing that catastrophe. Moreover, like Colombia, Central America is open to closer collaboration with the U.S. in a way that would have been unimaginable during earlier periods of tension. So it is instructive to take a close look at how Plan Colombia began, and examine how the two countries worked their way toward a mutually beneficial strategy that produced solid results.

Political Timing and Framing

The level of U.S. commitment and resources dedicated to Plan Colombia would be difficult, if not impossible, to recapture today. It is hard to imagine that a Latin American security problem—even one the size and gravity of Colombia’s—would have drawn similar attention from Washington during the age of the “war on terror.”

Plan Colombia was adopted just over a year before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001— before the U.S. military response in Afghanistan a month later, and two years before the overwhelming military operation in Iraq.

In that relatively calmer era, Colombia’s spreading lawlessness and seeming near-collapse of democratic governance—the product of drug trafficking, organized crime and insurgency—riveted the attention of senior U.S. policymakers. After he visited the country in 1999, then so-called drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey proclaimed that Colombia was in a state of “emergency.” In reality, of course, neither Colombia’s leftist insurgency, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaras de Colombia (FARC), nor the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the umbrella organization of paramilitary forces, posed the kind of clear and present danger to U.S. security interests that Islamist terrorism, and Al-Qaeda in particular, represented to Washington after 9/11.

At the same time, in 2000, the U.S. government found itself with a fiscal surplus. The debate then (in sad contrast to today) was whether to save the surplus or reduce the tax burden. Today, policymakers do not enjoy the same level of fiscal flexibility.

If the timing of Plan Colombia was fortuitous in terms of competing U.S. foreign policy priorities and Washington’s favorable fiscal position, it was especially critical for Colombia itself. Whether or not the nation was on the verge of becoming a failed state in 1999, it is hard to dispute the claim that the FARC, and even the AUC, at the time presented a strategic threat to the authority of the Colombian state.

Lawlessness was rampant, and the government was at risk of being overwhelmed by increasingly violent and powerful actors, fueled by the drug trade and other criminal activities. In 1999, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry, the country experienced nearly 2,000 terrorist acts and more than 3,000 kidnappings. The homicide rate was nearly 60 per 100,000. The FARC then numbered an estimated 18,000. Roughly half of Colombia’s national territory lacked a government security presence.

Plan Colombia played a key role in reducing such lawlessness and helping to reassert the authority of the Colombian state. Yet the U.S. contribution, albeit important, was not the only factor—perhaps not even the deciding one. The fact is, by 1999, Colombians had reached a collective conclusion that, if the deteriorating conditions remained unchecked, the viability of the nation was in question. In October of that year, more than 1 million Colombians marched against the FARC in a “No más” nationwide protest.

Colombians—many middle class—were then leaving the country in droves. According to Colombia’s National Administrative Statistics Department (DANE), over 700,000 migrants left the country from 1995 to 2000. Such an outflow led many Colombians to recognize that the status quo was not sustainable. Something dramatic had to be done.

A convergence of Colombian and U.S. interests—and capacity—made that possible.

But did Plan Colombia reflect Colombia’s priorities or those of the United States? Some, including Robert White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, argued that the Plan, heavily focused on security aid and narrowly oriented toward fighting drugs, had little to do with Colombian concerns and was essentially imposed by Washington. “They [the Colombians] ask for bread and you give them stones,” White said.

Others more sympathetic to the cooperative arrangement, such as Gabriel Marcella of the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that it was a product of extensive consultations between both countries and demonstrated the spirit of partnership. As Marcella commented, “Contrary to speculation in the media [Plan Colombia] was authored by a Colombian—Jaime Ruiz, chief of staff for [then-President Andrés] Pastrana.”

The truth lies somewhere in between. The original Colombian version of Plan Colombia emphasized development and social priorities—both of which received short shrift in the program that was eventually adopted in Washington. But the Colombian government, under Pastrana administration, also requested some $600 million in military assistance from the United States. The resulting package was skewed toward anti-drug operations, with a strong security focus.

Of the original $860 million Colombia received, $632 million was devoted to military and police assistance. The remaining $227 million went to the general categories of economic development, displaced persons, human rights and administration of justice. The expectation was that the social aspects of the plan would be amply funded by European and other sources.

Plan Colombia struck a balance between what was politically feasible in Washington and Colombia’s priorities based on the realities on the ground. It was far from a perfect fit, but probably the best compromise  under the circumstances. For practical reasons, assistance had to be directly aligned with U.S. interests, as understood in Washington. The result was a focus on counter-narcotics rather than social and economic development.

The plan needed to be sold to U.S. voters and policymakers as a facet of the so-called “war on drugs.” In 2000, drug-related violence was a far more important domestic political concern in the U.S. than it is today. According to Gallup, between March 2001 and March 2012 the percentage of U.S. citizens who expressed “a great deal” of concern about drug use as a problem facing the country dropped from 58 percent to 37 percent.

The drug question was the hook that enabled Congress to enact the $1.3-billion package. The fact that 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. came from Colombia proved a politically compelling argument. By focusing on counter-narcotics, the Clinton administration sold a plan that could garner bipartisan support. In a May 2000 speech to the Council of the Americas, President Bill Clinton urged Congress to endorse the package, highlighting both countries’ security: “Colombia’s drug traffickers directly threaten America’s security,” and arguing that Plan Colombia “would enable Colombia’s counter-drug program to inflict serious damage on the rapidly expanding drug production activity in areas now dominated by guerrillas or paramilitary groups.”

If the package had been framed in terms of broad social development, or defense of democracy or of the Colombian state, it would have generated scant political support in the U.S. Congress or among the public at large.

These were the political realities that had to be addressed, despite the potential distortions they may have caused in the shape and initial focus of the plan.

There was little in the original assistance package aimed at strengthening and improving the effectiveness of Colombia’s security forces to reduce violence perpetuated by the FARC and the AUC, as there should have been.

While the protection of Colombia’s citizens should have been paramount from the beginning, 9/11 allowed greater scope for achieving that goal. In August 2002, U.S. legislation permitted the aid to be used more broadly than in the original measure. No longer would U.S. resources have to be directly tied to the drug question. Now they could be used in combating the FARC, Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and AUC—all of which were considered terrorist groups by the U.S. government.

This shift meant greater latitude in the use of Plan Colombia funds, which in turn helped align Colombian realities—and the central concern with security—with U.S. support.

Determining precisely which changes U.S. cooperation helped bring about in Colombia is a challenging exercise.

The positive changes in the security situation are, however, undeniable. Under the rubric of “democratic security,” developed by Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s two-term president (2002–2010), the presence of the national police was extended throughout the country, to all of Colombia’s 1,300 municipalities.

Thanks to the strengthened capacity of Colombia’s security forces and vastly improved intelligence capabilities, kidnappings declined between 2002 and 2009, from nearly 3,000 to just over 200 annually, and killings were reduced by nearly half in the same period. The size of the FARC insurgency was also halved, from an estimated 17,000–20,000 members to 8,000–10,000.

The Importance of Clearly Defined and Agreed-Upon Goals

The real shift came when President Uribe was elected in 2002. While Uribe’s strategy, supported by Plan Colombia, yielded important positive results in the security outlook, it was not an unmitigated success. In framing and defending Plan Colombia as an anti-narcotics and security policy initiative, both countries focused too narrowly on military and police aid—with a resulting cost to human rights and the rule of law in the short term, and to the sustainability and consolidation of security over the long term.

Despite the sharp drop in killings and kidnappings nationwide, the human rights situation in Colombia barely improved in some conflict zones. The numbers of internally displaced people—among the world’s highest—remained essentially unchanged.

Moreover, the enormous pressures to pursue violent actors—particularly the FARC—led to new and disturbing abuses. The “false positive” scandal, which arose from a program that rewarded military officers who captured or killed insurgents, was a notorious example. Under the program, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 3,000 innocent civilians were killed by security forces (mainly the army), most of them between 2004 and 2008.

Recently, signs of backsliding on security advances have also started to appear. For example, thousands of supposedly demobilized combatants have become involved in spreading criminal activity throughout the country.

Developments like these only underscore the importance of consolidating the gains that have been made.

Fortunately, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, building on the foundation established during the Uribe administrations, has emphasized the consolidation objective—extending the permanent, regular presence of security forces in small towns, and seeking to foster community-based services and institutions.

Finally, there is little evidence that the stated, overriding goal behind the U.S. decision to support Plan Colombia—to reduce drug trafficking—was actually met.

As has happened repeatedly in the four-decade-old drug war, any government pressure applied in a particular location to eliminate drug production or trafficking tends to move it to another place—within a country or to other countries. The so-called balloon effect is rarely disputed, even by proponents of current drug policy.

Defenders argue the situation would have been worse otherwise. But if one returns to the original congressional debates about Plan Colombia—the argument that was often made was that going after supply would ultimately result in a change in availability and price on the streets of major U.S. cities—then it is hard to maintain that the $8 billion investment has paid off for the United States.

But using a different metric, it can be argued that the plan was a win-win for both countries. By heading off what seemed to be the collapse of the Colombian state, and avoiding the ensuing chaos and uncontrolled violence, U.S. foreign policy furthered its goals in the hemisphere of protecting democracy and defending human lives.

It is now clear that supporters of Plan Colombia in President Clinton’s administration, understood this—even though for public consumption, and for political support, the emphasis was largely on drugs. The policy’s bipartisan support—between Democratic and Republican administrations as well as Congress—was fundamental to its success.

Plan Colombia was also a successful demonstration of how the U.S. could achieve security aims with a limited investment of military force. The use of U.S. soldiers and contractors as military advisors generated the most controversy during domestic debates over the plan, as critics worried that American forces would increasingly be drawn by mission creep into a Vietnam-style quagmire in the Andes. But the numbers of U.S. personnel—set in 2004 at 800 for military and 600 for private contractors—were kept within legal bounds. The U.S. maintained an essentially supportive function.

Colombians, in fact, assumed the major responsibility and role in restoring a measure of state authority. From 2000 to 2009, for example, Colombia’s defense budget tripled to nearly $12 billion. That carried important lessons for future U.S. policy. Washington, through its laws and self-restraint—the result, in part, of Congressional oversight—managed to defy the “slippery slope” hypothesis that had been advanced with such certainty by so many.

Plan Colombia proved that it is possible to successfully carry out a sustained involvement in another country aimed at reducing intolerably high levels of violence and insecurity. Colombia continues to face serious challenges, such as crime, social exclusion and continuing coca and cocaine production. But the doomsday scenarios of state collapse have been forgotten.

Does It Apply to Central America?

In the current context, the lessons derived from Plan Colombia effort can, with appropriate cautions and caveats, be applied to current policy challenges in Mexico and, particularly, the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—in Central America.

To be sure, conditions in those nations are different from those that prevailed when Plan Colombia was undertaken. There is, for example, no active insurgency in Central America today comparable to the FARC. Unlike Colombia, Central America is not a major producer of cocaine but a transit point from producer countries to the major consumer nation, the United States.

Such a key difference surely has implications for the nature and scale of security assistance required. Still, some parallels are striking and should be taken into account in fashioning future U.S. approaches.

The core problem in the three Northern Triangle countries in 2012 is, as it was in 2000 in Colombia, spreading lawlessness and lack of state authority.

Today in Central America, organized crime and gang violence is the dominant problem, whereas in Colombia a dozen years ago, the FARC insurgency (along with the AUC) was the key concern. Both places have a history of political and criminal violence. But Central America’s current predicament poses a serious risk to already fragile governance and the rule of law.

According to the United Nations, Honduras and El Salvador registered the highest homicides levels in the world in 2011—82 and 66 per 100,000, respectively. Guatemala is not far behind, and even countries long associated with peace and order, such as Costa Rica, are battling rising criminal violence.

For the U.S., the argument for sustained involvement and support—and the interests at stake—are not too different from what they were a dozen years ago.

To begin with, the U.S., still the major consumer of cocaine, bears responsibility for the criminal violence wreaking havoc in a region where, World Bank and Council on Foreign Relations studies show, drugs have become a major driver of lawlessness.

Although the notion of “shared responsibility” has become fashionable today in relation to U.S. collaboration with Mexico, it had already been properly invoked to justify support for Plan Colombia in 2000.

In fact, one can argue that the U.S. has an even greater responsibility to assist Central America at a significant level than it did for Colombia in 2000. The illicit narcotics trade is an equally if not more significant factor, driving violence in the region today than it was in Colombia, where political insurgency and not drug-related criminal activity (such as kidnapping) were particularly relevant. In addition, the availability of arms—another important risk factor in criminal violence—is high in Central America, not only because so many guns have remained at large in the aftermath of the region’s civil conflicts, but because U.S. suppliers are a relatively close source of (legally purchased or smuggled) sophisticated weaponry.

U.S. Responsibility

Washington has a moral responsibility to address the continuing domestic instability and weakness of the region’s political and social institutions. Many of those weaknesses are part of a legacy of the heavy intervention in the region and the battles that took place during the 1980s (e.g., Nicaragua, El Salvador).

The U.S. has a responsibility to address the continuing aftershocks. And the U.S. and Central America are increasingly intertwined in other key respects. More than 3 million Central Americans live in the U.S., and remittance flows constitute a significant share—roughly 15 percent—of some of the region’s economies.

In this effort, the lessons of Plan Colombia should guide the rationale and objectives of U.S. engagement in Central America today.

The goal should be to help protect the civilian population, and to support national institutions—particularly the police and the justice system—in their efforts to reduce levels of violence and strengthen the rule of law. The focus on drugs—in the case of Central America, trafficking, as opposed to production—should be regarded as only a narrow piece of a broader strategy that emphasizes the strengthening of democratic governance.

To be sure, after years of being off the radar, Central America is once again preoccupying U.S. policymakers. Concern about the deteriorating security situation resulted in tacking on an additional $50 million in assistance for Central America to the Merida Initiative, adopted in 2008 and aimed chiefly at containing the drug-fueled violence in Mexico.

A year later, in 2009, the Obama administration developed the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI, which is run by the U.S. Department of State and currently supports Central America at the level of roughly $100 million each year for security cooperation, drug interdiction, intelligence, and institutional support.

Money, of course, isn’t everything. But resources are fundamental to a program’s success, especially when one is dealing with powerful groups—whether insurgents, organized crime syndicates or well-funded gangs. A proper balance of force needs to be achieved.

Also crucial, as the record of Plan Colombia reveals, are constructive guidance and assistance in matters such as intelligence-gathering techniques. Moreover, the U.S. is uniquely positioned to play a coordinating and catalytic role in marshaling support for Central America’s vulnerable states from Colombia, Mexico and others inside the hemisphere and beyond.

It is tempting to despair of the situation today in Central America, just as it was in Colombia in 1999. Skeptics of increased U.S. assistance—however wisely designed and implemented—such as José Miguel Cruz in a Spring 2012 article on AQ Online predictably point to the weakness and widespread corruption of Central American institutions, both private and public. They argue that such aid, even if smartly applied, will do little good. Others maintain, sensibly, that as long as the drug problem persists and the drug war remains so ineffective, criminal violence will continue to spread, making aid packages of any sort pointless.

Such doubts are understandable. But it is useful to recall that similar misgivings were registered about Plan Colombia a dozen years ago. It is especially important to focus on the above-mentioned parallels. Undoubtedly, Colombia—South America’s oldest democracy, with a model Constitutional Court and longstanding political parties—has long enjoyed institutional respect and support compared to Central America, but in 2000 Colombia faced similar challenges in governance.

Not only does Central America demonstrate the compelling need for a more robust approach, the timing is especially right for such a strategy. Governments in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all keenly seeking broader and more sustained levels of cooperation with the U.S.—a fortuitous alignment of interests not seen for many years in the region.

There is, to be sure, little appetite in the U.S. for a sustained engagement any place in the world today, especially after the draining wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. government’s fiscal health is more precarious. Nonetheless, the concrete achievements of Plan Colombia should reassure a wary U.S. public and Congress that it is in the U.S. national interest to adopt a similarly bipartisan consensus to assist neighbors in trouble.

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