Executive Summary: Helping Colombia Fix Its Plan to Curb Drug Trafficking, Violence, and Insurgency

Report Americas

Executive Summary: Helping Colombia Fix Its Plan to Curb Drug Trafficking, Violence, and Insurgency

April 26, 2001 4 min read Download Report
Stephen Johnson
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Stephen served as a Senior Policy Analyst.

President Bush is asking Congress to authorize $731 million for counternarcotics and alternative development efforts in Colombia and other Latin American countries. In addition to the $1.3 billion emergency assistance package Congress approved last August, these funds would be used to support a plan designed by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana in 1999 to combat the dramatic increase in drug-related violence and guerrilla warfare ravaging Colombia and spilling over into neighboring countries.

Its broad approach and good intentions notwithstanding, efforts under Plan Colombia have not succeeded in reducing either the violence or the drug trafficking. Before any new funds are released, the White House and Congress should review Plan Colombia, encourage the Pastrana government to correct its deficiencies, and reallocate U.S. assistance in ways that would better address the complicated problems facing this troubled country, its neighbors, and even the United States.

A Flawed Strategy.
Colombia's vast rural landscape (roughly the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined) and weak, centralized government provide an ideal environment for illicit crop cultivation and trafficking. Its political establishment has long tolerated criminal behavior by drug lords, guerrillas, and self-defense groups that have sprung up to fill the gap in public safety left by the government. Narcoguerrillas and paramilitaries now operate in more than 70 percent of the countryside. Fueled by increasing drug profits, their activities are also spilling over into Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Beyond the northern Andes, Colombian drug trafficking flourishes in the Caribbean and Central America, and Mexico is now the primary conduit for two-thirds of the Colombian cocaine and most of the Colombian heroin entering the United States.

Since the 1980s, U.S.-Colombian relations have focused mostly on reducing drug trafficking. Plan Colombia was Colombia's first attempt to combine counternarcotics assistance with state reform, alternative development, and regional interdiction. The plan was developed, however, as part of a strategy to win a fourfold increase in U.S. aid. To satisfy a broad spectrum of lawmakers and human rights activists, U.S. assistance had to target drugs (an objective on which most could agree), restrict the use of American training and equipment to this goal, and help improve the human rights performance of Colombian security forces.

Neither the plan nor U.S. assistance, however, addressed the state's failure to protect ordinary citizens. Links between the guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and drug lords were downplayed. The plan glossed over regional interdiction to the point that little coordination with neighboring countries had taken place a year and a half after it was written, and serious negotiations to secure funding commitments for the $7.5 billion program were not conducted until after the plan was unveiled and pitched to the U.S. Congress. Both Colombia's ability to pay its $4 billion share and European countries' willingness to contribute $2 billion were overestimated, leaving the United States as the plan's main backer.

A New Blueprint for U.S. Assistance.
Colombia's stability is crucial to the stability of the Western Hemisphere. As one of Latin America's oldest democracies, it is America's fourth largest trade market in the region and eighth largest source of crude oil. Should the government fail and a Marxist-led "narcocracy" rise, the rest of the Americas would be significantly affected. As a major supporter of Plan Colombia, the United States should:

  • Encourage Pastrana to transform the dialogue into a credible peace process. Current talks with the guerrilla rebels are aimed at buying time, not reintegrating these illegal armies into society. The creation of demilitarized zones under their authority should be limited, and the talks should be focused on cease-fires, an end to violence, prisoner exchanges, and demobilization.

  • Help Colombia strengthen its security forces. Colombia's guerrillas and paramilitary groups need motivation to agree to peaceful reintegration into a law-abiding society. To achieve this outcome, the government must regain the monopoly of force.

  • Renew trade preferences but condition further liberalization on market reforms. The White House should support renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences Act to help legitimate enterprises replace drug smuggling. Further liberalization should be keyed to economic reforms to unleash the country's productive capacity and create employment.

  • Reallocate assistance to strengthen local governments, the rule of law, and civil society. Colombia will be stronger when its local jurisdictions (departments) and municipalities play an equal role in governing the country, its courts function more transparently, and its people can participate more easily in electoral politics. The United States should help the Colombian government implement democratic reforms.

  • Encourage regional cooperation and develop a comprehensive Andean strategy. The Administration should form a regional working group to share intelligence and facilitate coordination between national military and police forces to apprehend drug traffickers and members of illegal paramilitary forces.

  • Show good faith by reducing the domestic demand for cocaine and heroin and making a stronger effort to bring money launderers to justice. The inefficient assistance pipeline managed by the State Department, which continues to send outdated ammunition to the Colombian police, must be reorganized.

As recently as last year, conventional wisdom said Colombia's problems of drug trafficking and rampant crime were a containment issue. Now, with guerrillas operating in as much as 70 percent of Colombia's territory and cocaine producers contributing anywhere from 3 percent to 8 percent of Colombia's gross domestic product (GDP), the state is in peril. The Bush Administration should establish the guidelines for a new relationship with Colombia that leverages Plan Colombia's strong points with a greater focus on targeting resources where they will have the greatest effect.

Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst