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'Plan Colombia' Turns 10 -- Looking at the Effects of Bill Clinton's Signature Drug War Project

With $7.3 billion spent and 21,000 fighters from all sides and an estimated 14,000 civilians killed, Plan Colombia's positive effects aren't easy to distinguish.

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"On the military side, the counterinsurgency, there has been definite progress," agreed Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs and counterinsurgency expert at the Brookings Institution. "The situation in the late 1990s was very bad. The FARC was in the hills above Bogotá, and the paramilitaries were highly organized. Today, the FARC is much weaker, land travel is more possible, and other security indicators also show progress. That said, the FARC is still around in substantial numbers and can jeopardize security and economic development in particular areas. And the paramilitaries are back, even if the Colombian government insists they are not the paramilitaries. They are, for all intents and purposes, just like the paramilitaries of the 1980s and 1990s."

"The idea was that if they suppressed the coca, the capabilities of the FARC, the ELN, and the paramilitaries would be substantially weakened," said Felbab-Brown. "They said that if you eliminated coca in Colombia, the conflict would end, but I don't think you can bankrupt the belligerents through eradication. That didn't pan out. In some places, the government was able to diminish at least temporarily economic flows to particular elements of the FARC, but that was the result of military operations, not eradication," she argued.

"A lot of people say the FARC have lost their political agenda, that they are just traffickers, but I don't subscribe to that view," said Felbab-Brown. "If someone wants to conduct a rebellion, they have to have a way to finance it. I don't think the FARC is any different. One of the big accomplishments of the US and the Colombian military was taking out a lot of top FARC leaders," she continued. "Their current leaders have been out in the jungle so long, they suffer from a lack of intellectual imagination. But the FARC are peasant guerrillas, with a few intellectuals and students, and they were never strong ideologically. There is no equivalent of Comrade Gonzalo [of Peru's Shining Path] or Mullah Omar or Bin Laden for the FARC. And I think they've run out of ideas. Times have changed, and the ideological story they want to tell the world and their members is crumbling, but it's not the case they are just interested in money. They still want power, they still believe in narratives of war and conquest, but they don't have anything to frame it with anymore."

"They are about more than just criminality," agreed Isaacson. "They're raising drug money to buy guns and those guns are for something. While their ideology may be pretty stunted at this point, they are driven by a desire to take power -- unlike, say, the Sinaloa cartel, which is driven by a desire to sell drugs. They hate Colombia's political class, and they represent that small percentage of peasants on the fringe. Those boomtowns on the frontier, that's where the FARC's base is. Wherever there is no government and people are on their own, the FARC claims to protect them. They are not bandits -- they are more dangerous than bandits."

The paramilitaries continue to wreak havoc, too, said Felbab-Brown. "They assassinate community leaders and human rights organizers," she said. "In some areas, they collude with the FARC; in others, they fight the FARC over cocaine routes and access to coca production. They are still a real menace, and it is very discouraging that they have come back so quickly. That shows the failure of the Colombian government to address the real underlying causes of the problems."

That has been a serious flaw from the beginning, the Brookings Institution analyst said. "At first Plan Colombia was aimed at root causes of conflict and coca production, but that was dropped, and in the Bush administration it morphed into a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency project. Economic development was a minor component of the plan, and the US never tried to pressure Uribe to take on economic redistribution and the distribution of political power, nor has the US been very vocal about human rights and civil liberties issues."

 
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