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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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The United States has been trying to suppress Colombian coca production and cocaine trafficking since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, but the contemporary phase of US intervention in Colombia in the name of the war on drugs celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. As Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) security analyst Adam Isaacson pointed out Wednesday in a cogent essay, " Colombia: Don't Call It A Model," it was on July 13, 2000, that President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mainly military assistance known as Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia was supposed to cut Colombian cocaine production in half by mid-decade, and while total US expenditures on it have now risen to $7.3 billion, that goal was clearly not met. But, a decade down the road, there has been some "progress." The leftist peasant guerrillas of the FARC have been seriously weakened and are operating at half the strength they were 10 years ago. Violence has steadily decreased, as has criminality. The Colombian state has been strengthened -- especially its military, which has nearly doubled in size.

Still, as Isaacson notes, those gains have come at a tremendous cost. Thousands have been killed at the hands of rightist paramilitary groups aligned with powerful landowners and political elites, and while those paramilitaries officially disbanded several years ago, they appear to be reconstituting themselves. The seemingly endless "parapolitics" scandals linking the paramilitaries to high government actors demonstrate that the price of "progress" in Colombia has been corruption, impunity and human rights abuses.

And the war continues, albeit at a lower level. Some 21,000 fighters from all sides and an estimated 14,000 civilians died in the fighting this decade, and all the while, peasants were planting and harvesting coca crops, and traffickers were turning it into cocaine and exporting it to the insatiable North American and, increasingly, European markets.

While Colombian and US policy-makers have hailed Plan Colombia as a "success," neither Isaacson nor other analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week were willing to make such unvarnished claims. "'Success' has come at a high cost," wrote Isaacson. "Colombia's security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by 'collateral damage,'" including mass killings, other human rights abuses, and the weakening of democratic institutions."

"Success has eluded efforts to achieve Plan Colombia's main goal: reducing Colombian cocaine supplies," wrote Isaacson. Despite years of aerial eradication, coca remains stubbornly entrenched in the Colombian countryside, showing a significant decline only last year, after Colombia switched its eradication emphasis from spraying to manual eradication. "This strategic shift appears to be reducing coca cultivation, for now at least. In 2009 -- a year in which both aerial and manual eradication dropped sharply -- the UNODC found a significant drop in Colombian coca-growing, to 68,000 hectares."

But, as Isaacson and others note, that decline has been offset by increases in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. In fact, total coca cultivation in the region has remained remarkably consistent since 2003, at about 150,000 hectares per year.

"If you look at it from point of aiding the Colombian government to fight against the FARC and other insurgents, it has worked," said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin American analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "A decade ago, Colombia was close to being a failed state, with the FARC controlling large swathes of territory and threatening major cities. Today they are terribly weak and on the run, and much of their leadership has been killed," he noted.

 

 

"Due to the widespread use of helicopters and the fact that guerrillas don't have that kind of mobility, the Colombians and Americans have been successful in shrinking the area of operation available to the guerrillas, and that has hurt the guerrillas' ability to recruit," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "A few years ago, there were maybe 16,000 FARC operating in six or seven major theaters, and now it's about half that. But that doesn't necessarily mean the FARC is finished; we haven't seen any sign of that. Their options are fewer, but they are far from disappeared. Plan Colombia has been successful in empowering the Colombian military, but not so much in solving the problem of the FARC insurrection."

 
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